100 Years Ago: The Detroit Tigers’ Last Game at Bennett Park

No commemorative scorecards. No long-winded speeches. No drawn-out curtain calls for dissipated ball-tossers a generation removed from their last at-bat. And certainly no slivers of the outfield fences or plugs of game-used chewing tobacco (each accompanied by a signed and numbered certificate of authenticity, of course) being hawked by some enterprising sports memorabilia merchant. Nope, none of that. The Detroit Tigers left their longtime home at Bennett Park 100 years ago with an absence of fanfare that is remarkable by modern standards.

Wild Bill Donovan getting a drink inside the dugout at Bennett Park. Donovan pitched the final game and scored the final run at Bennett Park on September 10, 1911.

On Sunday, September 10, 1911, the Tigers closed out 16 eventful summers at the wooden ballyard. The peerless Ty Cobb, who was wrapping up the best overall season of his career (a .420 average, 144 RBI, 83 steals), combined with “Wild Bill” Donovan to edge Cleveland, 2-1, in extra innings. Cobb single-handedly tied the game at a run apiece in the bottom of the eighth, slapping a two-out single and then forcing the Cleveland infield into committing two errors as they threw the ball all over the lot trying to stop the Peach’s progress home. Cobb’s madcap dash around the bases, observed a reporter, “was one of the finest bits of daring and skill that Ty ever has exhibited—which is saying something.” Wild Bill twirled a magnificent five-hitter and scored the winning run himself on a bases-loaded error in the bottom of the 13th. There were 9,756 fans at the game that long-ago late-summer afternoon, none of which thought enough of the occasion to rip out a patch of souvenir turf before boarding a trolley for home.

When Bennett Park opened in 1896, it was a Lincoln Logs-like structure capable of holding only about 5,000 people, though the park in those days was rarely even half-filled. The venue was so rustic it featured trees in the outfield and a “parking lot” for horses and buggies in the far recesses of left field. But by 1911 the buggies and trees had disappeared, and so had Detroiters’ traditional indifference to the national game. In fact, locals had become downright dotty over the hometown nine. Between 1900 and 1910 the city had added nearly 200,000 people; another half-million were due to arrive over the next decade. A good number of the newcomers found their way down to the northwest corner of Trumbull and Michigan avenues for an afternoon of cheap but exciting entertainment.

To accommodate the exploding fan base, a succession of Tigers owners had regularly added bleachers and expanded the grandstand; when necessary, thousands could be placed in the roped-off outfield. But the overflow crowds only emphasized how inadequate, outdated, and dangerous Bennett Park had become. Frank Navin was inspired by the modern, large-capacity concrete and steel stadiums erected in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He longed to build one in Detroit, but because a larger footprint was needed, construction had to wait until he could buy out the neighboring property owners.

For much of the summer of ’11 there had been anticipation that the club would close out the Bennett Park era with yet another World Series appearance, its fourth in five years. In fact, the Tigers had threatened to blow the doors off the American League pennant race. If not for one-run losses at Chicago and Cleveland, they would have opened their last campaign at Bennett Park with an astonishing 23 straight victories. As it was, Hughie Jennings’ team shot out to a still extraordinary 21-2 start and a 9.5-game cushion over Philadelphia. However, Connie Mack’s white elephants chipped away at the Tigers’ once imposing lead. Detroit’s last day in first place was August 4. After that it was a slow, discouraging descent into second place, where they finished, far behind the A’s.

After their 2-1 victory against Cleveland on September 10, the Tigers embarked on a 23-game road trip to close out the season. However, on Sunday, October 1, the club briefly returned to Detroit following a series in Washington, hoping to squeeze in a make-up home game against St. Louis before taking the boat over to Cleveland. Eddie Batchelor described it as “a double farewell” in the Detroit Free Press: “Detroit fans will have their last look at the Tigers for 1911 and will sit in the present stands for the last time in any year.” The game was rained out, costing Navin a lucrative Sunday gate and ruining the “good-bye program”—honoring the team, not the park—mentioned in the press. The season ended one week later in St. Louis, with the lost home date played at the Browns’ park.

That autumn there was no groundswell of nostalgia as old Bennett Park, with all of its history, was razed. The apathy is understandable. This was 1911, after all. A modern society filled with fresh wonders, everything from flying machines to “flickers,” was taking shape. Detroit was a boomtown, and most citizens were looking ahead, not back. Soon a new 23,000-seat stadium—Navin Field, the grandfather of Tiger Stadium— would arise on the site where the shabby firetrap had once stood, giving Detroit a first-class ball yard consistent with its status as the emerging motorcar capital of the world.