When the Tigers played their final game at The Corner of Michigan and Trumbull in 1999, it was a sad occasion. Almost exactly a decade later, in 2009, when the stadium’s demolition was completed, the finality of it was even more difficult. But had things gone the way the city of Detroit planned in the late 1960s, Tiger Stadium would have felt the wrecking ball much sooner, and their baseball team would have played their home games under a dome instead of the Motown sky.
In the late 1960s, the Tigers were a very good team, featuring stars Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, and Denny McLain. In 1967 when the city withstood riots that shook the city (and the nation) to its knees, baseball was a diversion that helped unify Detroit. The following summer, the Tigs won games in wonderfully exciting fashion, and when they culminated the season by winning their first World Series title in nearly a quarter of a century, it was obvious that baseball was significant in the city.
As a result, city officials started to recognize that their ballclub needed a much more modern home. Tiger Stadium was more than 50 years old, it suffered with cramped quarters, leaky roofs, and too many poles that obstructed the view of the action. Helping the desire for a new ballpark was the attitude of the 60s – the Space Age when technology was driving the construction of new wonders. In Houston, a fabulous domed ballpark was opened, and new ballparks were being built in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Philadelphia. Shea Stadium had been opened in New York, and many of those parks were multi-purpose, allowing for the hosting of both baseball and football. The latter sport was growing in popularity thanks to television, and as it drew more fans and made more money, team owners desired larger, more modern venues.
William Clay Ford, the owner of the Lions, was pressuring the city of Detroit for a new place for his team. He no longer wanted to share Tiger Stadium.
“He didn’t want to be a tenant,” former Tigers owner Walter “Spike” Briggs Jr. told the Detroit Free Press in the mid-1960s. “I think he felt that if he had a new stadium with 60,000 seats, all that revenue would go to him.”
As early as December of ’68, just months after the Tigers had hoisted the World Championship trophy, they were mulling over the idea of bolting “ancient” Tiger Stadium.
“We do not need it today, but certainly within the next 10 years I see a definite need for a new stadium,” said GM Jim Campbell. But the tentative plans at that time were never more than that – just tentative.
By the time the city of New Orleans opened the flashy new Superdome in 1971, stadium projects were back in full gear in Detroit. City officials, in spite of objections from councilman Billy Rogell (the former Tiger shortstop), ordered planning for a new venue to replace Tiger Stadium. And not just as a replacement, but as a savior for downtown. At that time, urban blight was a real issue in many American cities. The neighborhood around Tiger Stadium was beginning to be cleared of many homes, and businesses were starting to struggle. Detroit wanted a new, shiny landmark smack dab in the middle of the city to draw visitors and cash.
Architects were commissioned to create plans and a committee was formed to locate a location. The fairgrounds were preferred by some, and others looked to the suburbs, where more and more Detroiters were moving. But, the downtown notion was always on the fast track. Finally, the city decided on a massive, 80-acre development on the shore of the Detroit River in downtown. There would be shopping, walkways, parks, and hotels. But the crowning jewel of the development would be a 52,000 seat domed stadium that would be able to host 60,000 for football. The announcement was made in January of 1972 at the Tigers annual employee party that the Tigers had signed a 10-year lease to play in the domed stadium. Construction would start in the spring and take three years to complete at an estimated cost of $126 million. Tiger owner John Fetzer was optimistic.
“It’s good sense and good for the public interest,” Fetzer said. “If it works as a catalyst to rebuild downtown Detroit, I think everyone will be for it.”
The plan was considered so set in stone that the ’72 Tiger yearbook included a two-page spread with an artist’s rendition of what the development and dome would look like in downtown.
But of course, the city never got a multi-purpose domed stadium on the riverfront. The Tigers never left Tiger Stadium and the Lions ended up moving into a silver dome (literally called the Silverdome) in 1975.
Politicians started haggling over money, that’s what.
Wayne County officials objected to the raising of $126 million in taxpayer funded bonds to build a playground for millionaire owners of sports teams. In June of ’72, when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the financial plan was unconstitutional, the Tigers’ dome was doomed. Not one brick was ever laid, let alone a roof tile.
The Lions were in the suburns, the Tigers stayed in venerable Tiger Stadium, and the downtown river property was later partially filled by Joe Louis Arena.
How strange it would have been, or perhaps how different things might have been for the history of the Tigers, Lions, and the city of Detroit, had a multi-purpose dome been opened in 1975.