Now, only two baseball shrines remain, Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field. The last game was played at Tiger Stadium late this afternoon, with Detroit beating Kansas City, 8-2, in what was a meaningless contest in the standings. The meaning was in the message of plate umpire Rocky Roe's raised fist signaling Strike 3 and the final out because it meant the end of baseball in a park whose existence has stretched across a century.
Baseball fans have been given no choice except to move on, preferably with optimism, while locking into memory, as the gates were locked behind them, everything they could about one of their best-loved fields.
The game's glories have been celebrated at this downtown diamond palace since it opened April 20, 1912, the same day as Fenway and three years before Wrigley. Tiger Stadium was home to Ty Cobb and Al Kaline. Think of Cobb and you think of a hard-sliding base runner with spikes flying high, sometimes in anger and spite. Think of Kaline and you think of the other extreme that baseball brilliance allows, the elegance of a gliding outfielder and the sweet-smooth swing of a line-drive hitter, and manners that encouraged affection.
Then there was Greenberg. Hank Greenberg was remarkable for his right-handed power hitting, including his pennant-winning grand slam of 1945, and more. He secured a place in American culture as one who put his religion first, who enlisted in the Army Air Corps immediately after Pearl Harbor despite having been discharged shortly before as overage, who quietly encouraged Jackie Robinson in his breakthrough season of 1947.
Ted Williams skipped joyfully around the bases at Tiger Stadium after winning the 1941 All-Star Game with a ninth-inning home run. Mickey Mantle hit a ball over the right field roof that soared an estimated 643 feet, and Cecil Fielder hit one over the left field roof. Sparks flew when Reggie Jackson hit the light tower on the right field roof during the 1971 All-Star Game.
Lou Gehrig ended his consecutive-games streak here May 2, 1939. After watching the game, he walked back to his hotel, stopping to drink coffee. In his room he wrote a loving letter to his wife -- she meant more to him than the streak, he wrote. The date took on lasting sadness when Gehrig and the world learned that he had been stopped because he was fatally ill.
One last time today, people crowded inside the double-decked square stadium on a faded fringe of downtown. A man took a picture of the humanity and the few adornments, such as they were: a trash can in a corner, a sign pointing to the "Tiger Den."
"I've been coming here since I was 4. I remember my first game," said Rick Tolin, with his wife Diana, from nearby Farmington Hills. "So many things we do, we try to relive our childhood in some way, and that's what I try to do when I come here.
"My favorite memory was when I was in high school and I got to film my friend interviewing Al Kaline. The film was silent but we have an audio tape. Al Kaline was the first fellow held up to me to admire."
With the blue and orange seats filling to today's capacity of 43,356, Ernie Harwell introduced Kaline to an ovation that the onetime-teen-aged Tiger, now gray-haired but still slender, could not stop. Harwell, 81, had come down from his catbird seat, which hangs low and close to the field behind home plate, from where he has long described the games in a distinctive Southern voice. He could be heard by the batters themselves on quiet nights in the park, and by the countless to whom he gave a chill up their backs as they listened on WJR-760 AM, Detroit, often far away, in the dark perhaps, in cars maybe, somewhere out there.
Like everyone else in the stadium, Kaline cherished his memories. His first sight of the place came shortly after arriving from his native Baltimore. He was 18, fresh out of Southern High School and off the sandlots.
"Walking from the old train station, I thought the park looked like an impressive battleship," he said. "But then inside, walking through the aisles and seeing the green, green grass and the thousands of seats around, and more than anything feeling the peacefulness, it seemed almost magical. On that day I was awestruck. Today, 46 years later, I find myself still humbled and overwhelmed."
Baseball had been played on this street corner since 1896, when a place called Bennett Park opened, making "The Corner" of Michigan and Trumbull the oldest home to baseball. The current park was born as Navin Field, which was expanded three times, the last time in 1938 when it was renamed Briggs Stadium. It was renamed again as Tiger Stadium in 1961. Since its completion, steel beams could give thousands of fans on both decks a divided view of a game. Next year, the team will move one mile to new Comerica Park, named for a bank.
Not a seat of any worth could be bought or begged today at Tiger Stadium. The game-time temperature was 84 degrees and the humidity, as the public address announcer exclaimed, "a championship 68 percent," a reference to that championship season of '68. The Tigers who took the field honored Detroit's Hall of Famers by wearing their numbers, leaving center fielder Gabe Kapler with no number on his back in tribute to Cobb, who played before numbers were worn. The last cry of "Play Ball" went to umpire Roe.
And after Roe called the last out, 65 former Tigers, in uniform, came back to join the farewell as the crowd stood to greet them. Mark "The Bird" Fidrych loped to the pitching mound, knelt and smoothed the dirt. The double-play combination of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker took the field together. A mere sampling of those who crossed the grass from center field a last time to their positions: Willie Horton, Kirk Gibson, George Kell, Gates Brown, Ray Boone, Virgil Trucks, Earl Wilson, Jim Northrup, Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan, Jim Bunning, Darrell Evans, Dick McAuliffe, Jack Morris and Fielder. Harwell said, for all, goodbye.
It had grown dark and the lights on the roof were dimmed. Before all the players and all the fans filed out and the gates swung shut a last time, Kaline's words seemed true: It was doubtful that the final out could erase memories of the place and the people. Tiger Stadium, alive for a final moment, felt like Kaline always has described it, as "the most beautiful place I've ever seen."