The Detroit Tigers open their baseball season on April 1 at Minnesota, and on the 5th will play the Yankees at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, their home field since 2000. Since its establishment more than a century ago, the ball club has become as synonymous with its city as are General Motors, Greektown, and the Red Wings.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Back in 1902, when the team was still in its infancy, the Tigers occasionally headed west, specifically to the University of Michigan’s Ferry Field, best known as the site of Fielding Yost’s Point-a-Minute offense and the 1935 record-breaking track heroics of an Ohio State sophomore named Jesse Owens.
The reason we know this? A newspaper clipping inside a scrapbook now housed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I came across the picture above while going through these and other archival documents at the hall’s A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center in the summer of 2010.
Although some of the vintage scrapbooks were donated by players or their families, many (such as this one) were put together by anonymous fans who loved the game and rabidly collected newspaper articles about their favorite teams.
The picture is undated and from an unknown newspaper. Above the photo is the enigmatic headline: “THEY PLAYED BALL UNDER CONDITIONS THAT NOW MAY RETURN.” The caption goes on to explain: “Detroit Tigers of 1902 at Ferry Field–before it had been converted to its present magnificence–for the last game an American League [team] ever played in Ann Arbor.” It identifies each of the posed individuals, concluding, “Sixteen players, no exclusively utility man and one mustache, the last in the American League.”
To unravel this pictorial puzzle, some context is necessary. The Detroit Tigers had been established only in 1894. The American League itself had come into existence in 1900. Ty Cobb would not join the team until 1905. Navin Field (later Tiger Stadium) would not be constructed until 1912. The best-known Tiger in the photo is Kid Gleason, future manager of the infamous 1919 Chicago White Sox. (He’s the one in the light cap with his left elbow on the ground).
Several books about the early history of the Detroit Tigers talk about the running battles that then-owner George Arthur Vanderbeck had with the city of Detroit, mostly over the inadequacies of the Tigers’ home, Bennett Field, which stood where Tiger Stadium would be built. For a number of years, it was not at all clear whether the Tigers would stay in Detroit.
Washtenaw County was not exactly unfamiliar territory to the players. In 1902, the team held its spring training in Ypsilanti, according to Tigers director of communications Rick Thompson.
Thompson says there’s nothing about Ferry Field in the Tiger organization’s archives, and definitive baseball history websites such as Baseball-Reference.com don’t list it as one of the 1902 Tigers’ home fields. But we do know the Tigers played a few games in the area just off South State behind the Athletic Department’s new academic support building–from both the picture and local accounts of the time.
Several stories in April 1902 editions of the Michigan Daily refer to Tiger games being played on Sundays, perhaps to skirt Detroit’s blue laws, says Brian Williams, associate head of the University Archives & Records Program at the Bentley Historical Library. A snippet in the Michigan Alumnus magazine for 1901-1902 refers to the U-M baseball team’s opening its season “after a few preliminary home games with the Detroit Tigers American League team …”
So why did this wind up being the last game? Most likely because of the major changes at Ferry Field alluded to in the caption. One year after the Michigan football team played in the very first bowl game, the 1901 Rose Bowl, Detroit businessman Dexter M. Ferry donated twenty acres at the corner of State and Hoover streets to the university. It was just a grassy field at the time, but in 1903 the U-M began construction of bleachers on the south side of Hoover, where the outdoor track is now, and the 9,000-seat Ferry Field opened its gates in 1906.
Ferry Field was eventually expanded to a capacity of 40,000 before being replaced in 1928 by Michigan Stadium–a major step in making the University of Michigan football program into what it is today. But the emergence of Wolverine football probably led to the permanent disappearance of another sporting carnivore from the Ann Arbor scene, one that now happily makes its home in downtown Detroit.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the April 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The headline has been changed, and the relationship of Bennett and Navin fields has been made more precise.