Saturday, October 21, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - Chapters 2,3

One memory with everything on it!
Prior to most ’68 Detroit Tiger games (or any other sporting event), lunch meant one of two things – a huge, steaming hamburger (cooked in beer) from Nemo’s, a block away from the stadium, or the full “works” from Lafayette Coney Island in the heart of downtown Detroit.
Nemo’s was no honky-tonk (as one would come to know in Texas) nor was it the neigh¬borhood tavern (more of a social meeting place for men rather than a drinking hole). It was a bar with great bar food – notably burgers steamed in, what else, beer. Nemo’s days could be traced back to the time of Damon Runyon, complete with a front that appeared to be hiding a death trap within and a long bar where business-types stood toe-to-toe with factory workers and day laborers, blowing off steam while blowing the heads off many a Stroh’s or a Molson Canadian.
It was one of three classic sports hangouts in Detroit – the other being the late, great Lindell AC. That popular hangout was known better for its connection with the NFL Detroit Lions, through the association of owners Jimmy and Johnny Butsicaris and Lion great Alex Karras (who also owned a piece of the action).
It had two locations, on Michigan Avenue and Cass Avenue and was formerly locate dint he old Lindell Hotel. It received is nickname from famed Detroit News columnist “Doc” Greene in a satirical moment to tweak the nose of the stodgy Detroit Athletic Club, the icon of all things upper-crusty in a city that was best known for its working man image.
Long a popular hangout and perhaps the best known sports bar in Detroit (if not around the world), it closed in December, 2002 and the structure was razed earlier this year to become the site of the new Rosa Parks Transit Center.
Normally at a ballgame, I would probably inhale one (or two) of Kowalski’s better hot dogs, with plenty of mustard, a Vernor’s (and a bag of peanuts) and settle into one of two favorite places – the left-field corner near the Tiger bullpen or the centerfield bleachers, a terrific way to spend a day for just a buck. For Game 5, it was deep in the recesses of the right-field upper deck to await the start of my magic moment.
My pre-game meal took me to nirvana, otherwise known as Lafayette Coney Island just a block from the very center of downtown.
Two competing institutions – Lafayette and American – stood side by side, although owned by members of the same family.
In 1903, Constantine “Gust” Keros, a sheepherder in his native Greece came to American through the portal of freedom – Ellis Island. In an interview in the Chicago Tribune in 2005, Karos’ great-grandson, Chris, explained to reporter Alan Solomon how his family came to open the famous emporium.
“That was as good as it was ever going to get, and he (Gust Karos) wasn’t going to accept that,” Chris Karos explained. “He gets to Ellis Island, but while he’s on the boat they told him, ‘If you want to be an American, when you get to New York, go to Coney Island and eat a hot dog. That’s what American people do.’
“He goes to Coney Island, eats the hot dog, looks for work, and they’re telling him, ‘Go to Detroit. Henry Ford’s paying $5 a day to build cars.’ That was incredible (because) they were making $5 a week then. Obviously, Henry Ford wasn’t going to hire a Greek sheep farmer who barely spoke English, let alone know anything about an automobile.”
So Gust Karos followed the immigrant’s dream that many sought at the turn of the 20th century. He swept floors at a local store until the owner gave him a real job. Through stringent savings despite meager pay, Karos purchased a popcorn cart, which he pushed for a few years, again saving towards something bigger.
The “bigger” was called American Hat Cleaning and Shoe Shine on Lafayette Avenue. Karos cleaned men’s hat and shined shoes, but eventually discovered that street urchins, charging much less than he, were undercutting his business.
“And it dawned on him. ‘Wait a minute. I was in New York, and there was this Coney Island, this big, gorgeous amusement park, and there’s none of that here,’” Chris added.
Since Gust Karos was proud to be an American, the business was renamed American Coney Island. There were flashing lights on the windows and the new owner did all he could to make the place resemble the famed New York landmark.
In New York, the king of Coney Island is Nathan’s and it served its hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut, a commodity not readily seen or eaten in Detroit.
