Ted Williams called it his favorite ballpark. Babe Ruth hit more home runs there than he did in any road ballpark, and according to legend may have hit the longest home run ever hit in the same park. When he was asked to pick the place he liked to hit the most, George Brett simply said “Detroit.”
Tiger Stadium had many names, but whether you remember it as Briggs or Navin Field or The Corner, it was a marvelous place to play a baseball game. Players on both sides of the field loved it, whether they called it home or not.
“The first time I walked out onto the field, I couldn’t believe it,” Bill Freehan said. “The grass was so green and the seats were green too. The only thing that seemed to break up the green was the baseball.”
Yes, the interior of Tiger Stadium was once green, until some bozo decided to paint them blue and orange. We’re looking at you, ghost of Jim Campbell. Ah, but we’ll cut Ol’ Jim some slack — he guarded the old lady for many years.
Freehan knew the park as well as anyone. He played his entire career as a member of the Tigers, crouched behind the plate with a front row view of the greatest ballpark to ever a host a baseball game. At least that’s the way Tiger fans felt. The love affair started immediately, commencing on April 20, 1912, when Detroit’s new steel and brick ballpark opened its gates for the first time. Navin Field was the most modern ballpark in the game in 1912, swinging her gates open only a week after the HMS Titanic did her fatal dance with a large block of ice. Ty Cobb scored the first run for the Tigers at The Corner.
In those days, Cobb used to walk to Navin Field from his home. He liked the home cooking, batting .404 that first season in his new ballpark. The Georgia Peach hit .431 the following year at Navin Field. Opposing players may not have been afraid of Ty’s spikes (he never sharpened them, folks), but pitchers were frightened of his bat.
In a June game in 1926, Ruth etched his name in Detroit mythology when he launched a baseball that seemed to go into orbit. According to The New York Times report of the game: “The pill landed on top of an automobile, bounced over the lids of several other machines and then rolled down the street, with a mob of youngsters in pursuit.” Some folks said that once that bruised baseball stopped rolling, it had traveled 625 feet. The Colossus of Clout, indeed.
It is Ruth’s trusty teammate Lou Gehrig who holds the record for the highest career batting average at Detroit’s old ballpark. Gehrig batted .381 at Navin Field in 155 games, with (ouch!) 148 runs batted in. Perhaps it’s fitting that it was in Detroit on May 2, 1939, that Gehrig took himself out of the lineup for the Yankees, ending his 2,130 game consecutive games played streak. As “Larrupin’ Lou” looked out at his teammates that afternoon, he must have been reminded of the many long drives and big hits he produced in the Motor City’s playpen.
Another Yankee Lou, Mr. Piniella, had excellent success at Tiger Stadium too. The big righthanded hitter posted a .338 average at The Corner for his career, most of them played in the grey road unis of the Bronx Bombers.
“I have a lot of memories here,” Piniella said as manager of the Mariners in 1999, the final year baseball was played at the park. “I hit a home run in the first game I played there in my rookie season. I hit it off Denny McLain.”
Another noteworthy homer was hit off McLain, this one in 1968. Yankee legend Mickey Mantle was in his final season. In his last trip to Tiger Stadium, Mantle was in the lineup to try to sock one more into the seats. In a lopsided September game, McLain concocted a scheme with his catcher, Jim Price.
“When I got there, Denny said, ‘Hey, big guy, should I let him hit one?’ ” Price said in an interview with The New York, Times in 2009. “I said it was a great idea. Mickey was always nice to me. So I went back behind the plate and Mickey, like he always did, was tapping the plate with his bat when I said, ‘Want us to groove one for you?’ ”
Mickey belted a batting practice homer from McLain deep into the right field seats, and when the Mick was rounding the bases, McLain actually applauded.
The most home runs hit at The Corner by a visiting player are the 60 hit by the Great Bambino. Then comes Williams, who blasted 55. The most famous came in the 1941 All-Star Game, when Teddy Ballgame belted a ninth-inning, game-winning homer to give the American League a victory in front of screaming fans at Briggs Stadium. “The Kid” clapped his hands and skipped as he circled the bases for that one. Ted Williams skipped — now that must have happened at a special place.
Thirty years after Williams hit his famous homer into the upper deck at Briggs Stadium in the Midsummer Classic, another lefthanded slugger was making history in the ballpark. In the ’71 All-Star Game, Oakland’s Reggie Jackson propelled a baseball that crashed into the light tower atop the right field roof. It was a monstrous blast.
“Magic happens here,” Sparky Anderson said in 1995, his final season as Detroit’s manager. “I’ve managed in every type of ballpark, but not one of them is like this place.”
Brett would have agreed. The three-time batting champion and Hall of Fame third baseman for the Royals always enjoyed hitting at Tiger Stadium. He cited the great sight lines and short foul line in right field as reasons why. In 1993, Brett knew he was retiring at the end of the season. The Royals were scheduled for a weekday afternoon game in July, normally a day that a veteran like Brett would get off. But George insisted he be in the lineup in his final series at Tiger Stadium. In his second at-bat, Brett pulled a ball into the second deck in right. In his fourth trip to the plate, Brett lined a home run down the left field line. In a touch of baseball synchronicity, Brett’s homers came ten years to the day after his famed Pine Tar Homer. Having touched off the final two of his 22 career homers there, George said goodbye to Tiger Stadium the next day.
Ruth once said that had he played his home games in Detroit, “I would set records no one could ever break.” Many of the Babe’s records have been broken, but his love for the ballpark at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull still lives on in those players who remember playing there and in the hearts of the fans who got to watch.