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Old ballparks, Part IV

Midwest memories

Tiger Stadium Aerial

You can read Part I of the Old Ballpark series here, Part II here, and Part III here.

This is the fourth installment of my off-season tour of old, long-gone ballparks. As one reader said, most of these parks really weren’t that great. While that may be true when comparing them to modern ballparks, at the day and age when they were built, these structures were state-of-the-art marvels. By the time most of us came of age, in the 1970s and ’80s, many of these old structures were starting to show their age, from a combination of neglect and plain old wear and tear. Regardless, for those who witnessed games inside one of these dandies, fond memories remain.

Tiger Stadium - Detroit

When you say the words “Michigan and Trumbull”, baseball fans immediately know that as being the location of Tiger Stadium. Located in the Corktown section of Detroit, Tiger Stadium opened for business on April 20th, 1912, the same day that Fenway Park opened. Originally it was known as Navin Field after then-Tigers owner Frank Navin. It was later changed to Briggs Field for owner Frank Briggs, before assuming the Tiger Stadium name in 1961.

In researching the history of Tiger Stadium, one word that I kept coming across from Tiger fans was “sacred ground”. Indeed, the list of immortals who have played for the Tigers looks like a roster plucked from the Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Al Kaline, Harry Heilmann, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Hal Newhouser, Dizzy Trout, Norm Cash, Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan, Denny McLain, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson and I’m sure I’m missing another dozen that could easily be mentioned. Mark Fidrych made the summer of 1976 must-see baseball in Detroit. Cecil Fielder mashed 167 home runs in the stadium, many of them majestic upper deck jobs. Del Pratt of the St. Louis Browns hit the first home run in the stadium on May 5, 1912.

Speaking of home runs, on July 18th, 1921, Babe Ruth hit what many consider the longest verified home run in baseball history out of Tiger Stadium. The blast, to straightaway center field, cleared the stadium and landed in the street beyond. The distance was estimated at 575 feet. Ruth also hit career home run #700 in Tiger in July of 1934.

Fans walk to Tiger Stadium for the last opening da Photo credit should read JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Ted Williams won the 1941 All-Star game for the American League with a bottom of the ninth walk-off jack in Briggs. Fans of my era recall the 1971 All-Star game when Reggie Jackson, who came up with the Kansas City Athletics, hit a massive home run off Dock Ellis. In true Reggie fashion, Jackson dropped his bat and stood at home plate, enthralled like the rest of us as his missile hit a light tower high above the right field roof before dropping back into the field of play. Norm Cash hit four balls over the right field roof in his career. Only four of the game’s most powerful sluggers (Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Cecil Fielder and Mark McGwire) cleared the left field roof. In what looks like a computer coding error, exactly 11,111 home runs were hit in the park.

The final hit, RBI, and home run in the park was also nothing short of legendary. Tiger Stadium’s last official game was held on September 27th, 1999, against the Kansas City Royals. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Tigers nursing a 4-to-2 lead, they loaded the bases against Jeff Montgomery. It was Montgomery’s second to last career appearance and he didn’t disappoint. At least for Tiger fans. Montgomery gave up a double, single and a walk to load the bases before getting a mercy groundout at home. That brought Robert Fick to the plate. Fick hit three home runs in 1999 and only 69 in his 10-year career, but none bigger than this one. He swung at the first pitch Montgomery offered and delivered a moon shot that bounced off the right field roof. What a way to close out the stadium. Carlos Beltran went down swinging for the final out as the roar of 43,356 Tiger fans shook the place.

Tiger was bigger than it looked: 340 to left, 440 to center and 325 to right. It had some idiosyncrasies. When its upper deck was added to right field in 1936, it was extended over the playing field by about ten feet. Thus, some balls that might have fallen onto the warning track, disappeared into the upper deck. The team added spotlights to the underside of the overhang to better illuminate the warning track for outfielders. The park had a 125-foot flagpole just to the left of dead center, that was in play. Tiger also had many obstructed seats, located behind girders, or situated just high enough in the lower deck, upon which the view of the field was blocked by the upper deck. Despite those warts, Tiger fans still loved their old park. Lights were installed in 1948, leaving only Wrigley as the last park to play in the day. Tiger Stadium was one of the last parks to have a dirt path that ran from home plate to the pitcher’s mound.

