Volunteers working to preserve Tiger Stadium
Wish you were here.
Published: March 24, 2014
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).
> Email Ethan Casey