DETROIT – Witnessing the demolition of Detroit’s historic ballpark, Tiger Stadium, was like attending the burial of a loved one. We can’t stop death from consuming a family member’s final breath and beat of a heart but we never allow it to pilfer the memories.
While Sports Illustrated is featuring the Tigers’ current home Comercia Park on their cover this week; at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull demolition experts and heavy machinery continued to flatten Tiger Stadium one beam and support at a time.
Those bulldozers ripped the concrete and riveted steel girders out of that structure and buried them in a nearby landfill but could not purge the heart and soul out of that ballpark.
Tiger Stadium provided the hard-working, blue-collar fans of Detroit a place to escape from the stresses of their physically-demanding jobs at the steel mills and auto assembly lines.
Though ancient, rusting and long-outdated, it withstood decades of punishing winters and the wear and tear of thousands of fans stomping in its aisles in unison as their favorite hitter stepped to the plate.
While preservation groups and a few politicians led by Tiger radio icon Ernie Harwell attempted to stop the complete demolition of the stadium and convert a portion of it into a museum, the wrecking ball continued to dismantle the historic landmark and this week, the final beam fell.
As the last piece of rusted metal made its way to the landfill and the stadium was reduced to one final shovel of dust this week, it’s a great time to reminisce.
The first game I ever attended at Tiger Stadium was on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Donning my full baseball uniform with ball glove in hand and chomping on an oversized wad of baseball card bubble gum, I accompanied my Little League baseball team to a game against the Minnesota Twins.
The area near the ticket windows felt like a disaster scene to a scrawny eight-year-old, like me. People scurried around like ants, bumping into each other, trying to gain position and make their way to the ticket windows and into the stadium. I felt like a human pinball but somehow managed to stay connected to my group.
Once inside, I bee-lined straight to the hotdog vendor where I quickly learned Mom did not make the best hotdogs. There was something about those Ballpark Franks at Tiger Stadium. They seemed to plump more when they cooked ‘em.
The journey through the short tunnel to our right field seats was almost surreal. Hustling through that corridor seeing only the blue sky, I couldn’t wait to get a full view of the park.
As I made my way to the end of that tunnel I saw the most extraordinary image I had ever seen; like the scene in the Wizard of Oz I felt like I stepped out of a black & white world into one full of vibrant colors. The blue skies, vast field of vibrant green and borders of perfectly manicured dirt has left a lifelong impression etched in my mind.
Tiger Stadium provided many memories for Detroiters over the years; most notably the 1968 dramatic comeback World Series win over the St. Louis Cardinals and the record-setting Tiger team of 1984 led by World Series MVP Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson.
It’s amazing how some of these images remain as clear as if they happened yesterday . . . Norm Cash crushing the leather off the ball, sending another one over the right-field roof and onto Trumbull Street . . . Mark “The Bird” Fidrych pacing the mound like a maniac, having full-on conversations with the ball triggering a roar of approval from 53,000 screaming fans.
Many hard-working blue-collar families in the Motor City took advantage of ‘Family Night’ games at Tiger Stadium. On Family Night, the head of the household paid $3.50 for a reserved upper deck seat down the third baseline then only .50 cents apiece for the remaining tickets.
A family of five could see an MLB game for the price of a Starbuck’s latte and the product was outstanding with baseball icons Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton and Denny McClain in the lineup. Family Nights were the only time I remember my father refusing overtime on the docks.
Tiger Stadium was also the home of the Detroit Lions where fans had to endure severe weather conditions and the team played outdoors on natural grass, like the game is meant to be played.
Three layers of clothing was no match for the frigid Canadian winds that blew off the Detroit River on some of those December Sundays. The only heat provided during those games was the body heat of the thousands of devoted Lions fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder in their seats. Peering through a steady cloud of cold breath, hot chocolates in hand, the fans survived those frigid afternoons and many of us learned at an early age what being a loyal, die-hard Lion fan was all about.
Demolition work now complete, the corner of Michigan and Trumbull sits empty, desolate but like loved ones, the memories will survive forever.
Updated from previously published article.
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