When the Detroit Tigers clinched the 1968 American League pennant in exciting come-from-behind fashion on a September evening, John Fetzer did something he had only done once before. He went into his team’s clubhouse.
In the 12 years he had been either part-owner or full principle owner of the Tigers, Fetzer had only once before ventured into the den of his Bengals. When the players saw their owner in his finely pressed suit, hat and scorecard in hand, they did what rambunctious ballplayers do – they mussed up his hair, doused him with champagne, and lifted their 67-year old boss into the whirlpool. Fetzer accepted it all with a toothy grin.
This Saturday afternoon at Comerica Park, the Tigers will honor the ’68 World Championship club in a ceremony prior to their game against the Twins. Several of the remaining members of that team will be on hand. Many of them: Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, will receive tremendous cheers. The memories of others who have passed on: Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, Earl Wilson, and skipper Mayo Smith, will be recalled as well. But the man who set the tone from the top of the org chart will probably be glossed over if mentioned at all. That’s a shame, because John E. Fetzer was a great owner, a visionary, and a humble gentleman.
When Fetzer took control of the team in 1961, buying out most of the other minority owners, a decision needed to be made on what to call the ballpark. It was still known as Briggs Stadium, after the Briggs family, who had owned majority interest in the team for more than two decades. Fetzer could have slapped his own name onto the ballpark. Instead, he shrugged off the chance to promote his own business interests and said, “Let’s call it Tiger Stadium, and keep it that way forever.”
That was Fetzer’s style – subdued, practical, and humble. But it didn’t mean that the self-made man didn’t have a tenacious appetite for success. Before he was 35 years old he owned his first radio station, WKZO in Kalamazoo, a station he founded and where he pioneered in-depth news programming. He patented a technology for a directional antenna that allowed him to extend the reach of his signal many more miles, and more importantly allowing him to broadcast at night. He became so respected in radio that in World War II he was appointed by FDR as the national radio censor for the U.S. Office of Censorship. When the war ended, Fetzer recognized the inherent dangers that a federal censorship body presented, and he took it upon himself to disband the office immediately. He spent the next decade expanding his radio empire, buying up stations. He was the first person to send radio signals into many of the rural areas of the midwest and west, opening up markets that had previously been untapped. He later bought TV stations as well.
Fetzer was a baseball fan, so when a friend asked him to join in a minority investment group to buy the Tigers from the Briggs family in 1956, he agreed. His business acumen quickly helped him stand out as the brightest man in the group. When the opportunity came to grab control of the team, Fetzer went for it, not so much for the fame or financial opportunities (though owning the club helped his media network considerably), but because this regal man felt a civic obligation.
“The Tigers are a profound social force in our state,” Fetzer proclaimed. “Ours is a public trust not to be taken lightly. The people of Detroit are deserving of the utmost consideration.”
With idealistic views like that, he was a far cry from Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner.
Fetzer applied the same rules to the Tigers that he did his media empire: he hired smart men. He brought in Rick Ferrell and Jim Campbell, and he gave them the freedom to make baseball decisions. But though he was mostly hands-off in his handling of the baseball operations, Fetzer was a leader and a visionary when it came to marketing the game of baseball.
“He’s more responsible for the explosion of radio and television coverage in the game than anyone,” MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn said in the 1980s.
As the resident media expert among MLB owners, Fetzer guided the league through negotiations with TV and radio networks. He was the man who came up with the idea for a weekly national TV game, which became “The Game of the Week” and delivered top ratings and advertising revenue for the league. In the ’60s – a time when football’s popularity was growing at a feverish pace – Fetzer ensured that baseball was still receiving a large piece of the media pie.
Outside of a few occasions, such as his rare appearance in the clubhouse after his team won the pennant in ’68, Fetzer was reclusive. He preferred to stay behind the scenes, quietly establishing a model franchise. In the mid-to-late 1960s, the Tigers broke attendance records, becaming the first AL team to draw more than 2 million fans.
Prior to the ’84 season, though he had a team he knew was close to challenging for another World Series title, 82-year old Fetzer sold the team to pizza magnate Tom Monaghan. When the Tigs won the Series that October, Fetzer was at Tiger Stadium, tucked away from the limelight as usual. He passed away in 1989, having left a legacy in radio, television, and baseball, as well as an enduring philanthropic organization.
Fetzer never hit a home run and he never pitched an inning, but he was a strong team owner with superb leadership skills and great humility. He deserves to be remembered for his role in assembling the team that roared to the title in ’68.