As the last lights faded into darkness above Tiger Stadium on September 27, 1999, a long, storied era in baseball history came to an end at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. For over a century, the cross streets at The Corner marked one of the most famous and best-loved addresses in baseball as generations of fans cheered for their favorite Tigers and relived the memories of their youth at the old ballpark.
But when the gates swung open at the Tigers' new home, Comerica Park, on April 11, 2000, the baseball memories and fan devotion that made Tiger Stadium a haven for fans young and wasn't diminished. Fans can walk down memory lane each time they visit Comerica Park's "Walking Hall of Fame," stretching around the park's lower concourse with a larger-than-life collection of memorabilia, photos, and great Tiger baseball moments.
Tiger Stadium was synonymous with "The Corner" for years, yet its humble beginnings weren't so easily defined by major streets and landmarks. The geography of The Corner dates back to 1895, when Tigers owner George Vanderbeck arranged for a new ballpark to be built on the Western Market haymarket and dogpound site at the northwest corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues. The land was covered with elm and oak trees, many of which predated the American Revolution. Nonetheless, Vanderbeck ordered the trees to be removed, sparing eight - three near the left-field foul line and five in the deepest part of left-center field. The trees remained as part of the park until 1900.
The park featured an "L" shaped wooden grandstand with a peaked wooden roof. The position of the diamond was less than desirable for left handed batters, who had to directly face the afternoon sun as the plate occupied what is today the right field corner. Overflow fans from the bleacher-style seats around the infield were permitted to stand behind roped-off areas in the outfield, which caused understandable difficulties for outfielders attempting to spear fly balls. Bennett Park's total area sat on roughly half the acreage of Tiger Stadium. The left field fence bordered the alley along National (now Cochrane) Drive, and a large lumber mill occupied the property that is today Kaline Drive.
Much to the dismay of the Tigers' management, many fans watched the early Bennett Park games from "wildcat" bleachers, towering, teetering structures that were erected on the surrounding private property and operated by profit-minded locals. The concept started in the 1880s, and the rogue seating structures were actually defended in court by the city. The seats cost five or ten cents, depending on the relative "quality" of location and were often over 50 feet above ground.
Because of the city's strict "blue laws," baseball in Detroit and many other cities was forbidden on Sundays as ministers expected their congregations to spend Sundays in quiet reflection instead of at rambunctious baseball contests. James D. Burns, the owner that purchased the team from Vanderbeck in 1900, sidestepped the issue by hosting Sunday games on his own property in Springwells Township, just outside Detroit's city limits on Dix between Livernois and Waterman. Rowdy crowds packed the stands at Burns Park's makeshift field, with the first official Sunday game at Bennett Field not to come until 1907.
Legendary names like Ty Cobb, outfielder "Wahoo Sam" Crawford, Herman "Germany" Schaefer and manager Hughie Jennings piloted the Tigers of the early 20th century to several postseason appearances. Yet while the fervor for Tigers baseball continued to grow, the large, often rowdy crowds found themselves packed into a small stadium that could no longer sustain the wear and tear.
After three heartbreaking World Series losses, two in a row to Chicago in 1907-08 and to the Pirates in 1909, owner Frank Navin knew it was time for a change. He had seen the fans packed into Pittsburgh's new Forbes Field, and resolved to bring the same first-class stadium to Detroit. Over the winter of 1911, Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland designed a concrete-and-steel structure that seated 23,000, nearly five times the capacity of Bennett Park. The $300,000 project would have cost about $50 million by today's standards, featuring a giant scoreboard in left field, a relocated home plate that kept batters eyes out of the afternoon sun, and a 125-foot flagpole in center field that would be the tallest obstacle ever built in fair territory in a major league park.
On April 12, 1912, 26,000 fans crammed into the park for Navin Field's opening day, postponed two days from its planned inaugural date because of rain. On the same day in Boston, brand-new Fenway Park hosted its first contest, as well. Much attention, however, was diverted in newspapers the next morning by news of the sinking of the Titanic.
The opening of Navin Field in 1912 was widely recognized as the beginning of Tiger Stadium. The changes in 1912, however, were short-lived.
Over the next 26 years, three more major expansions and renovations changed the look and name of the facility. While the additions were necessary, the original 1912 plans did not anticipate such change, and the facility was challenged to accommodate the dramatic updates to the structure.
In 1924, the original stands from first-to-third base were double-decked (increasing capacity to 30,000) and a press box was built on the roof. After Navin passed away in 1935, new owner Walter Briggs carried out Navin's wish for further improvements, and an enlarged facility with room for 36,000 was unveiled to the public on Opening Day in 1936.
In 1938, Cherry Street, the northern boundary of the park, was closed, enabling the completion of larger, double-decked stands in left and centerfield that essentially enclosed the park. Renamed Briggs Stadium, seating was enlarged by nearly half to 53,000, giving the facility the basic structure that remained for the next 60 years.
Also in 1938, the Detroit Lions began a relationship with the stadium, playing their home games at the facility. From 1934 (the beginning of the Lions) through 1937, the football team's home was at the University of Detroit Stadium, a facility that they returned to for one season in 1940. Other than that, each Lions home contest from 1938 through 1974 was played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.
In 1948, a field lighting system was installed, making the stadium the last in the American League to install lights. Then in 1961, when John Fetzer assumed club ownership, the name of the facility was officially changed to Tiger Stadium.
In its last 32 seasons, Tiger Stadium was home to a pair of additional World Series champions in 1968 and 1984. The 1968 club was the first in Tigers history to achieve the two million mark in attendance, and the 1984 club used a 35-5 start out of the gate to attract a club-record 2,704,794 fans. From 1912 to 1999, more than 102 million fans passed through Tiger Stadium's turnstiles.
A Final Farewell
The city, the fans and former Tigers from the last 70 years gathered to give the stadium a grand sendoff on September 27. One mile away at Comerica Park, there was little to disturb the peace as work ceased and many of the workers were in attendance at The Corner's Final Game. The day belonged to Tiger Stadium and its rich tradition.
Todd Jones' final strike-three pitch settled into catcher Brad Ausmus' glove at 7:07 p.m. as flashbulbs popped, and a roar shook the ballpark as the Tigers wrapped up an 8-2 win in the stadium's finale. A poignant banner hung from the upper deck expressed the sentiments of most of the sell-out crowd, reading, "Today, there is crying in baseball. Goodbye old friend."
Post-game ceremonies aimed to capture many of the memories created at Tiger Stadium, with nearly 70 former and current Tigers taking the field one final time. Fans cheered as each of their favorites ran out onto the field, with such notables as Al Kaline, Kirk Gibson, Willie Horton, Gates Brown, Mark Fidrych, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker on hand for a final appearance on Tiger Stadium's hallowed field. A flag bearing the commemorative logo for the stadium's final year was lowered and passed down a line or dignitaries including Michigan Governor John Engler and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, all 70 players, and relatives of 1800s Detroit baseball legend Charlie Bennett and team owners Frank Navin and Walter Briggs.
The ceremony also included the relocation of Tiger Stadium's home plate to Comerica Park with the assistance of a police motorcade and Tigers players Matt Anderson, Jeff Weaver and Francisco Cordero along with Comerica Bank Chairman Gene Miller and local Detroit little leaguers. Elden Auker, Tigers pitcher from 1933-38, tossed a final ceremonial pitch to Ausmus to end the memorable evening. As each light standard went dark, longtime Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell delivered a moving final farewell, forever etching the memory of this special night into the hearts and minds of Tigers fans.