Up through September 27, 1999 Tiger Stadium hosted crowds for major league baseball games, serving as home field for the Detroit Tigers. Located at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, this classic ballpark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has long stood as a symbol of stability in a city that felt so keenly the major social, political, and economic upheavals of twentieth century life. The future of the stadium is uncertain following the decision by the Tigers to abandon their traditional address. This decision came despite a determined 10-year effort by fans, architects, preservationists, and social activists to demonstrate that renovations could enhance its viability as both a profitable venue for a professional baseball franchise and an attractively identifiable landmark for a constantly rehabilitating city neighborhood.
Such uncertainty about the existence of Tiger Stadium would have struck most writers as inconceivable. In its cameo appearances in fiction by Loren D. Estleman and Harold Livingston, the ballpark often receives the fleeting attention appropriate to an indelible feature of the cityscape, something taken for granted as so fundamentally part of Detroit that the mere mention of it locks the setting in place. Tiger Stadium is viewed as such a given of life in Detroit that an arson conspiracy to destroy it comes to represent all that is evil in the fictional world of Duffy House, hard-boiled narrator of Crabbe Evers's Tigers Burning.
As Philip Levine describes Tiger Stadium in "A Walk with Tom Jefferson" (277-92), the "gray conning towers / of the ballpark" evoke the same strength and durability his speaker remembers seeing during World War II
at a railroad crossing
near Joy Road
as the Sherman tanks passed
two to a flat-bed car,
on their way to a war
in Europe or the Pacific, shipped from a city that mass-produced tanks, if not submarines, as part of an American arsenal for democracy. Forty years later, presumably in 1984, the last of the Tigers' full-fledged pennant seasons, urban survivors like Tom Jefferson, with a tenuous hold on the precarious streets of the city, seem to anchor a portion of their lives fast to the stadium. After all,
During baseball season
the neighborhood’s a thriving
business for anyone
who can make change
and a cardboard sign
that reads “Parking $3.”
This was especially true in 1984 when more than 2 million fans attended games and the speaker muses about watching "the light rise / from the great bowl / of the stadium" with "50,000 / pulling at the night / air for one last scream."
In "Like Colavito" Jan Mordenski writes of the stability an eight-year-old girl instinctively felt while with her father at Tiger Stadium in the early 1960s, when so many city neighborhoods underwent unusually rapid racial changeovers. All too often the first influx of black residents coincided with the aggressive block-busting tactics of unscrupulous realty companies trying to scare white homeowners into putting their properties up for sale at reduced asking prices. During the spring after home run champ Rocky Colavito was acquired from the Cleveland Indians in a less pernicious blockbuster of a trade for batting champ Harvey Kuenn, "change was in the air in a city that / negotiated its way into and through the Sixties. / 'Tiger' Stadium just made sense" then, for many reasons. Chalk lines marking foul territory from fair were permanent and non-negotiable, overseen by umpires. Ballplayers like Colavito digging in at home plate seemed to put down roots, even when transplanted from a place like Cleveland, all the more important when
things were changing, and nobody knew that better
that year than an eight-year-old poised on the
right-field line, bundled up against the winds
in an Am. League jacket who, dusting the salt
from the wounds of her hands, waited, crouched forward,
stretching her glove to catch whatever time
was going to toss her.
Perhaps for no writer does the ballpark more fully inhabit and inform the poetry than for Jim Daniels. And while Tiger Stadium remains for him every bit as stolid-and solid-a fixture in Detroit life as the one fan in "The Fat Man at the Ballgame" (Long Ball 18) who always "stands behind the last row of general admission"-"Every game . . . back there / keeping score"-its abundant reasonably-priced seating also affords common ground of sorts. People of all ages, sizes, and sexes-all colors, incomes, and persuasions-rub up against each other in democratic proximity, even intimacy. Where else, Daniels seems to ask in the same poem (even if his speaker never takes up his wife's suggestion to "just talk to him sometime"), can the so-called "fattest man in the world" inspire another "general admission man" like the speaker to claim him as "my pal" and to remind himself that
What takes him here each night
is what takes me here—we’ve all got
a little weight to lose.
I haven’t been keeping score,
But I know I should.
