The Detroit Free Press first reported baseball game was played on August 15, 1857 when the Franklin Baseball Club, a local amateur group, took the field in a lot on the corner of Adams Avenue and Beaubien – an intersection now replaced by Ford Field.

Though cricket was then the more popular game, small groups began to take up baseball and a year later different clubs played against each other.

In the late 1880s an organized team, the Detroit Wolverines, was purchased by Californian George Van der Beck, and in an April 1895 Free Press headline, the team was referred to for the first time in print as the “Tigers.”

Detroit Tigers

Their first competitive game was played at League Park, on East Lafayette Street near the Belle Isle bridge.

The following year, Van der Beck built a ballpark at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood; “Bennett Field” was named for Charlie Bennett, a Tigers catcher and outfielder. In the first game – an exhibition – Detroit beat Columbus, 17-2, and the Tigers earned a spot in the 1907, 1908 and 1909 World Series, though all were unsuccessful.

With a capacity of only 8,500 (the population of Detroit was just over 285,700 in 1900), Bennett Field featured trees and the clubhouse within the outfield, and the stadium was constructed all of wood and considered a fire hazard. It was demolished after the 1911 season under the new owner, Frank Navin who had the new stadium built of steel and concrete with a seating capacity of 23,000. The new park was christened Navin Field and cost over $300,000 to build. Located at 2121 Trumbull Avenue it would be nicknamed “The Corner.”

During construction, home plate was relocated to the position it held until the park closed over eight decades later.

The first game in the new stadium was scheduled for April 18, 1912 but was rained out and moved to the 20th – the same day as the first game at the new Fenway Park in Boston.  

The first run was hit by Ty Cobb, stealing home in the first inning. He also hit the first home run at Navin Field on April 25th.

The new ballpark was larger than Bennett Park, in part because previously nearby residents on Cherry Street beyond the right-field wall and those on National Avenue over the left-field wall had charged admission for fans to come into their backyards to watch the games. Navin had those residences demolished so the stadium covered the entire block from Michigan Avenue to the south to Cherry Street to the north and from Trumbull to the east over to National Avenue at the western point.

The stadium at the time was single-decked with a roof to shade spectators; a large scoreboard over left-field was updated by hand. The seats were originally painted yellow, which were later repainted, however, the 125-foot flagpole in deep center field survived not only through Navin Field days but post-dated Tiger Stadium itself.

Walter O. Briggs, who became a millionaire as the founder of the Briggs Manufacturing Company, the largest builder of automobile body parts, met Frank Navin in 1907 when Briggs had trouble obtaining tickets to the World Series. In 1920, the manufacturing tycoon paid $250,000 for a quarter share of the organization.

Navin Field hosted its first radio broadcast of a Tigers game over Detroit station WWJ on Opening Day, April 20, 1927 when the Tigers won, 7-0 over the Saint Louis Browns.

In 1934, the Tigers had once again played in the World Series and lost – this time to St. Louis Cardinals.

After Navin’s 1935 death, Briggs bought out the remaining owners of the team, and that year the Tigers won the World Series for the first time at 4-2 over the Chicago Cubs.

Briggs quickly began expanding the stadium before the start of the 1936 season, and by 1938 the stadium’s capacity had been increased to 54,500.

As a new decade began, the Tigers made it to the 1940 World Series but lost to the Cincinnati Reds; five years later they made it again and won, defeating the Cubs at 4-3.

Television entered Tiger Stadium; the first game was broadcast in 1947, however, very few Detroit homes had a television yet; sets could mostly be found in hotels, television stores and bars. Briggs added lights to the stadium, allowing for night games, in 1948. This meant more daytime workers could attend the games and cheer on their Tigers.

Tiger Stadium, Detroit, early 1960s.

