Nine World Series, three major league All Star games, and two NFL world championship games were played on the field at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit, home to the Detroit Tigers from 1896 to 1999. 204 Baseball Hall of Famers played on the site that evolved from Bennett Park to Navin Field to Briggs Stadium and then to Tiger Stadium.
It is the place where generations of families and friends gathered as one to cheer on the Tigers, and for 37 seasons, the Detroit Lions. It is a place where memories were made and are now cherished.
And thanks to the efforts of a tireless group of volunteers called the “Navin Field Grounds Crew” led by Tom Derry of Redford, this hallowed ground is not a weed strewn empty lot and eyesore.
Instead, it is baseball diamond that is alive, as hundreds of people from all over the country have made a pilgrimage to the historic site. Some simply walk the field and reminisce, while others play a simple game of catch or initiate a pick up game of hardball.
Tom Derry had seen numerous games at “The Corner” beginning in 1971 as an eight-year old. He witnessed Nolan Ryan’s no-hitter in ’73 when his hero Norm Cash came to bat with a table leg, and fondly recalls seeing Frank Tanana shut down the Toronto Blue Jays with a 1-0 victory to capture the division on the last day of the ’87 season.
As one of the first members of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, Derry wrote a historical narrative on the ballpark that was used for the application that resulted in Tiger Stadium being listed in the National Register of Historic Places as administered by the National Park Service.
Although he couldn’t bear to attend the last game played at Tiger Stadium, or watch the wrecking ball tear it down, he was drawn to the empty nine acre lot when he heard that after Ernie Harwell’s death, some fans were honoring the beloved announcer by playing catch on the field.
“I went down to the site on Mother’s Day 2010 with a few friends to play catch, but when I saw how bad the field was with tall grass and weeds everywhere I wasn’t excited about playing and knew I had to do something,” says Derry.
Three days later he returned armed with his riding mower and nearly 30 volunteers who removed debris, picked weeds, and cut the grass.
“There were so many weeds that it was difficult at first to make out the infield and the pitcher’s mound and baselines, so basically we brought back this revered baseball diamond back from the dead,” says Derry who is now on the disabled list since he hurt his knee while delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service.
The group soon called themselves “The Navin Field Grounds Crew,” (as stated on their t-shirts) and welcomed new volunteers who for the past three years on Sundays beginning around 10 AM, have maintained the diamond. (A little baseball game or batting practice often follows.)
“I say this with all modesty, but if it wasn’t for the Navin Field Grounds Crew, you would have had eight acres of giant weeds, trees growing wild, garbage everywhere, and it would have been a major eyesore,” says Derry.
It appears that this is the first instance where a major league ball club moved from a ballpark and a group of volunteers moved in to preserve the diamond.
“It is amazing to just stand at home plate where Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb stood, and when I ride my lawn mower in the outfield I have thought about those who patrolled the area like Willie Horton, Mickey Mantle, and Tris Speaker,” says Derry.
Since that spring day in 2010, the efforts of the Navin Field Grounds Crew has been featured in the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, ESPN Magazine, National Preservation Magazine, and appeared on National Public Radio in addition to local radio and TV broadcasts.
Among those who have returned to the refurbished diamond and given two thumbs up are former Tigers Denny McLain, Dave Rozema, and John Wockenfuss.
After Wockenfuss commented on a recent Detroit Athletic Company blog entry, Navin Field Grounds Crew member Dave Mesrey invited the former Tiger catcher and fan favorite to visit the field.
“I hadn’t been back to the field since the last game at Tiger Stadium when I participated in the closing ceremony, so I told Dave, ‘I’ve got some time off, I’m coming to Detroit so I’ll bring a bucket of balls, why don’t you get some guys together and let’s have a game,’” says Wockenfuss who pitched, caught, and hit long fly balls to the outfield.
“I had a fantastic time and am so glad these folks are taking care of the field,” he says. “It brought back great memories for me because my nine years in Detroit were the best years of my life.”
The diamond in the rough has also drawn those who have honored the last wishes of their loved ones.
“When I have been down at the field I have seen people spread the ashes of their loved ones on at least five occasions, and twice in the last couple of weeks I found ashes, one that also had flowers near first base,” said Derry. “It really is sacred ground for so many people.”
Although the fate of the famous field ultimately rests with the City of Detroit and the Detroit Economic Development Corporation, Derry believes the diamond should be preserved for future generations.
“I just want to see the whole field preserved in it its entirety and I would like it to remain accessible for everyone to be able to use and have it as a park so people in the Corktown area and all around can enjoy it.”
I believe Derry and the Navin Field Grounds Crew deserve a thunderous standing ovation like we used to hear within the walls of that fabulous ballpark we once called home.