September 10, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Neal Rubin

Detroit's Clark Park field a hit again, thanks to Jack White

Volunteer Deb Sumner encouraged Jack White, who played at the park as a kid, to do a benefit concert -- he ended up paying for the redone field. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

You want to tell the story of the ball field, you have to mention the famous guy.

He's the one who wrote the checks, nearly $170,000 worth. But until now he wouldn't even let the Clark Park people mention his name, and he won't talk about what he did, because he doesn't want to be the star this time.

He grew up in southwest Detroit and he played ball at Clark Park. He knows who's been holding things together all these years -- the volunteers like Deb Sumner, and of course, Coach Mo. But the kids who scampered all summer across that sweet red clay infield can thank the boy Coach Mo knew as Jack Gillis, and music fans know as Jack White.

"He was good," says Morris (Mo) Blackwell Jr., the soul of the summer game for more than 30 years. "Smooth left-handed swing."

Now he's a right-handed guitarist, half of the White Stripes before he moved on to the Raconteurs and then the Dead Weather. He lives in Nashville these days, but Sumner would run into him every now and again at the Marathon station across from the park.

She's not a big celebrity watcher. She recalls being introduced to his old actress girlfriend once, for instance -- "Rene Wellzinger, or however you say it." And she didn't know the White Stripes from New York Yankees pinstripes. But she knew he carried the banner for the neighborhood, and she kept suggesting some sort of benefit concert.

"Yeah," he'd say, "we've got to get that on my schedule."

Then one day the phone rang at the dark brick rec center next to the outdoor hockey rink. It was a lawyer from L.A., saying something about an anonymous donor and the ball field.

Park the center of summer

Sumner, 53, spent her childhood at Clark Park. So did Blackwell, the third of eight kids, who wound up marrying and ultimately splitting from White's sister Maureen, the oldest of 10.

Big families, big memories. "We didn't have air conditioning, video games or a cottage up north," says Blackwell, 55, who teaches and coaches in Dearborn Heights after he gets through coaching the local kids all summer. "We had nothing but the park."

Sumner and her husband, Steve, live a block away. Work and school had taken them to Ypsilanti before his parents' old house came on the market 27 years ago. Their two kids became the fourth generation of Sumners to live there.

Clark Park was looking tattered when she came home, Sumner says, so a bunch of neighbors who recalled better days formed the Clark Park Coalition. They've moved any number of mountains -- and merchants and politicians -- and today it's a clean, pretty place to shoot hoops, play soccer or walk a bilingual workout trail.

You didn't want to slide on that raggedly ball field, though, unless you wore long pants.

A fit place to play now

Construction started last fall, and the first kids stepped up to home plate at the beginning of summer. The new dugouts and grandstands along each baseline are made of vinyl-coated, perforated metal, and covered by arched awnings -- also perforated, lest anyone be tempted to winter there.

Blackwell pitches to the younger kids at 11:30 a.m., all summer long. He umpires for the older kids at 1:30 p.m. and the high-schoolers at 3:30, or maybe he'll go back to the rubber and pitch some more.

All along, he teaches and laughs and needles and gets the best tan in Detroit. "You want to improve, you show up," he tells the boys and girls. "You want to be a better student, you show up."

The ballgames are casual, the atmosphere loose. When he takes his shirt off, the kids throw his own lines back at him: "Cover it up! We've seen better bodies of water!"

"Shame on me if I can't make a kid smile," Blackwell says. "That's what we do all summer."

He figures that's the part the famous guy remembers, and what he wanted to preserve. You can't put a price on giggles, but Jack White bought a bunch of them, and at Clark Park they think it was a heck of an investment.

nrubin@detnews.com">nrubin@detnews.com (313) 222-1874

White
Blackwell (David Coates / The Detroit News)
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