Saturday, March 9, 2024

Early Detroit Tiger History

Charlie Bennett
Prior to 1894, the Detroit Tigers played minor league baseball and were one of the founding members of the West League that played throughout the Great Lakes states. Owner George Vandereck choose the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Boulevards as their home field. Previously, the vacant lot was used as a local hay market for farmers and livestock owners. Vandereck bought the lot and built Bennett Park--named after a popular Tiger catcher Charlie Bennett--who lost his legs in a railway accident in 1894 while running on a rain-slick train platform and falling onto the tracks. Bennett's left foot and his right leg above the knee were severed as the train pulled out, ending his baseball career.

Frank "Old Stone Face" Navin
In 1901, the Tigers joined the new American League as one of its eight founding members. Samuel F. Angus bought the Tigers in 1902 and hired lawyer and baseball enthusiast Frank Joseph Navin to run the club for him. As a young man, Navin was a blackjack and poker dealer in an illegal gambling establishment. He loved horse racing and was an avid wagerer at two racetracks in Windsor, Ontario and attended the Kentucky Derby annually. In 1908, Navin parlayed $5,000 of winnings into buying a significant portion of Tiger stock.

In 1908, Navin bought another large block of shares making him controlling owner and new president of the organization. When Navin's silent business partner William Yawkey--lumber fortune heir--died in 1919, Navin bought his stock becoming full owner of the club. Because he was suddenly cash-poor, he sold 25% of the franchise to auto-body manufacturer Walter Briggs Sr. and 25% to wheel maker John Kelsey of Kelsey-Hayes Corporation. When Kelsey died, Briggs bought his interest in the team becoming an equal co-owner with Navin, but Briggs was content to allow Navin to run the team unhampered.

Frank Navin and Ty Cobb
In 1905, Navin signed legendary Tiger center fielder Ty Cobb for $1,500. The talented ballplayer led the Tigers to their first American League pennant win in 1907. Between seasons, Cobb held out for a $5,000 contract. After bitter negotiations, Navin--a tight-fisted owner--met his match. Cobb was wildly popular with the fans and threatened to expose Navin for the conniving cheapskate he was. The penny-pinching owner quickly did the math and caved-in to Cobb's demand. Cobb led the Tigers to two more consecutive American League pennants in 1908 and 1909 turning a nice profit for the team. Navin made Cobb the team's manager as well as being the team's star player.

Navin Field
Bennett Park consisted of a wooden grandstand and bleachers. It was the smallest ballpark in the league seating 14,000. Owners Navin and Briggs tore down the obsolete wooden Bennett Park between the 1911 and 1912 seasons and built a concrete and steel stadium seating 23,000 fans--renaming it Navin Field. In 1924, Navin built a second deck increasing seating to 30,000.

By 1931, the Great Depression cut Tiger attendance by 30%. To draw fans to the ballpark, Navin tried to sign the most popular player in the game--Babe Ruth--but he wasn't availabe, so Navin bought out Mickey Cochrane's contact from Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack for $100,000 and made him a player-manager. Cochrane was just what the team needed. He helped the Tigers win pennants in 1934 and 1935.

Mickey Cochran with Grace and Frank Navin--1935
Under Navin's stewardship, the Tigers won four American League pennants but did not win a World Series until the 1935 season, giving the Tigers their first series win. But Navin's victory lap was short-lived. Navin and his wife Grace rode horses several times a week at the Detroit Riding and Hunt Club. Six weeks after the Tigers won the series, Navin went for a solo ride on his favorite horse Masquerader and suffered a fatal heart attack, falling to the ground. When his horse returned riderless to the stable, his wife cried out for help, but it was too late. Navin was dead at age sixty-five. He was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan in a family mausoleum.

Mickey Cochrane and Walter Briggs
After Navin's death, Walter O. Briggs purchased Navin's stock and became sole owner. Because Briggs made a fortune manufacturing automobile bodies for Ford, Chrysler, Packard, Hudson, and Willys-Overland, he did not need an income from the team and promised not to take a salary during his tenure as owner. In 1938, he changed the name of Navin Field to Briggs Stadium and remained the sole owner of the Tigers until his death in 1952. The stadium was renamed Tiger Stadium in 1961 until the franchise moved to Comerica Park in 2000.

For 104 seasons, the Tigers played baseball at Michigan and Trumbull earning them the distinction of being the oldest continuous one-name-only city franchise in major league baseball.

1935--Detroit Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings win their championships. 


  1. Navin was from Adrian mi. If you ever come to our little town. Go downtown on the west side of the street near the intersection of main and church streets in front of Season's, is a glass plaque about him. It's really fascinating.

  2. I plan to write a post about the Fleisher brothers next month.