In 1952, Briggs died. His son sold the team 1956 to John Feltzer, a self-made man who founded and purchased radio and television stations across the county, though he was rarely seen at the ballpark. It was Feltzer who, in 1961, changed the ballpark’s name to Tiger Stadium. With the riots and frustration and anger in the area boiling over in the 1960s, Feltzer proposed to demolish and rebuild the ballpark in a new location in the early 1970s, even though the Tigers had won the Series again in 1968 over the Cardinals, 4-3. Feltzer’s proposal, however, failed to win support.

The Detroit Lions NFL team, who had also played at Tiger Stadium for years, moved out after the 1974 Thanksgiving Day game to the new Silverdome in Pontiac

After a damaging fire broke out at the stadium in 1977, the city of Detroit purchased the stadium for $1, leased the property back to the Tiger organization and proceeded to spend $18.5 million over the next seven years on renovations, covering the stadium in siding to avoid having to repaint and adding plastic seats to replace the old, wooden green ones.

In 1984 the Tigers once again made it to the World Series, winning over the San Diego Padres, 4-1.

But again in the early 1990s, the city and the heads of the Tiger organization proposed a new stadium, complaining that Tiger Stadium again needed expensive repairs, lacked adequate parking and suites to generate higher sales. But the fans fought back. As the 90s wore on, the city and Tiger officials battled residents, architects and historical preservationists who fought to renovate the stadium, to show what could be done in Detroit.

“The Corner,” which had been the home stadium of the Detroit Tigers for 88 years, saw its final game on September 27, 1999 when the Tigers beat the Kansas City Royals, 8-2.

During its history, Tiger Stadium had hosted 6,873 regular season games, 35 post season and 3 All-Star games, according to the Detroit Historical Society. But, even though the ballpark had been listed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1989 and was designated as a Michigan historic structure, neither designation was enough to save Tiger Stadium.

However, the story of Tiger Stadium continues thanks to a group of volunteers whose only affiliation with the ballpark was that they were area residents. After the demolition of Tiger Stadium, Detroit residents began hopping the fence surrounding the site where the stadium had stood in order to restore the “garbage-strewn and weed-choked” ball diamond which remained – against the city’s wishes.

Now, the field of old Tiger Stadium is used by the Detroit Police Athletic League, a non-profit which provides youth with athletic, academic and leadership programs, and people are again playing on the same spot as Ty Cobb.

The organization provided the $20 million to build the new field, along with the organization’s headquarters on the site.  Named for Willie Horton, the Tiger home run hitter (a graduate of Detroit’s Northwestern High School, Horton hit two home runs in a single game 30 times during his 14 season tenure with the Tigers who retired his number 23), the new Willie Horton Field of Dreams maintains the dimensions of the original ball field. Construction began in the summer of 2016, after Tiger Stadium was demolished in 2008-2009.

A documentary about the volunteer group who protected and restored the field titled “Stealing Home” was filmed and opened at the Detroit Historical Museum in 2013. The film was produced by Jason Roche, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at University of Detroit Mercy.

Link to Tigers game schedule on Tigers.com as of April 2019.


SBNation, Oct 24, 2012 A Brief History of the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, by Al Yellon https://www.sbnation.com/2012/10/24/3542626/detroit-tigers-world-series-history

Before They Were Tigers: A Primer on Early Detroit Baseball, by Richard Bak DetroitAthletic.com, June 11, 2012 https://www.detroitathletic.com/blog/2012/06/11/before-they-were-tigers-a-primer-on-early-detroit-baseball/

Tiger Stadium, Encyclopedia of Detroit, the Detroit Historical Society, 2019 https://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/tiger-stadium

Tiger Stadium: Detroit A National Register of Historic Places Itinerary, by the National Park Service, undated https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/detroit/d20.htm

Tiger Stadium (Detroit), by Scott Ferkovich
Society for American Baseball Research, undated

Retired Numbers, “Willie Horton #23”
Tigers.com, undated

The Detroit Tigers Encyclopedia, by Jim Hawkins, Dan Ewald, George Van Dusen
2002 Sports Publishing LLC https://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/detroit-tigers

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