Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Georgia Peach, the Sultan of Swat & Detroit's 30th annual Babe Ruth Birthday Bash

The first time George Ruth came to Michigan and Trumbull on May 11, 1915, Ty Cobb faced him twice and had two singles as the Tigers beat the Red Sox, 5-1. Ruth was a pitcher for Boston then—and soon became the best left-handed hurler in the American League.

You know George better, no doubt, as a Yankee slugger named Babe—and when he started visiting Detroit in that guise in the 1920s, he routinely filled Navin Field. He was the biggest sports star America had seen—well, since Cobb.

Cobb hated the slugger Babe, at least at first. The introduction of a livelier ball in 1920 meant that Cobb’s “small ball” brand of baseball—punching hits and wreaking havoc on the base paths—was over.

Years ago, when I wrote Queen of Diamonds, I recycled what I then knew about Cobb, and it wasn’t flattering. Like most of us, I didn’t know anything different. 

But now I do. I’ve recently read Charles Leerhsen’s astounding new biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.

It turns out that Cobb wasn’t a racist psychopath, but a psychological intimidator—fiercely competitive with a sharp intellect, short-tempered but sometimes kind.

The Cobb we thought we knew during the past half-century was in large part a caricature created by a hack ghostwriter named Al Stump. Director Ron Shelton piled on with a ridiculous movie in 1994 starring Tommy Lee Jones:

Leerhsen suggests we like to feel superior to this cartoon of a Southern rube. But, in fact, Cobb actually came from an abolitionist family. And, no, he didn’t murder a black man in an alley in Detroit. He didn’t sharpen his spikes. He was well read and multi-faceted.

A Terrible Beauty is both a merciless dissection of a false narrative built on shoddy journalism and a redemptive illustration of what dogged and fair journalism can reveal—even about a subject we thought we knew. In this heyday of fake news and facts up for grabs, it’s a triumph of solid research over conjecture.

Nowhere does Cobb’s reputation deserve rehabilitation more than here in Detroit. We honor Joe Louis and Gordie Howe, but we malign this other great local sports hero—and very unfairly. Everyone who wants to understand an important part of our city’s history should read A Terrible Beauty. And that goes quadruple if you’re any kind of baseball fan.

And if you are—or if you just enjoy a party—be at Nemo’s Bar & Grill the evening of Saturday, Feb. 4. That’s when Navin Field Grounds Crew founder Tom Derry will throw his 30th annual Babe Ruth birthday bash:

This year there’ll be a swing band, and the special guest will be ex-Tiger Denny McLain, the last man who will ever win 30 games in a single season (he did it in the world championship season of 1968). Derry points out that McLain, like his hero the Babe, liked “living large” and that 30 years and 30 wins adds up to sixty—the famed single-season home run record that Ruth held for 34 years.

Leerhsen tells us that in retirement Cobb and Ruth eventually became friends and played golf together. Fittingly, Ty’s granddaughter Cindy Cobb will also be at the Ruth bash, where we’ll drink a few toasts to baseball history a stone’s throw from where the Babe once threw pitches to the “Georgia Peach.”

The Babe Ruth Birthday Party takes place Saturday, February 4, at 7:14 p.m., at Nemo's Bar & Grill in Detroit's historic Corktown neighborhood.

Click here for directions.
And click here for more details.

Michael Betzold is a Detroit-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Motor City Muckraker. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The end of an era comes to the site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium

Acclaimed architect and Michigan native John Davids said, "Any fool can maintain a current Major League baseball field. But it takes real talent to bring a ball field back from the dead."
That's what the NFGC did in 2010.
Despite being threatened with arrest from the City of Detroit, we took a weed- and garbage-infested lot and turned it into a field of dreams. We created a tourist destination, drawing visitors from around the world.
We never asked The Skillman FoundationThe Kresge Foundation, the Ralph Wilson Foundation, or the Detroit Tigers for a penny. We paid for everything ourselves.
We're the group that brought youth baseball to Michigan and Trumbull. We also brought back adult fast-pitch baseball, and vintage "base ball," as it was played in the 1860s.
We provided a much-needed green space in the heart of Detroit's historic Corktown neighborhood. For the past six years, this has been an open park where residents could play sports, walk their dogs, have picnics and parties, and fly kites.
It's also been a site where people have come to get married, and to scatter the ashes of their loved ones. This is a story that is uniquely Detroit.
We don't believe there has ever been another time when a Major League Baseball stadium was torn down, and a group of volunteers decided to rescue the field and preserve a public park.
Our six-year run at the field is over. We're pleased that baseball will continue to be played at The Corner. We hope that Detroit PAL will decide to at least save the grass and dirt infield. We also hope the field will remain accessible to the public.
While we've been around for more than six years, I believe the NFGC is still in its infancy. Our group is not only passionate about baseball, we also want to work to improve parks in Detroit and the surrounding area.
We might go to historic Hamtramck Stadium, Northwestern High School, or any number of parks in Detroit.
We will continue to host cool events, like our recent screening of Mark Fidrych's Monday night victory over the Yankees in 1976.
Some members of the NFGC live in Detroit, and some don't. But Detroit lives in every member of our crew.
We are excited as we move on to our next project. We'll be sure to keep you posted.
As for me, I didn't take any sod from the field as a souvenir. Instead, I'll take all the friends I've made at Navin Field over the past six years. They mean more to me than anything.
Thank you for all your kind words since May of 2010. We couldn't have restored this field without your support.

