As a sheltered kid from St. Clair Shores, I discovered many new sights, sounds, and smells when my older sister took me to Ladies’ Day games at Briggs Stadium in the late 1950s. I saw people with different skin tones and wearing unfamiliar garb. I heard surprising exclamations unknown to me—and some of them, I eventually came to learn, were expressions of profanity.
The smell around the ballpark was a unique, strange mix of aromas — the stale scent of crushed shards of peanut shells that were underfoot everywhere; the acrid pungent burning-flesh stench of steaming and frying hot dogs; the choking wafts of cigarette smoke curling all over the place (in those days something you smelled everywhere in public and at home); the bitter mists of beer; the fresh and earthy flavor of the grass and mud on the field.
But to my young senses the most memorable smells came once I stepped inside the forbidding walls of the huge men’s restrooms with their damp concrete floors and bare walls. Here the smoke was thicker, the sweat of closely packed men more palpable, the beer stench stronger. The very walls seemed to be perspiring, the floor puddled from leaking and sweating pipes.
The most prominent smell in there was the stench of beer-flavored urine. I’d never experienced anything like it before.
To a little boy, entering this world of men was intimidating. To wait your turn among the giants standing in the middle of the room, waiting for a spot to open up in front of the wall, was at least as gut-churning as awaiting your turn to kneel at the communion rail in church.
The first times I entered this sanctuary of unbound manhood, I tried very hard once I got to the trough to keep my eyes focused straight ahead against the wall, like everyone else. I didn’t want to look left or right, but I couldn’t help it sometimes. And it would be a disturbing, puzzling revelation.
I don’t know — and cannot find in my attempts at research — who designed the gang urinals, which resembled nothing more than cattle troughs. Were they there from the beginning, when over the winter of 1911-1912 Osborn Engineering of Cleveland tore down old wooden Bennett Park and erected the single-deck grandstand horseshoe behind home plate? Perhaps the fact that the same urinals were in the upper deck too — added prior to the 1923 season — and in the outfield sections that weren’t completed until the 1938 season — means they dated only to that era. Or perhaps these were found in many kinds of buildings over that whole stretch of a quarter-century.
Whatever their origin and manufacture, they left an indelible impression on my young mind. Never before visiting the rest rooms at Briggs Stadium had I been in a bathroom with so many men; never had I seen a urinal trough anywhere close to the size of these.
Everything about the Corner was a communal experience and an urban initiation for a suburban child. The stadium was a gathering place for all species of humanity and a real eye-opener for a kid whose only previous experience of being in a crowd had come at Sunday mass.
This was a different sort of Mass, in an impressive and other-worldly cathedral, replete with its own rituals, icons, and magical transformations. It was both sacred and earthy, profound and profane, inscrutable and accessible, immutable and transcendent yet a quotidian surprise and enchantment.
When Tiger Stadium was finally demolished, many peeling and rotting seats and rusted turnstiles were sold at auction. The stained, chipped, and thoroughly used urinals fetched their own price after collectors demanded they be added to the sale items. The huge white porcelain troughs, after all, held as many vivid memories as the other parts of the stadium — even if some of those memories may be unpleasant.
One urinal in the home dugout reportedly fetched bids of at least $700 from a dozen or so buyers. After all, to have a thing watered by scores of Hall of Famers is a rare privilege. But even the enormous troughs used mainly by fans hold a unique sense of place — and the hopes that after your moment of relief there would be another inning of wonder to behold on the field below.