“He had an idea. ‘I’m going to chop onions up, we’ll put mustard on it, and when I have enough money, I’ll go with the sauerkraut,” Chris continued, adding that his great-grandfather also made a side batch of chili for customers – normal for the day.
And because ingenuity is the mother of all invention, inevitably, a customer asked for some chili to be put on one of Karos’ hot dogs, with the onions and mustard.
The real is gastric history, sold for a mere nickel apiece.
“It was the talk of the town,” noted Chris Karos. “‘You gotta go to the American Coney Island and ask Gust for the hot dog with the mustard and onions and chili on it. And that’s how it was born: chili, mustard and onions.”
Karos did so well, that when the store next door became vacant, he bought it and opened Lafayette Coney Island. He imported his brother to run the place and a friendly rivalry was immediately initiated.
Lafayette is largely unchanged since the day it first opened its doors, The Formica tables and cramped interior, which is as narrow as most men’s restrooms in decent hotels, made for cozy dining, but at no one, that I can recall, was a trip to Lafayette ever deemed “rushed” (although it rarely took more than 10-15 minutes to polish off a meal and leave felling exquisitely full).
The menu is very basic – a coney island is a hotdog covered in chili, mustard and onions on a steamed hot dog bun; a hamburger is loosely cooked ground beef with onions and mustard on the same hot dog bun (also known as a “loosey”).
You can also get a hot bowl of chili (with or without beans), fresh homemade pie and (as a concession to modern times) chili fries. Such is the apparent price to pay for progress.
The restaurant is open 24/7, regardless of weather or season; win or lose. And, with the state of ballpark cuisine changing with the times, American coney islands are served today at Detroit’s Comerica Park.
The clientele between the two shops is like day and night. American expanded its menu and in 1989, purchased the old United Shirt Building next door and reinvented itself into a truer restaurant (in the sense of what most people recognize) – tables, waiters, menus. You can get a spinach salad at American for God’s sake, which is as far away from a “loosey” as one can imagine.
But inside Lafayette Coney Island, the people you see are the same as the ones, say, in 1968 – office workers, police officers on the beat and patrol, students, sports fans, society women, working girls, conservative thinkers and liberal drinkers. They came from the inner city, outlying regions and suburbs.
Other cities might “claim” to sell an item with the same name. But it isn’t the same.
It isn’t Detroit.

Pre-Game: Jose, Can You Sing?
My father dropped me off at the stadium in plenty of time, right as the gates opened around noon – which enabled me to watch batting practice, one of my favorite non-game related activities. I marveled at the long, arching flights of each baseball that flew lazily into the bleacher seats in right and left field from various hitters.
I would close my eyes and imagine that either I was in the batter’s box, or on the receiving end of one of those moonshots. The players made it look SO easy; as if everyone could accomplish what has been labeled as the most difficult thing to do in sports – hitting a pitched baseball.
Then I would watch the precision at which infield practice was conducted – the repetition of the coach slapping grounders to each fielder and the accuracy with which each throw was made. There was symmetrical beauty to the field and the men are they moved from base to base, tossing a small leather-covered sphere as if it were a hot baked potato.
Around 12:30 p.m., the center field fence (actually a large swinging gate) opened and a stadium worker quietly walked to the left-field flag pole (which, in Tiger Stadium, put down a metal folder chair and a microphone, with a cord attached under the centerfield stands. A couple of moments later, a young man strode to the chair with a guitar in hand and a German Shepherd leader dog (named Trudy as it turned out).
Unknown to anyone, a relatively new singer had flown into Detroit early that morning from Las Vegas, where he was performing at Caesar’s Palace as the opening act for none other than Frank Sinatra.
He sat down, clicked off a few chords, spoke into the microphone, which boomed all over the cavernous stadium (first opened in 1912 before another baseball shrine – Fenway Park). He completed his sound check and continued to sit there, occasionally looking around as if someone was going to come for him … yet no one did.
