Tiger Stadium diamond preserved by “Navin Field Grounds Crew” volunteers

Members of the Navin Field Grounds Crew at the site of the former ballpark. Tom Derry is on the far right..

Members of the Navin Field Grounds Crew at the site of the former ballpark. Tom Derry is on the far right..

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.)

A pickup sandlot game takes place on the site of old Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

A pickup sandlot game takes place on the site of old Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

“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.

Check out the Facebook Page for the Navin Field Grounds Crew >

28 replies on “Tiger Stadium diamond preserved by “Navin Field Grounds Crew” volunteers

  • LeAnn B

    Thank you Tom Derry & the Navin Field Grounds Crew! I wish more could have beendone to save our beloved stadium, but I am thankful for your efforts to keep the field as it should be. Bless you boys!!!

  • denny mclain

    You guys and crew are exceptional people. I’m proud yo know you and please let me know how I can help….

  • Mike Salfai

    Hats off to the “Navin Field Grounds Crew”. Tiger Stadium was one of the great old major league venues. It represented a time when Baseball was a much more integral part of American culture. There are so few of these left as the new McStadiums replace them. It was sad to see Tiger Stadium go and sadder yet to see the way the City let the site deteriorate. Thanks again to this great bunch of civic minded fans.

  • Dave Newell

    Lots of Basball History there Lots 0f the greats plsayed there Lots of memories I was there the night in 1968 the Tigers beat the yanks to win the american league pennant and over the tiger douout I went at after the final out

  • Steve Thomas

    Corktown and the entire city of Detroit owe an enormous debt of gratitude to these outstanding citizens. At every turn, the city of Detroit, however, resisted their good deeds and it continues to neglect the site and to play down the field’s historical significance. Tom Derry and his crew deserve gold medals for all the good they have done in our neighborhood. Can’t thank you enough. Steve Thomas, Owner, Detroit Athletic Co.

  • Deborah

    Thanks for continuing to tell this story. The city has many more stories to tell, too. “The people have the power.”

  • Jim Stewart

    I walked down to the old diamond after opening day of 2011 with my 28 year old son. I was in absolute awe standing and walking on the “hallowed ground” of my youth and surprised my son (a new generation Tiger fan) when I was moved to tears. Such a moving, emotional experience! Thanks for all you do to preserve this sanctuary for us to visit!

  • Adam Ollard

    Hard working group of wonderful whose efforts have brought people together from generations from all corners of the world Thank you so much for all you do, my life is much richer for knowing you.

  • MotownPhil

    Had a chance to hit and play catch on the hallowed grounds back in June with some good friends. Tom was there, and it was clearly apparent how important Tiger Stadium is to him. The stadium has provided so many great memories for all of us. Keep up the great work grounds crew!

  • Francine

    I don’t understand how they could destroy Tiger Stadium. It was 103 yrs. old. Isn’t there a law against tearing down historical sites (which I consider the old tiger stadium)?

  • Gary

    Shocked that the Illitch family hasn’t stepped in to help secure a proper future for the grounds. Hats off to those guys helping to keep it clean. Bless you boys!
    Go Tigers!

  • John Abel

    I saw my first game at Briggs Stadium in August of 1956 when my uncle and grandfather took me. Tigers beat the Washington Senators and Frank Larry got the win. I sure miss the “Old Girl”, Hoots’ Readies, etc. The street vendors, access to the bullpen and players. As a retired city letter carrier in Lansing I’m especially proud of Tom Derry and I hope he heals quickly.

  • Bobb Hart

    Well done. Thx DAC for posting this story & helping get the word out… Navin Field IS alive and well, well, almost. Definitely worth a road-trip to anyone that’s ever dreamed on being on that field or to those that still wonder how they crammed the field and stadium onto 8 acres. Great memories!

  • James Harris

    Thanks to the entire Navin Field ground crew,for having the ambition and gumption to do this. I know I speak for thousands of transplanted Michiganders,who share memories that can never be taken away. My first game, Briggs Stadium,July 1958, Yankees/Tigers,won in 10 innings on a pinch single by Neil Christley,1-0. Frank Lary pitched several strong innings,enhancing his nickname, Yankee Killer. Thanks to all of you,next time I’m up from Phoenix, will stop by and walk the field

  • Md.'s loyalist Tiger fan

    Really happy to see the preservation efforts for the historic site. As a Tiger fanatic for 47 years (from Oriole & Nationals country), I’ve made the 10 1/2 hour trip there twice to see the our boys of summer (’85 & ’92).
    #1 on my bucket list is to see them at Comerica.

