The Detroit Tigers played at Chicago Sunday afternoon, taking on the White Sox as funeral services were being held in Southfield for George Cantor. I found the co-existence of the two events almost unreal; incongruous. I guess I thought that when George died … he would take baseball with him.
If you were fortunate enough to be a Tigers fan in the 1960s, and a reader of the Detroit Free Press, then you were treated to some of the finest and most original baseball writing and reporting in the history of the game. George brought his genius and an encyclopedic mind — along with his gentle and omnipresent wit — to every facet of his long writing career, but it was baseball that was the beneficiary of his passion for analysis and clever study.
It was my great fortune to know Georgie for 45 years. I was in awe of him before I ever met him. As a college student majoring in journalism, a Detroiter who lived and died with the Bengals each summer, I marveled at his brilliant and atypical baseball writing. When I first joined the Free Press in 1966, I was pleased to find myself working not far from his office in the sports department. We met through our involvement on the newspaper’s softball team, and his easy and charitable acceptance of me as a fellow and peer led to a friendship that lit up almost every aspect of my life.
George was the right man at the right time when the Tigers turned the Detroit sporting scene on its ear with their magnificent attainment of the 1968 World Series crown. He and the ’68 Tigers were made for each other; Cantor hit his own personal peak as an artist the same year that Kaline, Lolich, Freehan, Northrup, Cash, Horton, Stanley et al. ascended to local immortality in a baseball season for the ages. George was there to paint their picture.
Cantor was that rare bird; an intellectual in the locker room. Some Free Press readers, even some of the Tigers, resented his references to literary history and his citing of Shakespearean examples in his coverage of hits, runs, errors, and the inanity of characters like Denny McLain on the Detroit baseball club. But that was George. Nobody loved baseball as he did; no one cared more for the honor and magic and traditions of the game. No one knew more, about Tigers history, about the individuals who had graced the game, than he.
I think it was during the 1966 season that the Tigers played a game in Kansas City when a tornado struck part of the stadium, stirring up debris and suspending play. Everyone — fans and players — ran for cover. At the funeral Sunday, his brother Michael recalled how George — noting that the telecast back to Detroit was ongoing as the dangerous winds howled — maneuvered to get himself interviewed by George Kell for a lengthy period of time during the suspension of play.
Georgie was playing the odds — he later said that by his figuring no one had ever been struck by a tornado in the history of live television, so he was safe on the air. In fact, when the Tiger team plane took off from KC that night, corkscrewing skyward in the still-dangerous high winds that were raking across the midwest, George situated himself on the bouncing aircraft so he could see Al Kaline seated in the forward section of the plane. His calming explanation — and his reason for flying in eyesight of Kaline whenever he traveled with the Tigers in the years to follow — was that he was in good and secure company as long as he had his eye on Al. Nothing bad, he figured, could ever happen to the magnificent and graceful #6.
George and I stood up in each other’s weddings in the 1970s. He couldn’t dance a lick, and when they were introduced for their part in the Wedding Dance at my nuptials, he and my sister-in-law went bouncing around the floor in an odd and clumsy style. “Is there a name for this dance?” she nervously inquired of him. “Yes,” George replied, “it’s called The Fiasco.”
George and I were fellow city desk reporters from 1969-71, variously monitoring local mayhem and interviewing talking dogs, after he left the Tigers beat. He subsequently became a terrific travel writer, and then a general columnist for the Detroit News for almost 30 years. He was not only a keen observer and intriguing analyst of the local and national news scene, he was also rigidly honest and completely scrupulous in his life as a high-profile Detroit journalistic personality … something quite unusual in his day. With the advent of television and the onslaught of instant communication, hustlers and corner-cutting opportunists served themselves under the guise of supposed journalism. Not George.
He wrote 30 books in his time, most of them about sports because he could never separate himself from the drama and lure and personalities of the games. Our lives evolved and changed with the decades, but our friendship — we never had even a disagreeable word in 45 years — was rock solid and undiminished by age. That connection took us back, again and again, to Michigan and Trumbull downtown. In 1972 we sat limp, in shock, in our seats at the stadium after the Tigers lost an excruciating playoff series to Oakland by one lousy run. One. Through the 1980s and early ’90s, we often met at our local cathedral — in rain, in snow, under sunny skies — to share the unique buzz of Opening Day.
In 1984 I was thrilled to take my father down to the fifth game of the World Series on a foggy and gray Sunday night. After parking our car and beginning a long hike to the stadium, whom should we encounter but George. And on our delightful trek up Michigan Avenue, we marveled, over and over again, how the Tigers … our Tigers … would inevitably secure a World Series victory that night. Which of course they did. OUR Tigers. Over-powering everyone. Incredible.
Finally, on the night they closed the old ballpark, a 1999 date which shall live in infamy, I wandered down onto the field following the long game and post-game ceremonies. There had been the almost mystical appearance of former Tigers stars, as they seemed to just suddenly appear, one after another, on that oddly warm late September evening . Again I encountered George, this time on the perfect grass of the infield. We both understood, and were attempting to savor, what we had experienced that night.
They say you shouldn’t look back in life, but when we slowly walked out of the ballpark around 11 p.m. — he had been interviewed “live” on the field by ESPN — George and I stopped at every corner on Trumbull, and took one long look after another at the magic that had been Detroit’s stadium. All the lights were still blazing, and the place we had come to as children, as professionals, as fans, as friends … was slowly fading into the misty night behind us. We stopped; we turned and looked. With the crossing of every street. Again and again. Peering back in an attempt to preserve something that had been so important to our lives.
George Cantor’s soul was part and parcel of that place. The stadium ultimately came down; our friendship never did.