June 9, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Fans reflect as Tiger Stadium falls into history

A crane shreds an upper deck following a judge's ruling. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Detroit -- Soon, there will be only the memories of a remarkable ballpark in a remarkable city.

Supporters of renovating what remained of Tiger Stadium surrendered Monday in a failed court effort to postpone the final demolition, sparking the end of a legacy that began in 1896.

Metro Detroiters were left to recall a stadium that for generations was the repository of all of summertime's dreams -- and even a few autumnal reminiscences of the Detroit Lions, who played there from 1938-74.

"Tiger Stadium had a presence that Comerica Park doesn't," said John Peters, a financial adviser in Birmingham. "Tiger Stadium loomed in your windshield as you approached it, much like a Great Lakes freighter or large storm front on the horizon. It commanded your attention as you neared it, in a manner that suggested it was actually an enormous living, breathing thing."

The stadium, which had its last game Sept. 27, 1999, will be leveled within 30 days and the property cleaned up within 60, representatives of the demolition crews said.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards denied the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy's request for a preliminary injunction to halt the demolition. Edwards said, among other things, the conservancy failed to demonstrate its members would be "irreparably harmed" by the demolition, while the city would have to bear additional costs.

When Edwards refused to allow time for an appeal, members of the conservancy saw their dreams evaporate. Within 30 minutes, the cranes began ripping the old ballpark apart again.

Sometime before the Major League All-Star Game in July, the large parcel surrounded by Michigan, Trumbull, Cochrane and Kaline Drive, once simply known as "The Corner," seems destined to be another vacant lot in a city chock full of them.

So, with the stadium's fate sealed, longtime fans recalled childhood memories.

For some, it was the 1968 World Series win. For others, the 1957 National Football League title -- the last won by the Lions -- or Thanksgiving Day in 1962, when the team sacked the indomitable Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr 11 times, an NFL record.

"The best memory for me was the 1984 World Series," said Leroy Smith of Detroit. "I had seats right down the right field line where Kirk Gibson hit one out, and they won. It was great, man! It took an hour to get down to the field and people were ripping up grass, and you went outside and people were burning up buses. It was a great time!"

Smith was speaking with only a hint of sarcasm about the events of that evening, which painted Metro Detroit with a broad brush of hooliganism. But his memories underlined what is salient -- Tiger Stadium always was more than a ballpark. It was as much about the life of Detroit, from the industrial accomplishments that echoed in what was always considered "perhaps the best lit field in the Major Leagues," to the decades-long attendance of African-American fans only in the lower deck bleachers in center field, to the secure knowledge that Detroit sports fans always have been among the best spectators in the country.

This was not Yankee Stadium, just as we are different from New Yorkers. It was not Fenway Park, just as we are different from Bostonians.

This was Tiger Stadium, we are Detroiters -- and much is inferred by all of that.

This old ballpark was industrial strength -- towering, and supported by massive steel columns with massive rivets.

It was the scenes of thousands of assembly line workers regurgitated from street cars and, later, buses on Michigan Avenue, hours after leaving Ford's River Rouge Plant or Dodge Main, and having entered various bars for a good lube job, before they saw a game.

It was realizing that one of the elderly black men watching dozens of games each year from those lower deck bleachers was, in fact, Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, the Negro Leagues immortal who played a few times in the old ballpark for the Detroit Stars, but who never had a shot at the Major Leagues because of the color of his skin.

And it also was security in the knowledge that some of humanity's best accomplishments were on that field.

"I was down here with my father. It was a night game, and Norm Cash came up to bat," said Jerry Evans, of Harrison Township, who was about 8 years old at the time. "He hit one over the light tower in right field and as the ball exited the park through the lights, it was still on the rise.

"And my dad was out getting a beer!" Evans said.

gkrupa@detnews.com">gkrupa@detnews.com (313) 222-2359

Martin Sullivan pays his respects Monday with sons Logan, 2, left, and ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Excavators sort through debris during the early stages of demolition on ... (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
Seven-year-old Brent Mees waits at the fence for a Cecil Fielder home run ... (The Detroit News)
Sparky Anderson guided the Tigers to more than 1,300 wins at the old ... (The Detroit News)
George Kell, center, and Ernie Harwell, right, deliver the play-by-play on ... (The Detroit News)
Catcher Lance Parrish, left, and relief pitcher Willie Hernandez leap for ... (The Detroit News)