Monday, December 22, 2014

Yesterday and Today: Mark 'The Bird' Fidrych

This is the latest installment in our photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009). 

Photoshop by Nick Yim. Current photo and concept by Tom Derry.

'The Bird' is still the word in Detroit

By Dave Mesrey

There was nothing like him.

A mop-topped, tongue-tied rookie from parts unknown, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych took the baseball world by storm in the summer of '76. 

He was just 21 years old. 

The lanky right-hander, who barely even made the team out of spring training that year, had started the season in the Tigers' bullpen. But in his first start against the Indians on May 15, The Bird nearly threw a no-hitter.
"He really messes up your concentration," said Indians third baseman (and future Tigers manager) Buddy Bell, who got the first hit off Fidrych leading off the seventh inning. "He's always talking to himself. ... All you could hear was, 'OK, ball, we're going to do this.'"
"This kid is different," said home plate umpire Marty Springstead. "He's a strange boy."

Indians designated hitter Rico Carty, then a grizzled 36-year-old veteran, had never seen anything like Fidrych.
"He just psyched us out with all the stuff he did on the mound," Carty said. "It was like he was trying to hypnotize us. Sometimes I was almost laughing. How can you hit when you're laughing?"

Detroit Historical Museum marketing director Bob Sadler, then an 8-year-old Indians fan living in Ohio, watched the Bird's first start that day on Cleveland's Channel 8.
"I remember my dad and I thinking, 'Who is this guy?'"
Before long, everyone would know just who Mark Fidrych was. The Bird (who got his nickname because of his resemblance to Sesame Street's Big Bird) soon became a household name, a cultural phenomenon not just in Detroit, but all across America. By midseason, he was starting in the All-Star game and women were flocking to his barber shop just for a lock of his hair.

Everyone, it seemed, loved The Bird. 
Men, women, and, especially, children.
Fellow rookie Jason Thompson, who started at first base that day, remembers 1976 fondly.
“Every time I think about the Bird,” he says, “I think about fun. We were all just young kids at that time.
"What I remember about that year is that it was like a traveling rock show with Mark. Birdmania was crazy. They’d have to fly him in ahead of time to do his interviews before we even got to town."
Just a few weeks later, on June 28, Fidrych and the Tigers took on the vaunted New York Yankees at Tiger Stadium. But Fidrych wasn't fazed at all. Before a national TV audience on Monday Night Baseball, he went the distance again, mowing down Billy Martin's bombers, 5-1, and electrifying the crowd with his childlike exuberance and 93-mile-an-hour slider.
After the game, with 48,000 fans chanting "We want The Bird!" the reluctant rookie emerged from the dugout to a standing ovation, covering his head with his arms, grinning from ear to ear. Teenage girls shrieked with glee, old ladies shouted for joy, police officers scrambled to shake his hand.
All summer long, The Bird revealed himself to be a genuine character. From his tiny hometown of Northborough, Massachusetts, he brought with him innocence, spontaneity, and unadulterated joy back to baseball — and never more so than on this night.
"He's givin' me duck bumps!" shouted ABC broadcaster Bob Prince. "I've watched over 8,000 ballgames. I have never in my life ever seen anything to equal this. He is some kind of unbelievable!" 
Fidrych went on to win Rookie of the Year, gracing the covers of both Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. And despite a career cut far too short by injuries, he remains perhaps the most beloved Detroit Tiger of all time. 
"He was just so genuine,” Thompson says. “There was nothing fake about him.” 

For Thompson and Tigers fans everywhere, 1976 indeed was the Year of the Bird.



Dave Mesrey is a member of the Navin Field Grounds Crew and founder of the Bird Bash, the annual birthday party celebrating the life and times of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, held every August in Corktown at Nemo's Bar & Grill. 

A version of this article first appeared in the Detroit Metro Times.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Yesterday and Today: Al Kaline

This is the latest installment in our photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009). 

Photoshop by Nick Yim. Current photo and concept by Tom Derry.

Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline turns 80 today

By Tom Derry

Here's a young Al Kaline stepping out of the batter's box, and heading for first base. 

I remember watching a Tigers game on Channel 4 years ago, with George Kell and Kaline in the broadcast booth. A routine fly ball was hit to the Detroit right-fielder, who dropped it.

Kell said, "Gee, Al, you played the outfield for more than 20 years. It must be embarrassing to miss an easy one like that."

"I wouldn't know, George," 
Kaline said. "I never dropped one."

Happy birthday, Al.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Yesterday and Today: Ty Cobb

This is the latest installment in our photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009). 

A genius in spikes

The great Ty Cobb was born on this day in 1886.

By Tom Derry

Today marks 128 years since the great Ty Cobb was born in Narrows, Georgia.

Many Hall of Famers have worn the Old English D, but none were better than The Georgia Peach.

It's unlikely that anyone will ever match Cobb's lifetime batting average of .367, or his career record of 54 steals of home.

