Northwestern Field in Detroit launched many great baseball careers

Willie Horton (in catcher's gear on right) with his coach and teammate Matt Snorton after their Northwestern High School team won Detroit's Public School League title in 1959 at Briggs Stadium.

Willie Horton (in catcher’s gear on right) with his coach and teammate Matt Snorton after their Northwestern High School team won Detroit’s Public School League title in 1959 at Briggs Stadium.

Can you name the storied field in Detroit where Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, Frank Tanana, Ted Sizemore, Milt Pappas, Alex Johnson, and Tom Paciorek all played ball?

If you answered Tiger Stadium, you’d be right.

But if you said Northwestern Field, you’d also be right.

Tiger Stadium is where the above-mentioned players performed at one time or another as members of the visiting or home team, but Northwestern is where, as youngsters, they first demonstrated to scouts the talent that eventually put them in a big-league uniform.

Hal Newhouser used Northwestern as a springboard to a Hall of Fame career. In 1937, he was pitching for the Roose Vanker American Legion Post. One day, the Tigers’ chief scout was on hand to watch the teenaged southpaw strike out 24 of 27 batters. “When the game ended,” Newhouser later recalled, “he walked over to me and said, ‘My name is Wish Egan. Can I have your name and address and telephone number? And congratulation on what you just did. Would you like to come down to the ballpark and pitch batting practice?’” The rest, as they say, is history.

Interest in amateur baseball is a far cry from what it was during sandlot’s golden age, from before World War I into the 1960s. Organized league games were played on Northwestern’s six diamonds from morning to night, with Detroit’s three daily newspapers carrying news and boxscores of the most important contests. Corporations like Ford, Pepsi, Adray Appliance, and Lundquist Insurance sponsored teams and entire leagues in various age groups. There were other venues where sandlot ball flourished, such as Butzel and Manz, but Northwestern was considered the best.

The caliber of play was top-notch, and the diamonds were kept in tip-top shape. Every game had an official scorer. With no fences, certain ground rules were in effect, such as outfielders not being allowed to play on the pavement when sluggers like Willie Horton were up at bat.

The teenaged Horton was a sandlot legend. One of his most famous blasts sailed into Grand River. “The ball there I hit across the street, that’s when I knew I could hit a baseball,” he once recalled.

Northwestern Field runs along Grand River near the juncture of Grand Boulevard. The original Northwestern High School on the corner was later replaced by the current building a little ways down the boulevard. Until it was torn down, Olympia Stadium was across the street (the Michigan National Guard Armory now stands in its place), and in the early years it wasn’t unusual for the Red Wings or their farm team, the Olympics, to scrimmage outdoors at Northwestern. But Northwestern was more than an athletic venue. For decades, it was a popular gathering spot for rallies, parades, and other major events where large crowds were expected, such as the city-sponsored “Kite Day,” when thousands of kites took to the sky. Speaking of the sky, Northwestern is where Charles Lindbergh addressed mobs of adoring Detroiters after his famous New York-to-Paris flight in 1927.

Northwestern Field was renamed Sam Bishop Playfield years ago to honor the school’s longtime baseball coach. But to most people it’s still known simply as Northwestern, a bow to its glorious past as the city’s sandlot center.