The Detroit Tigers

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The Detroit Tigers

Baseball—with its cheap bleacher seats, Sunday doubleheaders, and working-class heroes—is the most blue-collar of all sports. It is therefore no surprise that one of the most famous, durable, and successful baseball teams should be from the bluest of blue-collar cities, Detroit, Michigan. With a professional club dating back to 1881, Detroit was one of the charter members of the American League in 1901. While never as successful as the New York Yankees, the Tigers have a rich history and tradition. Like the city's dominant economic force, General Motors, the Tigers have been a conservative force, resisting change to the game. When free-agent frenzy hit in the 1970s, the Tigers reacted to the new high salaries, according to baseball writer Bill James, "like a schoolmarm on a date with a sailor."

While the Tigers have not always had the best teams, many times they have had the brightest star on the field. Ty Cobb was baseball's first superstar: he was Tiger baseball from 1905 to 1928, their top player and, in his later years, the team's manager. He played hero for hometown fans, but acted as villain on road trips when his intensity led to many violent confrontations, some with fans. Cobb was suspended in 1912 for punching a fan, but the team backed him and went on strike, forcing management to put together a team of sandlot players for a game against Philadelphia.

The year 1912 also moved the Tigers into Navin Field on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Named after team owner Frank Navin, the ballpark would remain in use for the rest of the century. Although led by Cobb, as well as stars like Sam Crawford, the team competed for some years without capturing a pennant. In the 1930s, three future Hall of Fame icons—Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Mickey Cochrane—wore Tiger uniforms. The decade also gave birth to another Detroit tradition: when spectators hurled garbage onto the field during the 1934 World Series, they initiated a tradition of hooliganism among Tiger fans which persisted for years afterward.

After a World Series victory in 1935, the Tigers ownership changed hands when Walter Briggs, an auto parts manufacturer, purchased the team. His family owned not only the team but also its playing field, which was renamed Briggs Stadium. Although they enjoyed a World Series win in 1945, the Tigers—like the rest of the American league—were overshadowed by the dominance of the Yankees from 1949 to 1964. Only the development of outfielder Al Kaline, who played his entire Hall of Fame career with the Tigers, highlighted this period of Tiger history. The Briggs family sold the team in 1952 to a group of 11 radio and television executives led by John Fetzer, an event that foreshadowed the marriage of media and sports that became a trend in the next decades. Thus, for once, the Tigers were ahead of the curve. With Detroit's WJR station broadcasting games across the entire Midwest, the team's following spread beyond Michigan to Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and across the river to Ontario, Canada. Later, its TV broadcasting team, with former Tiger George Kell on play-by-play, created even more fans.

With the Tigers' conservative tradition and the arguably racist nature of both its management and its blue-collar fans, Detroit was slow to integrate black players into the team. Despite the steady increase in Detroit's black population, throughout the 1960s the team rarely included more than a small handful of black players, among them the city's already established sandlot star Willie Horton. The contradictions of racial politics in Detroit exploded, literally, in the 1967 riots that changed the history of the city. The violence resulted in unprecedented white flight that left parts of the city, including the neighborhoods around Tiger Stadium, devastated. Ravaged and divided, the city came together as the Tigers won the 1968 World Series. Although the factual basis for the team's role in uniting Detroit communities has remained debatable, sports historian Patrick Harrington noted that "the myth of unity is important, illustrating the impact many Detroiters give baseball as a bonding element."

The key to the 1968 team was Denny McLain, an immature wonderkid with a great arm, who won 31 games that year, but whose career then self-destructed. McLain was baseball's equivalent to football's Joe Namath—brash, cocky, quotable, and unconventional. The 1968 Tigers team held together for a few more years and, managed by Billy Martin, another brash, cocky and quotable figure, won the Eastern division crown on the last day of the 1972 season. While the team attempted to rebuild its strengths over the next decade, it endured many setbacks. Racial tensions and economic conditions in the city worsened, spectator attendances declined, and the Tigers lost 100 games in the 1975 season. Yet, from the mire emerged one more bright shining star: Mark "the Bird " Fidrych. Nicknamed after the Sesame Street character Big Bird because of his lanky appearance and curly blond mane, Fidrych was a right-handed pitcher with the eccentric on-field habit of talking to the baseball. Already a local hero, he burst into the national spotlight with a masterfully pitched victory over the Yankees on ABC's Monday Night Baseball in 1976. He was quickly on the cover of Sports Illustrated and his games, both at home and on the road, were sellouts. Yet, like McLain before him, Fidrych's immaturity (he injured his knee horsing around in the outfield) led to his rapid decline.

The franchise, however, was improving. The devastation of the economy in Detroit in the late 1970s led to the dispersal of Tiger fans across the country, but the team's popularity in the 1980s was acknowledged when Tom Selleck's Magnum PI character donned the navy blue Tigers cap with the Old English "d" on it. The Tigers were a hot item. After hiring manager Sparky Anderson and developing a stable of great young players, the Tigers went 35-5 to start the 1984 season. This was the first year of new ownership under Tom Monaghan, a lifelong Tiger fan who made his fortune with the Domino's Pizza franchise. The 1984 World Series win by the Tigers was the "fast food series"—the Kroc family of McDonald's fame owned the opposing Padres. The 1984 season was also marked by two signifi-cant spectator developments. Fans at Tiger Stadium popularized "the wave," a coordinated mass cheer from fans who jumped from their seats with their hands in the air in succession around a stadium. Less happily for the game, they also popularized the ritual of turning victory celebrations into all-night melees, with some becoming near riots as Detroit fans gave the city another black eye. Coupled with the annual "Devil's Night" fires and Detroit's dubious position as leader of the nation's crime rate, even the frenzy over the Tigers' triumph couldn't mask the problems in the Motor City.

Monaghan ran into financial problems and sold the team to his business rival, Mike Illitch, owner of the Little Caesar's pizza chain, in 1992. The franchise had been in trouble for many reasons, among them "a series of public relations disasters, including the botched dismissal of popular announcer Ernie Harwell that alienated its most loyal followers," according to Harrington. At the same time, the city was harming rather than helping as "a bellicose mayor alienated the suburbanites and outsiders. A few highly publicized incidents in the downtown area magnified fear of coming to the Stadium…. The club became separate from the city, and the wider community divorced itself from the city." Despite having Cecil Fielder, a home-run hero and the team's first black superstar in over 20 years, the main interest in the Tigers concerned the team's future. By the late 1990s, following years of bitter debate, lawsuits, and public hearings, the building of a new stadium was begun in downtown Detroit to keep the team in town. Although the 1994 baseball strike, and poor teams devastated Tiger attendance in the late 1990s, the new century held promise with a new ballpark. The move marked a break with the past as baseball prepared to leave the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, accompanied by the hopes of owners and city leaders, that the tradition of blue-collar support for the Tigers would continue in the new millennium.

—Patrick Jones

Further Reading:

Anderson, William M. The Detroit Tigers: A Pictorial Celebration of the Great Players and Moments in Tigers' History. South Bend, Indiana, Diamond Communications, 1992.

Falls, Joe. The Detroit Tigers: An Illustrated History. New York, Walker and Company, 1989.

Harrington, Patrick. The Detroit Tigers: Club and Community, 1945-1995. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1997.

James, Bill. This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones. New York, Villard Books, 1989.

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The Detroit Tigers

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The Detroit Tigers