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Just How Bad Have the Lions Been?

Saving Tiger Stadium

What to do about a demolished local landmark? Ask the crew of dedicated Detroiters who resurrected a forgotten ballpark and transformed it into a sports sanctuary.

Few cities have as rich a cultural and sporting history as Detroit. From the ’80s Pistons to Bob Seger, Eminem to Miguel Cabrera, the Motor City is a rich tapestry of compelling figures, unbelievable moments, and uniquely American ingenuity.

On April 17, ESPN will premiere 30 for 30: Bad Boys, a documentary about those unforgettable Pistons teams. To celebrate, Grantland will devote an entire week, from April 11 through April 18, to the various stories of this wholly original place.

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Opening Day was just around the corner. But the Detroiters whose hearts never left “The Corner” — the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull where baseball lived for more than a century at Tiger Stadium — were filing in to the Detroit Institute of Arts to honor a lost masterpiece. It was the closing day of the Freep Film Festival, and the museum was hosting a screening of Stealing Home, a documentary about the Navin Field Grounds Crew, an all-volunteer group of Michiganders who tend to the original ball field that survived the stadium’s demolition in 2009. The stands are long gone, but the patch of dirt where Ty Cobb, who scored the first-ever run at the original Navin Field with an intrepid steal at home plate, still remain. With a diamond picked clean of trash and an outfield stripped clear of towering weeds by the grounds crew, pickup baseball has returned to the Corner the past four seasons, as have scores of pilgrims from the Midwest and beyond, who travel there to stand at home plate, flipping the script on the city’s institutional neglect.

Though fans lost the decadelong battle to preserve the stadium, hundreds of them still filed into the museum that Sunday in good spirits, their Verlander and Gibson jerseys tucked under layers of winter wear.1 Even the treasures lining these walls and corridors are no longer safe, as creditors continue to size up the museum’s holdings as collateral to potentially offset a portion of the city’s debt. The strength in numbers from baseball fans, groundskeepers, and museumgoers in attendance made a simple point clear: It takes more than a wrecking ball or art auctioneer’s gavel to crush the culture that defines Detroit.

The story of the groundskeepers evokes a return to nature, a memory of baseball’s pioneering days in the Midwest, when oak groves were cleared to make way for wooden ballparks and wildcat fans on rooftops witnessed amateur nines develop into pro clubs before their eyes. A mile from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the first recorded baseball game in the city’s history — the Early Risers versus the Detroits — was played on August 8, 1859, in the vicinity of what is today Cass Park.2 For the next half-century, baseball teams battled for supremacy, and the Tigers — originally dubbed the Creams by local sportswriters3 — emerged as the focal point, with the Corner their stronghold. In 2010, when Tom Derry, a 50-year-old mail carrier in Redford Township, saw what had become of the field that begat so many memories, he took action, organizing a self-financed group to shred an urban jungle that had grown as tall as eight feet.

Tiger Stadium Demolition

“I refer to those weeds as redwoods,” Derry told me in March. “I rented a brush hog for 10 weeks in a row — that’s how long it took to knock them down, in 90-degree heat. We brought a baseball field back from the dead. The first year was the most difficult. Not only was it physically difficult, it was mentally exhausting, being under the constant threat of arrest.”

Derry’s volunteers engage in a kind of graffiti in reverse, with crew members swooping in to groom the field before being instructed to vacate by the Detroit police. Even the police on the beat have, at times, expressed reluctance to treat the NFGC as trespassers; many share the community’s view that the historic site should be preserved.4 Four years later, the field has hosted pickup games, Father’s Day throat lumps, wedding vows, historic reenactments, Sunday barbecues, and scowls from developers who want to pulp these memories for profit.

With Derry’s encouragement, I drove from Chicago to Detroit to see the field and a screening of Stealing Home firsthand. When I conceded I was a White Sox fan, Derry graciously shared my lament that both Comiskey Park, the onetime Baseball Palace of the World,5 and Chicago Stadium had been leveled and transformed into parking lots in service of soulless replacements across the street.6 When Comiskey faced the wrecking ball, Derry was there, clunky ’80s camcorder perched on his shoulder, documenting the destruction. He can rewatch the VHS footage of Comiskey being leveled, he notes, but never Tiger Stadium.

