Damn Yankees always put on a show at The Corner in Detroit

Don Wert watches Mickey Mantle round third after hitting his 535th career homer at Tiger Stadium on September 19, 1968.

“The Yankees are in town.”

In the long history of baseball at Michigan and Trumbull, no other phrase ever caused more anticipation, excitement, and heartache among Tigers fans.

The Yankees. The Bronx Bombers. Ruth, Gehrig, and Lazzeri. Joltin’ Joe, Scooter, and Yogi. Casey, Roger, and The Mick. Catfish, Billy, and Reg-gie.

The damned Yankees.

Ty Cobb broke in at The Corner against the Yankees — the same place where Lou Gehrig and Whitey Ford later saw their Hall of Fame careers end. It’s where legendary sluggers Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle belted their longest home runs, where an unknown utility player put an end to baseball’s longest afternoon with his only big-league homer. The Yankees were the guests when television was introduced to The Corner in 1947, and again a generation later when that same medium made a national phenomenon out of a certain bird-like pitcher. The boys in pinstripes were on hand when the Tigers initiated Sunday ball at The Corner in 1907, and they were the attraction 40 years later when the largest crowd ever to attend a game there was shoehorned into Briggs Stadium.

“It was always a good series between the Yankees and Tigers,” the late Tom Tresh, a native Detroiter who played for both clubs in the 1960s, once recalled. “I think both teams respected the other. We all knew that we were in for a battle that day. Since I was from Detroit, playing at Tiger Stadium was a big thing for me. A lot of my friends and relatives were always there, so the games were magnified and meant more to me.”

The teams began meeting in 1903, when the Yankees (then known as the Highlanders) replaced the Baltimore franchise in the American League. Between then and 1999, the Tigers’ last season at The Corner, the two winningest franchises in league history squared off more than 900 times on the Tigers’ turf. With the Yankees in town, “there was always extra excitement,” recalled Rocky Colavito, who played four summers in Detroit (1961-64) before ending his career as a Yankee in 1968. “You had two teams going at it with good power and good pitching. It was just a great time to play baseball.”

Appropriately, the list of memorable moments in the home half of the Tigers-Yankees rivalry begins with Cobb. On August 30, 1905, the skinny 18-year-old rookie dug in against New York’s Jack Chesbro at Bennett Park. After spotting Chesbro two strikes, Cobb ripped a run-scoring double off the grizzled spitballer, the first of 4,191 hits he would accumulate during his 24-year career.

Later in the series, the Georgia Peach attempted to steal second with a head-first slide. Waiting with the ball was a crusty ex-Tiger shortstop named Kid Elberfeld, who gave the rook “the teach,” sticking his knee into Cobb’s neck and rubbing his nose in the dirt. Cobb got up sputtering and red-faced, as the home crowd and veteran players hooted and laughed.

Two year later, a more mature Cobb was in the outfield as the Tigers, en route to their first pennant, played their first Sunday game at Bennett Park. For years the local “blue laws,” which prohibited amusements on the Sabbath, had forced the Tigers to arrange home dates outside city limits. There were no police raids on this Sunday, however, as the mayor and police chief were part of the record crowd of 9,635 on hand to watch the Tigers trim New York, 13-6.

The combination of Cobb, Sunday ball, and a winning team allowed owner Frank Navin to tear down wooden Bennett Park after the 1911 season and erect Navin Field in its place. The 23,000-seat concrete and steel facility, expanded over the coming years into Briggs Stadium and Tiger Stadium, became the site of some hotly contested games between the Tigers and Yanks.

Cobb’s festering hatred of Babe Ruth, who had stolen his thunder, exploded in the ninth inning on June 13, 1924. Cobb, by now player-manager, ordered his pitcher to hit the Yankees’ Bob Meusel with a pitch. Meusel rushed the mound, leading to a full-scale riot. Players, fans, and policemen mixed it up in the dugouts, on the field, and in the stands, with some spectators ripping seats out of their concrete moorings and hurling them onto the diamond. Finally, umpires awarded New York a rare forfeit.

Ruth loved playing — and partying — in Detroit. He hit 60 home runs at Navin Field, the most of any visiting player ever at The Corner. These included the longest of his career, a drive off Lil Stoner on June 8, 1926, that traveled an estimated 626 feet before rolling to a stop.

The late Eddie Wells pitched five seasons at Navin Field before joining the Yankees in 1929. “I remember during my playing days in Detroit a lot of ballplayers would be talking about how we’d like to be Yankees ourselves,” Wells once told me. “Man, we were always in awe when we met the Yankees. There was just a certain air about them, like they were different from other ball clubs. We looked at them as being double big-leaguers.”

