If you investigate the old ledgers of the Detroit Tigers Baseball Club for 1917 you’ll see that owner Frank J. Navin ordered twenty-five gallons of black paint the spring before the season began. Twenty-five gallons isn’t enough to paint a ballpark, but Mr. Navin didn’t need that job done. No, the frugal team owner was finally splurging for a ballpark enhancement that was overdue. He was making a batter’s eye.
The batter’s eye was a part of ballpark design going back to the 19th century when many professional teams were playing in tiny venues tucked away in city neighborhoods. The Detroit Wolverines, who played in the National League, had a batter’s eye at Recreation Park in the 1880s. That ballpark stood on Brady Street, near where Children’s Hospital of Michigan is located in Detroit.
What is the batter’s eye? It’s an area directly behind the pitcher and beyond the outfield where the batter is trained to watch for the pitch tumbling out of the pitcher’s hand. In all professional ballparks today, that area is left darkened to help the batter see the baseball better. But from 1912 to 1916, Navin Field, home of the Tigers, did not have a batters’ eye. They really didn’t have much at all in straightaway center field.
When Navin Field was constructed at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in 1912, it was a state-of-the-art baseball stadium. It’s exterior gleamed with iron gates and the facade was steel and concrete, one of the first in the big leagues made that way. Many ballparks had previously been built with wood, and many ballparks previously burned to the ground.
Navin spent $300,000 (about $7.5 million in 2017 dollars) to build his team a new ballpark, which opened on April 20, 1912, about one week after the sinking of the HMS Titanic shook the world on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. But the new venue lacked a few things, namely a clubhouse. The teams had to walk to the outfield and into a large barn-shaped building to get out of their uniforms after games. Another amenity that was absent was a carefully constructed batters’ eye. When the park was opened the batter was staring into a gap in center field between a fence that extended to left-center and the fence that ran to the right field wall. When it debuted, Navin Field did not have seating in the outfield. A few trees stood beyond the batter’s vision in deep center, more than 450 feet away, but visible nonetheless.
No one really complained about the view from the batter’s box, which was rotated 90 degrees from where it had been when Bennett Park stood on the site. The reason for the shift of the field? The sun had been in the batter’s eyes. But no ballplayers, not Sam Crawford, not the great Ty Cobb, put up any fuss about looking at a clear sky beyond the pitcher. Until the 1916 season.
In 1916 the Tigers won 13 fewer games than they ‘s won the previous season. Their offense sputtered a bit, scoring 108 fewer runs. Cobb, who made winning the batting title a habit, lost the crown for the first time since 1906. The Georgia Peach hit .371 and had 201 hits, but his pal Tris Speaker outdistanced him by 15 points in the batting race.
Whether or not Cobb put up a fuss after his down year (by his standards) remains a mystery, but one thing is for sure: after the 1916 season Navin decided to change a few things. First, he increased the height of the fence in deep left-center field. Then he ordered his grounds crew to paint the fence black. He also improved the seats in the immediate areas behind first and third base, prime seats for the rabid fans in Detroit.
Every other team in baseball had their special “batter’s eye” sections in center field, and now the Tigers did too. In Washington D.C. at Griffith Stadium the bottom of scoreboard was painted dark green. At Fenway Park in Boston (which opened the same day as Navin Field in 1912) there was a tall dark wall in center. At ComiskeyPark in Chicago the outfield stands stopped just before the center field area and a large black tarp was hung over a fence. The famed Polo Grounds in New York there was a notch carved out of the center field area where a large three-story building stood that served as the clubhouse and team offices. Ballparks were not designed solely for the comfort of the paying customers, they were also tweaked to ensure hitters a view without distraction.
How did the batter’s eye change things for the Detroit Tigers in 1917? Well, the team batting average actually went down five points and the Tigers scored 31 fewer runs (though they finished second in that category in the AL). Cobb hit .383 and reclaimed the batting title, which he would win again the following two seasons. The batter’s eye may not have helped Ty: he batted .349 at home in 1916 with the new backdrop. That season he was a terror on the road, hitting .414 in 78 games. The following season, which was shortened by America’s entry into the First World War, Cobb hit .404 on the road again, far outdistancing his figure in Navin Field (.356).
The batter’s eye remained in place at Navin Field, even when outfield grandstands were added, and later when a second deck was added. The subsequent ownership group, the Briggs family, painted the interior of the park dark green and kept a ramp ion center field on the lower deck.
The Tigers current home, Comerica Park, has a pronounced batter’s eye. In deep center field there is no seating, a camera well that is painted dark, and a brick wall that extends more than 20 feet in the air. Miguel Cabrera and company have a very nice view as they square off against enemy hurlers.
Teams today do interesting things to maintain the batter’s eye. At Fenway Park, which now has elevated seats in left/center field, the club has employed a novel approach. The Red Sox have occasionally issued dark matching tee-shirts to fans with tickets in those sections. An effort designed to assist the batter in having a great view.