Wish you were here

Meet the volunteers working to preserve Tiger Stadium

Wish you were here
Photo by Brian Rozman.

Every weed out here bothers me,” Tom Derry was telling me as we pulled off the Lodge Expressway and drove past Brooks Lumber in his big red pickup along Trumbull Avenue, behind what was right field of old Tiger Stadium. “It ticks me off. I don’t know why. I don’t feel that way about my own lawn, but this one I do.”

It was early October 2012 and I was revisiting Detroit, where I lived in 1991 and ’92, as part of a long driving trip around America. I was driving Tom’s truck because Tom, a postal carrier and founder of the Navin Field Grounds Crew, the group of volunteers who maintain the field in Corktown where Tiger Stadium stood for nearly a century, had recently broken his leg falling off a porch.

We turned right onto Michigan Avenue. “Geez, man,” I said.

“Yeah, I know it’s depressing, and it’s a shame,” said Tom. “But look at how well the grass is kept. Two years ago, the weeds were so tall you couldn’t see anything.”

We parked on Michigan, behind first base, and walked in through an unlocked gate. Where the first-base dugout had been, someone had set up a homemade wooden bench. “Yeah, to think that that’s the pitcher’s mound,” said Tom. “Cy Young pitched there. Babe Ruth pitched there, Satchel Paige pitched there. Mark Fidrych. It’s amazing to think that Ty Cobb stood right there, and Babe Ruth was on the mound pitching to him. When I was a kid, my favorite Tiger was Norm Cash, who played first base. And it’s so cool to stand there and think this is where Norm Cash played, and Hank Greenberg, and Gehrig.”

“So this is the original dirt?” I asked him.

“Yeah, the dirt’s the same. All we’ve added is a bit around home plate, where we have the erosion.”

Tom reminded me that the flagpole had been in play. “It was the tallest in-play obstacle in major-league history,” he said. “And I believe the only reason they didn’t take the flagpole to Comerica [Park] was that it was just too much work. But they took home plate, and I don’t think that should have been allowed.”

Behind the flagpole, on the other side of the freeway, the Motor City Casino was visible. “Casinos are bad,” I remarked.

“Yeah, they are,” Tom agreed. “Every time I take a picture, I try to take it with Brooks Lumber in the background, not the casino.”

“But the casino’s right there, behind center field.”

“Yeah, and you can’t keep it out of the picture, unless you Photoshop it or something. It’s owned by Mrs. Ilitch. Sometimes I wonder if Mike Ilitch ever looks down from the upper floor, across the street, to watch the peasants working on the old ball grounds.”

It was billionaire Tigers owner Mike Ilitch who forced the spending of several hundred million dollars of public money to replace Tiger Stadium — which saw its last game in September 1999 and was finally torn down for good in September 2009 — with Comerica Park downtown, at the epicenter of his pizza and real estate empire. “I wonder how Ilitch sleeps at night,” I wondered.

“I’m guessin’ he sleeps really well,” said Tom. “’Cause he doesn’t care! He doesn’t give a shit.”

Tom and friends maintain the field because no one else will. He told me that writer David Fleming had come to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues in April 2011 to write an article for ESPN: The Magazine. “He stood on the pitcher’s mound, and he could barely make out the GM logo at the top of the Renaissance Center. And he thought about baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. And he put that in his article, and someone at GM read it. And they contacted the city. They made an offer to maintain the field for free. And the city turned them down! People couldn’t believe it. The city said it had major retail value, and here we are more than a year later, and nobody’s making offers.”

It’s now another year and a half later, and the site’s purported major retail value has yet to materialize. Proposals and rumors have come and gone, including the apparently unfounded but deeply ironic rumor that the site might have been used for a new publicly subsidized hockey arena for the Ilitch-owned Red Wings. “I hear things, and then it doesn’t seem like anything happens,” Marygrove College professor Frank Rashid, who co-founded the activist group the Tiger Stadium Fan Club in 1987, told me. “There are plans that are floated, and they get to a certain point and they get stopped.”

There was, for example, the Parade Company proposal. “The Parade Company wanted to move its headquarters to the Tiger Stadium site, build a new warehouse and move its offices,” Gary Gillette, secretary of the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, explained to me. The Conservancy controls a $3.8 million federal earmark that Sen. Carl Levin’s office secured for economic development in the Corktown neighborhood. “Even assuming we would have been willing to commit our $3 million to their project, they weren’t able to raise the rest of the money they needed. The project died a natural death because it wasn’t a project that could be financed.”

