Whether as a 103-year-old site for pro baseball or as an 87-year-old stadium, the corner of Michigan and Trumbull is the home of memories for millions of fans. The park sat vacant since hosting its final game on Sept. 27, 1999, until June 30, 2008, when demolition began.
Professional baseball was first played on the site, at a 5,000-seat ballpark known as Bennett Park, on April 28, 1896 — three years before Detroit even had an auto plant. The field, named after fan favorite Charlie Bennett, was built on the former site of a municipal hay market. The park was razed after the 1911 season and replaced with 23,000-seat Navin Field. The ballpark as we know it today opened April 20, 1912, the same day as Fenway Park in Boston — and six days after the RMS Titanic sank.
The queen of diamonds
Tiger Stadium was designed by the father and son team of Frank C. Osborn and Kenneth H. Osborn. Frank Osborn founded Osborn Engineering in Cleveland in 1892. The company pioneered in the use of reinforced concrete and built municipal and industrial facilities throughout the country. The firm designed more than 100 sports stadiums, including Fenway Park in Boston and Yankee Stadium in New York. Bernard Green of the same firm also designed Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
The yard was expanded several times and had its name changed to Briggs Stadium in 1938 — the same year it was expanded to a capacity of 53,000. In 1961, a scoreboard was installed in center field, but it was later moved to left field after hitters complained that it was in their line of sight. That same year, 1961, also was the year the ballpark finally became Tiger Stadium. For many Detroiters, however, the place was known simply as The Corner.
More than 11,000 home runs were creamed at the Corner. Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle hit the longest dingers of their careers at the stadium. Detroit outfielder George Stallings smacked the first round-tripper at the site on April 28, 1896, and Tiger Robert Fick clobbered the last: a grand slam in the final game that nearly cleared the right field roof. Thirty-six moon shots literally left the park since the upper deck was added in 1938. Tiger great Norm Cash did it four times; Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle accomplished the feat three times.
In his farewell remarks following the final game, Ernie Harwell noted that the Corner hosted 6,873 regular season games, 35 postseason contests and three All-Star Games — in 1941, 1951 and 1971. The location was unique because, as a charter member of the American League, every American League starting player from 1900-1999 — from Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Alvaro Espinoza to Jim Walewander — played at Michigan and Trumbull. There also were 10 no-hitters pitched at Tiger Stadium, but only two were by Tigers: Virgil Trucks in 1952 and George Mullin in 1910.
The 100 millionth fan entered Tiger Stadium on July 6, 1994.
Baseball wasn’t the only sport played at the ballpark. The first football game was held there on Oct. 9, 1921, when Detroit (also called the Tigers) squeaked by Dayton, 10-7. The Detroit Panthers would roam the Corner from 1925 to 1926 before the Lions set up shop at Briggs Stadium in 1938. Except for 1940, the Lions called the Corner home until Nov. 28, 1974, when they lost, 31-27 to Denver.
Athletes weren’t the only stars to roam the Corner: Pat Boone, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Rod Stewart, Kiss and the Eagles were among the musical stars who performed there. On June 28, 1990, South African leader Nelson Mandela thrilled 49,000 listeners at Tiger Stadium by retelling his life during apartheid. The Three Tenors — Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti — sang before more than 31,000 there on July 17, 1999.
The park closed two months later.
There were many attempts to save and renovate the ballpark, but owner Mike Ilitch never seriously considered any of them, wanting a new park with nicer facilities and luxury boxes — which he said was necessary to make the team competitive. This was despite the fact that equally old ballparks, such as Fenway in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago, continue to draw huge crowds.
The stadium became a State of Michigan Historic Site in 1975 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
A corner of The Corner
In 2008, nine years after baseball was last played at Tiger Stadium, the city decided it was time to tear it down. Why then? One reason might have been the deal struck with the demolition company. Instead of the city having to pay to have the landmark razed, the demolition company did it for the salvage rights to reuse the bricks and melt down and reuse the concrete and steel that once held the ballpark together. The first major day of demolition was July 9, 2008, as demolition crews tore into the left-center field bleachers.
