Millie and the ballpark

Next month, Detroit and Kansas City will play the last major league baseball game, ever, in Tiger Stadium. When it ends, the fans will rush onto the field, despite tons of security, dig up sod to take home and put in their freezers, and behave more or less badly.

This is Detroit, after all. Next day, unless the burning and looting passes a certain critical mass, every writer in town will wax eloquent about the old ball yard, and what it was like to see Ty Cobb or Mark "The Bird" Fidrych cavort there.

Then, after a year or two, despite attempts to turn it into lofts or turn it over to Wayne State University, the place is apt to be torn down. Paradise lost may well be paved over into a parking lot, as onetime homey Joni Mitchell sang.

We'll get another column out of that, too. Not to be cynical here, despite my leftist, soulless, anti-American tendencies, I have been a baseball fan for decades, and am one still, amazingly, despite the best efforts of the greed-head owners and players.

Originally I, too, thought the current structure ought to be preserved. Yet the politicians and the people voted otherwise, and it is time to move on. After all, our hallowed Valhalla of the horsehide is a slightly rusting mass of concrete and steel, and the old temple wasn't exactly built according to instructions from the Angel Moroni.

Instead, the core of what we now know as Tiger Stadium was built by a little bald, pasty-faced man named Frank Navin, who built it for the same reason Pizza Mike is building the new one. Money. Unsympathetically, he bulldozed old wooden Bennett Park one October, and then scrambled to get the new stadium done by the next April.

Everyone loved the result. "Some park!" the newspapers proclaimed.

Well, almost everyone. Even then, purists moaned for their old cozy wooden stadium. Navin and his successors added more seating to the new place from time to time, till the thing finally reached its present size in 1938.

Somehow, oddly, Tiger Stadium now has become a totem. Forgotten somehow are the really wretched seats behind posts; the dreadful, junior high school locker rooms; the inadequate restroom facilities. I am no electrician, but the jerry-built wiring arrangements make me wince. Today, the old ball yard looks cavernous, dank, outdated, especially to anyone who has visited the new stadiums in Baltimore or Cleveland. Most likely, every one of the 26,000 or so fans who saw the first game played here 87 years ago has had his or (occasionally) her final totals chalked up by that great scorer in the sky.

Yet cement doesn't always outlive human flesh. The other night I had dinner with a woman who was born in a little farm town in Iowa that winter Navin was feverishly struggling to get his ballpark built. Today, both are old, but only one is outdated.

Many things have been written about Millie Jeffrey, a tiny feminist dynamo who landed in Detroit during World War II, but I'd bet she has never been compared to Tiger Stadium, though she has lived more than half of her life in its orbit.

Millie grew up in Minneapolis, mainly; she plucked chickens, worked in a sweatshop, went to work as a union organizer. She came to Detroit as a young mother during World War II, a few years before the ballpark got lights.

Eventually, she came to work for and with Walter Reuther, tackling jobs where she cared more about what she could get done than the title she got. She marched on picket lines, helped students hold rallies, was a founding member of NOW and other feminist organizations, including the Michigan Women's Foundation.

She knew everyone. And they knew her, including JFK before JFK Jr. was born, and RFK, whose presidential campaign in Michigan she led. Behind the scenes, in her 70s, Millie helped engineer Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential nomination.

Millie was somewhere in high middle age before the Tigers had African-American players. Long before that, she had began working for racial equality, asking, for example, a student named Jamie Blanchard whether he supported the civil rights bill before she got him in as a page at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Nor has she stopped. Usually, when I interview someone of her vintage, what follows is a sepia-toned trip to times and battles past. Jeffrey is more interested in today. What did I think of next year's U.S. Senate campaign?

What of the latest at Wayne State, where she was an energetic and effective member of the board for 16 years? What do my students think?

Most recently, she has been reading on labor, trying to figure out its future. She even has time to read me. "Well, I don't always agree with you," she said. The idea that she may be still around, gently goading us, after the concrete at Michigan and Trumbull is dust, is terribly appealing.

I don't know whether she likes baseball. I meant to ask, but as usual, she was out of town last weekend. But I am old enough to honor the prophet Berra, who said, "It ain't over till it's over." And I am smart enough, barely, to have figured out the central meaning of the prophet Millie. Which is, essentially, it ain't over. Ever. Play ball.

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