Baseball in the Ashes

Baseball in the Ashes

The last time the Detroit Tigers faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, the Motor City was literally aflame. What’s evident this time is that the city never rose from the ashes.


As the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals find themselves tied 1-1 in the 2006 World Series, it’s worth remembering the last time these two teams battled in the Fall Classic. It was 1968, and the Tigers won in seven games, coming back from a 3-1 deficit behind series MVP Mickey Lolich.

But in 1968, there was more going on in the Motor City than baseball. Detroit was simmering in a state of low-frequency insurrection. The summer of ’67 saw riots that resulted in forty-three deaths, almost 1,200 injuries and 7,000 arrests. People were putting record players on their windowsills playing “Dancing in the Streets” while combat raged below. As flames licked the Motor City, Tigers star Willie Horton–who was raised in Detroit–rode down to the riot zone and, in full baseball uniform, stood on a car pleading for peace. He wasn’t the only Tiger in the riot zone in uniform. Eight thousand troops were brought into the city, including a National Guardsman named Mickey Lolich.

The 1968 LBJ-sponsored Kerner Report said of Detroit, “A spirit of carefree nihilism was taking hold. To riot and destroy appeared more and more to become ends in themselves. Late Sunday afternoon it appeared to one observer that the young people were ‘dancing amidst the flames.'”

The city and state prepared to crush any kind of sequel. As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, “the police already had five armored vehicles but were stockpiling tear gas and gas masks and were requesting anti-sniper rifles, carbines, shotguns, and 150,000 rounds of ammunition. One Detroit suburb had purchased an army half-track-a quasi tank.”

As the year progressed, the mayhem seemed prophetic. In April the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked uprisings around the country. In May the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a militant organization of African-American autoworkers, was formed. DRUM led wildcat strikes against racism and factory conditions. As writers Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin observed in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, “No less an authority than the Wall Street Journal took [DRUM] very seriously from the day of the first wildcat, for the Wall Street Journal understood…that the Black revolution of the sixties had finally arrived at one of the most vulnerable links of the American economic system–the point of mass production, the assembly line.”

The Tigers team–led by Al Kaline, thirty-game winner Denny McLain and prominent African-American players like Horton and Gates Brown–was seen as a force of calm in the Motor City. An entire HBO documentary called A City on Fire was made based on this thesis. Many at the time believed that the success and joy brought by this integrated team would stop the exodus known as “white flight” and revitalize the city. But professional sports doesn’t always herald revival. Often it mocks it.

Detroit today is not a story of low-level insurrection but immiseration. Unemployment in 2006 was 13.8 percent (three times the national average), and more than one-third of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. As the Associated Press recently reported, “Much of the rest of Detroit…is a landscape dotted with burned-out buildings, where liquor stores abound but supermarkets are hard to come by, and where drugs, violence and unemployment are everyday realities.”

For the Tigers, the main difference between 1968 and today is where they play. In 1968, it was the historic Tiger Stadium. Today it is an amusement center known as Comerica Park. By all accounts, it is a very nice amusement park, complete with Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and beer halls. It also is a place decidedly not for the folks left in Detroit. Anita Caref, a teacher in the inner city, was at game one of the World Series, and this was what she wrote me:

“I realize that baseball has a preponderance of white fans, and I know that I didn’t get a look at all of the 42,000 plus in attendance tonight, but clearly there were hardly any people of color there. What a stark contrast to the city itself, which is 83% African-American and 12% Latino. Frankly, it was hard to believe we were in Detroit. I sat there wondering how many of the folks there actually live in the city, and thinking that Detroit would be a very different place if the majority of them lived in Detroit and contributed their taxes to the well-being of the city.

“Secondly, I thought the choice of music played was odd. Of all the songs played during and between innings, only one was a Motown song. Most of the songs were by white rock-and-rollers. I have nothing against rock music, but I thought that given where we were, it would have been fitting to hear the Supremes, Temptations, Aretha Franklin, etc. Finally, during one of the breaks, they showed a video of some of the great Tigers of the past. The most prominent player in the video was Ty Cobb, who was praised by any number of sports journalists and celebrities. Not a word was said about the fact that he was perhaps baseball’s most prominent racist. And of course there was the usual militaristic patriotism, including fighter jets flying overhead after Bob Seger sang ‘America the Beautiful.'”

Not so beautiful, if you live and die in the city of Detroit.

After the Tigers recorded the final out last night in game two, the stadium sound system exploded with the soundtrack of the ’67 riots, “Dancing in the Streets.” The song has been salvaged. The city has not.

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