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Ethan Casey

Death of a Tiger

Detroit baseball's morality tale.

Detroit is the most American of American cities. In its heyday, it drew unto itself by the hundreds of thousands blacks and whites from the South, Jews, and assorted "ethnics" from Europe. A Detroit neighborhood in the fifties was "a microcosm, an urban experience," Tiger Stadium Fan Club founder Frank Rashid (himself Lebanese) once told me. "We had the influx of blacks. We had a Chinese family, a German family. I can't imagine a better childhood. Don't tell me it doesn't work. It worked. It was great, it was wonderful. What a way to learn from other people and to get a sense of what could and what should be."

Already then, the yang of industrial triumph carried within itself the yin of its own demise. The city emptied out in the sixties, with white flight accelerating after the 1967 riot. By the time I arrived in 1991, the physical city was in places a burned-out shell of its former self. In a seemingly recovering neighborhood like Corktown, where I lived, you could read the curve of the city's history: a brick house built at the turn of the century, maintained just to the point of being inhabitable (by the now elderly sister of Ty Cobb's personal batboy); across the street, what in the 1860s had been a German immigrant's farmhouse, impressively restored by an affluent stockbroker; down the block, a crack house. On the next block: the charred wreck of a house recently burned by its owner for insurance. Across the street: an empty lot.

Who was to blame for the city's state was a rhetorical question that hovered in the air amid the dignified half-empty skyscrapers and seeped unspoken into conversations. The battle lines were clear enough: blacks blamed whites; whites blamed blacks. It wasn't quite as black and white as that, but it was difficult and trying for even well-meaning and intelligent people to cross the line symbolized so starkly by Eight Mile Road.

Like Detroit, baseball is a rich and complex metaphor. "Baseball has had a different and more important role in ...

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