Tom Derry
Navin Field Grounds Crew

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Celebrate the Year of the Bird Tuesday, June 28 at Cinema Detroit

TUESDAY, JUNE 28, 2016
Doors at 6 p.m. ​ 
Showtime at 7 p.m.

4126 Third St., Detroit

Join Cinema Detroit and the Navin Field Grounds Crew as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych's signature game with the Detroit Tigers.

On June 28, 1976, before a live TV audience on ABC's Monday Night Baseball, Detroit's tongue-tied 21-year-old rookie phenom Mark Fidrych goes the distance, mowing down Billy Martin's New York Yankees, 5-1, and electrifying the Tiger Stadium crowd with his wacky antics and childlike exuberance.

This was the night America discovered The Bird.

After the game, with 48,000 fans chanting "We want the Bird!" the reluctant rookie emerges from the Tigers' dugout to a standing ovation, covering his head in his hands and grinning from ear to ear.

Teenage girls shriek with glee. 
Old ladies shout for joy. 
Policemen scramble to shake his hand.

This was The Bird's finest hour.

Join us, 40 years to the day, as we screen the game in its entirety and celebrate the spirit of '76, the spirit of Tiger Stadium, and the spirit of the late, great Mark "The Bird" Fidrych.

(The game originally aired June 28, 1976, but was blacked out in the Detroit area.)

Now see the game in its entirety for the first time on the big screen in Detroit, and see Mark "The Bird" Fidrych in his prime.
No tickets needed for this very special event.
Seating is limited, so please arrive early.

Doors open at 6 p.m.
Showtime is at 7 p.m. 

Suggested $7 donation at the door.

For those of you on Facebook, click here to RSVP to the event.
A​ portion of the proceeds will benefit the Mark Fidrych Foundation.

Also, while supplies last, guests of Cinema Detroit will receive a commemorative Mark "The Bird" Fidrych rookie card:

Cinema Detroit is located at 4126 Third Street in Midtown Detroit.
For directions, click here.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Safe at home

The author and his daughter, Katherine Brown, at Detroit's historic Navin Field. 

After living in California for nearly 40 years, longtime Tigers fan and Navin Field Grounds Crew member Robert Howe proves you can go home again.



A single word that conjures up so many things. It could be the home where we grew up or that special place where we felt our most comfortable, our home away from home. 

From the late 1950s through the late 1970's, I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. 

In 1965 when I was just 7, my dad, Ernie Howe, introduced me to the game of baseball — Detroit Tigers baseball at Tiger Stadium. I knew that very day that I'd discovered my home away from home. 

Holding my dad's hand, we walked through the tunnels behind the stands, passing the concession stands, walking up the ramp, and it at was this moment that my world changed forever! Up until then, my only view of the ballpark had been in black-and-white, on TV in our living room.

Now, here I was in this cathedral of baseball. I couldn't get over how green everything was. From the wooden seats, to the facade, but most of all the emerald green of the grass. It started in front of home plate, then seemed to go on forever! I watched in amazement as a group of men ran out onto the field, each of them carrying the biggest brooms I had ever seen. Then in unison, they began to sweep the infield dirt in what can only be described as a baseball ballet. It became a goal of mine to one day groom that very infield.

Little did I know.

Built in 1895 at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, the first baseball structure on the site was called Bennett Park, named after former Tigers catcher Charlie Bennett. The initial structure was built out of wood, and the first professional game was played there on April 28, 1896 (My dad's birthday was April 28, 1919).

In 1911, because of the concern of fire, Detroit Tigers owner Frank Navin demolished the original
ballpark and erected a new concrete-and-steel structure. After Navin died in 1935, new owner Walter Briggs remodeled and expanded the ballpark into what most of us remember today. 

The stadium was completely enclosed, with the flagpole located in left-center field, the only flagpole in Major League Baseball in play. In 1961, broadcasting magnate John Fetzer bought the team from the Briggs family and changed the name to Tiger Stadium, the name it would remain until its demolition in 2009.