After a few minutes passed, the young man propped the guitar on his lap and said to the crowd, “Well obviously, I’m not going anywhere for awhile, If it’s OK with you, I think I’ll play a little.”
For a crowd that knew little beyond Motown, it was the first exposure to the brilliance of Jose Feliciano and the young blind Puerto Rican singer ran his most of his first album (self titled “Feliciano”). Of all the music he has produced, the first album, on RCA Records, was by far the best thing he ever did and it was a treat – odd as it seemed that afternoon – to hear his renditions of “Light My Fire,” “California Dreamin’,” “In My Life,” “(There) Always Something There to Remind Me,” and “Sunny.” His flamenco-style of guitar playing was fascinating as was his courage to simply sit in a stadium, in front of more than 56,000 people, and just play. He earned some quick respect from the most jaded of Tiger fans in a very surreal moment (before such things became common place).
After the field was prepped and the teams were introduced, they lined up along each base line as stadium public address announcer Joe Gentile proclaimed, “and now ladies and gentlemen, please rise and join RCA recording artist Jose Feliciano in the singing of our National Anthem.”
Together, more than 56,000 voices, most off-key and many already lathered in a few Stroh’s beers or four, began to warble, “Oh say can you see …” Suddenly, most of them went silent as Feliciano was NOT keeping to tradition and was off into a completely different version of the anthem than had EVER been heard before prior to a major American sporting event.
If he wanted a rapt audience, he got it … but not in the way I believed he imagine. Mouths sat wide open, eyes darted among strangers seeking validation that what was being heard was actually being played. It wasn’t anything vulgar or disrespectful; it just wasn’t the traditional rousing Mormon Tabernacle Choir version that was the usual Tiger Stadium rendition.
According to Feliciano’s website, “He wanted to sing an anthem of gratitude to a country that had given him a chance; who had allowed a blind kid with a dream reach far above his limitations, far beyond the expected to a place few at his young age, had achieved. He wanted to sing an anthem of praise to a country that had given a better life to him and his family.”
Sadly, that was not how it was received. And, again from his website, Feliciano sensed something was amiss.
“Before he had completed his performance, however, he could feel the discontent within the waves of cheers and applause that spurred on the first pitch. ‘Wonder what that was about?,’ he thought, as he was escorted to the press box to enjoy a couple of innings before his flight back to Vegas for his shows later that evening.
“‘Do you know what you did?’ he was asked by someone in the box. “You’re causing a furor! The switchboard is lighting up with calls from people complaining about your singing The National Anthem!”
The next morning, sharing the front page headlines in the Detroit Free Press (the morning half of the Detroit newspaper duo) with the World Series game outcome was the Feliciano rendition of the Anthem and the “culprit” in this so-called heinous crime against humanity – beloved Tiger broadcaster Ernie Harwell. It seems as though Harwell was in “charge” of securing the talent for the pre-game performance and word had filtered to him about Feliciano’s “unusual” version.
So, instead of having the game dominated the water cooler conversation, all anyone could talk about was these two minutes on a sunny, cool day in Tiger Stadium.
According to Feliciano’s website, “Veterans, reportedly, threw their shoes at the television as he sang. Others questioned his right to stay in the United States, suggesting he should be deported (to where, exactly, had never been mentioned as those from Puerto Rico are, of course, American citizens)! Still others just attributed it to the times and felt sad for the state of our country.
“There were, obviously, many who understood the depth and breadth of his rendition. Those, young and old, who weren’t jaded by the negativity which surrounded anything new, anything a little different. It was unusual. It was beautifully done. It certainly was sincere.”
Feliciano, who enjoyed a long, distinguished, Grammy-winning music career, constantly was reminded of that brief moment in the left-centerfield sun. Nowadays, crowds have had to endure tortured renditions from the likes of Roseanne Barr and every contestant who ever appeared on “American Idol,” including William Hung who sounds like a dog and cat fighting at the same time.
But on October 7, 1968, it had never happened; until Jose Feliciano broke “the Anthem barrier.” Not exactly Rosa Parks stuff … but it WAS history in the making.

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