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To the bankrupt city of Detroit, it was just another vacant lot—one of many abandoned eyesores strewn with garbage and six-foot-high weeds throughout the city. But to Tom Derry and his friends, the site of the old stadium where the Detroit Tigers once played was hallowed ground.
So in 2010, against the city government’s wishes, these amateur groundskeepers—who call themselves the Navin Field Grounds Crew—began cleaning up the 10-acre site so it could once again be used as a baseball field. They were literally a grassroots organization—showing up every week and spending their own money to chop the weeds, plant, and mow the grass, restore the baselines with chalk, rebuild the pitcher’s mound, and remove rubbish from the field. Over the past six years, they restored the site, using their own money, tools, and labor. With a core of about 30 members, the group has, in Derry’s words, “turned a trash dump into a field of dreams.”
Their work has not gone unnoticed. The group was the subject of a 2014 documentary, Stealing Home. And last week, the Baseball Reliquary—a people’s hall of fame based in Pasadena, California—conferred its annual Hilda Award on Tom Derry, the group’s founder. Thanks to these fervent fans, the spot has become home to Little League, adult soft-pitch league contests, vintage baseball games, and pickup games of all kinds. There are no formal seats and no sprinkler system. “We rely on Mother Nature,” Derry explained.
Navin Field Grounds Crew's Rick DeLorme, Sheilagh Howe, and Robert Howe.
Local residents, including those from the nearby Corktown neighborhood, have come to the restored field for picnics and parties, to walk their dogs, and to fly kites. Hundreds of families have scattered the ashes of their deceased loved ones at the site. Several couples have gotten married there. In fact, Derry—a postal worker who lives in Redford Township, Michigan, 15 miles from the field—himself tied the knot with his wife Sarah, another NFGC member, at home plate in August, 2014. At the wedding, Derry, who is white, wore a Detroit Stars jersey from the one-time Negro League team.
A number of ex-Tiger players have occasionally shown up to join in celebrating the field’s restoration. Former pitching ace Mickey Lolich came to the field to watch his grandson play in a Little League game.
It was on that same spot that Babe Ruth hit his 700th home run in 1934, where pitcher Denny McLain won his 30th game in 1968, and where Kirk Gibson’s dramatic home run capped the 1984 World Series. It was there that generations of fans witnessed the exploits of Motor City baseball legends such as Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Hal Newhouser, Dizzy Trout, Cecil Fielder, and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.
At the Baseball Reliquary award ceremony last Sunday, Derry recounted the story of the Navin Field Grounds Crew. He recalled his feelings as he sat on his mower cutting the grass in left field.
“That’s the same spot where I used to sit in the left field grandstand and watch Willie Horton play,” he said. “Babe Ruth played right field on this field. Tris Speaker played center field here. We were determined to keep that history alive.”
But City Hall decision-makers had other plans. Like many other top-down, corporate-dominated local governments, Detroit hoped to find developers to “revitalize” the area and accelerate the city’s comeback. While Derry and his group were raking the infield, Detroit’s powerbrokers were looking for ways to rake in private investors.
Earlier this year, the city sealed a deal. Developer Eric Larson, of Larson Realty, will develop a mixed residential and retail project on one side of the property. The Detroit Police Athletic League (PAL) will construct its new headquarters building on the other side. Together, these two projects will completely ring the old site. In exchange for the right to develop the site, the PAL will gain control of the restored ballfield and use it for youth sports.
But much of the spirit of the Navin Field Grounds Crew’s efforts will be lost in the transition. Last week, for example, the PAL dug up the grass that Derry’s group had so lovingly maintained, in preparation for replacing it with artificial turf. The general public will no longer have access to the field, which had become a community park, for family picnics or casual recreation, like kite flying.
In response to the PAL’s plan to redevelop the site, the Lear Corporation, which had contributed $50,000 a year to the group, withdrew its financial support. In a letter to the Detroit City Council, Lear CEO Matthew Simoncini wrote: “I believe the [PAL] plan is severely flawed [and] a terrible use of resources. It does not preserve this site and provides [an] unsafe playing surface for the children.”
In the 1950s, the American auto industry—and Detroit—sat on top of the world. With a population of 1.85 million, Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the country. The United Auto Workers union helped lift many residents into the middle class, although banks and realtors kept the city and its suburbs deeply segregated.
In the 1960s, the auto industry began moving its manufacturing operations to the suburbs, then elsewhere in the United States, and then overseas. In the summer of 1967, the city erupted in a race riot following an incident of police harassment. Over five days, 33 blacks and 10 whites died, and 467 were injured. The riots accelerated white flight. Then, much of Detroit’s black middle class fled the city as well, many to black suburbs like Southfield. By the 1980s, foreign automakers dominated the American car market. In 2010, the federal government gave Chrysler and General Motors a $17.4 billion bailout. Since then, these automakers have posted huge profits, but they and other employers continued to export jobs out of the Detroit area.
Today, Detroit is home to only 707,000 people. Its median household income is $28,000, compared with $49,000 in the suburbs. About 40 percent of Detroit residents live in poverty.
This toxic combination of corporate job fight and middle-class suburbanization gutted Detroit’s tax base and left the city in dire fiscal straits. Year after year, Detroit’s city officials had to lay off municipal employees and slash public services. These trends came to a sad climax in July 2013, when Detroit declared bankruptcy, facing $18 billion in debt. It was the largest American city ever to do so.