We’re both fans of the game
This grass diamond open to the skies both day and night has occasionally provided everybody with a green and welcome respite from the city's summertime heat and its sometimes hotter streets. In "Time, Temperature" (M-80 29-43) another Daniels speaker can find shared relief in an "open fire hydrant in hot August / after an afternoon game at Tiger Stadium" with a "young black kid, maybe six, . . . dancing / in his underwear in the cool spray." Such relief, he knows, must sound "naïve," coming as it does after the roar of white voices, raw and racist and rage-filled, that he has remembered hearing in the searing decades of antagonism following the 1967 riots. Still, the common grounds of the stadium and its immediate surrounding streetscape do emphasize for this Daniels speaker that "we dance under the same sun / and there is room enough for both of us / in the spray on Rosa Parks Boulevard." After all, the "one big sun" will take us all, not out to but out of the (ball)game, to die, "take us all / in its own good time," so why not bridge barriers while there's still a chance?
Tiger Stadium itself has even done its own share to help close the gap between black and white, an ironic twist of history in light of the Tigers' own long refusal to sign black ballplayers after Jackie Robinson first broke the major-league color barrier in 1947. Not until 1958, when Ozzie Virgil joined the club, did any African American take the field wearing the old English D and have a chance at hearing the cheers of the crowds. For many white Detroit fans in the late 1950s and early 1960s the ballpark might have been the only place where they actively pulled for the success of a black man like Willie Horton, a graduate of Northwestern High School and soon a mainstay in left field. The speaker in "Willie the Wonder" (Long Ball 14) still marvels at the moment in 1968 "after the Tigers won the Series": he "stood with Willie Horton . . . / shaking his hand" and posed for a picture. What Horton had done on the field at Tiger Stadium that championship year, "his best"-"36 homers, 85 RBIs, .285 average"-led the speaker to try matching Willie's powerful grip when he "tried to squeeze as hard / as I could, twelve years old." Years later the memory persists just as "Willie's muscles still stand out": "I remember him as calm, passive, / my hand in his, just another sweaty palm, / another white kid in the long line." For how many of those white kids in 1968 was Willie Horton's the first black hand they shook, the hand of a man so strong "They say he once broke a bat / just by checking his swing." Such gestures should not be downplayed so soon after the 1967 riots that left much of the city burned-out and left two races wary of Detroit's future as their mutual hometown.
To be sure not all encounters have necessarily been pleasant in this place with more than 10,000 cheap seats in the double-decked bleachers. In "Stormin' Norman" (Long Ball 6-7) the older voice speaking recalls how as a youngster he "never sat in the bleachers / with my father again" after one particularly raucous "Sunday doubleheader against the Yanks." He remembers "a man who called himself Old Red" who "wore / his shirt on his head like a swami" and grew more foul-mouthed with every two beers "(limit two to a customer)" guzzled under a sun that "blazed away." Even though Old Red had to be escorted from the bleachers by a security guard and "disappeared in the darkness / under the stands," the speaker who eventually grew "old enough to venture alone / to the bleachers" has also acquired with the passing of years enough perspective and wisdom to perhaps understand Old Red. At least he can now interpret the drunkard's vulgar tirade against future Hall of Famer Al Kaline as the bellow of a lifetime "singles hitter himself, / . . . who'd trade it all / for one over the roof," aspiring to follow the popular example of his hero, long-time first baseman Norm Cash. The common grounds of the stadium have yielded an experience commensurate with the speaker's eventual capacity for sensitivity and insight.