After that first game in 1965, my dad and I (and sometimes my mom) spent many summer days at
"The Corner." 1968 was a magical year! After losing the pennant by one game in 1967, the year Detroit was devastated by the riots, the Tigers helped to heal the city in 1968, winning their first pennant in 23 years, going on to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series coming back from a three games to one deficit! 

It would be another 16 years before the Tigers would win another world championship. The 1984 Tigers roared out of the gate with a 35-5 start, eventually beating the San Diego Padres in the World Series four games to one.

The Tigers won the American League East in 1987, but were eliminated in the first round of playoffs. It would be the last time Tiger Stadium would host a postseason series. 

There's a line in the movie A League of Their Own when the manager played by Tom Hanks says, "There's no crying in baseball!"

The Tigers played their final game at The Corner to a sellout crowd on September 27, 1999. That day, there was crying in baseball. 

In 2009, after the stadium sat abandoned for nearly 10 years, the City of Detroit tore it down, tearing out the hearts of Tigers fans everywhere. 2010 saw the passing of Hall of Fame and longtime Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell. 

Ernie was the voice of the baseball in Detroit, beginning in 1960, up until his retirement in 2002.

A week after Ernie's passing, a Detroit mailman named Tom Derry drove to the vacant lot where Tiger Stadium once stood to play a game of catch in Ernie's memory. What Tom found, instead of that beautiful emerald green diamond, was a neglected patch of weeds and nine acres of garbage. 

But instead of crying, Tom decided to take it upon himself, along with the help of his fiancee, Sarah, and his new friends Dave Mesrey and Joe Michnuk, to cut the weeds, mow the grass, and pick up the trash.

The Navin Field Grounds Crew was born that day. 

For the next six years, Tom and his merry band of volunteers showed up every Sunday at the site of historic Tiger Stadium, mowing, weeding, and picking up the pesky trash, bringing a diamond back from the rough.

My wife, Sheilagh, and I first heard about this dedicated group of volunteers while living in Northern
California in 2011. The memories came flooding back. 

Even though I moved from Michigan in 1978 when my dad retired after 30 years with a local building contractor, my allegiance for the Tigers never wavered. I never became a Dodgers, Angels, Athletics, or Padres fan the entire time. 

In 2009 I started to get homesick for the place where I grew up. In 2012, our youngest daughter, Katherine (born in 1984, the year of the Tigers' last world championship, she didn't stand a chance; the Tigers are in her DNA), treated her dad to a wonderful trip to Detroit, attending our first Tigers game together at Comerica Park.

We watched the Tigers sweep a four-game series against the Cleveland Indians. We both wanted to
visit Navin Field, site of historic Tiger Stadium, so I could show her where I watched games growing up. We walked from our hotel to "The Corner" bringing our gloves, a couple of balls, and my Al Kaline bat. One of the best days of my life. (Katherine would later gift me with an amazing book of memories from our trip.) I knew then, standing on that field, that I needed to come home.

My wife, (the best in the world) didn't hesitate when I asked her if she would move to Michigan.
July 27, 2013, two moving trucks, three dogs, a house we had purchased sight unseen (albeit for a
few online photos and an inspection by my childhood friend Fred Makowski), we came home!

After a month of working on the house, my honey and I took the weekend off because I wanted to
take Sheilagh down to the old ballpark. Several members of NFGC were there. We introduced
ourselves, and we were immediately welcomed by Tom Derry himself as if we'd known each other for years. (That's the way Tom is with everyone he meets.)

I asked Tom if I could grab a broom and help out, fulfilling that almost 50-year-old memory, to sweep the infield at Tiger Stadium. Tom said, "Of course!" 

I don't know who had the biggest smile that day, myself or my sweet wife, who knows how much I love baseball. My wife had become a Tigers fan (how could she not?), amazing me every day with her growing knowledge of not only the game but the history of the Detroit Tigers. We both knew that day that coming home was the right decision. 

This field was our "refuge" from the rest of the world, to quote Ernie Harwell. It was not only the energy of the field, fueled by the memories of all of the baseball heroes who had played on her, it was combined with the energy of this magnificent group of unselfish people, who took care of her on their own dime, never asking for donations.

To paraphrase the James Earl Jones speech in Field of Dreams, "People will come, Tom. They'll come to Michigan for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past."

"Of course, we won't mind if you have a look around," you'll say. "It's only twenty dollars per person." They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack."

But unlike the movie, Tom has never asked for a dime. The crew's budget has largely come out of Tom's pocket, expecting nothing in return. Yet, people have offered money to pay for gas or a broom or a rake, because this very special place means so much to them. 

