Remembering Tiger Stadium one last time 100 years later

April 15, 1912 — RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, United Kingdom, to New York City.

Five days later, on April 20, Ty Cobb and company played the first baseball game at brand new Navin Field (named for owner Frank Navin), the same day Fenway Park opened in Boston. Baseball had been played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull since 1896, although the team was known informally as The Creams.

Bennett Park — named in tribute to Charlie Bennett, regarded as one of the best defensive catchers of the 19th century, after he lost his legs in a train accident — featured a wooden grandstand with a wooden peaked roof in the outfield.

Like its sister ballpark in Boston, Navin Field was built of steel and concrete and opened its doors 16 years after Bennett Park debuted.  Navin Field and Fenway Park were the gems of the big leagues. To accommodate the growing number of fans the game attracted, the seating capacity at Navin Field was 23,000.

Amid the pomp and ceremony of the inaugural game, and with a record setting twenty-five thousand in attendance, Cobb made two spectacular catches, singled twice, and was part of two double steals with Sam Crawford en route to a six-five defeat of Cleveland. In the follow-up series, against St. Louis, Cobb hit the first ever homerun at Navin Field, finding the seats in right field.

The corner of Michigan and Trumbull is rife with baseball lore:

On July 13, 1934, Babe Ruth hit his 700th career home run at Navin Field. Bill Jenkinson wrote, in The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs, the ball sailed over the street behind the then-single deck bleachers in right field, and traveled an estimated more than 500 feet on the fly.

Ruth must’ve liked hitting at Navin Field, because on July 18, 1921, he hit what is believed to be the verifiably longest home run in the history of major league baseball. It went to straightaway center, clearing the then-single deck bleacher and wall, landing nearly on the far side of the street intersection. The distance was estimated at between 575 and 600 feet, on the fly.

In 1936, following the death of Frank Navin, new owner Walter Briggs expanded seating capacity to 36,000, extending the upper deck to the foul poles and across right field. The Tigers won their first ever World Series the year before, and won their second crown in 1945.

In 1938, the City of Detroit moved Cherry Street, enabling left field to be double-decked, and the renamed Briggs Stadium reached a capacity of 53,000.

Also in 1938, the Detroit Lions began playing their home games at Briggs Stadium. They would play at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull through the 1974 season, when they moved to the Silverdome, in Pontiac.

On May 2, 1939, New York Yankees first baseman, Lou Gehrig, voluntarily benched himself at Briggs Stadium, ending his streak of 2,130 consecutive games. It was the final game of his career.

Tigers greats and Hall of Famers, Charlie Gehringer, Hal Newhouser and Hank Greenberg played their careers during this timeframe.

In 1961, new owner John Fetzer gave Briggs Stadium its final name: Tiger Stadium. Roger Maris hit the first of his record-breaking 61 home runs of the 1961 season at Tiger Stadium.

Tiger Stadium would be home to two more World Series winning teams, in 1968 and 1984. In 1968, Denny McClain served up a blooper pitch to Mickey Mantle in his last plate appearance in Detroit. Mantle drove the ball over the wall in right field in what would be the next to last home run in his career; he would retire the following spring. Mr. Tiger, Al Kaline, finished his Hall of Fame career at Tiger Stadium, in 1974.

The site at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull played host to three All Star Games — 1941, 1951, and 1971. Ted Williams won the 1941 game with an upper deck big fly. One of the most replayed home runs at an All Star game is the one hit off Reggie Jackson’s bat, in 1971. The ball was hit so high the TV camera lost sight of it, until it dropped back onto the field after hitting a light tower on the roof in right field.

On April 7, 1986, Dwight Evans hit a home run on the first pitch on Opening Day in what is considered the earliest home run in a MLB season, in terms of innings and at bats.

More than 30 home runs were hit onto the right field roof over the years, while the rooftop in left field was reached only four times, by Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Cecil Fielder and Mark McGwire. In his career, Norm Cash hit four home runs over the Tiger Stadium roof in right field.

Detroit’s double play duo Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker played more games together than any other teammates in baseball history, calling Tiger Stadium their home from 1977 to 1995.

In 1992, new Tigers owner Mike Ilitch began to improve the ballpark, but the writing was on the wall: the Corktown neighborhood that had been the home for Detroit baseball for more than a century had deteriorated. Rather than attempt to resurrect Corktown, plans to construct a new ballpark commenced in 1994, with a ground-breaking ceremony during the summer of 1997.

On September 27, 1999, the final game was held at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull; it was an 8-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals. Fittingly, the game featured an eighth inning grand slam by Robert Fick. The ball hit the right field roof and fell back onto the playing field, destined to be the final hit, the final home run — number 11,111 at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull — and the final RBI in Tiger Stadium history. The whereabouts of the ball are currently unknown.

The following summer, the HBO movie 61* was filmed against the backdrop of Tiger Stadium. The film depicts the efforts of New York Yankees teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris during the 1961 season to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60. With some computer graphics, the old girl did a remarkable impersonation of the house that Ruth built, and for her performance, her performance was noted in the credits.

Partial demolition of Tiger Stadium commenced on June 30, 2008. After efforts failed to raise enough money to save what was left, the remainder of the structure came down at approximately 9:24 a.m., Monday, September 21, 2009.

During the summer of 2010, a Facebook group known as “The Spirit of Tiger Stadium” began maintaining the playing field and hosting informal baseball games at the site. Their activities are not condoned by the city, and the group’s members risk trespassing charges.

Last April, she would’ve been 100 years old, and with venerable Fenway Park and Wrigley Field still drawing fans in record numbers, we can say, “Tiger Stadium: Gone too soon.”

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About J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest is the author of The Cobb Legacy, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, and other novels. He resides in Northville. Visit him at www.jconradguest.com.