When the Detroit Tigers Played Sunday Ball in Ecorse

You want obscure? You can hardly do better than the 1899 Detroit Tigers of the Western League, a team filled with guys from the same “Whodat?” tribe. Even more obscure is the club’s Sunday grounds from that season, a rocky, unleveled diamond carved out of a tiny piece of Ecorse Township. Contemporary news items sometimes referred to the site as “down on the farm.” Today the “farm” is part of the local industrial landscape.

The 1899 Detroit Tigers during the team's Western League years.

The Tigers’ short-lived Sabbath venue in Ecorse—also known as the River Rouge grounds—was located roughly a quarter-mile south of the River Rouge bridge and was served by the nearby Fort Street trolley line. It was a slapdash wooden facility, a disposable park typical of the era. Built at a time when the average workingman made only a few hundred dollars a year, it probably cost somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000 in lumber and labor. The facility was hammered together in just two weeks. There was a covered grandstand behind home plate and bleachers in center field. A lumberyard, its planks and employees presumably utilized for the park’s construction, stood on the opposite side of the left-field fence.

The Ecorse park was the latest attempt by George Vanderbeck, then in his sixth and final season as the Tigers’ owner, to dodge Detroit’s “blue laws,” which, among other things, prohibited ball playing on Sundays. Vanderbeck had previously experimented with a handful of Sunday games in Mount Clemens in 1896 and ‘97, but overzealous opponents caused too many legal headaches to make continuing worthwhile.

The Tigers played their first game in Ecorse on April 30, beating Columbus, 6-4. Three thousand paid for a seat or to stand in the outfield; hundreds more clambered up fences and trees to get a better look. The assemblage was “an exceedingly well-behaved and loyal crowd of fans who gave vent to their feelings when the game was over by indulging in a cushion battle, the stuffed seat coverings being hurled back and forth from the grandstand to the crowd on the ground time after time, the best of humor prevailing,” observed the Detroit Free Press.

In June, county sheriff Duff Stewart and a posse of deputies interrupted a Detroit-Minnesota contest in the seventh inning. “It is not my intention to interfere with the sport,” Stewart said, “but we want to test the law and find out whether Sunday ball is legal.” Players from both clubs dutifully reported to the county jail and posted bond, but the prosecutor’s case went nowhere and the Tigers played on with little interference throughout the rest of the summer.
No photographs of the park survive and the field’s dimensions remain unknown. However, the unusually high number of over-the-fence home runs—as many as six in a single game—indicate a cozy hitters’ ballpark. A combined 143 runs were scored in nine Western League games, an average of just under 16 runs per contest—four runs more than the Tigers and their opponents averaged in 52 games at Bennett Park that season. The entire field was very rough, said one observer, with “many a batted ball that looked to be an easy chance for the infielders bounded out of reach” for base hits. The Tigers dropped six of their nine games in Ecorse, losing by such lopsided scores as 14-5 to Buffalo and 16-1 to Milwaukee, the latter team managed by a lanky, soft-spoken catcher named Connie Mack. Gate receipts helped ease any distress Vanderbeck may have felt over the losing or the threats of legal action. Attendance averaged a healthy 2,267 per game in Ecorse, compared to the 1,420 that showed up at Bennett Park the other six days of the week.

On September 17, the Tigers closed out the 1899 campaign with an exhibition match in Ecorse against the barnstorming Cuban Giants, a powerful black nine featuring future Hall-of-Famer Frank Grant at second base. The following spring, new Tigers owner Jim Burns built a Sunday facility on his own property in Springwells Township. With the opening of Burns Park, the River Rouge grounds became disused and a quickly disremembered part of Tigers history.