The conservancy has given small but effective grants to Corktown businesses (including several profiled in Metro Times’ Feb. 5 cover story on the neighborhood), but it still controls most of the money. “We still have the majority of our earmark available for redevelopment of the Tiger Stadium site,” Gillette said. “Everyone loves us because we have $3 million to spend. We actually have more than that. The future of the site is a mixed-use development, where mixed use is a combination of commercial and recreational. There’s talk about housing, but there’s a housing shortage in Midtown and downtown, but that doesn’t extend to Corktown.”

The policy decisions that will decide the fate of the site lie with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, whose spokespeople have been tight-lipped. Corktown, Gillette said, “is being redeveloped as a place for hipsters to live and play. You can see that there’s no development pressure to develop that [Tiger Stadium] site for commercial purposes, or even for housing, because no proposal has met the DEGC’s tests. It’s apparently the largest single non-subdivided development parcel available in the city, and it’s close to downtown. But that hasn’t shown up in terms of people saying, ‘We want to put condos there,’ or ‘We want to put a big-box store there.’”

The conservancy’s goal is to preserve as much as possible of the footprint of the Tiger Stadium field, preferably all of it. “There is only one Tiger Stadium field, there is only one thing to save,” Gillette said. “So why would we have to impinge on that when there is vacant land literally everywhere, including everywhere in Corktown? We’re still pitching, and there’s real hope for redeveloping the site with an intact field for amateur baseball. We wanted to save a meaningful portion of the ballpark, but that went by the [wayside].”

Some things — and some people — don’t change with time. Tom Derry is still the same youthful, upbeat fellow that I palled around with more than 20 years ago, when I lived in Detroit. He turned 50 this year and now has a touch of gray at the temples, but his outlook on the world in general and Detroit in particular remains the same signature Tom Derry blend: a deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong on one hand, and a can-do positive attitude on the other. To sustain the two in balance is a feat, especially in Detroit, and Tom is one of the few people I know who can. When I knew him in the early 1990s, I thought of Tom as the unheralded oracle or conscience of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club. While the Fan Club’s more recognizable leaders, especially Frank Rashid, got quoted in the papers and on the TV news, Tom would pipe up in Fan Club strategy meetings to say things like, “I don’t see why we can’t just say the truth. If it’s the truth, we should say it.” When I remarked that I felt sad that I had never seen a White Sox game at Comiskey Park in Chicago before it was torn down, Tom corrected me: “You should be pissed, because you can’t see a game there now.”

Tom Derry, Frank Rashid and the rest of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club fought the good fight — and won a partial victory, if you consider that they succeeded in delaying by perhaps a decade the needless destruction of one of major league baseball’s last four remaining classic-era ballparks. The fight to prevent hundreds of millions of public dollars being spent to build a new stadium was lost by 1999, and Comerica Park opened downtown in April 2000. Most of Tiger Stadium was torn down in July 2008, leaving in place the Navin Field configuration, so called because it approximated the original dimensions of the ballpark named for then-Tigers owner Frank Navin when it had opened in April 1912. The Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, founded to preserve the stadium, was then blindsided when the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation tore down the Navin Field configuration in 2009, without warning or explanation.

Then the nine-acre empty lot was simply left to become overgrown with weeds, and Tom Derry’s sense of right and wrong kicked in.

“After Ernie Harwell died, I heard that some people were remembering him by playing catch on the field where Tiger Stadium stood,” he told me. “This was May 2010. I thought, ‘Cool! I want to play catch on the field.’ So I went down to the field on Sunday, May 9. It was Mother’s Day. When I got to the field, I couldn’t believe how tall the grass was and how bad the infield looked. It was completely covered with weeds. You could barely make out where the pitcher’s mound was, and the weeds covered the base paths and the whole dirt infield. I played catch with my friends, and I took a few swings at home plate, but I wasn’t that excited about it. I couldn’t believe that the baseball field had gotten to that point.

“I figured I had a riding mower, and I could cut the grass, and I knew that some of my friends were big baseball fans, and I thought that they would probably want to come down and help out too. So I went home that night, and the first thing I did was I called Frank Rashid. I told him that the field looked terrible, and that I thought we should clean it up. I asked him if he thought it was a crazy idea, and Frank immediately said, ‘Pick a day. Let’s go down and do it.’”

“Tom goads us into doing things, out of principle,” Frank told me. “People recognize that good-heartedness. He formed a new group, and it’s a really impressive group. It’s a different bunch [from the Tiger Stadium Fan Club].”

The Navin Field Grounds Crew represents the kind of initiative by ordinary citizens that can — to repurpose a recently fashionable buzz phrase — create facts on the ground. It’s the same impulse that kept baseball at Michigan and Trumbull avenues for an additional decade in the first place. For people like Tom and Frank, the point is not to wait around for the powers that be to decide for us what’s going to happen. At a certain point you just have to do something yourself, or it won’t get done.

