When a tornado swept through Detroit on the night Mickey Lolich pitched

The tornado that hit Detroit on May 8, 1964, left 13 people dead and hundreds injured.

The tornado that hit Detroit on May 8, 1964, left 13 people dead and hundreds injured.

The official attendance at Tiger Stadium on May 8, 1964, was 9,305. But had an usher been asked to perform an actual head count in the 52-year old ballpark, he would have been hard pressed to get as high as 3,000. It was a scary night in metro Detroit and people stayed home.

Just three hours before Mickey Lolich tossed the first pitch that Friday evening, northern Detroit was shaken by the most devastating tornado to hit the city. 13 people lost their lives in the disaster, more than 200 suffered injuries, and thousands were displaced or lost power. The tornado was so ferocious that it still lives on in the memories of those who lived through it.

“It was a monster,” one survivor recently said, “the majority of it [touched down] between 21 mile road and just shy of New Baltimore. I lived at 21 mile and Jefferson where the funnel first set down.”

For those in the path of the tornado, which struck earth at about 5 PM, the sound and fury were terrifying. It traveled a path from east of Pontiac and swept toward Mt. Clemens and Selfridge Air Force Base, then proceeded to jump north, hitting Chesterfield. As a result it became known as the Anchor Bay Tornado. It cut a wide swath – in some areas as much as 3/4 of a mile of destruction.

Earlier that afternoon, many in Detroit were amazed by the strange appearance of the sky. “The sun had a real sick, orange appearance and it was horribly muggy,” said one observer. Some observed that the sky had “turned green.” As is often the case prior to extreme weather, the air was extremely heavy.

In the heart of the city there were heavy rain showers and windy conditions. Enough to keep many of those who had purchased advance tickets away. Amazingly, despite the devastation north of Michigan and Trumbull, as well as all of the rain, the game started on time, at 8 PM. Lolich was shaky out of the gate – allowing two runs to the visiting Orioles. But the Tigers countered with three of their own in the bottom of the first inning to take the lead. Baltimore plated a run in the second inning to knot the game at 3-3, and that was all of the scoring for the next few hours. The game went into the 10th inning still tied before reliever Larry Sherry surrendered a run to the O’s, who won the contest 4-3.

But the ballgame was of little importance that evening in light of the terrible weather a few miles north. During the broadcast, Ernie Harwell gave frequent updates on the tornado and scattered reports that came in from the Anchor Bay area. But it wasn’t until Saturday morning that the true level of devastation was realized. In one neighborhood in Chesterfield Township, 7 people lost their lives, including a pregnant mother and her three children. Of the 13 who perished, six were under the age of 11. All of those who died in the tornado lived in Chesterfield Township, near Mt. Clemens and New Baltimore. A local sheriff said that the region looked “from the air as if a giant had stamped on it again and again.”

In many areas the damage made it look like a war zone: boats were thrown into front yards, houses leveled, cars lifted and flipped over, and trees felled. One construction site for a multi-story building saw the top three floors ripped from the structure. Farther east near the shore, the air force base was hit by what was a smaller, but still lethal tornado. Barracks were shaken, fences ripped from the ground, and at least four jets were damaged. At the Grand Trunk Railroad, two boxcars were tossed onto the main tracks in the path of the Toronto Express, which was unable to avoid them and crashed. Fortunately, only one engineer, who was throw from the train, was injured.

“Eleven persons were killed and more than 100 injured late Friday when a tornado that roared like a giant vacuum cleaner swept across southeastern Michigan,” the Associated Press reported in its early editions. Later, two more people – both seniors – were confirmed dead.

Across the state in Grand Rapids, Governor George Romney raced from an event he was attending so he could visit the disaster area. On Saturday he visited injured victims in area hospitals, including the surviving daughter of the Sangrant family, who lost four. A plaque is located in Chesterfield Township honoring the 13 who lost their lives that day in 1964.

LIST OF VICTIMS

Wanda Sangrant, 25 of Chesterfield.
Her daughter, Louise, 8 years old.
Her son, David, 4 months old.
Her daughter, Tina Marie, 20 months old.
Donna Mae Soloc, 24, of New Baltimore.
Her daughter, Wendy Lou, 6 months old.
Anthony Lesher, 10, of Chesterfield.
Susan Westfall, 7, of New Baltimore.
Barbara Forton, 28, of New Baltimore.
James Rivard, 79, of New Baltimore.
Gladys Sparwasser, 68, of New Baltimore.
Louise Winters, 92, of New Baltimore.
Joseph Giroux, 72 of New Baltimore.

5 replies on “When a tornado swept through Detroit on the night Mickey Lolich pitched

  • Jan Burroughs-Kesner

    I was 7 years old and lived on Sugarbush Rd in Chesterfield Township. Our family survived as we were in the basement seconds before it hit. We lived next door to the in laws of deceased Donna Soloc and infant daughter, Wendy. A most horrible day that I won’t forget.

    Reply
  • Douglas Cochran

    My grandparents lived on Jefferson across from the Wooden Keg party store. I remember three large dead bare trees along the property line. I have been told they were damaged during the tornado which then skipped at a hill behind an old gas station, crossed Jefferson and landed behind the Wooden Keg party store.

    Reply
  • Sabrina Brackett (Sancrant)

    My family name is Sancrant, not Sangrant. I survived it, along with my eldest sister, but I miss my mother and siblings every day and will never forget that night. It left a very hollow space in my heart and soul that can never be filled. I’m 63 now, and expect to live for a long time from now, but I relish the day I get to be with my Mother, brother and sisters again.

    Reply

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