As the middle class moved out, downtown department stores and neighborhood retailers closed their doors; some moved to suburban shopping centers. Detroit’s dramatic population decline led to widespread abandonment. The city now has at least 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 empty houses, and 90,000 vacant lots. Some blocks that were once thriving neighborhoods now have only one or two occupied buildings. Parts of the city look like a ghost town.
In response, many neighborhood groups have engaged in what might be called bottom-up urban renewal. They’ve turned vacant lots into thousands of urban farms and gardens, some of which now provide food and jobs for local residents. They’ve decorated abandoned homes and buildings to make the area appear less blighted. These, in turn, have catalyzed community organizing efforts to push city, business, and nonprofit groups to reinvest in these neighborhoods, but without pushing existing residents out.
The Navin Field Grounds Crew is part of that broader effort, even though many of its members no longer live in Detroit. They came with their mowers and rakes. At first, the police kept kicking them off the field, because they were trespassing on property owned by the city. But more and more volunteers began showing up to restore the field, and as local residents began using the field for pickup games and youth leagues, the group earned grudging respect—although no funding—from the city’s civic and political leaders.
The field is located on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues, the same spot where, in 1911, owner Frank Navin tore down the Detroit Tigers’ longtime home, Bennett Park, built a new concrete-and-steel stadium, and named it Navin Field, which opened in 1912. (Boston’s Fenway Park, now the oldest park in the major leagues, opened the same day). In 1938, the team’s next owner, auto-body manufacturer Walter Briggs Sr., renamed it Briggs Stadium, and in 1961 another owner, John Fetzer, changed the name to Tiger Stadium.
In the 1990s, another new owner, Michael Ilitch, founder of the Little Caesars Pizza chain (he also owns the Detroit Red Wings hockey team) figured he could make more money by constructing a modern, state-of-the-art park across town than by renovating Tigers Stadium. Over much fan opposition, the Tigers built its new ballpark, Comerica Park—named, like many newer athletic facilities, for its corporate sponsor, a bank. Despite its corporate name, taxpayers subsidized about 40 percent of the stadium’s $300 million price tag, thanks to Ilitch’s political connections. Although some civic and business leaders halfheartedly tried to find an alternative use for Tiger Stadium, the building was razed in 2009. The only piece of the park left intact was the 125-foot center field flagpole.
Comerica Bank was founded in Detroit and was based there when the new park opened, but it has since moved its headquarters to Dallas. The bank’s exodus reflects the troubles that Detroit has faced over the past half century.
Local self-help efforts like urban garden projects and the Navin Field Ground Crew initiative cannot, on their own, revitalize Detroit or any other city. Cities cannot solve the conundrums of unemployment, crime, and blight, along with enclaves of gentrification and displacement, without federal help. But without the work of people like Tom Derry and the Navin Field Grounds Crew, along with thousands of nonprofit community development and community organizing groups around the country, corporate-sponsored renewal efforts will be sterile, utilitarian, and soulless.
Ironically, just as the city was planning to evict Derry’s group from the field it had tenderly restored, it bestowed the group with its “Spirit of Detroit” award, one of the city’s highest civic recognitions.
Writing about the group’s work for Rolling Stone in 2014, Dan Epstein observed: “Their efforts testify to the deep emotional connection that so many Detroiters still feel to this spot—it’s hard to imagine the sleek and corporate Comerica Park ever engendering a similar degree of affection—and by clearing away the weeds, the garbage, and the rubble, the Navin Field Grounds Crew has enabled the ghosts and vibrations of the now-vanished ballpark to return.”
Baseball fans are a particularly passionate species. None of the Navin Field Grounds Crew members spent their weekends restoring the field for the glory. For all of them, it was a labor of love. For these volunteers, Tiger Stadium was a sacred place. It was where they, their friends and siblings, and fathers, had bonded to root for the Tigers and share the spirit of baseball that transcends sport and enters the realm of memory and myth.
That spirit is embodied in the Baseball Reliquary’s annual Hilda Award. First bestowed in 2001, the award is named in memory of legendary Brooklyn Dodgers baseball fan Hilda Chester to recognize distinguished service to the game by a baseball fan. (The word “fan” comes from the word “fanatic.”) The award is an old cowbell, Chester’s signature noisemaker, encased and mounted in a Plexiglas box bearing an engraved inscription.
Previous winners include Rea Wilson who, during the summer of 2000 at the age of 77, made a pilgrimage to all 30 Major League ballparks, traveling alone and sleeping in her van, on a journey that she and her husband had dreamed of making before he succumbed to cancer in 1993. Another winner, John Adams, has since 1973 banged his bass drum in the bleachers at Cleveland Indians games, come rain or shine.
Tom Derry personifies the kind of religious zeal that distinguishes baseball fans from their football, basketball and hockey counterparts. In his Hilda Award acceptance speech at the Baseball Reliquary, Derry expressed regret over the city’s decision to hand over the former Navin Field to a private developer and to he Police Athletic League, but he also conveyed his optimism that the Navin Field Grounds Crew will continue its work.
“We’ll move on to new projects,” Derry said.
He said he’d like the group to consider restoring the field at Hamtramck Stadium, where the Detroit Stars once played. It is one of the few former Negro League stadiums still standing, but in a state of disrepair.
“We’re passionate about improving the city,” said Derry. “We love Detroit. Some of us live in Detroit, some don’t, but Detroit lives in all of us."