The Detroit Lions of the NFL played at Tiger from 1938 to 1974. The last professional football game played in the park came on Thanksgiving Day, 1974. My father and I got up early that morning, went pheasant hunting (which was our Thanksgiving Day tradition) then came home to feast on my mother’s scrumptious spread and watch the Denver Broncos beat the Lions 31 to 27. The Lions moved to the Pontiac Superdome for the 1975 season with the Tigers departing for Comerica Field in 2000. On May 2, 1939, in a game at Briggs, Lou Gehrig didn’t feel well and voluntarily benched himself, ending his games played streak at 2,130. Gehrig never played another inning of baseball, ultimately succumbing to the disease which would eventually bear his name.

A group called The Navin Field Ground Crew painstakingly took care of the abandoned field for several years. Their care allowed the park to host youth baseball and softball games for several years. The end for the Stadium finally came in late June of 2008, when it was razed. Today the site is under development for retail and residential space but remains sacred ground for generations of Tiger fans.

County Stadium - Milwaukee

Do you smell the brats cooking? If Kansas City is ground zero for tailgating in the NFL, Milwaukee owns the title for baseball. The trend took off in Milwaukee when the Seattle Pilots relocated here for the 1970 season. Milwaukee was also a leader in another trend - building a municipally financed stadium in hopes of luring a major league franchise. Ground was broken on County Stadium in 1950, three full years before the Braves moved there from Boston. County was built on an abandoned quarry on the west side of Milwaukee in the Story Hill neighborhood. It was originally built to house the American Association Milwaukee Brewers. A steel shortage brought on by the Korean War pushed the completion date back to 1953. By then the Braves were ready to move in and the minor league Brewers never played a game in their once-to-be home.

Milwaukee fans were gaga over their new team, drawing more than 1.8 million fans in their first season and over 2 million in the second. Brave players, from the stars to the journeymen, were offered free dinners and other amenities like discounted gasoline and housing. The stadium hosted the 1955 All-Star game, which the National League won 6-5 on the 12th inning walk-off home run by Stan Musial. The Braves rose to prominence in the late 1950s, thanks to the powerful bats of Henry Aaron and Eddie Matthews and solid pitching provided by Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl. A wide-eyed 18-year-old catcher named Hawk Taylor played briefly on that 1957 team. Taylor would end his career with the Royals in 1969 and 1970. The Braves beat the Yankees in the 1957 series, but the Bronx bombers returned the favor in 1958. The Braves led the National League in attendance for six consecutive seasons before slipping to second in 1959 as the Los Angeles Dodgers overtook them. By 1965 the team was struggling and the owners, as owners are wont to do, wanted a larger television market. For the 1966 season, they relocated the Braves to Atlanta.

County Stadium 1955
County Stadium circa 1955
Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

County sat empty for the better part of five years, save for a few Green Bay Packer games each fall, plus a handful of Chicago White Sox games each summer. The White Sox games were so popular in Milwaukee that the ten they played there would often account for more than 35% of the White Sox total attendance for the season. In 1970, a local car dealer named Allan Huber Selig, bought the expansion Seattle Pilots out of bankruptcy court and moved them into County. The move was so abrupt that the newly named Brewers didn’t even have time to order new jerseys. They just ripped the Seattle and Pilots off the original uniforms and sewed on Milwaukee and Brewers. That is how the Brewers' colors became blue and yellow. County hosted its second All-Star game in 1975 and its final World Series in 1982. Aaron, in a classy move, returned to Milwaukee for the final two seasons of his career, thus affording American League fans a chance to see the all-time home run leader play. Aaron hit the final home run of his career on July 20, 1976, in County off former Royal Dick Drago.

With the economics of baseball changing, County was on life support. The park had no luxury boxes, a must for revenue generation. The final game in County came on September 28th, 2000, when the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Brewers by a score of 8-1. Sean Casey of the Reds hit the last home run in the park. Many of the Braves and Brewers notables were in attendance with Bob Uecker delivering the benediction ending with a heartfelt, “so long old friend and goodnight, everybody.”

Next door to County, a new retractable roof stadium was rising in the parking lot. Miller Park opened for the 2001 season and remains one of the premier parks in baseball. There is a marker outside of Miller Park that shows where home plate was for County. In a nice touch, the old infield of County was converted into a Little League field. There is also a bronze marker where Aaron’s 755 and final home run landed.