The scars were still healing among the fans at the DIA that Sunday, though the mood was comforting. In the second-floor lobby, Tigers legend Willie Horton reminisced with early arrivals about the old ballpark. He stressed it was the fans and the ushers and the grounds crew — a nod to the Navin Field crew members circulating the theater, Jedi-like, in matching hoodies — who made him understand the stadium’s true scope. His words carried weight; Horton grew up in the shadow of then–Briggs Stadium in the Jefferson Projects. When asked about his favorite Tiger Stadium memory, he recounted the ball he hit into the 440s during his second at-bat. When he tracked down his family after the game, he was told his father had missed it — after a skirmish in the stands, he’d been sent to stadium lockup. A laugh rippled across the room, followed by a hush. A sense of homesickness seemed to set in. The prevailing sentiment: That would never happen at Comerica.

In the theater, there was a convention atmosphere when a group of ballplayers dressed in 1860s garb filed down the aisle and converted a section of seats into a makeshift dugout. Known as the Regular Base Ball Club of Mount Clemens, the team plays gloveless ball with 19th-century rules at the Corner, with assistance from the grounds crew. The vintage uniforms came in handy during the after-show Q&A, when a team member passed his cap, which the audience stuffed with hard-earned twenties — alms in the form of gas money to keep the groundskeepers’ lawn mowers running. A majority of the theatergoers bypassed questions and simply offered their thanks — for keeping the Corner alive, for tending to the sacred ground where they once sat shoulder to shoulder with their long-lost fathers. A photographer in the front row turned to the audience and implored them to view the corner of Michigan and Trumbull on Google Earth so they could see how beautiful Tom Derry’s efforts look from space.

navin-field-grounds-crew

Courtesy Navin Field Grounds Crew

Asked how often the groundskeepers encounter human ashes scattered on the field, Derry said it had happened at least a few dozen times.7 “The field might just be nine acres, but it means a lot to people in Detroit,” he said, humbled by the elegiac response from the crowd.8

While speaking with Derry in the lobby, grateful spectators would offer him a final backslap before braving the cold outside. Some promised to swing by the field soon, maybe chip in on a mower. I asked Derry what impact all the visitors and souvenir hounds were having on the field. “People are continuously coming down and taking bricks and rocks, which is good, because [the rocks] destroy our equipment,” he said. “When we first started, there were thousands of pieces of concrete and rocks breaking our blades and belts, giving us flat tires. We had four mowers down there one day, and three broke. The playing field itself is in good shape, but when you’re doing the areas where the stands used to be, it’s rough terrain.”

As the crowd dispersed, I paired up with Dave Mesrey,9 a groundskeeper who, like Derry, is a fount of information about his hometown. Both agreed it was time I saw the field. While driving toward Corktown, Mesrey pointed out old bars and beloved buildings that once were, and stretches that may never be again. We talked about the sprawl and the overgrowth that both enlivens and haunts the city. I ran a quote by him from 19th-century mayor William G. Thompson.10 Surveying his surroundings from the roof of City Hall in 1881, Thompson rhapsodized that “it seemed to me as if Detroit was a city situated in the midst of a green forest.” Mesrey nodded enthusiastically in the passenger seat. It reminded him of the city’s brush with Banksy in 2010. During a brief residency, the English kingmaker of blight spray-painted a stenciled street urchin on the cinder-block wall of the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant. Beside the boy was a site-specific requiem: “I remember when all this was trees.”

In 1900, trees that predated the Revolutionary War still stood in the outfield of Bennett Park, a Tiger Stadium precursor. Now the park’s horizon is punctuated by the Motor City Casino, a neon-skinned high-rise built by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch that looks drab in daylight, perhaps even more so on a clear day filled with the promise of a new season.11

Courtesy Navin Field Grounds Crew

As I joined the grounds crew gathered near the pitcher’s mound, Derry in particular was apologetic about the field’s appearance. Endless snowfall from the “worst winter ever” had thwarted their usual springtime preparations.12 In February, the snow was so thick, crew member Bart Wilhelm adorned the field with nine snowmen, each in its proper defensive position. The snow had since melted, but a recent St. Patrick’s Day parade down Michigan Avenue clogged the perimeter with litter. Making matters worse, someone had slipped a pack of dogs past the gates earlier in the week, and paw prints now covered every square inch of Cobb’s old base paths.

Cosmetics aside, the field remains as faithful to its original configuration as possible. “We found the anchors for home plate and for the pitcher’s plate and we measured it up,” Derry says. “Everything is in the right spot. The dimensions from 1912 are still here in 2014.”

