Few baseball addresses are as well known as “The Corner of Michigan and Trumbull,” and when the demolition of Tiger Stadium officially began on June 30th, you can be sure that the baseball gods shed a tear. But hope remains for one of the game’s most historic ballparks. Gary Gillette, the editor of The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, an occasional contributor to BP.com, and an officer and member of the board of directors of the non-profit Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, talked about the attempt to preserve at least some of what was the home of the Detroit Tigers from April 20, 1912-September 27, 1999.
David Laurila: What is the current status of preserving Tiger Stadium?
Gary Gillette: The city and the mayor of Detroit have given us an extension until August 1st. That’s from the deadline of June 1st,, by which time we were supposed to have raised $369,000–$300,000 of which was to reimburse the city for money they wouldn’t have gotten from the demolition contractor because they didn’t demolish the whole thing. In this odd way, the demolition contractor is doing the work for free because of the value of scrap steel–supposedly. Let’s just say that there are questions about a lot of contracts in the city of Detroit these days, and the mayor probably isn’t paying a lot of attention to this because he has other things to do.
So we have the extension until August 1st, and Senator Levin has put in an earmark proposal for Tiger Stadium for $15 million [for FY 2009]. If we get any substantial portion of that, I think that while we’re not home free, we are going to save either the 1912 portion of the stadium that remains–it’s a little past first base and third base; it includes the clubhouses and the dugouts and the field itself, plus maybe the upper deck or part of the upper deck. And if we do the upper deck above that 1912 footprint we’re really talking about a 1923 configuration minus what would be past first and third base. We’ve got a decent chance of pulling this off. It’s never been done before, and it’s only because of the unique circumstances of the city of Detroit that we can really even try this. This is the worst economy in Detroit since the Great Depression; there is plenty of vacant land and plenty of vacant buildings. So there is no real need for that land, although it is true that the neighborhood that Tiger Stadium is in, Corktown, does want to see something happen, either progress or see it demolished.
DL: The media often impacts political decisions. How has the Detroit media portrayed the situation?
GG: I have very low opinions of the way the media has covered this. John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press has done a good job of reporting this, but the Detroit News has done a terrible job. They have basically written stories saying, “These guys have failed and they’re going to fail again; it’s all over with.” They literally wrote that story before June 1st. The media is hit-and-run, because the battle over Tiger Stadium, you could argue, has been going on for 20 years now–ever since the late 1980s when it became clear that Tom Monaghan was looking for a replacement.
There has been so much acrimony–not only between the fans and the Tigers, and the fans and the city of Detroit, but also between different groups of fans who are positioning themselves to save it. Many proposals have been floated in the nine years since the Stadium has been abandoned–some of which I think deserved serious consideration, and some of which didn’t–yet virtually none of them were given a serious look-see by the city. It’s just been tremendously confused, and I think most people just feel, “Oh, it’s another attempt to save Tigers Stadium, Ernie Harwell is involved, and wouldn’t it be nice, but this is Detroit and nothing like that ever gets done.”
DL: Ernie Harwell is obviously a broadcasting legend and an icon to Tigers fans. Can you say a little about his involvement in the project?
GG: Ernie got involved last year after almost eight years of the Stadium being empty. He did not initially come to work with our group, but when we were asked if we would work with him, we said “Yes!” Ernie, and his attorney and agent, Gary Spicer, have been put on our board. Gary attends every meeting, and Ernie attends some of our meetings, and of course he’s a tremendous asset because of his visibility.
DL: Have many former Tigers players become involved in any way?
GG: Pretty much not at all. That’s likely because the Tigers players who are still in the community, and have connections and feelings for the stadium, generally have some relationship with the Tigers. They’re either on the payroll, like Willie Horton and Al Kaline, or they get brought back for fantasy camps, autograph signings, or to schmooze with sponsors. Some of these ballplayers really need the money, and others are probably simply thinking that if the Tigers aren’t saying, “Hey, why don’t you help out?” they’re not going to.
DL: Tigers ownership is obviously committed to Comerica Park, but do they have no interest in preserving Tiger Stadium from a historical perspective?
GG: We cannot get a response from the Ilitches on what they want to see done, or whether they want to work with us. I have not personally approached them, but other board members have talked to people in their organization and they have been noncommittal. They haven’t said that they want to see us succeed, nor have they said they don’t want us to succeed; we have no relationship with them. Various people have various opinions on what their status really is, but they’ve been really closemouthed about it.
DL: Why should Tiger Stadium be saved?
GG: Tiger Stadium should be saved because it’s a tremendously important building; it’s an historic building. No other baseball park has ever been saved once its major league pro sports tenants left. Memorial Stadium in Baltimore got demolished after the Ravens left, and just think about this: it was built as a memorial to the veterans of World War I and World War II, and this memorial wall, which was the heart of Memorial Stadium-–they didn’t even save that; they knocked it down. There’s a little plaque between Camden Yards and the Ravens’ new field, “memorializing” the memorial wall at Memorial Stadium, which is now gone. But the city of Detroit is in a unique position to save Tiger Stadium because it has lots of empty land and abandoned buildings that could be rehabbed if people need historic buildings. And there’s no development pressure because of the economy.
So we have a unique opportunity. Sometimes people say, “Why don’t you do what Cleveland has done to League Park?” Well, League Park was demolished more than 50 years ago, and now Cleveland is talking about rebuilding a portion of it. But what we’re trying to do has never been done. The Detroit Convention and Visitors’ Bureau has identified sports tourism and sports cultural heritage as areas to focus on, and this fits in perfectly with that theme. Tiger Stadium would be a great place to have a museum. We could have a Jewish ballplayers exhibit, with Hank Greenberg having been a Tiger. There’s Ty Cobb, of course, and the Ty Cobb Museum has expressed some interest. Then there are the almost-forgotten black ballplayers, including Negro League great and Hall of Famer Turkey Stearns, who was from Detroit and worked for Walter O. Briggs, Sr., the former owner of the Tigers. There are Latino ballplayers, of whom Ozzie Virgil Sr. was the first minority to play for the Tigers and the first Dominican player to play in the major leagues. (Interestingly, there are people who argue whether he was black or not–he was considered both black and Latin at the time.) The Ernie Harwell collection, now housed at the Detroit Public Library, could be displayed there, or at least part of it could be.
It should be a win-win-win for the city of Detroit and for Tigers fans, not to mention for a historic building that deserves a better fate than a wrecking ball.