Remembering Tiger Stadium

February 21, 2011
Detroit Tigers
by The Javelina

Tiger Stadium History is much more than just names and dates. It’s all about the feeling of this great old ballpark…it’s all about the experience of Detroit and its beloved Tigers… sure, we could do the name and date thing, but let’s focus on what that old ballpark was REALLY like- its atmosphere and feeling…

They played baseball at The Corner of Michigan and Trumbull, smack in the middle of Corktown, an old Irish community, for over 100 years and it all began in 1895 when George VanderBeck built a wooden park on that famous corner..home plate was where right field eventually was… named after Detroit’s most popular player, a catcher named Charlie Bennett… it seated 5,000 when it opened and it was gradually expanded to over 14,000 by the time it was replaced.

The Tigers enjoyed a lot of success at old Bennett Park… charter members of the American League in 1901… the arrival of Ty Cobb in 1905… the big run of pennant winners in 1907, ’08, ’09… no wonder Frank Navin decided he had to do something by 1911… at 16 years old, Bennett Park was already obsolete!

Navin’s new palace opened the same day as Fenway Park in Boston … April 12, 1912, three days before the Titanic sunk in the North Atlantic…ironically a survivor of that voyage made his home in Corktown and said that every time he heard a large crowd cheering, the sound made him remember the gasps of the ships’ passengers as they hit that icy water.

The stadium that Navin put up in ’12 didn’t look much like the one we remember, the one that still stands…empty. At the beginning it seated only 23,000 while Tiger Stadium eventually held well over 53,000 for baseball and had a look and feel all its own.

Remember some of those things that made it special?

– That porch in right field… how the upper deck hung over the lower deck by about 10 feet… how many fly balls in Tiger Stadium history turned into home runs when they nabbed the first few rows above… probably not as many as we think, since the angle would have to be just right, but it’s still fun to think about!

– Maybe the best seats in the joint were upper between home and the bases… even down the line they weren’t bad, MUCH BETTER than lower deck down the line.

Those upper deck bleachers… you can see balls and strikes… they got a little rowdy… (well it STARTED out as “less filling, tastes great”) … and how those seats had eroded before they were replaced in the late ’70s… maybe 6 inches wide!

– … the walls in behind the lower deck made of that tan/yellow tile especially down the 1st base line by the commissary.

– Sign above visitors’ clubhouse- “VISITORS’ CLUBHOUSE- NO VISITORS ALLOWED”

Italian sausage down the third base line… how crowded behind home plate with beer and souvenir stands… Paul Carey or Ernie Harwell walking to the booth entrance back there

And outside the place- it looked kinda like a big ship… Kaline thought so too, the first time he saw it as an 18 year old pheeenom in ’53.

When Navin died in the mid ’30s, Spike Briggs took over and bumped it up to over 35,000 with the upper deck almost enclosing the whole place..named it after himself as “Briggs Stadium”…within a few years, left field was also doubledecked and the place could hold over 50,000…doubledecked bleachers were very rare- who else had them beside the Corner and Ebbets Field???

The Lions moved in at that time also and stayed until they moved to the (ugh) Silverdome in 1975… no one is ever gonna write any love stories about THAT place… everything Tiger Stadium and Tiger Stadium History was, the Silverdome was NOT.

Remember that Upper Deck?

Entering through the main gate in right field… before the Tiger Plaza was built, there was a players’ parking lot to the left. If you were sitting in the upper deck, you could look down on it as you walked up the long ramps to the first base side… could see the Ambassador Bridge to Canada… the spring place across the street with the slogan “Limp in, leap out!”

At the top of the ramp, looking through all the steel gridwork, catching just a glimpse of the green below and rushing out the vomitory… yes, that’s what they’re called!… and seeing that field, greener than possible, the old time feel, the scoreboard… Greenberg, Colavito, Norm Cash, Kaline, Trammell taking batting practice and hearing the crack of the bat and the sound of the ball smacking into the seats of the still empty ballpark… and the feeling of 80, 90, 100 years of Tiger Stadium History, because you HAD to get there when the gates opened!

All those posts … the price we paid for having the upper deck so close- I think it was worth it, at least most of the time1

How hard it was to hit one allll the way out of there- only happened 28 times -… and how spectacular it was when it DID happen……Norm Cash hit more out than anyone!

Tiger Stadium was the last ballpark in the American League to get lights- 1948… those huge towers perched on the roof…Reggie Jackson hit one of them in the 1971 All Star game… it also hosted midsummer classics in 1951 and 1941.

When John Fetzer took control, he changed the name to the enduring “Tiger Stadium” in 1961… made several improvements including the “submarine” bullpens down the baselines- never saw anything like those!

…and recovered the exterior and replaced alll those green seats in the late ’70s with the blue and orange ones and painted the inside of the park blue, although many still think of it as green… a video replay screen was also mounted in center field… very crude by today’s standards, but was pretty cool back then.

In the early ’90s new owner Mike Ilitch had removed the players parking lot and built Tiger Plaza, a food and souvenir court…the last significant structural change in Tiger Stadium History… not a bad addition and seemed to fit in pretty well.

But the rest of the ’90s were uneventful- well Cecil Fielder hit a bunch of home runs… a lot of guys hit a bunch of home runs, but the team was not very good, attendance was also pretty poor… Bo Schembechler had made his famous “rusty girder” speech in the Tom Monaghan era and it was pretty apparent that the old ballpark’s days were numbered.

The place started to look pretty seedy… not a whole lot was being spent on upkeep… plans were made and ground was broken for the new Comerica Park downtown…

… and the end of Tiger Stadium History finally came on September 27, 1999- quite a story in itself as Robert Fick smacked a grand slam to beat the Royals in front of many of the all-time greats including Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, and Elden Auker who played on those champions of the mid ’30s. Let’s hope Comerica Park will add to the list of memories and championships that Tiger Stadium started.

Detroit Tiger Baseball

Mark Winters lives in Hudsonville, Michigan and is sitting in one of those old green seats as he writes this.

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