Friday, October 20, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - chapter 1

For every young man, there is a year, a season, that is a coming of age. For some, it plays out like “Summer of ‘42” when it is a sexual awakening at the hands and body of a beautiful widow that looks like Jennifer O’Neill in her absolute prime.
With others, far less experienced, it comes in front of a favorite sports franchise in one’s hometown. For me, the year was 1968; the place was Tiger Stadium at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Trumbell Avenue – just an Al Kaline throw from downtown Detroit.
It was the year I turned 16; it was the year I left the comfort of a tight-knit neighborhood for a more “glamorous” life; it was the year I entered high school (10th grade was the starting point in Detroit Public Schools in those days).
It was the year I developed my first crush on a girl and gladly knocked down her ex-boyfriend when she batted her eyes in my direction (and in defense of her honor). It was the year of my first actual paycheck receiving job (pool attendant for our apartment complex)
And it was the year I spent most of the summer at Tiger Stadium when I wasn’t working. I sat and watched one of the best teams ever to don the Old English “D” reach its ultimate goal – a World Series victory, the first since 1945.
What follows are memories and recollections (historical and hysterical) from that point in my history and that of the city of my birth – Detroit, Michigan.
The Year of Burning Embers
Baseball was the last thing of importance in the summer of 1967 in Detroit. Survival was. A pennant race, and visiting the ballpark to root for your heroes, was rendered totally inconsequential.
It manifested itself on Sunday, July 23, when in the early hours of that date, a police raid on a blind pig (slang for an after-hours speakeasy) turned con¬frontational. Things on that hot summer night escalated and quickly became lethal.
Within hours, two violent forces collided, based solely on racial lines, and the city of Detroit essentially was destroyed as I knew it.
Late that morning, I pedaled my bicycle to the Jewish Community Center, a couple miles form my home in north Detroit, and was pleasantly surprised to find the center almost empty. It meant I would have the run of the pool without distraction.
A radio was dialed into a local rock and roll station and it made the time pass quickly and easily. Suddenly, a news bulletin announced that trouble was afoot along Clairmount Avenue, a couple of miles form my home, and the news announcer sounded concerned.
I exited the pool, got dressed and rode home along fairly deserted roadways.
When I ran inside, I found my parents sitting with another couple. “Do you know there’s a riot going on in the city?” I announced. My father looks skeptical but I ran to the television set and turned it on. In all its Philco black and white glory was the revelation.
My father’s friend, John Stamler, immediately phoned his house and excused himself to leave. We later learned that he spent the next four days perched in front of his storefront – shotgun in his lap and ammu¬nition visible for all to see. He, like countless others, would protect their property with their lives and, if needed, the lives of others – the unwritten code was to shoot first and never ask questions later.
By late afternoon and early evening, as disen¬fran¬chised people went on a riotous rampage, flames en¬gulfed stores, homes and cars that could be seen from many other neighborhoods, including mine … from my front lawn. I stood at my front door and could easily see the tops of the funeral pyres.
Nothing would stop the carnage – not even celebrity. Tiger left fielder Willie Horton, who grew up not far from the scene of the riot, drove to the area after Sunday’s home game and stood on the roof of his car, in full Tiger uniform, in the middle of the mob, pleading for the rioters to stop. It did not work.
On Monday night, the 24th, our quiet neighborhood was rocked by an explosion and the sounds of repeated pop!-pop!-pop! Surely, my parents theorized, there as a fierce gun battle raging in the distance and only fools would venture outside to examine. And no fools lived at 18603 Parkside – three blocks from the mayor’s house and one block more than that to our rabbi’s home. This could NOT be happening here?!?
In the morning, when the smoke literally had cleared, we crept to where the incident had happened. Someone had firebombed the Merchandise Mart – a Detroit-based hardware store, and all the popping was actually paint aerosol cans combusting in the fire. But it was enough to throw a horrific fright into all the residents.
It got no better for the next few days. People huddles around their televisions to see live documentation of snipers firing upon citizens, police, reporters and anything that moved. Pleas for calm and rational thinking/behavior went unheeded. Trust was destroyed as quickly as abandoned buildings in the fire of hatred that swept like a tsunami.
Places I had known while riding alone on Detroit city buses, or speeding past on my bicycle, became war zones, complete with troops in full battle gear, tanks and armament previously only seen on the news in Vietnam.
Then on Thursday morning, I stood along Liv¬ernois Avenue, nicknamed the Avenue of Fashion for some silly reason, and watched federalized Michigan National Guard troops oc¬cupy my city, to quell what Gov. George Romney termed “a state of insurrection.” It was a strange feeling to see tanks roll past the neigh¬borhood luncheonette where you regularly purchase your baseball cards and new Spi¬derman, Green Lantern and Batman comics.
Somehow I knew, my life would never be the same. My childhood notions of my home were forever changed … for the worse. It wasn’t safe anymore to take those bicycle rides, even within my neighborhood, or to the Jewish Community Center for swimming lessons, or on the bus to the Detroit Public Library for research or to the Institute of Arts to see priceless works of genius.
One would be looking over his or her shoulder around almost every corner – regardless of skin color. It simply wasn’t the same place to which almost everyone had seen. The sweet symphonic Motown sound went from the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Four Tops to the cries of emergency service sirens wailing in the night.
Hell, even Motown Records left town, for the sunny, and presumably safer, confines of Los Angeles. Nothing was sacred or spared.
When the smoke literally cleared, 43 people had died and 1,179 more were injured. There had been 7,000 arrests and more than 1,400 buildings were burned beyond salvage. The financial cost was $45 million (astronomical for that era) and indescribable in terms of the emotional damage. People fled the city limits as if it was a modern-day gold rush to anywhere but there. Detroit lost half of its population from 1967 to 2000, falling from 1.8 million residents to less than 950,000.
The city never ever recovered … to this day. What once was one of America’s top five populated cities is not among the top 12 currently. A legacy of death and negativity followed and permanently stained Detroit in all aspects – from the movies to the nation’s front pages. A pre-Halloween childhood ritual, known as Devil’s Night (when adolescent mischief preceded trick-or-treating) became a ridiculous excuse for arson and murder. Darkness descended upon the Motor City.
The Bloom family was not yet ready to be one of those evacuees … but we did relocate to the area known as Lafayette Park in downtown Detroit. It was upscale for the time, and at any moment, you could meet members of the Detroit Tigers or Pistons while playing in the open spaces, chat with a former Michigan governor or hear impromptu jam sessions in the condominium backyard of Berry Gordy’s sister’s (he was the fonder of Motown Records) as friends who were superstars during the day were just guest and plain folks late in the night.
At the corner of Michigan and Trumbell, the Tigers plodded along in the 1967 pennant chase. It was a three-team battle between the all-pitch, no-hit Chicago White Sox and the surprising Boston Red Sox, being led by the last Triple Crown winner, Carl Yas¬tremzski, and the pitcher du jour, righty Jim Lonborg.
The race came down to the final day – Chicago had been eli¬mi¬nated on Saturday and Boston had won. Detroit needed to sweep a doubleheader from the California Angels and in the ninth inning of the last game, second baseman Dick McAuliffe, who had grounded into only four double plays all season, hit into his fifth and Detroit was through.
The Red Sox became Cinderella and battled St. Louis in the 1967 Series, before losing in seven games.
People feared for the worse in 1968. The tensions had only been eased by the coldness of winter. Nerves were frazzles in all sectors of the city. Only one thing calmed the water.
A baseball team.

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