It’s been 10 years since the last game was played at Tiger Stadium. Memories of the storied ballpark have been turned into books and tapes, audio and video (I had a hand in adding to the aforementioned).
Fifty years. Half a century. That’s how long my relationship lasted with the old stadium near the western edge of downtown Detroit.
They started demolishing the ballpark of Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg last year and recently completed the job. I went to the site the other day and the memories flowed.
It was the summer of ’49 and our yeshiva bus for little day-campers was heading to the stadium, but so were the big dark clouds.
We were ushered in to the lower deck left-field grandstand and sat there waiting for the game to start. It never did. The rain didn’t stop. The yeshiva tried again a few weeks later with the same result. Seeing nothing but rain hitting the tarp during my first two visits to the stadium did nothing to dampen my interest in baseball, however.
I started to follow baseball seriously during the 1950 season. I listened to the games on the big old radio and got to know the names of all the Tigers players. For some reason, Hoot Evers caught my fancy. He was the Tigers’ left fielder and one of the leading hitters in the American League at the time.
It was a beautiful day when the yeshiva day camp bus arrived in July 1950. My day was even more beautiful when I realized I would be sitting behind the area patrolled by my favorite player.
It took a while to get acclimated, as it was the first time I had seen the infield; the tarp had covered the area on my previous two visits. I was surprised to see grass in the infield – I’d expected the kind of dirt infield generally found in municipal parks. I also expected radio play-by-play man Harry Heilmann to describe the game on the loudspeaker. By the time Hoot Evers lined a double off the left field fence a couple of rows in front of me, I was able to follow the events.
I saw my first night game in August 1951 and I can recall Joe DiMaggio popping up to end the game.
The following year was a sad time for me as the Tigers traded Evers to the Boston Red Sox. I saw the legendary Satchel Paige baffle the Tigers with an assortment of pitches in 1953 and watched in awe as Ted Williams hit four long home runs in a doubleheader in 1954.
In ’54 my mother gave me permission to take my first city bus ride by myself. I went to a midweek day game to see Evers play against the Tigers. He didn’t play, but I saw him after the game. I stationed myself under the stands on the first-base side about 60 feet from the entrance of the visitors’ clubhouse.
I didn’t have long to wait. Evers was one of the first players to exit. My heart was pounding. He was just standing there waiting for the other players to come out.
Before I knew it, my skinny little body was looking up at his trim 6-foot, 2-inch frame. He looked somewhat like Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue, popular young actors of the era.
“May I have your autograph?” I heard myself ask politely.
“Beat it kid!” my hero said gruffly.
“But you’re my favorite player,” I pleaded.
“That’s what they all say,” he said. “Now beat it.”
I quickly went in the other direction. Some 20 years would pass before I met Evers again – and he would be responsible for the birth of my writing and baseball career. But that’s another story for another time.
Rabbi Steven Weil (right) and his friend from New Jersey take a last look around Tiger Stadium as the lights go out for the final time.
The 1955 season belonged to Al Kaline. I was there when the 20-year-old Tigers right fielder hit two home runs in one inning. He went on to slug 27 home runs and hit .340 that year, becoming the youngest player ever to win a batting title.
Fast forward to 1974, Kaline’s last year as a player and my first as a baseball writer and photographer. I was granted field, clubhouse, and press box privileges and got to really know the ballplayers, the old ballpark and the people working behind the scenes and in the front office.
I went to work for the Tigers after the 1983 season. The maintenance guys took a big old brown desk and chair out of the storage room and dusted it off for me. Decades before, club owner Frank Navin used it and there were pictures of Cobb and Greenberg signing contracts on the desk and using the chair I was now sitting in.
While I saw many great games and many star players in my half-century of experiencing the stadium as a fan, writer and front office department head, I’ll never forget the final game of the 1999 season, which also was the final game played at Tiger Stadium.
It was a beautiful day and I was able to arrange for two minyanim of tickets in the upper deck just behind the infield on the third base side. Mincha was held after the sixth inning in the upper left field corner concourse behind the concession stands.
I wanted to get to Tiger Stadium about three hours before game time to soak up the atmosphere. So did Rabbi Steven Weil, the then-spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Oak Park, about a half-mile from my home dugout. We decided to go together, but first we stopped at the airport to pick up a friend of the rabbi’s from New Jersey who was coming in for the day just to be part of baseball history.
The Tigers won that final game and the ceremonies afterward were unforgettable. Former Tigers as far back as the Greenberg era were introduced one-by-one and walked, trotted or were carted to their former positions while the scoreboard showed their career highlights.
We were among the first to arrive and last to leave. It was Sukkot at the time, and later in the evening I went around the corner to Rabbi Weil’s sukkah. The Weils were doing what they usually did – teaching. They were hosting a family eating in a sukkah for the first time.
The Weils eventually left the Detroit community for Beverly Hills. Now, of course, Rabbi Weil is the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union in New York.
Even before Tiger Stadium closed, those of us in Detroit knew Rabbi Weil was destined for the national stage. We also knew his rebbetzin, Yael, was a fantastic teacher and lecturer in her own right. The OU pulled off a double steal.
Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His column appears the second week of each month. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.