The day Frank Navin’s ballpark came to life

Pitcher George Mullin was the hero in the first game played at Navin Field. He went 11 innings and delivered the game-winning hit.

As originally planned, April 18, 1912, was to have been a double-grand-slam day for Tigers owner Frank Navin. Not only was it his 41st birthday, but his new ballpark was set to be dedicated with considerable hoopla before a contest with the Cleveland Indians.

Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. Heavy rains washed out the scheduled affair. Although the game could have been played the following day, a Friday, Navin canceled it. The official explanation was wet grounds. The truth was that the Tigers’ boss, like most gamblers, was extremely superstitious. The man who always put his left shoe on first and avoided cross-eyed people at all costs simply refused to christen Navin Field on what he considered the bad-luck day of the week. The grand opening was rescheduled for Saturday, April 20, the same day Fenway Park would be unveiled in Boston.

The lull gave Navin some time for a little reflection. He had seen nearly 485,000 fans visit ramshackle, wooden Bennett Park in 1911, but now he dreamed of far greater numbers cheering lustily and comfortably in his modern $300,000 showpiece. During the 1909 World Series, Pittsburgh had accommodated nearly 30,000 people per game at Forbes Field, roughly twice the number that had been shoehorned into Bennett Park.

Forbes Field was just one of several new concrete-and-steel structures replacing the old, cramped firetraps of the 19th century. Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park both opened the same year as Forbes, followed by Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1910. Fenway Park and Cincinnati’s Crosley Field were scheduled to open in 1912. Down the road were Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field (1913) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (1914).

On Friday evening, April 19, the Detroit Board of Commerce hosted a banquet saluting Navin and co-owner Bill Yawkey for their commitment to baseball and to the city. The dinner demonstrated how far the Detroit Baseball & Amusement Company (the corporation’s official name) had come in just a few years. Once rumored to be moving to Pittsburgh, the franchise had stabilized and prospered to such an extent that it was now hailed as a community resource, its fortunes intertwined with the growing city it represented on the diamond.

Saturday arrived cool and hazy. Many of the dignitaries who attended the previous night’s dinner rode out to the park in carriages, followed by members of both teams, a marching band, and a small army of fans. Officially, 24,382 men, women, and children passed through the turnstiles, but estimates of the afternoon’s attendance reached 26,000. Most sat in the yellow-painted wooden slat seats; others stood in the roped-off outfield.

Navin Field was a sight to behold. It covered an area nearly twice the size of Bennett Park. With no circus bleachers or other obstacles to clutter the outfield, there was a symmetry to the field and more space to play in. The outfield dimensions were 365 feet down the right-field line, 400 feet to center, and 340 feet down the left-field line. The walls were painted gray. A giant American flag flew from the 125-foot-high flagpole in center field; for generations it would remain the tallest obstacle ever built in fair territory inside a major-league park.

Fans pointed to the giant scoreboard in left field, where out-of-town scores were easily read from any point inside the park. Players praised the large green panel in center, an innovation that provided a helpful backdrop for batters. Hitters also appreciated the reconfiguration of the diamond. At Bennett Park, home plate had been located at what was now the right-field corner, so that by the end of the game the setting late-afternoon sun was shining directly into the batter’s eyes. Now the right fielder had to contend with that particular problem.

Some fans joked about the long walk to get to one’s seat; others reminisced about Bennett Park’s chumminess. Overall, Frank Navin’s new park was declared a smashing success. A Detroit News headline expressed the prevailing opinion: “Fan Verdict: SOME Park.”

It also was some game. Cleveland’s “Shoeless Joe” Jackson scored the first run at Navin Field in the opening frame, but in the bottom of the inning Cobb countered with his signature play, stealing home on Vean Gregg’s high pitch to Del Gainor. Catcher Ted Easterly futilely tried to tag Cobb, who executed his famous fadeaway slide. Cobb’s steal of home was his first of eight that season, still the all-time record. Curiously, all occurred at Navin Field, where fans had grown to anticipate such daredevil antics.

Dependable old George Mullin started his ninth home opener in ten years. He went all the way, scattering a dozen hits and pitching out of several jams as the Tigers, down 5-3, rallied to tie the game with a pair of runs in the eighth. In the bottom of the eleventh inning, with two runners on base, Mullin rapped a two-out single between the shortstop and third baseman. That scored Donie Bush and sent Detroiters home happy with a 6-5 victory. The win pushed Detroit to a 4-3 record for the season; they would finish sixth and, thanks to their first losing season since 1906, actually draw 82,000 less fans than they had in their final summer at Bennett Park.

It’s perhaps worth noting that there was no communal outpouring of nostalgia over the passing of Bennett Park, just excitement over the future. Sporting Life declared that the city and its ball team had “just celebrated the most momentous occasion in the history of Michigan baseball. The opening of the new Navin Park can be described in no other way. For the first time in history, Detroit has a ballyard worthy of its rank among the cities.”