While the Yankees were on the ascent in the 1920s, winning their first pennants and World Series, the Tigers slid into the second division. It wasn’t until the middle of the Great Depression that Detroit became competitive again, putting electricity back into the rivalry.

“Listen, at that time the Yankees were kings,” the late Billy Rogell, shortstop on Detroit’s 1934-35 pennant winners, recalled in 1999. “They had a terrific ball club. Ruth and all that gang. And we beat the pants off them in ’34 and ’35. I loved playing against the Yankees.” Rogell was there when Ruth hit his 700th career home run, off Tommy Bridges on July 13, 1934. Ruth had to borrow $20 from manager Joe McCarthy to pay the kid who chased down the milestone ball. And Rogell was present when Lou Gehrig voluntarily ended his 2,130-game playing streak on May 2, 1939 at Briggs Stadium.

The Tigers beat out the Yankees for pennants in 1940 and 1945, but the immediate postwar period was all New York. Between 1947 and 1964, a span of 18 summers, the Yankees won 15 pennants and 10 World Series. Meanwhile, the best the Tigers could do was finish runner-up to the Bombers in 1950 and 1961. Nonetheless, there were reasons to save a few ticket stubs:

* June 3, 1947, when the Tigers were televised for the first time. To fans watching on tiny screens inside downtown bars, the normally larger-than-life Yankees were reduced to fuzzy-looking Lilliputians. The Yanks won, 3-0, behind Spec Shea’s five-hitter, and televised baseball was on its way in Detroit.

* July 20, 1947, when 58,369 fans — the largest crowd ever at The Corner — were squeezed into the roped-off outfield and third-deck press box to watch Detroit sweep a doubleheader from the Yanks.

* June 23, 1950, when Hoot Evers, his baggy flannels billowing in the slipstream, legged out an inside-the-park home run in the bottom of the ninth to give the Tigers a wild 10-9 victory. His dash climaxed an improbable Detroit comeback that featured a record 11 home runs between the teams.

* Mickey Mantle’s three over-the-roof shots between 1956 and 1960. The ball Mantle hit off Paul Foytack on September 10, 1960, soared over the stands in right-center field and traveled an estimated 643 feet, the longest home run ever recorded.
When it came to the Tigers-Yankees rivalry, Foytack was a walking footnote. Not only did he surrender two of Mantle’s roof shots, on April 26, 1961 at Tiger Stadium he gave up the first of Roger Maris’ historic 61 home runs. “I always told Roger he should pay me $300 a month for starting him on his way to breaking Ruth’s [single-season] record,” Foytack joked.

As for the other half of the M&M Boys, “Mickey and I became really great friends during our playing days,” Foytack recalled. “Early in the year, when my family was still in Georgia, we would hang out when the Yankees came to town. I remember one time after I’d retired from baseball, I got a call at 4 in the morning. I thought it was a drunk who had the wrong number.”

Nope. The Yankees were in town, and Mantle wanted to play. “Come on down and have a drink,” Mantle said.

“Mickey, I have to be at work at 7,” Foytack protested.

Mantle did some foggy calculating. “OK,” he said. “You still have three hours.”

For Rocky Colavito, the most memorable Detroit-New York clash at The Corner was one he’d just as soon forget. It was the famous seven-hour marathon on June 24, 1962. “We were down, 7-1, at one point,” said the former Tigers left fielder, now living in retirement in Pennsylvania. “After I singled in the tying run, I was standing at first base when Moose Skowron said to me, ‘Did you have to do that?’ He was upset because they had knocked Frank Lary out of the box and they thought they were going to finally beat him.”

The draining affair wasn’t settled until Jack Reed, a spare outfielder who was Mantle’s late-inning “legs,” hit the first and only home run of his career in the 22nd inning, giving the yankees a 9-7 victory. At the time, it was the longest game ever played. “I did go 7-for-10 in that game,” Colavito said. “But the thing that annoyed me was that I led off the 10th inning with a triple off the 415-foot sign in left-center, but we didn’t score. I was so frustrated because we should’ve won the damned game right then.”

Another frustrated soul was Lary, renowned for his mastery of the Yankees. One summer the right-hander beat them seven times. “Against the Yankees it just seemed that most of the time I just made the right pitch at the right time,” Lary said from his Alabama home. “The whole team just played good baseball against them. We didn’t score a lot of runs, but we often came out on top with scores like 2-1 and 4-3.”