  • Garret

    That is a very touching and beautiful story. I hope people will continue to care for this sacred ground,and I hope Detroit comes back strong.

  • David From L.A.

    Wow! I have been a Detroit Tigers fan since 1982. I am born & raised in L.A. I have never been to Detroit. This story was so inspiring if I ever get to Detroit I will not leave until I visit this site. I would love to be there on a Sunday for one of those “pick up” games written in this article. The Tigers have been a part of my life throughout Junior High into High school & to this day. God Bless all of you keeping that place alive.

  • Gary Hernbroth

    Guys —

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Last time i was there a couple of years ago to shop at the D.A.C. store, it was a field of weeds and birds were flying in and out of the fenced-in area, looked like a bomb zone. Thanks to you it’s breathing baseball life again. i no longer live in the area, but I’ll make it a stop when i come back and visit.

  • Dale Atkinson

    Like the expansive history of the Corner which began 117 years ago, one cannot ignore what the NFGC has done to the place since the stadium came down. And they’ve proven… What we hold dear in our hearts goes far beyond a concrete and steel steel ballpark. The spirit of Tiger Stadium Stadium is Alive and well.

  • Russ Tillman

    Well done Team Navin Field! I was just back to the area for my 40th class reunion and dropped by to visit the DAC to resupply my Tiger apparel. You are so right about standing at home plate as a got a lump in my throat when I thought of all the Tiger greats who stood in the batter’s box. What an honor even though the Lady doesn’t stand anymore. BTW, while on the field I was approached by a guy that said he took care of the park and then hit my up for a donation. Being in Motown you don’t know whether that is legit. However keep doing good and Bless You Boys!

  • Craig Burchfield

    Thanks Navin Field Grounds Crew for saving this special place. I was sworn into the US Army on that field in a pre-game ceremony on June 30,1968. Denny McLain pitched and won his 14th game of that amazing season on that night. Saw my first NFL game on that field, and took my daughters to their first MLB games there. Your efforts are preserving many cherished memories for many people. Thanks again.

  • J.D. Danielewicz

    Thank you, Navin Field Grounds Crew for preserving Hallowed Ground. “BLESS YOU BOYS”!!!

  • Nan Taylor

    What a great story. I’ve been a fan of the field since my cousin (Art Houtteman) was a pitcher there, beginning, I think in 1947. Keep up the good work.

  • Alan Z

    Was just there this morning. Thank you, thank you for your dedication to this shrine of baseball history.

  • Cindy Kus

    A sacred site indeed. I recently vacationed in Detroit with a friend and trips to the old ball field happened daily. We ran the bases there, imagining the spirits of baseball legends.

    I made many trips with my dad to pick up supplies for his upholstery business in northern Michigan during the 1960’s. Whenever possible, we’d take in a game of our beloved Tigers at the Stadium. The year before he died, my family went to a Tiger’s day game at Comerica Park. When the game was over, my dad asked me to drive him to Michigan and Trumbull to see the remains of the stadium (there was still a small portion of wall standing). It’s a profound memory for me, as baseball had provided such a conduit in our lives.

    Hats off to you Navin Field crew for keeping the spirit alive! The last thing I did before leaving Detroit last month, was to take a joyful and tearful walk around the bases. Returning home, I’d wished that I, like others in your story, had brought some of my father’s ashes to scatter on the field.

  • Bruce Rogers

    Thanks Tom for taking care of a historic treasure for baseball, and particularly, Detroit Tigers fans everywhere. If I didn’t live in Kentucky, I would be there every weekend helping you out. I have stopped and played catch with my daughter at the Corner when we make it up to Tiger games, something I was afraid that I would never get to do.

    Like thousands of other fans, it heals me to be able to just walk around and play catch on the field. My ashes will also be scattered there someday, since Heaven to me is the pitchers mound of Tiger Stadium.
    Even if you tear it down, they will still come!

    Why is it that we working class people end up doing the really important work for which we pay our taxes for?

    Anyway, you are blessed to be doing the work that many of us wish we could be there to help you with.

    Great Job!

    Bruce Rogers
    Lexington, Kentucky

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