Cobb, who invested heavily in Coca-Cola and General Motors, is believed to be the first baseball player to become a millionaire.

Cobb lived on Commonwealth Street, in the Woodbridge neighborhood north of Navin Field, and could often be seen walking his dogs down Trumbull Avenue, on his way to the ballpark.

If Yankee Stadium was the "House That Ruth Built," then Navin Field was the "House That Cobb Built."

While the Tigers did lose the World Series each year from 1907 to 1909, Cobb was the most exciting player in the game, and our national pastime's biggest drawing card.

1911 was the Tigers' last year at the old, wooden Bennett Park. It was also the most dominating season of Cobb's career.

That year, Cobb batted .420, accumulated 248 hits, knocked in 144 runs, and crossed home plate 147 times. To accommodate the Tigers' growing fan base, due largely to Cobb's heroics on the field, owner Frank Navin decided to build a new steel and concrete structure at Michigan and Trumbull.

Navin moved home plate closer to the corner of Michigan and National (now known as Cochrane) for the start of the 1912 season.

Cobb picked up right where he left off the previous season, leading the major leagues with a .410 batting average.

It's unlikely that baseball will ever see a more fierce competitor than Cobb.

"I had to fight all my life to survive," he once said. "They were all against me ... but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch."

Derry: A man and his machine

In the spring of 2010, NFGC founder Tom Derry rented this "brush hog"
10 weekends in a row in order to clear the weeds left in the stadium's wake.

By Dave Mesrey
Many of our followers have asked to see what the field looked like when we started cleaning it up in 2010. 

Back then we were so busy working that we rarely thought to take any pictures. For those of you who haven't seen our movie yet, here's a clip we think you'll like.

This comes from Jason Roche's award-winning documentary Stealing Home, and some of the footage is courtesy of filmmaker Gary Glaser.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Yesterday and Today: Lou Brock meets Bill Freehan

The latest installment in our photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009). 

Photo illustration by Nick Yim.
Out at home
Nearly half a century later, Willie Horton's epic throw still echoes through the ages

By Dave Mesrey

Monday, October 7, 1968 
Tiger Stadium 

Before the historic game even begins, blind folk singer Jose Feliciano unwittingly causes a national stir with his controversial, bluesy rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. The switchboards at NBC and Tiger Stadium light up with irate callers. 

Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who'd booked Feliciano to perform the anthem, nearly loses his job.




Trailing three games to one and teetering on the brink of elimination, the Detroit Tigers rally to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the pivotal Game 5 of the World Series. The turning point comes with one out in the top of the fifth inning. 

With the speedy Lou Brock on second base and his team leading 3-2, Cardinals second baseman Julian Javier lines a single to left off of Tigers starter Mickey Lolich.

With Brock barreling around third, left fielder Willie Horton fields the ball on one hop and comes up throwing. Tigers third baseman Don Wert is in position to cut the throw off. 

Should he concede Brock’s run and hold Javier to a single? 
Or should he let the throw go through and hope it’s in time to nail Brock?

Catcher Bill Freehan sees that Horton’s throw is online and calls out to Wert to let it go through. Brock hasn't slid into home plate once all season, and this time is no different. 

He comes in standing up.

On one hop, the ball bounces into Freehan’s mitt — a split second before Brock arrives. In one motion, Freehan spins to block the plate and braces himself for a collision. 


And collide, they do. 

It’s too close to call, but umpire Doug Harvey has to make one. 
Tony Spina/Detroit Free Press

Based on photos and still video, Harvey gets it right:
By less than an inch, Brock is out.

“Just about any other player would’ve held up at third (base),” says NBC broadcaster Curt Gowdy.

But Brock wasn’t just any player, and this wasn’t just any play. Horton, Wert and Freehan teamed up to make it one for the ages.

In October of 2013, the Navin Field Grounds Crew re-created that famous play. 

Baseball writer Lindsay Berra (Yogi's granddaughter) traveled to Detroit to see our re-creation and even wrote about it for MLB.com.

And for my money, it’s the greatest moment in Detroit sports history.








Dave Mesrey is one of the founding members of the Navin Field Grounds Crew and the editor of Willie Horton's autobiography, "The People's Champion." 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Yesterday and Today: Herbie Redmond

This is the latest installment in our photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009).

Photoshop by Nick Yim. Current photo and concept by Tom Derry.


He swept us off our feet
Tiger Stadium's colorful groundskeeper Herbie Redmond is the patron saint of the Navin Field Grounds Crew.

By Tom Derry

One of the most beloved figures in Tigers history was groundskeeper Herbie Redmond.

Herbie joined the grounds crew in 1969, and was a fixture at Tiger Stadium for the next 20 years. 

Even when the Tigers were losing, the fans could always count on Herbie for entertainment.
While sweeping the infield during the fifth inning, he would always break into the "Herbie Shuffle," dancing and waving to the crowd while dragging his broom. 

The dancing began one night when Herbie was celebrating a Jim Northrup home run. When Tigers management called Herbie into the office after the game, he was afraid he was in big trouble. 