Of course Tiger Stadium can always reprise its century-old role as the queen of diamonds in any baseball-grounded fiction, as it does for Patrick Creevy and Troy Soos. But for Daniels the games played at Tiger Stadium and the players starring in those games provide the bases for enduring emotional connections. These connections often embrace friends and family across generations. In "Baseball Cards #1" (Long Ball 4) Jake Wood seems to be calling to the speaker "across hundreds of miles" from a 1964 Series 2 baseball card, one among the "10,342 . . . in my parents' attic." Only someone attached to the games played at the stadium, to the family members who took him there, could be so affected years later by one of the cards he collected as a boy. Charley "Paw Paw" Maxwell's pinch-hit home run in "Nightmare" (Long Ball 5) resounds in the memory of another Daniels speaker every bit as clearly as it did that one late August night he spent outdoors in his sleeping bag, when the original play-by-play "voice of Ernie Harwell" from the stadium came through "on my father's old transistor / . . . close to my ear." That same Harwell voice is what a grandmother in "Play by Play" (Long Ball 22) holds onto like "gospel . . . . / Even at the ballpark, she squeezes her transistor." The games of summer still shape the old woman's days: "Instant runs, she says / in the middle of making tea, / wiping the table." Though she once stayed home on a cold and rainy September afternoon and did not make one of the "small crowd on Ernie Harwell Day," she still "applauded her radio." According to her dutiful grandson, whenever she cannot pick up the broadcast signal "she laughs nervously," as if losing touch with life itself-life being now like "the red glow of a burner she's left on" but forgotten. Certainly the golden moments and passions of youth can get revisited with every trip down "the Lodge Freeway / toward the stadium," as happens in "31-6" (Long Ball 10-11), dedicated to Denny McLain, baseball's last thirty-game winner. The grown-up speaker has no desire to let go of his personal highlight from the season of 1968, "the year after the riots." It occurred at "Tiger Stadium: . . . / Grass so green it seemed like a mirage / in the raging heat of an angry city." He recounts his twelve-year-old's gut-level identification with McLain who "grooved one to Mantle, / put him third on the all-time list / his last year, your 31st win, best moment." Even years later this speaker insists on his kinship with Dennis Dale McLain, since
I was twelve, sitting in the bleachers,
saying goddamn and shit, spitting,
fighting dirty for home run balls.
I cheered you because you were bad—
dumping water on reporters . . .
gambling, mouthing off.
No matter that McLain later landed in prison after "another bankrupt deal." His less-than-heroic setbacks mirror the speaker's own measured fall from grace and the graceless pranks of youth:
I’m in general admission now—my back
can’t take the bleachers
and I can’t afford the boxes.
I’m not such a bad boy
The ballpark hosting the Tigers has seen more than its share of disappointments, built as it was for a game where hitters consider themselves successful if they don't fail more than 7 times every 10 at-bats, where a plaque at Cooperstown awaits if 4 hits result from every 10 trips to the plate. Those sporting disappointments hurt at the time, but they're manageable pains, nothing compared to what life will dish out later; the stadium is a place to practice coping. So, in "New Words" (Long Ball 9), a man is reminded of how, as a boy on the cusp of adolescence, he lost his temper after "the Tigers lose another game. / Don Wert let a ball roll through / his legs and down the line in left."
This young man then cried, "You pimp, . . . as the winning run scored" and promptly received from his mother a stern lecture on the more brutal life awaiting him in a world where "men sell women's bodies. / Don Wert was not a good third baseman. / Don Wert was not a pimp." Even when the heartache of a twelve-year-old was intense, as it must have been in "World Series, 1968" (Long Ball 13), watching the hometown Tigers lose 10-1 from "left field box seats, upper deck," the grown-up speaker can still recollect his refusal to leave early: "I wouldn't budge. I kept whispering The World Series, The World Series . . . / but I was still cold." If hurts need bearing up under, they're more bearable at Tiger Stadium. In "Polish-American Night, Tiger Stadium" (Long Ball 15), a boys' night out with "girlfriends / in general admission" at first made the speaker and his buddies feel "like old guys / taking our wives to the ballgame." But then everything went wrong, on the field and in the relationships. Relief pitcher John Hiller's bum knee and, later on, his heart attack, stand in for missteps in love-betrayals and infidelities and changes of heart. If Hiller himself came to realize "There's a risk any time you pitch," it's also true that the speaker and his friends "were just beginning to learn that night, / that it can all come on so suddenly / just by bending your leg the wrong way."
