What a potpourri of memories come rushing back when fans drive by Detroit’s newest bit of urban prairie – memories, frankly, that some of the forces behind the destruction of Tiger Stadium unquestionably hoped would be buried by the falling concrete. They’ll probably get their wish. When the generation of fans old enough to remember what it was like to be almost on top of a play, to be in a place that in every way was functionally dedicated to the execution of the game, dies off, even the most eloquent descriptions and the most evocative photographs will be incomplete testimony to the grandeur that once was.
But there are memories of the Corner when it was the “place to be” that may survive better than others, if only because they will never be replicated again in any form. The memory becomes the only reality. And, a lot of these are memories of things that happened far away from the playing field.
We give you a smattering of Tiger Stadium vignettes. Close your eyes a minute and see what used to be.
Here comes Joe DiMaggio. He’s hawking Mr. Coffee coffeepots these days, but he’s still Joltin’ Joe – tall, slender, looking as athletic in a silver business suit as he ever did in center field. As he walks through the crowd near the concessions stands, people fall back to make way for him. If he pauses for an autograph, it will be entirely voluntary – and a step away from graceful retreat into the Tiger hospitality room.
The rumor spreads like wildfire through the stadium. David and Julie (Nixon) Eisenhower are sitting over by first base. The children of two presidents, the recently married couple are not part of any political campaign. They’re just watching a ball game and occasionally chatting with the ushers.
And here’s George McGovern, his own unsuccessful presidential campaign nearly over – perhaps forecasting his own political future in the way that he’s trying to buy a hot dog in the beer line.
It’s a miserable April Day, and a young Edsel Ford II stands in another concession line waiting to buy a hot dog for his son – if he can keep tabs on said son long enough for the kid to eat it. It’s cold; it’s raining; the concourse is jammed with people waiting out a rain delay. Edsel stands there, hands jammed into the pockets of his parka, rain dripping off the end of his nose, saying to anybody who’s listening, “Isn’t this great?” It’s April, and baseball is back. Everyone knows what he means.
Over at the press elevator, Sarah Simpson, den mother to reporters from all around the league, is beaming with pride and showing off a pin given her by George H. W. and Barbara Bush. “Mrs. Bush was sooooooooooo nice,” says Sarah, who knows something about niceness herself. “They both were so nice to me.” Sarah probably was a lifelong Democrat.
The sun is out and batting practice is under way, and a tall man steps into the box to line shot after shot into the outfield. He goes with each pitch with as level a swing as Ted Williams ever used, and he’s spraying line drives all over the place. If the batting practice pitcher is serving up some fat ones, he’s to be forgiven. The batter is Tom Selleck, stopping by without fanfare to enjoy front office hospitality and then suit up with the team he loves. He does this from time to time. Funny thing, when a newer Tiger administration tries to make Selleck’s appearances into marketable events, he sort of disappears.
Roy Scheider isn’t quite as lucky. He walks through that same crowd that parted the ways for DiMaggio, trying all at once to look like a celebrity about to be stopped, and like a character in a baseball film, and like somebody who is going to get where he’s going without being slowed by the crowd. He’s successful in the last instance, anyway. Not many people recognize him.
Another rumor: the Statler Brothers are sitting behind the screen. That’s a surprise! Fellow country performers, the Oak Ridge Boys, are more likely to turn up because their bass singer is part owner of the Nashville Sounds. But the Statlers? Sure enough, there they are – as personable as country celebrities are reputed to be. They are completely at home in the warmth of an equally personable ballpark, protected by a fan agenda that puts the ballgame first.
A stadium guard never does recognize one celebrity. Literally hopping mad, actor Michael Dunn punctuates every sentence with a bounce that lifts him several inches above his roster height of three feet, eleven inches – but it does little good. Tiger pitcher Tom Sturdivant has told his friend Dunn to come down to the park before the gates open and go straight to the clubhouse, but the security guard has seen it all. The guard’s job is to protect people who belong in the park from all sorts of gimmicks – costumed dogs, you name it. This refugee from a carnival has to be just one more such. Finally, a fan (who has long since been allowed to roam the park at will) volunteers to escort Dunn, and the problem is solved.
The Ford women – Charlotte, Anne, and company, descend on the main women’s lounge en masse. It’s a post-season game, and they are dressed to the nines, wearing enough expensive mink to inflame an army of environmentalists. They thaw out in the welcome blast from the ceiling heater, laugh, talk, wave smiles at the bemused matrons, and then are gone, leaving behind them a sudden silence and the scent of Madame Rochas perfume.
Off-field memories? These few make up far less than the tip of an iceberg roughly the size of Greenland.
Perhaps it’s just as well that Tiger Stadium is gone. A park designed as a common denominator, where the admixture of people who come to see a ball game is this infinite in variety, demands a stadium crowd with restraint, sophistication, and – first and foremost – respect for the game. Such a crowd is an anomaly today. So, as composers Lerner and Loewe once penned, it’s left to us who remember to tell the tale each evening – from December to December – and not let it be forgot that, for one, brief, shining moment, all of this was ours, right here in Detroit.