Playing Ball

Sep 20, 2011

If you could magically transport a Detroiter from a century ago to the present, he or she would recognize virtually nothing about their city or their state. They’d be staggered by the size of things and appalled by the vast stretches of blight.

While cars were becoming the mainstay of our economy back then, today’s vehicles are so different that they would be essentially unrecognizable to someone from nineteen eleven.

Most people back then had never seen an airplane, there were no bridges over the Detroit River and no federal income tax.

But they would understand they were in the same place once you told them: “The Detroit Tigers are in an exciting race for the American League pennant.”

Baseball, of course, is more than a sport; it is a cultural touchstone.  The Tigers of a century ago had a season that was a mirror image of this one. This year, the team played only slightly better than mediocre baseball until the last month or so.

Then, they turned into the Terminator on steroids, winning twelve games straight, mostly against their chief rivals Cleveland and Chicago, and climbing into the playoffs for the first time in five years.

A century ago, they had a fantastic beginning, stayed in first place all the way until August, and then collapsed.

They finished second to the Athletics, the same team that stopped their incredible winning streak Thursday night. Of course, there have been a few changes. The Athletics have since moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City and on to Oakland.

There have been a few other changes, too. Back then, baseball was the only major sport, and newspapers the only mass news medium. When the Tigers were out of town, people crowded around newspaper offices, where the score, which came in by telegraph, would be posted on a billboard outside.

The games were all played in the daytime then. There were a few other differences, too. Detroit was a rapidly growing city of half a million people, on its way to two million.

Today’s Detroit is a shrinking city of seven hundred thousand. Virtually everybody who lived there in nineteen eleven was white. Fewer than ten percent are white today.

But it is the same place, and the same sport. The ownership of all these teams have changed, and everybody who played for them a century ago is dead. If we took our reincarnated Detroiter to the ball park he would be stunned by the prices and the rainbow complexions of the team. But they still are, in a sense, the same team. Detroit is still the same city, and Michigan is still the same state, despite all the changes and challenges. Things are easier today, and harder at the same time, in both life and baseball.

Finishing first got you in the World Series back then. Today, it just gets you to the first round of playoffs. Cities could largely determine their destiny back then. Today, Detroit is at the mercy of state and local governments. But the city’s motto is the same:

Translated from the Latin, it means: We hope for better things. It will rise from the ashes. The Tigers did that this year.

We should hope that the city and state do so as well.