Whatever the disappointments of life, Tiger Stadium seems to work to heal the wounds or at least to tender space for such healing to occur. In "The Bookkeepers Talk Baseball" (Long Ball 20), a CPA sits trapped at a desk, bombarded from all sides by co-workers who put down the sport itself as "boring" and "can hardly stand one game / much less two." As casual fans question, "Why go to the ballpark, / . . . and deal with the traffic / and the crowds?" the speaker clearly feels bruised by the number-crunching office environment, pelted by audit-level abuse as he's "flipping through accounts, pulling overdrafts. / My ass squirms in padded comfort / longing for the bleacher's hard bench." To one of his colleagues' claims to like baseball "better / on tv" the would-be fan hears the echoes of Tiger Stadium vendors in his mind's ear and revives for his own sanity the sights and sounds, the taste and feel, of being at the ballpark. He feels utterly transported: "I bang my seat / to start a rally" right in the middle of the workplace, just to survive the tedium of the day's grinding labor, the numbing routine. "Extra Innings, Tiger Stadium, 1982" (Long Ball 16-17) suggests how an extended time at the ballpark might constitute, however temporarily, soothing balm for the scars of a failed marriage. This speaker remembers going to Tiger Stadium with a divorcee friend after he and his own wife "had split-the first time / we were both free in the ten years / we'd known each other." Their date unfolds on a "clear spring night / when we're flush with possibility, / the fresh upper-deck breeze blowing out." After all their respective heartache, and after a game filled with two "bench-clearing fights" which saw even the venerable manager Sparky Anderson "out there wrestling around," life starts to feel good again when Kirk Gibson
wins it with an upper-deck blast in the twelfth
and everybody’s so happy no one wants to leave
and we’re hugging each other, a little hoarse,
a little drunk, a little in love.
Later on, a bit of love-making behind them, these two new fans of each other even "joke about getting married, / how anything's possible in extra innings." The speaker does not really need to point out how "Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing' comes on the radio," since the healing had clearly started already at Tiger Stadium. No intervening years can erase the speaker's sensation of feeling once more his patched-up "heart full / with the swell of that huge crowd / as the ball rose."
That Tiger Stadium has curative properties is not a notion restricted to baseball faithful like Jim Daniels. In "Stadia," a short story by Alyson Carol Hagy, a bookstore clerk named Laura buys for herself and Dan, her boyfriend of six months, several pairs of tickets to Tiger ballgames in the hope of helping him cope with the impending anniversary of his father's sudden death, a trauma she thinks he has yet to recover from. That Dan's father had never taken his son to a game at Tiger Stadium is beside the point. Dan himself had gone with his friends many times and Laura surmises that time there will bring a deeper solace than any other activity she might devise. Unfortunately she could not foresee how Dan's juvenile act of delinquency-trying to sneak a pint bottle of whiskey past the turnstiles in his boot-would sabotage her efforts at getting him to face life as his father might have wished him to. As Dan is forcibly escorted to the street outside by the stadium security guards, Laura catches a last glimpse of him "trapped as the cold metal fence that cut her sight of him into colorless pieces." If only he had been able to make it inside to his seat next to her, perhaps he could have been made whole again.
No matter who the writer, Tiger Stadium conjures up special moments. In "Getting Al Kaline's Autograph," by Richard Behm, the prized signature may be won by requesting it "'for my Dad' / . . . the lie like a hard earned double," but it would never be worth the trouble if somewhere in the past the speaker hadn't seen Al Kaline in action at the stadium "delicately plucking a screamer from the wall / in deep right center field." The speaker has screening on a continuous loop in his mind the slow-motion sequence of how Kaline . . .
. . . loped toward the dugout,
saw me in the stands, flipped
that pure, sweet sphere into my lap
and the crowd roared.
Only such a cherished instant at the ballpark can explain the speaker's avid pursuit years later of an autograph stretched "across the page / like a smoker down the left field line."
Nothing ever has or ever will come close to Tiger Stadium as the diamond jewel of the city. Like a pendant it lies close to the very heart of Detroit.
As a board member of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, Michael P. Gruber wrote the nomination that eventually secured the stadium's listing on the National Register of Historic Places. He grew up in Detroit and attended the University of Detroit High School and the University of Detroit. He received his M.A. in English at Duke University. He lives in Detroit and teaches at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills.
Photo credits: Top and bottom photos by Anna Fedor. Middle photo: © Lowell Boileau, DetroitYes.com
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---. M-80. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993.
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---. King of the Corner. New York: Bantam, 1992.
Evers, Crabbe. Tigers Burning: A Duffy House Mystery. New York: William Morrow, 1994.
Hagy, Alyson Carol. "Stadia." Michigan Quarterly Review 25.2 (1986): 351-62.
Levine, Philip. New Selected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Livingston, Harold. The Detroiters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.
Mordenski, Jan. "Like Colavito." Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001. Ed. Melba Joyce Boyd and M.L. Liebler. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001.
Soos, Troy. Hunting a Detroit Tiger. New York: Kensington, 1997.