Saturday, October 21, 2006

Historian of Tigers Recalls Impact of World Series on Detroit

Historian of Tigers Recalls Impact of World Series on Detroit

By Edward Nawotka

Oct. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Just three years after losing 119 games and narrowly missing the record for single-season losses in modern Major League Baseball history, the Detroit Tigers are appearing in their tenth World Series, which begins tomorrow night against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Baseball historian Tom Stanton brings together stories from the team's 105-year history in his 2005 book, ``The Detroit Tigers Reader,'' and describes how the Tigers' infrequent appearances in the series have lifted the mood of the city in otherwise dire times.

Stanton's book ``Ty & the Babe,'' about the rivalry between Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, will be published in the spring of 2007 by St. Martin's Press. He spoke with me this week by phone from Michigan.

Nawotka: How has the Tigers appearance in this World Series changed things in Detroit?

Stanton: It comes at a time when nobody expected great things from the Tigers and when Detroit has had a lot of grim economic news. We've had tens of thousands of people laid off by the car companies. There's a gubernatorial race going on at the moment and, it's kind of odd, but some people think the Tigers' success might actually make voters feel better about the incumbent.

Nawotka: Several of Detroit's past baseball championships have had significance beyond the game. I'm thinking, in particular, of the 1968 World Series.

Stanton: True. In 1967, we had race riots. The next year, the Tigers helped heal some of those wounds by bringing blacks and whites together in Tiger Stadium to watch our stars -- guys like Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and Al Kaline -- play together in the World Series.

Depression-Era Win

Nawotka: Was the 1935 championship, which came in the midst of the Great Depression, as important?

Stanton: It gave the city a phenomenal boost. That was the first time the Tigers won the series and my father, who lived through that time, can still remember the starting line-up. In the ``Reader,'' Grantland Rice has a piece about the win that begins: ``The Leaning Tower can now crumble and find its level with the Pisan plain. The Hanging Gardens can grow up in weeds.'' It's incredibly purple prose, but shows just how much it meant. I don't think we attach that much significance to our win in 1945, but it did mark the end of World War II and a victory for Hank Greenberg.

Nawotka: Why Greenberg in particular?

Stanton: Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish baseball star. He came out of the Bronx and, because the Yankees had Lou Gehrig, he ended up with the Tigers. People would have known a lot more about Hank Greenberg if there wasn't the war. In 1938, he almost knocked off Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record. Then in 1941, Greenberg was the first (baseball) star to enlist and he left the team for four years.

Great Satan

Nawotka: Speaking of Babe Ruth, the Tigers were the team of his main rival, Ty Cobb, who is now largely regarded as the Great Satan of baseball. How much are Cobb's vilification and Ruth's beatification a consequence of geography?

Stanton: I think New York does a better job of celebrating its heroes. Reporters didn't try to be nonpartisan. I have no doubt that a lot of New York reporters portrayed Cobb in an unfavorable light.

Nawotka: Is it true Cobb sharpened his spikes to gouge people?

Stanton: He was an extremely competitive person who could be brutal, but that's a myth. There's a piece in my book from 1916 called ``A Day with Cobb'' which shows another side of him: an articulate man, a man who was passionate about reading and loves music. A fan from Cobb's era wouldn't recognize him today. In his time, he was admired. Cobb, Greenberg and Kaline were all big stars and if you put them in New York they'd have been even bigger.

``The Detroit Tigers Reader,'' edited by Tom Stanton, is published by the University of Michigan Press (206 pages, $18.95).

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)