As Detroiters flipped on their radios on April 10, 1968, they were greeted by the familiar and comforting voice of Ernie Harwell. Just a few months prior they’d listened as he ushered in a new season with his “Voice of the Turtle” speech, welcoming in a new season as Spring Training got underway. Little did anyone know that this day would be the day the Detroit Tigers set out on a path of destiny — a path that would do immeasurably more than anyone of them could imagine. It was on this day that they began to help heal a broken city.
In 1967 the Detroit baseball club had fallen just short of a World Series appearance, tying the Minnesota Twins for second place, one game behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League. But as the final out was made on October 1, 1967, the minds of nearly every citizen of Detroit was not on baseball but the riots that had destroyed parts of the city just two short months earlier. It was in front of this backdrop that the 1968 baseball season began.
THE 1967 RIOTS —
On a mid-summer’s night in 1967, around three o’clock in the morning, a “blind pig” bar was raided by the Detroit Police Department. The patrons gathering there were meeting to celebrate the return of two of Detroit veterans during the Vietnam Conflict. The blind pig was located on the corner of 12th street and Clairmont, in one of Detroit’s poorer African-American neighborhoods. When all was said and done 83 patrons were arrested, then all hell broke loose as the mostly white police officers were stuffing the African-Americans into the back of a paddy wagon. A glass bottle was thrown through the back window of a police wagon, a chair thrown through the window of a local business, and the rioting began. All in all, the riot would last four days, 43 people would lose their life, and countless others would sustain injuries.
The zenith of the tensions plaguing Detroit were met that night, July 23, 1967, on the corner of 12th and Clairmont — but they had been building for quite some time. Historically Detroit had been a place of booming industry, yet cursed by segregation. With a government and police department that was predominately white, tensions among authorities and citizens were mounting. When the visitors to the blind pig were piled into the back of the police wagons, the last straw had come.
In the end the city of Detroit would see a riot that was the largest urban uprising in American history until the death of Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 — four days before the team of destiny began its pursuit of healing. The ’67 riots saw 43 people killed (33 African-Americans, 10 caucasians), 1,189 injured, and over 7,200 people arrested.
In a 1997 interview with the New York Times, then mayor Dennis Archer summed up the devastation,
“Whatever damage you inflict to your own city, it is likely to remain permanent,’ Mayor Archer said, ‘because in the very same areas where there used to be flourishing businesses, they do not exist today, and in the very same areas where there used to be dense housing units, they no longer exist today.”
It is true that the scars of this moment in 1967 still plague the city of Detroit. Businesses remain shuddered, houses abandoned, but hope does spring eternal. And the budding presence of that hope began on April 10, 1968, when baseball became a catalyst to the healing of Detroit. For just a few hours each and every day from April through October, Detroiters were graced with the ability to forget. Forget the racial plague permeating through the city. Forget the despair that has rocked your citizens. Focus, instead, on your team that has taken the field. The process had begun, though the process is still continuing.
THE 1968 TEAM OF DESTINY —
With all of the real life distractions and the other major sports teams in the city, the people and fans of Detroit sports had nothing to hang their hats on. The division caused by the riots was palpable, the Lions finished 1967 5-7-2, the Red Wings 27-35-12, and the Pistons finished 42-40. Each of them rising no higher than third in their respective divisions. However, as it does every spring, hope sprang eternal for the Tigers and their fans.
They opened the season with the defending American League Champions, the Boston Red Sox, and as fans flooded into the old stadium on Michigan and Trumbull, they were greeted with the shine of the afternoon sun as the 1968 season got underway. The game was attended by 41,429 eager fans, who all left disappointed. The Red Sox treated the home fans to a great offensive display, scoring three runs off of Tigers’ starter Earl Wilson. Eventually the Red Sox jumped out to a 6-1 lead, never really letting the home team get close. The Tigers lost their first game of the season 7-3, which was a very inauspicious way to begin the 1968 campaign.
Would this team be as good as they were last year?
It’s just one game but this can’t be a good omen, right?
Plenty of thoughts were running through the minds of those exiting the cathedral that day. But as they set foot toward their transportation home, one thing was sure: the game they’d just witnessed would have zero bearing on what was to come.
The loss to the Red Sox on Opening Day 1968, was the one and only time the Detroit ball club would be under .500 during the 1968 season. When they evened their record the next day, in walk off fashion, they never again sat at or below the .500 mark on the season. Eventually ending the season with 103 wins.
A TRIBUTE TO THE ‘68 TEAM —
For a few hours nearly every day from April until October of 1968 the people of Detroit were offered a distraction from their everyday existence. By the time October came into view, the scars incurred from the previous year were still visible, but a little less painful. The ‘68 team placed the city on its back and carried them to the land of healing. A place where racial divides didn’t matter, the horrors of racism that gripped the city were forgotten — for a brief moment — and the hope of a more peaceful future existed.
Fifty years ago, today, began a tenuous journey, in a broken city, and began the healing process. When fans went to the ballpark there was no black and white at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, just baseball fans. Baseball fans who were cheering for a team that had fallen short in 1967, but 1968 brought a new hope, a brighter future, and a reason to come together and cheer. To cheer for a ball club for sure, but also to cheer for a city — a city that was beginning the healing process.