If you want to see what County looked like, watch the classic baseball movie Major League. All of the “home” scenes in the movie were filmed in County, including the final game against the New York Yankees. When announcements on Milwaukee television stations were made asking for extra’s for the final scenes, a capacity crowd turned out. In the movie you can see several people in the stands wearing shirts with the logo of Quad Graphics, a Milwaukee area company, whose employees turned out in force. I also saw a young man wearing an Iowa football shirt. Go Hawks!

The stadium was uniform in size: 315 to left, 402 to center, and 315 to right. The old yard also saw its share of history over the years. In 1959, Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings against the Braves, and lost. Henry Aaron set several major league records in his last season in County. Nolan Ryan won his 300th career game there in July of 1990. In 1992, Robin Yount collected his 3,000th career hit in County. Cecil Fielder was the only player to ever hit a ball completely out of the park with a September 1991 blast off Dan Plesac. No story about County would be complete without remembering Bernie Brewer, who would slide down a slipper slide and into a large mug of beer with each Brewer home run. The park also started the tradition of the Sausage race between the sixth and seventh inning of each game. My son James participated in a similar race at Target Field several years ago on opening day. He was the mosquito and had a comfortable lead going into the homestretch before some jerk kid stuck out his arm on the first base side and clotheslined him, knocking him off balance. Being a competitive sort, I naturally wanted my kid to win the race, but it was funny as hell.

Metropolitan Stadium - Bloomington, Minnesota

When Metropolitan Stadium was built in 1956, it sat about 20 miles south of downtown Minneapolis in the middle of cornfields. Like most American cities, metro Minneapolis experienced explosive growth and the area hasn’t been farmland for several decades. In fact, if you’ve ever visited the massive Mall of America, you’ve stood on the ground where “The Met” once stood. Much like its eastern neighbor, County Stadium, The Met was built in the hopes of attracting a major-league tenant. Until the city was able to lure a major league team, the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association played in the park. Finally, in 1961, Washington Senators owner Calvin Griffith agreed to move his team to Bloomington.

Griffith, who had a reputation as a skinflint, cajoled guaranteed attendance and other perks out of the city in exchange for the team that now went by the name of Twins. Minneapolis-area baseball fans were thrilled and over 1.2 million came out that first season to see a young and rapidly improving team, led by Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison. Recent Hall of Fame inductee Jim Kaat, in just his third season, was on that squad, and would soon blossom into a star.

The park had a bit of a disjointed feel to it. It had a triple deck looped around the infield and double decked stands that ran the length of the right field line. Sitting on the left field line were bleachers. A double-decked stand was eventually erected in left field, but was actually paid for by the NFL’s Vikings, since the Griffith family was always famously short of cash. By 1965, the Twins were in the World Series. The Met also hosted the 1965 All-Star game.

The Vikings also turned into a winner in the late 1960s and early 1970s, often using the frigid Minnesota winters and the raucous crowd at the Met for a formidable home field advantage. By 1970, both teams were grumbling about the condition of the stadium and the field. Given the arctic cold that the Vikings often played in and the unpredictable early spring weather for the Twins, a dome stadium made a lot of sense. In a rare coincidence, both the Twins and the Vikings played their final games in the Met against Kansas City. The Twins' final game came on September 30th, 1981, as the Royals took a 5-to-2 win. The Royals Clint Hurdle hit the final home run in the Met, a 4th inning shot to deep right field off Fernando Arroyo. Larry Gura pitched a complete game, four-hitter for the win.

36th Major League Baseball All-Star Game held at Metropolitan Stadium, Bloomington, Mn., July 13, 1965. Minneapolis Tribune staff photo by Dwight Miller.
The Met, circa 1965

The Chiefs and Vikings closed out the stadium on December 20th, 1981, with the Chiefs winning a 10-to-6 contest that was played in negative 8 wind chills. Yes, a domed stadium was starting to make a lot of sense. After the game, fans began dismantling seats, bleachers, goal posts, turf, and anything else they could haul off. Hundreds of minor injuries were reported after the melee. The stadium sat empty for the next three years before being razed in 1985.

The Mall of America opened on the site in 1992 and still holds some remnants of the Met. Located in the Nickelodeon Theme Park, there is a plaque of home plate. Standing at the plate, if you raise your left hand (from a right-handed batting stance) and look way, way up, you’ll see a red seat attached to a wall. That’s the spot where a 520-foot Harmon Killebrew home run landed on June 3rd, 1967, the longest blast in The Met’s history. The flagpole for The Met now graces the plaza outside of the Twins' new home, the wonderful Target Field.