A corollary lesson is that the cops are not necessarily your friends — although sometimes they are. In 1991, when, to universal shock, then-Tigers president Bo Schembechler was blamed for firing the team’s beloved Hall of Fame announcer Ernie Harwell, and Tom and some friends held up a banner in the center field bleachers reading BO FIRED ERNIE. BO MUST GO, cops ripped the banner out of their hands and confiscated it. Told that doing so was illegal, a Detroit police officer replied, “I know it’s illegal, but we have to do it anyway.”

In a similar vein, on May 12, 2010, the first day that Tom and friends showed up to cut weeds in the empty field at Michigan and Trumbull, the cops showed up. “Someone from the city walked out on the field and asked what we were doing there, and if we had permission to be there,” said Tom. “Shortly after he left, the Detroit police came out to the field. They asked us if anybody there had made a complaint. We said no, and they left. Maybe two weeks later we were cleaning up the field, and the police drove right on the field, just as we were getting started. They told us that we were trespassing and to get off the field immediately, or we would be arrested.”

“Were they nice about it?” I asked.

“No. They weren’t real polite. So we left the field, and we were shocked. And we sat out there on Cochrane Street, talking about it. We were in disbelief. Here we were, just a bunch of middle-aged people, armed with rakes and lawn mowers, tryin’ to clean up the city. But the police were serious, because they sat in their car on Michigan Avenue, watching us, for a long time. So we realized that it was obvious that somebody didn’t want us cleaning up the baseball field. So I thought it would be best if we switched to Sunday mornings, when it would be lower-profile, when the city workers weren’t around, so we might have a better chance to restore the field without being threatened by the city. And it seemed to work. They didn’t bother us much after that. We still meet Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. The last time the police kicked us off the field was April 2011. That police officer was very friendly. He told us he did not want to kick us off the field, but he was instructed to. He told us we had to leave, and we left. And we came back a week later, and we had no problems.”

Then, on April 20, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the opening of Navin Field, the Navin Field Grounds Crew marked the occasion. “We invited people to come on down to play baseball, and we grilled up hot dogs,” said Tom. “And the city sent the police out to kick us off the field. Two officers showed up, they walked out on the field, and they told us they were instructed to remove us from the field, but they said there was no way they were gonna do it.”

“They just came to tell you that they weren’t gonna kick you off?”

“Yes. And they told us, ‘You guys are doin’ a great job. Keep up the good work.’ I believe that if it wasn’t for our group, the field would be nothing but giant weeds, trees, garbage, and rats. It would have turned into just an illegal dumping ground.”

While the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy and other interested parties jockey and speculate about the site’s future, the Navin Field Grounds Crew keeps right on lovingly maintaining it in the present. Half a dozen stalwarts constitute the grounds crew’s core. 

“The guy who does the baselines, Bob Blanchard, I’ve known since first grade,” Tom told me. “We used to play ball together. Over 40 years later, we’re still hangin’ out. His nickname now is Baseline Bob.” Others include Tim Meloche, Joe Michnuk — “He worked in the clubhouse in ’84 and rode in the parade with Sparky Anderson” — and Jerry Bagierek, who drives three hours from the town of Douglas on Lake Michigan to help out. “He’s the guy who does the infield. That’s the cool thing about comin’ down here. The stadium’s gone, but I’ve met people like Jerry, and so many others. The stands are gone, but the field remains. People come all the time. This is what it’s all about. It’s why we come out here.”

As if to prove his point, while Tom and I were talking, two middle-aged couples parked on Michigan, got out of their car, walked onto the field, and started taking pictures of the field and of each other. Tom always introduces himself to anyone who comes and gets names and pictures for the Navin Field Grounds Crew’s Facebook page. The couples were Fred and Colby Moore and Dave and Nancy Denison, from Traverse City.

“I came down in ’68,” one of the men told us. “My grandfather took us down.”

“Eleven thousand cheap seats,” said Tom. (Tiger Stadium featured an enormous bleacher section covering the entire outfield. In the early 1990s when I saw games there, a bleacher ticket cost $4.)

“That’s good. Let the people see the game!”

“I’m so glad you’re doing this. This is fantastic,” said one of the women.

“This is special. This is very cool,” said the other.

Tom encouraged me to run out to center field to experience the view and vibe from there, so I did. When I came back to the infield he said, “Did you feel Gorman Thomas out there?” Tom knew that, having grown up in Wisconsin, my own baseballic touchstone is the True Blue Brew Crew of 1982.

“Yeah,” I said. “Gorman Thomas and Ty Cobb. Same center field.” One of my own fond memories of Tiger Stadium — right up there with actually getting to meet the John Sinclair and the Eugene McCarthy — is of someone there telling me about the time Thomas gave the finger to the entire center field bleacher section.

