The 2006 season is all done and dusted for the AL Champs, but the Nation’s Dave Zirin can’t help but compare and contrast the Tigers’ current fan base, ballpark and hometown with the climate that surrounded the ’68 squad that lost to the Cardinals.
The 1968 Tigers team–led by Al Kaline, thirty-game winner Denny McLain and prominent African-American players like Willie Horton and Gates Brown (above)–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.