In the cult baseball movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner is called upon to be a preservationist of a different sort. To rekindle the love of baseball, he's inspired to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field: "If you build it, they will come," a voice tells him. In the case of Detroit's Tiger Stadium, however, the baseball field already exists. This former major-league ballpark is 112 years old. The challenge, instead, involves sowing the seeds that will continually bring people to come see it. After all, the last major league ballgame was played here in 1999—and plans for its partial demolition have been slated for spring.
If making the claim that America's love affair with baseball is largely wrapped up in the places where it is played sounds like sensationalist dribble, ask any fan who grew up going to a local ballpark. They'll likely tell you of familiar smells: roasted peanuts, hot dogs, popcorn, freshly cut grass. They'll mention the vantage point from which clouds of orange dust can be seen when a player slides into home plate. They'll talk of the stacks of lights that illuminate an outdoor theater where outfielders dive for fly balls and fans from upper decks swear they saw the play better than the umpire. "Playing fields like Tiger Stadium are considered hallowed ground," says Francis Grunow, executive director of locally-based Preservation Wayne.
Ballparks, it can be argued, are one of the few places where the masses of our increasingly fractured society can still have a collective experience that doesn't involve a television or movie screen. And, as a result, it is not surprising that communities endure a deep sadness when discussions commence with regard to their destruction. Case and point: Ebbets Field, prior home of New York's Brooklyn Dodgers. People wept when it was demolished.
In the case of the Detroit's stadium, the present state of affairs is accompanied by a brutal irony: in cities such as St. Louis, new ballparks have been built to resemble the one their city plans to tear down. "If people started talking about the Roman Coliseum, there'd be a huge public outcry," says Grunow. "It helps give Rome its character." Tiger Stadium, advocates such as Grunow claim, could be celebrated in a similar way in Detroit.
The Fab Four
Tiger is one of the few old American stadiums still in existence. It shares exclusive company with New York's Yankee Stadium, Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field. Tiger Stadium was originally Bennett Park from 1896 to 1911; it became Navin Field from 1912-1935, with some renovations; and it was known as Briggs/Tiger stadium from 1938 to 1999, complete with an upper deck.
Tiger Stadium, which opened the same day Fenway did, was built during a time when ballparks were built in a fashion far less cookie-cutter than today. And as fans and players knew well, the stadium had its own set of idiosyncrasies. Outfield seating famously hung 15 feet over right field. Fans could also literally sit over home plate to watch pitches fired over the plate from a perspective unmatched by any other ballpark. It had a true dugout for players, unlike newer stadiums, and it had the only flag pole (125 feet tall) within fair play territory. There was also "Kaline's Corner," where seats had to be removed so that outfielder All Kaline could dive for home run balls without getting injured by the knee high fence; Babe Ruth is believed to have hit the longest verifiable home run ball here. Meanwhile, over one million Tiger fans are said to have passed through it turnstiles for a game.
No More Spring Training
Talk of what to do with this site has undergone many iterations—a National Park, a building-within-a-building. At one point, it looked like the whole park would come down for a Wal-Mart. Then there was talk of justice center being put in its place. Now partial demolition looks more probable (but not definite), as the city has asked a few local organizations to figure out how to save part of this structure.
"The Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy has been given the blessing of the city to realize something new on the portion of the site that's being removed," Grunow says.
According to Peter Riley, who works with the conservancy, "On July 27, 2007, the Detroit City Council voted 5 to 4 in favor of Mayor Kilpatrick's vision to redevelop the site but allow a nonprofit called the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy to preserve the field and a part of the stadium structure from first base to third base, plus 3,000 seats. The plan is progressing and is supported by the several members of the preservation community. I'm hopeful we will have something to be proud of come Opening Day 2010," he says.
Saving the stadium takes flexibility, says Royce Yeater, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Midwest Office. "Everyone would prefer to see the site preserved in its entirety, but nearly 20 years of struggle have demonstrated that there are obstacles such a strategy faces that cannot be surmounted, so it seems only appropriate to look at other more creative solutions that will preserve the most historic parts of the stadium in a way that encourages and supports the emerging revitalization in the surrounding neighborhood."
Grunow and others still haven't given up hope that somehow the whole site could be saved. "We are very opposed to the site being leveled," Grunow says. "So we are saddened but supportive of the idea that it can be used in a creative way. We realize that there are certain realities to have a vacant stadium." Despite his support of the present progress, he muses, "You know, it really would be unique if the entire stadium could be utilized." At this point, however, that might require hitting yet another home run for record books.
Christopher Percy Collier is an award-winning journalist who writes and photographs for The New York Times, National Geographic Adventure, and Men's Journal.
Sidebar: The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Stance
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been involved in fighting for Tiger Stadium since the site was first placed on the list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places in 1998. There has been no positive movement on the part of the City of Detroit concerning its rehabilitation and reuse and recently there has been a great deal of speculation that the City's plans for Tiger Stadium involve demolition and development by a big box store or criminal justice campus.
In 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Historic Buildings of Downtown Detroit to its list of 11 Most Endangered Places. In response to this listing, the National Trust Midwest Office has been working with an alliance of groups in Detroit who all are involved directly or indirectly with preservation of the city's historic resources, the Greater Detroit Historic Preservation Coalition. The Coalition has agreed to present "one voice" to the City of Detroit when addressing preservation issues and the National Trust is committed to support their duly-considered position.
In May of 2006, representatives of the Coalition met with the community-based Greater Corktown Development Corporation for a presentation about a new plan for Tiger Stadium, the Bennett Park Plan, which Greater Corktown is promoting. The plan is a viable proposal that retains a reconfigured field at a minimum, while demolishing a majority of the stadium structure and redeveloping a mixed-use residential and commercial site in its place.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been supporting the work of the Greater Detroit Historic Preservation Coalition (GDHPC). While the coalition would prefer that the site be rehabilitated and reused, they also understand that the probability of this happening is remote. Therefore, the coalition, with the concurrence of the Midwest Office, supports the Greater Corktown Development Corporation plan while recommending that every effort should be made to save the original Navin Field structure for a visionary urban preservation project, that the field should be conserved for community uses, that selective demolition of the stands should be undertaken if necessary to create opportunities for mixed-use development, and that neighborhood concerns about surface parking lots be addressed with appropriate infill and onsite parking solutions.