In 1951, just 10 years after the All-Star Game was first held in Detroit, the midsummer classic returned to Briggs Stadium. Ordinarily the hiatus for a host city was far longer, but this time there were special circumstances involved. Detroit, the oldest city in the Midwest, was lighting the candles for its 250th birthday that July. Civic leaders thought that the traditional meeting between the American and National leagues (which happened to be celebrating their 50th and 75th anniversaries, respectively) would be a wonderful complement to the festivities.
Moreover, there was concern that ailing Tigers owner Walter O. Briggs didn’t have long to live. Friends, family members, and fellow club owners wished to give this proud and powerful man the pleasure of hosting the All-Star Game once more in his lifetime. Thus the 18th edition of the game, originally slated for Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, was shifted to Detroit.
Briggs died five months later. The passing of another of Detroit’s legendary baseball figures, four-time batting champion and popular radio announcer Harry Heilmann, also cast a pall over the 1951 game. He passed away at Henry Ford Hospital the day before the game, losing his battle with cancer.
July 10, 1951, was a sunny Tuesday with temperatures climbing into the middle 80s. Flags flew at half-mast in honor of Heilmann as players, umpires, and spectators observed a moment of silence. Then Ty Cobb threw out the first ball and 52,075 people in sheer dresses, summer suits, and straw hats settled in to see if the underdog National League could win back-to-back All-Star games for the first time.
It could and it did, rolling to an 8-3 victory. The National roughed up five American League pitchers for 12 hits, including four home runs.
The tone was set when the Phillies’ Richie Ashburn doubled off the Browns’ Ned Garver on the first pitch of the game. He ultimately scored on an error, giving the Nationals a 1-0 lead.
The junior circuit tied the score in the second inning when Ferris Fain’s triple off the Phillies’ Robin Roberts scored Yogi Berra. But Berra’s batterymate, Eddie Lopat, the junkball specialist for the Yankees, came on in the fourth inning and immediately surrendered a home run to the Cardinals’ Stan Musial. A few minutes later, the Boston Braves’ Bob Elliott poled a two-run homer for a 4-1 lead.
Third baseman George Kell was one of three Tigers suiting up for the Americans. Pitcher Fred Hutchinson and rightfielder Vic Wertz were the others. Despite the Nationals’ display of power and finesse, and the fact that he struck out to end the game, Kell later remembered the ’51 All-Star Game as “a great day. My parents, wife, children and others from Arkansas were there. I hit a home run and played all nine innings. My teammate, Vic Wertz, one of my all-time favorites, also hit a homer.”
Both Tigers’ homers were solo shots and shaved the Nationals’ lead to 4-3, entering the eighth inning. But Hutchinson walked Jackie Robinson, one of seven Brooklyn Dodgers on the roster, to open the inning, and Gil Hodges followed with a home run to run the score to 6-3. The next inning, Hutchinson surrendered another run as Robinson surprised everyone by laying down a perfect two-out bunt to score Ashburn from third. All Kell could do was watch the ball trickle toward the bag and hope it would roll foul. It didn’t, and the Nationals’ lead grew to 7-3.
In the eight, Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner closed out the afternoon’s scoring with a bases-empty home run off Boston’s Mel Parnell.
Coming at a time when there was an intense rivalry between the leagues and a real difference in their style of play, the loss stung the American League’s pride. Since the 1930s, the AL had dominated the World Series and All-Star Game, but now some observers detected a shifting in the balance of power.
“A few years ago, you’d never expect the National League to smash four homers in one of these games,” Kiner said afterward. “We weren’t known for power, but times do change.”