Sports

100 years of baseball at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull

Winning teams and stars like the young Ty Cobb, shown sliding home safe, attracted big crowdsto the wooden stands of Bennett Park.By Ray Jeskey / The Detroit News

More than 100 years ago, Detroit Tiger owner Van der Beck spent $10,000 to convert an old hay market at Michigan and Trumbull into a baseball park.   The hastily built park had seating for about 5,000 fans, and on opening day, April 28, 1896, it had a crowd of 8,000 spilling onto the sidelines of the soggy field.

In 1895, Detroit Tiger owner Van der Beck spent $10,000 to convert an old hay market at Michigan and Trumbull into a baseball park. The hastily built park had seating for about 5,000 fans, and on opening day, April 28, 1896, it had a crowd of 8,000 spilling onto the sidelines of the soggy field.

 

The land at Michigan and Trumbull was an Indian hunting ground, a farm and later a lumber and hay market known as Western Market. It was turned into a ballpark in 1895.

The land at Michigan and Trumbull was an Indian hunting ground, a farm and later a lumber and hay market known as Western Market. It was turned into a ballpark in 1895.

 

The ceremonial first pitch that day was caught by Charlie Bennett, a star catcher for Detroit’s old National League team who had lost his legs in a railroad accident. The new ballfield was named for him — Bennett Park. The Tigers won the game 17-2 after a fan wandered onto the field and collided with the center fielder for the visiting Columbus Senators. The fielder was knocked unconscious and retired from the game.

Since then, the park has been renamed and rebuilt several times over, and it has hosted the greatest players and some of the rowdiest fans in baseball. One of the “features” of Bennett Park were the “wildcat bleachers” built by homeowners living along the edges of the park. These entrepreneurs built rickety wooden scaffolding that towered above the fences and seats in the park. They charged fans five to 50 cents each for the opportunity to climb up and see the game.

Fans in the

Fans in the “wildcat bleachers” paid as little as a nickel to watch the games from rickety stands built by neighboring homeowners. These fans were pioneer bleacher creatures, insulting and harassing legitimate customers as well as visiting players.

 

The occupants of theses cheap seats often spit tobacco juice on legitimate customers and hurled insults and vegetables at opposing players. Tigers management tried to wall off the rowdies by hanging strips of canvas in front of the wildcat seats. But it was a tight-fisted bookkeeper named Frank Navin who finally got rid of them. Navin, who joined the Tiger operation as a bookkeeper, took control of the ball club as a co-owner in 1903. Over the winter of 1911-12, he spent $300,000 to build a concrete and steel grandstand and expand the park. The expansion also demolished the homes of the wildcatters.

Navin Field opened on April 20, 1912, with the legless Charlie Bennett catching the first pitch, a rite that continued until his death in 1927. After the Tigers won the pennant in 1934. Navin built a 17,000-seat bleacher section along the left field wall just in time for the World Series. During one game in the series, which the Tiges lost, fans in the new bleachers pelted a St. Louis Cardinal outfielder with fruit, vegetables and even their shoes. The player was forced from the game. Navin kept the bleachers. but the baseball commissioner ordered him to put up a screen between the fans and the field.

After the Tigers won the series the following year, Navin announced plans to expand the park. But he died in November and co-owner Walter 0. Briggs bought Navin’s shares to become sole owner of the team. Over the next few years, Briggs, the owner of an automotive supply company, spent more than $1 million to expand the stadium to a seating capacity of 53,000. The ballpark, now the third largest in the major leagues, was dedicated as Briggs Stadium on April 22, 1938.

 

A bookkeeper named Frank Navin, shown walking past fans at Bennet Park, took control of the Tigers in 1903 as a part-owner of the club. According to legend, he won a big part of his Tiger shares during an all-night poker game.

A bookkeeper named Frank Navin, shown walking past fans at Bennet Park, took control of the Tigers in 1903 as a part-owner of the club. According to legend, he won a big part of his Tiger shares during an all-night poker game.

 

By 1448, the stadium was the only park in the American League without lighting for night games. Briggs was a traditionalist who thought baseball should be played during the day, but Detroit fans wanted to see night games. Briggs gave in and erected eight light towers with 1,458 light bulbs. The first night game was played June, 15, 1948, and night games soon became a hit. Briggs died in 1952, and after a series of court battles his heirs sold the club to a syndicate headed by broadcasting executive Frank Knorr. Broadcaster John E. Fetzer bought up shares in the club and became sole owner in 1961. He renamed the park Tiger Stadium.

Proposals to replace the stadium first surfaced in the late 1940s. But the calls for a new stadium increased in the late 1960s. Most of the proposals called for public funding of a new stadium, following the trend in other cities. The Lions moved out of the stadium to the new publicly supported Pontiac Silverdome in 1975. In 1977, Fetzer sold Tiger Stadium to the city of Detroit for $1 and promised to lease it back for 30 years. In return, the city agreed to renovate the old park. The park was renovated, but the push for a new baseball stadium continued. On March 19, Detroit voters backed plans to build a new stadium in the city’s theater district.

Under the plan, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch would put up $145 million, the city would kick in $40 million and the state would pick up $55 million of the cost. The Tigers now have a new home, and though the old stadium has now been torn down, the former hay market at Michigan and Trumbull still echoes with memories of a century of baseball.