Anybody who saw a ballgame at Tiger Stadium can recall the rowdy spirit of the huge bleachers section, the dizzying slopes of the stands, the feeling of living in history that the ballpark engendered. The new documentary, Stranded at the Corner: The Battle to Save Historic Tiger Stadium, produced and directed by Gary Glaser and written by Richard Bak, is sure to help old bleacher creatures warmly recall those glory days, and maybe get hot under the collar about the venue's fate.
The first half of the film documents the history of the ball field, in its previous incarnations as Navin Field, Bennett Field and Briggs Stadium. Home to not just the Tigers but also the Lions for many years, the history and traditions of the park are chronicled with obvious affection. The story is told with slick kinestasis and narration, lovingly collected historical footage, and interviews with Tiger fans amid their piles of memorabilia.
The second half of the film concerns the drive that began in the 1960s to abandon the corner for a larger, glitzier ballpark. Particularly saddening is the story of Detroit's bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics, which would have resulted in a replacement for Tiger Stadium. Everything associated with that story is ill-fated, from the announcement of the effort by a doomed President Kennedy to the timing of the games, which would have followed on the heels of the 1967 disorder. Detroit mayors were no friends of the ballpark, as this documentary illustrates. Coleman Young chortles at a report that the stadium is sound and Dennis Archer snaps at a preservationist on television.
But, one by one, the standard arguments against Tiger Stadium are systematically debunked, leaving the viewer with the impression that the fix was in against the ballpark decades ago. In the hour-and-a-half film, design consultants, potential investors and preservationists say they were treated unfairly. Especially dramatic is footage of what appears to be the worst-received redevelopment pitch to City Council ever.
All the things that have made the battle over the venue so explosive are what make it a great story. Particularly interesting is the way the stadium's defenders were deftly cast as sentimental, white, suburban fans defending an institution that long turned its back on blacks. But behind all the public relations and spin, the film suggests that the real deals were cut in some smoke-filled back room between Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and the city leadership.
The film pokes merciless fun at the pizza magnate, portraying him as a caesar determined to exact his tribute from Tiger patrons, an implacable foe of any redevelopment plan, who made sure his organization reaped the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year that were supposed to help guard and maintain the stadium until the fund was drained.
Of course, it goes without saying that the film is propaganda for a cause. Funded by hopeful stadium investor Peter Comstock Riley, this isn't the "fair and balanced" documentary you'd expect to see on public television. But it's much easier to take propaganda when it's up-front about its agenda, and it's a welcome corrective to what has been a one-sided debate on the fate of Tiger Stadium.
Of course, this ninth-inning effort to win support for saving the stadium won't carry the day. But, even if the structure can't be saved, the battle is one worth looking at more closely, as it's wrapped up in all the issues and controversies that need to be discussed in Detroit. Some cities are able to embrace their history and incorporate it into enlightened plans for the future. Certainly, viewers of this documentary will leave asking if Detroit will forever be a city that, rather than planning for the many, accedes to the demands of the powerful few.
Showing at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 23, and Saturday, June 24, at the Adray Auditorium in the MacKenzie Fine Arts Center at Henry Ford Community College (5101 Evergreen Rd., Dearborn; 313-845-9600); visit strandedatthecorner.com.
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].