DETROIT — It was the evening of October 14, 1984 and the skies over the city were eerily dark. A light mist began to accompany the dense fall air hanging over the Motor City – and black smoke was billowing into the massive light standards that were shining down over the roof of Tiger Stadium.
From my post at the corner of Cochrane and Kaline Drive (where I had sold peanuts and Detroit Tigers souvenirs for the past three seasons) there were three things of which I was certain: the Detroit Tigers were World Champions, we were caught in the middle of a riot, and Tiger Stadium was on fire.
The incredible 1984 campaign was over. The joyful outcome for which I had been praying all year had finally occurred: the Detroit Tigers had just won the World Series. But instead of a sense of jubilation, I felt a fear like I had never known before. A collective dream had just come true – but an offsetting nightmare was just beginning.
Soon, I realized that the stadium itself was not burning as reports and rumors started to circulate around the neighborhood. The smoke that was rising over the ballpark was coming from overturned vehicles near the Michigan & Trumbull intersection as overzealous partiers decided that the way they were going to celebrate the Tigers’ championship was by destroying property. Not only had the rioters overturned a Checker Cab, these exceptional knuckleheads had the audacity to rock a Detroit Police car onto its top and set it ablaze.
Game 5 of the 1984 World Series started in the late afternoon. It was a cool fall day in Detroit with a fairly dense fog floating over the stadium. The air was thick with both humidity and human electricity with ominous weather over head and excited fans flocking to the ballpark in anticipation of the day’s events.
There was a tremendous amount of pomp and circumstance surrounding the game. The University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club sang an incredible rendition of the National Anthem – and the Vice President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, was in the front row and assisted Detroit Tigers’ legend George Kell, who tossed out the ceremonial first-pitch to Tigers’ catcher Lance Parrish. The commissioner of baseball, Peter Ueberroth, was also on hand and seated next to Bush.
As it turned out, the final game of the 1984 World Series fell on the Sabbath. Sunday afternoon games at The Corner were usually more serene than the ones played on, say, Friday and Saturday nights. They were usually attended by families with small children and by people who stopped by church before heading to the corner of Michigan & Trumbull.
This was a Sunday like no other I had ever experienced. There was a dizzying drunkenness in the air that continued to build throughout the day as Detroit Tigers fans were anticipating the team’s first World Series Championship in sixteen years.
Local and national media trailers were parked on the opposite side of Cochrane Street from where my family’s souvenir trailer was stationed. It was always a big deal when the national media was in town and NBC had a slew of full-sized production trailers along the west side of the ballpark. On our side of the street, the florescent lights on our concession trailer illuminated an awning that proudly read, “The Designated Hatter” which was the first name given to our business.
Of course, if the Tigers had lost that day, they would have been heading to San Diego for Game 6 and any World Series celebrations would have taken place on the West Coast. Even though the fans were confident in their ’84 Tigers, it wasn’t until Kirk Gibson’s monster blast in the bottom of the eighth inning when certainty set in and everyone knew the celebration was going to take place on our home turf.
A crowd was beginning to build outside of Tiger Stadium as the night wore on. People with transistor radios and beer bottles were starting to line the streets surrounding the ballpark. 51,901 fans had paid to get through the turnstiles – and tens of thousands more were gathering outside the ballpark as the Tigers continued to pound the San Diego Padres.
Sometime around the eighth inning, my brother David and I (then 15 and 13-years-old, respectively) witnessed a shocking scene as we were getting ready to cross Michigan Avenue on our way back from our grandmother’s house to our souvenir stand. A black limousine pulled out from what was then Gate 15 at the corner of Cochrane and Michigan Avenue accompanied by men in dark suits who were toting sub-machine guns. It all happened so fast, it was hard to understand what was transpiring.
The United States Secret Service was executing a plan to get the Vice President of the United States out of Tiger Stadium. Michigan Avenue was now packed with a large number of intoxicated onlookers and troublemakers who were waiting for the celebration to erupt inside and outside the ballpark.
As the late innings approached, Bush was still inside the ballpark and the Secret Service realized it had a problem on its hands. The agents needed to clear a path to get the VP out of the ballpark and onto the freeway before anyone realized what was happening. Their execution was amazingly efficient and effective. A band of agents preceded the limo’s departure from the stadium. The agents issued a stern warning to the stunned crowd that was unwittingly the cause of a minor national emergency.
With ferocious aggression and their guns pointed at the mass of humanity lining the street, the agents exclaimed, “We’re only going to tell you once: DON’T MOVE!” And for a brief instance, it seemed as though the world had stopped.
Within seconds, the agents were running alongside the limousine heading west on Michigan Avenue. Several were riding on rails on both sides of the car and the agents who were still on foot jumped onto the rails and then into the moving car that housed the Vice President as the motorcade of vehicles, complete with Detroit police cars and motorcycles, sped along. At Twelfth Street the motorcade turned right from the center lane of Michigan Avenue and the entire procession was out of sight within seconds.
Was this a harbinger of things to come? Was the Secret Service overreacting or did it realize the dangerous situation that was awaiting the rest of us once the ballgame was over? Their mission was only to protect the Vice President. But what about the rest of us?
Looking back, I’m sure these highly trained security professionals knew exactly what they were facing – and that they realized the situation could have easily turned into something ugly. They drew their guns so that they wouldn’t have to shoot anyone. It sounds like a contradiction, but if you had been there, it would make perfect sense.
When the final out was made and the World Series was over, thousands of fans inside Tiger Stadium rushed onto the field. The Detroit Police were ringing the infield in an attempt to keep some semblance of order but theirs was a lost cause. Simultaneously, many of the fans who were loitering outside the ballpark rushed through the gates, into the stadium, and onto the field. Pandemonium broke out and the makings of a massive civil disturbance was in the works.
The excitement of the crowd was quickly dampened by anxiety. People were scurrying to get to their vehicles. Others seemed too drunk to realize how much danger was surrounding them and they seemed to enjoy the bedlam.
And I remember the sod. Large clumps of the Tiger Stadium field were leaving the ballpark wrapped around people’s shoulders, in their hands, and on top of their heads. I will also never forget the man who was swinging a folding chair and breaking the windows on the media vehicles right across the street from us – or the guys who were running on top of moving buses and jumping from one bus to the next.
That’s about the time when several Michigan State Police officers walked up and told us, “You’ve gotta get out of here!” The police officers actually helped us pack up our stand, they lowered the awning that bared our corporate name, and then stood guard as we drove away.
The magical season of 1984 was over and the Detroit Tigers were World Series Champions. But October 14, 1984 will long carry the stain of ignorance as a joyous celebration soon degenerated into a dangerous insurrection. Thirty years later, the riot that capped Game 5 of the 1984 World Series in Detroit is still considered one of the worst in the history of professional sports.