Volunteers working to preserve Tiger Stadium
Wish you were here.
Published: March 24, 2014
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.”
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