For better or for worse, music was always part of the scene at Michigan and Trumbull. Brass bands were a regular feature at Bennett Park, though their playing ability and song selection often were questionable. Many had the irritating tendency to strike up the popular Civil War tune, “Marching Through Georgia,” whenever Ty Cobb came to bat. The song, which celebrated the Union army’s devastating Atlanta campaign, rankled the Georgia Peach, whose ancestors had fought for the Confederacy. “Someone ought to hand some of these enterprising brass band leaders a few tips in American history,” one reporter grumbled in 1910.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed only occasionally at ballparks until World War II, when the national anthem was widely adopted by baseball officials as the perfect patriotic prelude to that most American pastime. Its playing before the start of each game endures as one of the sport’s richest traditions.
Its ritualistic significance was underscored by the uproar over Jose Feliciano’s guitar-strumming, red-white-and-bluesy rendition of the song before the fifth game of the 1968 World Series. The blind singer’s unconventional performance made the front page of the New York Times and caused him to be labeled as everything from a misguided artist to a Viet Cong sympathizer. Feliciano meant no disrespect. But as crotch-grabbing Roseanne Barr would learn in another park on another day, you just don’t mess with the national anthem.
As pitching changes and scheduled doubleheaders became more prevalent during the postwar years, organ music came along as a way of filling dead time. Even Denny McLain occasionally felt the urge to climb into the organ loft and treat the Tiger Stadium crowd to his version of “Satin Doll.”
By the 1980s, organists at Tiger Stadium and other ballparks were being replaced by rock standards played over state-of-the-art sound systems. The Tigers’ hopelessly un-hip front office managed to alienate fans by continually playing John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” throughout the summer of 1984. “I could care less,” general manager Jim Campbell told his critics. “I’m a baseball man, not a stage-show manager.”
Through the years, The Corner was occasionally rented for concerts. The most ambitious of these was the “Opera Under the Stars” series that owner Frank Navin staged in 1935 in collaboration with the Board of Commerce and local theater owner J. J. Shubert. That summer, Cincinnati’s Crosley Field hosted the first major-league game under the lights. Although Navin insisted that artificial illumination would be the death of baseball, he had no compunction about experimenting with staging operettas at night.
Floodlights were strategically placed around the edge of Navin Field’s upper deck, their powerful beams directed at the portable stage hurriedly built on the infield at the conclusion of each afternoon game. The Detroit Free Press reported on the final dress rehearsal of The Student Prince, which opened the series of weeklong plays on Saturday night, June 8, 1935:
“Overhead the stars were blazing, but they seemed of very low candlepower compared with the brilliance of the floodlights pouring onto the stage. Home plate was gone. It had vanished under the largest outdoor stage in captivity. The screen behind the plate had vanished to make way for batteries of multicolored lights.
“And the dugouts! From them stemmed no flood of guys wearing suits labeled Tigers or Indians. Instead, there were strange, shadowy figures moving out to that mysterious place called ‘backstage.’ Eight lackeys in bright red uniform and gold braid. What would Hughie Jennings think!”
About 9,000 people paid between 25 cents and $1.65 a seat to watch the debut of “Opera Under the Stars.” They sat in the four upper and lower sections directly behind home plate. The orchestra was squeezed between the stage and the grandstand. In all, a dozen weeklong operettas and musical comedies—a total of 84 nightly performances— were scheduled. They went on, rain or shine, noted the Free Press, “since the audience is protected even if it rains and the actors will follow the axiom of the theater that ‘the show must go on.’ Even the scenery is waterproof.”
Each performance was aired live over radio station WJR and sponsored by General Motors. To keep noise from outside the park from intruding, streetcar employees were stationed at intervals along the tracks to caution motorists to slow their cars to 5 m.p.h. Despite such widespread community involvement, mediocre crowds and Navin’s death that fall sealed the fate of open-air opera in Detroit.
During the 1950s, Briggs Stadium hosted such popular acts as Pat Boone, Nat “King” Cole, and Perry Como. Cole and Como joined Patti Page and Sarah Vaughan in a “Star Night” show that attracted 25,000 fans to The Corner on July 23, 1954. Tickets cost $4.50. The singing stars and several local disc jockeys began the evening by circling the field in convertibles. “Gee,” said Como, stepping onto the lawn usually traversed by Harvey Kuenn and Ray Boone, “I haven’t had so much fun since I quit barbering.”
It would be nearly another 40 years before the next big-time concerts were held at the ballpark. On September 25, 1993, music lovers paid $35 a ticket to watch Rod Stewart rock the old park. In subsequent years, the Eagles, Kiss, and the Three Tenors performed there. For the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, who grew up in Royal Oak, playing this particular venue was a dream realized, in a way.
“I always wanted to play centerfield at Tiger Stadium,” he said. “I just thought I’d have a glove instead of a guitar.”