“That Brewer team was loaded,” said Tom. “What a lineup.”

“Thank you,” I said. It was nice that he had complimented my team, but what I was thanking him for was for bringing me to the field, and for maintaining it.

“It’s for those people who came out on the field,” he said. “That’s why we do it.”

So now what? Who’s in charge, and what’s the plan? “The Corktown neighborhood has its concerns about the character of the neighborhood going forward,” Gillette told me. Ben Newman, co-owner of the Detroit Institute of Bagels, spoke to me by phone and later emailed me a statement. “From my perspective as a business owner on Michigan Avenue, a Corktown resident, and an urban planner,” he said, “I would love for a developer to put together a plan that honors the history of the site and neighborhood, maintains some of the park space, and also increases the density of Corktown. I don’t know all of the requirements related to the redevelopment earmark, but I think it would be useful to hold a couple of community input meetings to set some development standards for the site. Hypothetically, a developer could keep the original diamond dimensions and still have 5-plus acres to develop along one of Detroit’s main arterial roads in a neighborhood that is within walking distance of downtown. With the $3-plus million available as an incentive, I think we could quickly find someone who is willing to work within our desired framework.”

Tom and the grounds crew are the subjects of a wonderful new documentary film, Stealing Home, by University of Detroit-Mercy communications professor Jason Roche, which screened last weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre.

When I asked Roche what motivated him to make a film about the Navin Field Grounds Crew, he said, “The payoff for me would be if the film could inspire one or two influential people to use their influence to save the field and preserve the memory and the history that [goes] with it.”

“Whether the city likes it or not, it is a tourist attraction,” Tom said. “This should be a city park that’s the centerpiece of a rejuvenated Corktown.”

Most of the discussion about Detroit’s future takes into account one or the other, sometimes even both, of two broad groups.

One is the influx of young white hipsters, the category pithily described to me by a black activist in similarly ravaged New Orleans as “the ‘I-want-to-be-part-of-the-rebuild’ people.” Without question, the hipsters of Corktown and Midtown are contributing to the good things that are happening in Detroit and deserve a voice, including on the fate of the Tiger Stadium site.

The other group is Detroit’s black majority, including grassroots activists like Dawn Wilson, whom I met in the Brightmoor neighborhood of northwest Detroit. “Don’t believe the hype,” Dawn urged me. “We are coming together as a group of people who are compassionate and passionate about what we’re doing in Brightmoor. Don’t look at the abandonment. Don’t look at the trash. What we are doing in Brightmoor is going to be something for the world to see. It’s a process. It’s a marathon; it’s not a sprint. And it’s hard, working with people. But the magic is coming together and finding a common cause.”

But there is a third category that often gets overlooked: the now aging generations of white refugees from Detroit’s collapse who now live in the suburbs but whose hearts never left the city — those Derry describes as “people who may not live in Detroit, but Detroit lives in them.” This category includes Tom himself, who attended Christ the King School in northwest Detroit and delivered mail in Brightmoor, but moved to Redford Township in 2004 because, he said bluntly, “my property taxes were way too high.” It also includes my friend Kathleen Conway, Ann Arbor resident and descendant of Irish immigrants to Corktown, whose grandfather was a groundskeeper at Navin Field. “It’s just so depressing,” she said about Tiger Stadium’s absence. “It used to give me my bearings: ‘OK, there’s the stadium. I know where I am.’”

And it includes Frank Rashid, who never left the city and in fact still lives in the same house, near Seven Mile and Livernois, where he was living when I first met him in 1991. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but where I am,” Frank told me. “I feel very devoted to the city and its people, and I feel really badly about the way they’ve been exploited. As a Detroiter, I identify much more closely with my black co-residents than I do with white suburbanites. I understand much better than some other people do about how public policies subsidized whites’ movement to the suburbs. We have no policy that addresses the damage that’s been done to the city by government and industry.”

The challenge, then, for southeastern Michigan as a whole is the same as it has been for decades: how to cooperate across community lines to undo some of that damage, without reference to the divisive rhetoric and provocative actions of self-appointed racial spokesmen like longtime former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young on one hand and longtime current Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson on the other.

And how to continue finding the motivation to do the things that still need to be done, even amid so much loss and bitterness. Tom Derry is among those doing that. “It still pisses me off, Tom,” I confessed to him the day we visited the field together. “I know you’ve had a lot more practice at not being angry …”

“I think it’s because I’ve gotten so involved in cleaning it up,” he said. 

Ethan Casey (www.ethancasey.com) is author of Home Free: An American Road Trip (2013) and co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1991).

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