On April 13, 1962, the “Yankee Killer” started the Tigers’ first-ever home opener against New York. Tiger Stadium was only half-filled on this cold, wet Friday the 13th. Although the Tigers won the game, their ace pitcher pulled a leg muscle legging out a triple. The injury affected Lary’s pitching motion and ultimately ruined his career.

In New York’s lineup for both of those games was Tom Tresh, who had grown up in the 1950s closely observing Mantle from the center-field bleachers at Briggs Stadium. He became a switch-hitter like Mantle, and a few years later ended up with a locker right next to his childhood hero.

“I was in awe of him even when we had dinner,” said Tresh, who went on to spend 27 years as baseball coach at Central Michigan University. “I named my son Mickey after him. When he was born, which was one day before Mantle’s birthday, he weighed 7 pounds, 7 ounces — just like his number. He even had blond hair and blue eyes.” Tresh enjoyed teasing Mantle: “Did you miss a road trip?” Alluding to Mantle’s chronic leg injuries, he’d warn: “This kid better not have a limp.”

The gimpy Mantle personified the suddenly feeble Yankees of the middle 1960s. To the delight of fans who had been screaming “Break up the Yankees!” for decades, the aging team actually finished last in 1966, just two years after playing in their fifth straight World Series. Old stars were leaving. On May 21, 1967, Whitey Ford pitched the opening inning of a Sunday doubleheader against the Tigers, then left with a sore elbow. The Corner proved to be his last stop. The Tigers’ longtime nemesis announced his retirement a few days later.

Meanwhile, the young Tigers were on the upswing. On September 17, 1968, the Yankees were the victims as Detroit clinched its first flag in 23 years. A near-capacity crowd practically tore Tiger Stadium to bits. “I was happy to see them win it since we weren’t going to,” said tresh. “They had a great team. Of course, not knowing they were going to win it that night, I had rented a suite at the Sheraton Cadillac, and I had a bunch of my hometown buddies there. There we were, caught in the middle of all the celebrating downtown.”

Two days later, the Yankees closed out the series. It was assumed that Mantle would retire after the season, meaning this would be his last appearance in Detroit. The half-filled park gave him a standing ovation when he came to bat in the eighth inning. Denny McLain, cruising to his 31st victory with a 6-1 lead, could afford to be generous. “Let’s let Mickey hit a home run,” he told catcher Jim Price.

McLain grooved several pitches. “McLain threw fastballs,” said Colavito, who was winding up his career on the New York bench. “But you know, Mickey still had to hit it out.” No easy thing with McLain, who “had a sneaky fastball. He had an easy motion, but the ball jumped on you.”

After fouling off a couple, Mantle blasted one into the upper deck in right that was fair by inches. It was his 535th home run, allowing him to move into third place on the all-time list.

By June 28, 1976, the standings had been turned upside down. The Tigers were bottom feeders while the Yankees were on their way to their first pennant since 1964. The Monday night game from Tiger Stadium was being nationally televised by ABC. It was the night that made a lanky, goofy-looking rookie pitcher named Mark Fidrych famous.

“The Bird” was already a local phenom, but now millions of viewers across the country were captivated by his antics. Fidrych got on his knees to manicure the mound. He talked to the ball. He shook hands with everybody on the field, including the groundskeepers. “He’s tall, lean, and he has web feet,” announcer Bob Uecker told America. Fidrych shut down the mighty Yankees, 5-1, to run his fairy-tale record to 8-1. Afterward, Tiger Stadium rocked with the chant, “We want Bird! We want Bird!”

“You know, it’s kind of funny,” said one longtime fan in July 1999, when the Yankees visited The Corner for the last time. “But I can’t think of any other games between the two teams that have been truly memorable since that night.” He may have been right. Blame it on the lack of red-hot pennant races, the scarcity of genuine characters like Cobb, Ruth, Mantle, and The Bird, or the dwindling number of opportunities. The Yankees used to play 11 games each summer at The Corner, but by the late 1990s expanded divisions and the introduction of inter-league play had cut that number to only six.

Detroit hosted New York at Michigan and Trumbull for the last time on July 8, 1999, with the Yankees prevailing by a 3-2 score. Not long after that, a “Keep off the grass” sign was permanently planted in the lawn that nearly a century’s worth of Tigers and Yankees had helped make famous. Since then, the rivalry has continued at Comerica Park, where a new generation of players and fans have forged their own special memories of the two teams, including postseason clashes — something that never happened at The Corner.

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