DETROIT (Reuters) - For five days in July 1967 riots tore apart Detroit, exacerbating racial tensions, and forcing the National Guard to quell the violence.
The Tigers, Detroit’s Major League Baseball team, felt immense pressure to win the next season to help bring the city together.
“They pretty much understood to a man that if they had a successful season and won the pennant ... it would help hold the city together,” said Tim Wendel, author of “Summer of ‘68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever.”
That October, the Tigers won baseball’s World Series.
“We definitely had a good influence on the people, having something positive to talk about,” Al Kaline, a member of the 1968 team and a baseball Hall of Famer, said in an interview. “If you went to the grocery shop, you’d talk about the Tigers instead of the riots. If you’d go to the barbershop you’d talk about the Tigers instead of the riots.”
Today, 45 years later, Detroit may again appeal to the Tigers or one of Detroit’s three other major professional sports teams: the NFL’s Lions, NBA’s Pistons and NHL’s Red Wings. This time, it will be to renew pride in a city demoralized after filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
“When we go to the playoffs or the World Series, it puts Detroit on the national stage,” Tigers all-star pitcher Justin Verlander said. “Sports mean a lot to the city, and it means a lot to hopefully play a small part in getting the city jump started.”
The Tigers were American League champions last year, but were swept in the World Series by the San Francisco Giants. Now, they are in first place in the American League Central Division, fighting for a third straight playoff appearance. They have the highest local television ratings of any team in baseball.
“This has been one of the most hopping baseball cities in the United States of America for the past seven or eight years,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “Hands down. Slam dunk.”
Even after five decades of population flight that has cut the city’s population by almost two-thirds, Detroit remains one of America’s biggest sports towns. Its four major pro franchises have 23 championships among them. Only four North American cities have more. All its teams have made playoffs runs in the past five years.
The Tigers, Lions and Red Wings, the three teams that play within the city limits, collectively drew about 4 million spectators over their most recent seasons.
The National Basketball Association Pistons, who play their home games in suburban Auburn Hills, have struggled of late. But from 2003 to 2008, they won the 2004 National Basketball Association championship and made six-straight Eastern Conference playoff appearances.
In hockey circles, Detroit is known simply “Hockey Town,” and the Red Wings are the model of consistency. One of the National Hockey League’s “Original Six” franchises, the team has made the playoffs for 22 straight years, winning four Stanley Cup championships since 1997.
Over the last decade, the Wings have assembled a daunting record of 232-120 on its home ice in “the Joe,” as locals call the Joe Louis Arena, named for the Detroit native who was a legendary boxing champion in the 1930s.
And then there are the Lions.
Though they made the playoffs in the 2011-12 season, the city’s perennially bottom-dwelling football team has not won a National Football League championship since 1957, around the time the city’s population peaked and a decade before the first Super Bowl was played. In 2008, they became the first team in NFL not to win a single game over a 16-game season.
The consistent losing has not kept fans away from games, and the Lions dominate conversation in the city throughout the fall.
But right now, it’s all about the Tigers. On Friday night, the 17th sell-out crowd of the season packed into 41,782-seat Comerica Park to watch Detroit beat the Philadelphia Phillies by a 2-1 score. So far this season, the Tigers have drawn 1.8 million fans downtown for games.
“It’s the only time it feels like a real city,” Mike Flynn, 57, said during Friday night’s game. Flynn moved to Detroit in 1980 and lived in the city for six years before moving to the suburbs.
Some people question whether the city should have helped finance expensive new stadiums for the Tigers and Lions. But others say the importance of sports in Detroit goes far beyond dollars and sense.
The teams and the city’s principal industry, car making, have close connections. William Clay Ford Sr., grandson of Henry Ford, owns the Lions. The Pistons are named for a key component in an automotive engine. The Red Wings logo features wings mounted on a car wheel.
Before the 2009 season General Motors, then itself on the verge of bankruptcy, told the Detroit Tigers it would no longer be able to sponsor the center-field fountain at Comerica Park that shoots off streams of water after Tigers home runs.
The fountain dominates the stadium’s outfield, and despite multiple offers for alternative sponsorships, the Tigers decided to keep GM’s logo on the fountain, along with Ford Motor Co’s Blue Oval and Chrysler’s Pentastar at no cost to the companies. “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers,” the fountain read.
Still, some local residents are troubled by the contrast between the wealth of the teams and the impoverished city that supports them. The Tigers, for example, have the fifth highest payroll in baseball, paying players a collective $148 million. Detroit’s median household income is just $27,000, roughly half the national average and the lowest of any major U.S. city.
“It’s jarring to think about players making as much as they do when the community is impoverished,” said Skidmore College professor Daniel Nathan, president of the North American Society for Sport History.
Yet when Lions coach Jim Schwartz was asked at a press conference last week whether the Lions, coming off a disappointing 4-12 season, needed an “emergency manager” to turn the team around, he said he welcomed the comparisons between the city and team.
“I’d like those comparisons to be resiliency, blue-collar, hard work, toughness,” Schwartz said. “I think those are the things that are most important about the city of Detroit. Those are the things that I hope the Lions reflect.”
Editing by Dan Burns, Frank McGurty and David Gregorio