Another effort was launched to save a corner of the ballpark for future generations. The plan by the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy called for redeveloping the last chunk of the stadium into a $27-million project that would convert space from the dugout-to-dugout section into commercial space and a community center. The playing field would have been preserved for youth baseball.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, included a $3.8-million earmark for the stadium preservation in an omnibus spending package in February 2009, leading to calls of pork barrel spending by some in Congress. The conservancy also said as of June 1, 2009, it had about $4 million in cash and about $18 million in tax credits available, plus another $5 million in commitments.
But despite the group’s fund-raising efforts, Detroit’s Economic Development Corp. commission voted 7-1 on June 2, 2009, to level the site anyway. The commission cited safety and security concerns in its decision, but it also said it wanted to make it more attractive to developers — even though there is no shortage of vacant land in the city nor is there any interest in building on the site of the ballpark. But the high prices of steel had collapsed since demolition started, and the city had to cough up $400,000 to finish the job.
The DEGC also said the group had not met fund-raising milestones to prove the project was financially viable, something the group chalks up to struggling local and national economies.
Levin’s office issued a statement blasting the DEGC’s decision: “The laudable efforts of energetic citizens to foster further revitalization in the Corktown neighborhood deserve to be fostered and supported, not squelched. With no other plans in the wings for this unique and historic parcel of land, I can’t understand why the Economic Development Corp. would choose demolition and create more vacant land in a city that is already filled with too much vacant land,” it said.
Former State Majority Floor Leader Steve Tobocman, a Detroit Democrat and conservancy board member, said after the DEGC’s announcment that “demolition was valued more highly than the resources we were able to obtain because we were unable to complete our efforts to secure funding. … I don’t think disappointment quite captures where I am at.”
On June 5, 2009, demolition began at the Corner, but preservationists succeeded in getting a temporary restraining order to halt the wreckers. A preservationist had to break through the fence and run onto the field to stop them. That bought preservationists the weekend, but three days later, on June 8, 2009, a judge dismissed their efforts and ruled demolition could continue. Demolition crews wasted no time whatsoever, tearing into the upper deck and hitting the famous broadcast booth where Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell called games from for decades. One day later, the entire booth laid in a crumbled pile on the lower grandstand. Demolition continued from the third base side to home toward first base.
About 2:30 p.m. June 22, 2009, as wreckers were tearing into the first base side of the ballpark, the entire upper deck unexpectedly collapsed upon itself. No one was hurt in the collapse, but a crane was caught in the debris, according to witness accounts. The collapse rendered the ballpark almost unrecognizable and gave the first idea of what it will look like to not have The Corner on the site for the first time in almost 100 years.
But then demolition work stopped for more than a month with not a soul seen on the site except for the occasional trespasser going to pay his or her last respects. The demolition company said it was waiting for permission to close down Michigan Avenue, so it could raze the elevator tower and last remaining pieces of the park. For the City of Detroit being in such a rush to raze this significant piece of its past, the lengthy delay made the pain that much worse for preservationists.
Finally, on Sept. 10, demolition resumed with the clearing of rubble. On 9:24 a.m. Sept. 21, the last piece of the storied ballpark was brought down. It was 14 months after demolition had started — and nearly 10 years to the day that the final game was played at the site.
The DEGC openly admitted in the newspapers that there are no redevelopment offers for the vacant site that is fenced in by a plain chain-link fence. As of August 2011, the site continues to be nothing but a fenced in grass lot that volunteers have to mow. Otherwise, the beloved field would be just another overgrown lot, indistinguishable from the tens of thousands that dot the city.
On Dec. 16, 2009, the left field scoreboard from Tiger Stadium was installed at the baseball field at Wayne State University.
As of December 2012, the site remains empty and unused and the point of the stadium’s demolition unclear.