But instead of reprimanding him, the Tigers told him to keep it up. 

    And so he did.
Herbie Redmond passed away on Opening Day in 1990, but we'll never forget the joy he brought us for all those wonderful years at The Corner.  
For a little taste of the ol' Herbie Shuffle, just press play:



 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Yesterday and Today: Kirk Gibson

This is the latest installment in our photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009). 

Photoshop by Nick Yim. Current photo and concept by Tom Derry.

The roar of '84 lives on at The Corner

By Tom Derry

A powerful athlete who seemed to thrive under pressure, Kirk Gibson was a key member of Detroit's last world championship baseball team.

Gibson, born in Pontiac, Michigan, and raised in nearby Waterford, was an All-American wide receiver for the Michigan State Spartans football team.



Despite playing just one year of college baseball, Gibson was drafted by both the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals and Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers.

Fortunately, for Tigers fans, Gibson chose baseball.

While he didn't turn out to be "The Next Mickey Mantle," as manager Sparky Anderson had hoped, Gibson was one of the most exciting players in baseball throughout the 1980s. Whether he was launching a majestic blast over the right field roof at Tiger Stadium, or thundering around third base and headed for a play at the plate, not many players could thrill the crowd like Kirk Gibson.

Gibson will forever be remembered by Tigers fans for his tremendous home run off San Diego Padres star reliever Goose Gossage in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series.

Leading three games to one and trying to close out the series at home, the Tigers put runners on second and third with one out in the bottom of the eighth, clinging to a one-run lead. 

Padres manager Dick Williams wanted Gossage to intentionally walk the dangerous Gibson, who'd already homered earlier in the game off of Padres left-hander Mark Thurmond.

But the right-handed Gossage had dominated Gibson in previous encounters, allowing just a bunt-single in 10 at-bats. Gossage even told one of his teammates that he "owned" Gibson.

When Williams came out to the mound for a conference, Gossage stood his ground and persuaded his manager to let him pitch to the left-handed-hitting Gibson.

A surprised Sparky Anderson yelled at Gibson from the Tigers dugout: 

"He don't wanna walk you!" 

That's because Gossage thought he could strike him out.

Then Sparky gave Gibson the motion to swing away. 

And swing away he did, belting a 3-run shot into the upper deck in right field to clinch the series for Detroit.

The Tiger Stadium faithful erupted in celebration. 

Detroit Free Press photographer Mary Schroeder was there to capture the iconic image of a victorious Gibson celebrating his home run on his way back to a joyous Tigers dugout. Gibson stood there with his fists in the air, like Rocky Balboa, Detroit's own version of a fighter who never stops battling.

Since 2010, the Navin Field Grounds Crew has witnessed thousands of people visiting The Corner. Fans constantly flock to the ballpark to relive the great moments in Tiger Stadium's history, but none more than Gibson's tremendous blast from 1984.

Not a week goes by that someone doesn't come back to Navin Field, site of old Tiger Stadium, and re-create Gibson's home run, running the bases with his fists furiously pumping in the air. 


And it never gets old.   




Original photo in the Detroit Free Press by Mary Schroeder








NFGC founder Tom Derry and the rest of the Navin Field Grounds Crew are the subjects of Jason Roche's award-winning Tiger Stadium documentary "Stealing Home."

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Yesterday and Today: Lou Gehrig

This is the latest installment in our photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009).


Photoshop by Nick Yim. Current photo and concept by Tom Derry.

Perhaps no photo sums up the history of our field more than this one of Lou Gehrig on May 2, 1939.

After appearing in 2,130 consecutive games, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup at Briggs Stadium.


When announcer Ty Tyson told the crowd what was happening, there was a stunned silence. Then there was a deafening cheer. The Iron Horse waved his cap to the Detroit fans, and sat on the dugout steps, never to play again.




Yesterday and Today: Willie Horton

This is the latest installment in our photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009).


Photoshop by Nick Yim. Current photo and concept by Tom Derry.
The youngest of 21 children, Willie Horton blasted a home run at Briggs Stadium when he was just 16 years old. The pride of Detroit's Northwestern High School, "Willie the Wonder" joined his hometown Tigers in 1962.
One of the strongest men the game has ever known, Horton hit 325 career home runs. That total ranked 6th among AL right-handed hitters when he retired in 1980.
The Navin Field Grounds Crew was honored earlier this year when Willie attended the screening of "Stealing Home" at the DIA.


And in 2015, Willie returned to the field for the first time since the final game at Tiger Stadium in 1999.




Saturday, December 6, 2014

Celebrate the holidays with the NFGC


Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for the baseball fan on your shopping list? 
NFGC T-shirts are now available, along with DVDs of the award-winning Tiger Stadium documentary "Stealing Home."
To purchase DVDs, caps and T-shirts, just send us a private message here on our Facebook page ... or email us at NavinFieldGroundsCrew@gmail.com.
Thank you for all your support this year ... and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!