2013 saw the premiere of Stealing Home the award-winning documentary about the NFGC.

Director Jason Roche spent over two years, nearly every weekend, shooting footage of not only the grounds crew, but also filming memories of the hundreds of visitors who make the weekly trek to a very special place in their hearts and minds. 

Jason's film brought so much attention to the field and the Grounds Crew, that the hundreds of weekly visitors turned into thousands from all over the world! 

Jason, we cannot thank you enough for your huge contribution of love.

In 2014, Sheilagh and I were honored to attend the wedding of Tom and Sarah Derry on the very field Tom brought back to life. Vintage baseball returned to the corner, playing by the original rules laid out for the game, and officiated by Michael “Preacher” Copado. 

So very fitting for a place with its rich history of the game. Then there were all the pickup games that occurred at a moment's notice when groups of people arrived at the field. Total strangers with a common bond, getting together to "have a catch" because of their love of this wonderful, magical place. People taking pictures on the mound, or at home plate, or from their baseball hero's position. 

Others have brought their loved ones' ashes, scattering them on the field because it was either the request of that loved one, or the field meant so much to the person who was scattering the ashes, because this was where they and their loved one spent so much time together, at their home away from home.

For the last two and a half years (which has seemed like mere minutes), my honey and I have made
the one-hour trip south to the Motor City, bringing our love and affection to not only that beautiful
nine acres of hallowed ground, but to that wonderful family called the Navin Field Grounds Crew, and that love and affection has been returned to us a thousand fold. 

To Tom and Sarah Derry, words cannot express how much your friendship means to us. 

To Joe, Andorra, Rick, Mickey, John, Adam, Angemala, Bill, Baseline Bob, Bart, Dave, Laura, Donald, and Erik ... thank you for accepting us into the family. 

We don't know what the future holds for us at "The Corner," but no matter where we go and what we do to preserve and save another baseball legend in the Detroit area, we'll always have our memories of this wonderful place and, most importantly, we'll always be the Navin Field Ground Crew.

Thanks to Tom Derry, the people have come. 
They've all come home.

Left to right: NFGC's Rick DeLorme, Sheilagh Howe, and Robert Howe.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Volunteers brave snow and cold to help keep Navin Field clean, even in the dead of winter

Laura Tas (left) and Adam Millikin pick up trash Sunday morning at Detroit's Navin Field, site of historic Tiger Stadium.

CORKTOWN — With temperatures in the teens and the wind chill hovering around zero Sunday, it was a perfect day for bundling up and staying indoors.  

But not for Adam Millikin.

Millikin, a hardy soul and self-styled Detroit sports superfan, suffers from chronic back and leg pain. But that didn't stop him from doing his part Sunday morning to help keep Navin Field clean.

Along with fellow Navin Field Grounds Crew member Laura Tas, Millikin braved the cold Sunday morning to pick up trash in the snow at his beloved Navin Field.

Despite the frigid temperatures Sunday, Millikin and Tas were still hard at work on the frozen tundra. 

"This is nothing to old Lions fans," Millikin said, recalling the days when Detroit's beleaguered NFL franchise played at Tiger Stadium.

Adam Millkin, right, started many a wave in the bleachers at old Tiger Stadium.

A longtime Detroiter and former Tiger Stadium "bleacher creature," Millikin is cut from the same cloth as Dancin' Gus Sinaris and Joe "The Brow" Diroff, superfans from a bygone era who embodied the spirit of Tiger Stadium. 

And like most of the men and women on the Navin Field Grounds Crew, Millikin finds inspiration in their patron saint, Herbie Redmond.

But "Dancin' Herbie," the beloved old Tiger Stadium groundskeeper, never braved these kinds of temperatures

"I felt the spirit of Tiger Stadium here today," Millikin said. "I just want to help keep that spirit alive."

Laura Tas, a native of Detroit's east side, was clearly in the spirit Sunday morning, even though Opening Day is still more than a month away. 

"My grandfather brought me to Tiger Stadium as far back as 1965," Tas said. "One of my fondest memories of my father is him making a thermos of hot chocolate for me and coffee for him and whisking me to a game in late September or early October of 1968." 

In the 1920s, Tas's grandmother lived on Trumbull Avenue when wooden sidewalks still surrounded the old ballpark. 

"She would roller skate around and around, and often spoke with the ballplayers," Tas said. "She met Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.  They must have been charmed,  as she was a beautiful little girl with black hair and blue eyes and always a huge bow on her head."  

To Tas, even if it's blanketed in snow, Navin Field is still a field of dreams. 

"This city and this field are a part of me," she said. "They're in my heart."