Towering above center field is the 125-foot flagpole, the largest in-play obstacle in league history. “My understanding is that the organization planned on taking that flagpole to the new stadium,” Derry says. “They took home plate, but when they saw how large and heavy the flagpole was, and what a job it would be to move it, they changed their minds. I’m glad they didn’t take it. It’s the only physical structure left.”

The flagpole also serves as a kind of core sample to chart bygone eras. There are three layers of paint on the pole, the crew members noted, starting with the most recent gunmetal gray. Beneath that is blue paint from the 1977-99 seasons, preceded by green from Briggs Stadium and Navin Field. The reason the pole is still gray today is that Billy Crystal used the stadium as a double for Yankee Stadium when he filmed 61* in 2000. The pole was never gray in its playing days, just during its brief turn as a stand-in on HBO.

The grounds crew welcomed a pair of flag keepers into the mix, and two flags fly at the Corner to this day — another ancient echo of hometown devotion. In Crazy ’08, author Cait Murphy recounts the celebrations that erupted citywide when the Tigers clinched the pennant in 1907. “At dawn the following day, the city [raised] a victory flag — the same banner that had flown over the USS Detroit in the Spanish-American War.”

Each day the field remains unscathed is a victory of sorts for the grounds crew. The patch of land, which is owned by the city of Detroit, has been the focal point of repeated renewal projects, none of which have taken flight. “My opinion is that once they put something on the site, any kind of development, the field is going to be destroyed,” Derry says. He singled out the latest redevelopment plan from George Jackson, former head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, which would swallow the outfield. “I hope it doesn’t happen,” Derry says. “What’re you gonna build there, a parking lot? You can’t put a house there. If you do, it’s gonna be hit by baseballs all day long.”

One of the more perplexing proposals of late, since shelved, was the sale of the outfield to a company seeking to build a warehouse for parade floats. “We’re not hearing too much about that now, and thank goodness,” Derry says. “I mean, how many hundreds of warehouses are just sitting empty in the city of Detroit? They can store their floats somewhere else. To build new structures costs millions of dollars that nobody has.13 I’d rather see these nine acres turned into a park. Just plant some trees and put in some fences and some stands at the baselines so people can watch baseball. What’s wrong with having green space in Corktown?”

Considering the land was a Civil War–era picnic grounds and hay market, I wondered if Derry had reached out to Detroit’s community of urban farmers about pooling resources. Derry made clear he’s a proponent of urban farming, but prefers that the site remain a ball field.

“People are into Hollywood,” he shrugged. “A couple people had the idea, ‘Oh, you should plant some corn out there, like in Field of Dreams.’ We don’t need corn out there, because we have a real field of dreams. Joe Jackson never played in Dyersville, Iowa, but he did play at Michigan and Trumbull. He scored the first run in the very first game at Navin Field in 1912. The integrity of the field needs to be preserved.”

In a new proposal, a nonprofit youth sports organization, Detroit PAL, “would build a new 10,000-square-foot headquarters on the site and maintain much of the historic playing field for youth baseball.”

As a point of comparison, the NFGC looks to the Bronx, where the site of old Yankee Stadium, which is approximately the same size as the Tiger Stadium site, now offers three diamonds for public use: a Little League diamond, a softball diamond, and a major league diamond. The crew members note, however, that the major league diamond is not in the exact same location as the original Yankee Stadium. In Detroit, they feel there is a unique opportunity to preserve the historic major league diamond, while still leaving plenty of room for Little Leaguers to roam the same field where greats like Hank Greenberg and Sweet Lou Whitaker played.

The following week, I called Derry after Opening Day for a rundown of the fourth inaugural at the Corner. “Hundreds of people came by to visit the old ball field,” he said. “Many of them stopped by on their way to Comerica, and some just to hang out on the field, throw the ball around.” The first game of the year was played, a cross-generational scrimmage between a men’s senior league and a high school team from nearby Cass Tech. Even more encouraging for Derry, however, was seeing the new crop he needed most lining his freshly chalked field: volunteers. 

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James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to SlateThe AtlanticWax Poetics, and The Village Voice. For a decade, he was an editor and publisher of Stop Smiling magazine and its book imprint.

Illustration by Gluekit.

Filed Under: Baseball, Detroit Week, Navin Field Grounds Crew, James Hughes, Detroit Tigers, Tiger Stadium, Comerica, Tom Derry