Black Tigers: Detroit and the 1967 Rebellion

By Louis Moore

Fifty years ago, on July 23, 1967, routine arrests at a blind pig (an illegal after hours’ establishment) in Detroit ignited an explosive rebellion that lasted five days. That night, hometown hero, Willie Horton, of the Detroit Tigers, drove his car into the rebellion to quell the flames. It didn’t work. This piece is a brief look at Black Detroit, the Tigers, and the 1967 Rebellion.

As the Tigers’ double-header with the Yankees came to an end, there were only two columns of smoke arising from 12th street. More smoke and more fire were soon to come, serving as an omnipotent reminder that a rebellion was going on, but as of right now, with the Tigers looking to win the second cap and close the gap in the American League standings, that three miles stretch between Tiger Stadium and 12th street, the center of the rebellion, seemed so distant. The 30,000+ fans, Black and White, but definitely more White than Black, only cared about the score of the game. They ignored the increasing presence of helicopters hovering over the stadium, heading to help contain the rebellion, for now. Within days, containment shifted to shoot to kill. But that seemed so distant. The Tigers were winning and Detroiters could ignore the loud rage for help.

During the game, Detroit News sportswriter Peter Waldmeir climbed to the top of the stadium with two tactical police officers to look down on the rebellions. Destruction. But below them on the field, Waldmeir saw what he imagined was his Detroit. Diversity. “We looked down from the roof, down to the patch of green baseball field. The Tigers were playing the Yankees and Lenny Green, a Negro from Detroit’s north side, was in the Tigers’ outfield with Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup. Willie Horton [a Black Detroiter] had hit his home run earlier and the fans, Black and White, had cheered as he limped around the bases.” The Tigers made everything seem right. Waldmeir could ignore the rebellion, because two Black men wearing white uniforms helped his team win. “The fires were far away then, up on 12th Street, up where it didn’t make any difference,” Waldmeir added. “There were 30,000 people in Tiger Stadium, and nobody pulled a gun. Nobody threw a fire bomb.”[1]

With four Black players (Earl Wilson, Gates Brown, Lenny Green, and Willie Horton) powering their team in a pennant race, White fans, like Waldmeir, could convince themselves that race didn’t matter. The Tigers’ success, he believed, brought the city together. But cheering for an integrated team, and rooting for the four Black players, never brought the city closer together. This was a lie Detroiters, Black and White, told themselves. For Whites, integrated sports allowed for a moral evasion of the ills of the city and what plagued most Black Detroiters. Police brutality, joblessness, and slum conditions were after thoughts as long as Brown, Horton, Green and Wilson played well. And Black fans started to fall into this trap. With Black players finally getting an opportunity to play for the Tigers, Black fans had moved from a belief that sports proved democracy, to a conviction that sports built racial cohesion.

The two Black players that played that day, Green and Horton, tell a story about Black Detroit and Black Tigers. There they stood, as the riot flamed in the background, the first Black professional player from Detroit, Green, and the first Black Detroiter to play for the Tigers, Horton, as reminder of a rocky racial relationship.

For Black Tiger fans, the signing of Lenny Green on July 1, 1967, was a bittersweet moment, a reminder of the past racism of the team, but also another symbol that Detroit, the city and the team, were supposedly moving in the right racial direction. Racism was in the past. Green, who had played at Pershing High, had been in the big leagues for a decade, but this was his first stop with the Tigers. And that should have never been the case. With his quick bat, and even quicker feet, Green came up in a time when the Tigers outright refused to sign Black talent. The Briggs family, who owned the Tigers until 1956, represented the type of racism that kept Black Detroiters poor and segregated. Like other businesses in Detroit, the Tigers refused to give Black people a legitimate opportunity to make a living as employees, on and off the field. Until Detroit was under new ownership—radio executive Fred Knorr bought the team in 1956—the Tigers only employed Black people in servile positions handing out towels in the bathrooms. Not until the final year of his ownership did Briggs allow Black residents to apply for jobs as vendors or to work for the grounds crew. Even then, they still did not hire Black workers.

And Briggs kept this same prejudiced policy with his team. Like every other team that refused to integrate, the Tigers missed out on top “tan talent,” including players that shined for the Detroit Stars, a Negro League team that Briggs forbid playing in his stadium. After baseball integrated and the Tigers didn’t budge, feeling slighted by the team’s Jim Crow policy, Black fans publicly protested at Tiger Stadium every season. In 1948, the police arrested Black protesters for picketing the team’s racist policies in front of the stadium. In 1958, Black fans called for a Black boycott. A month later, the Tigers brought up their first Black player, Ozzie Virgil. Throughout that decade, what made things worse for Black Detroiters is the fact that great Black talent dominated the sandlots in Detroit, but local Black players weren’t good enough for Briggs. Months after Jackie Robinson made his Dodgers debut, for example, the Dodgers signed Black high school phenom, Sammie Gee, to a minor-league contract. While Gee never made it to the big leagues, the Tigers missed on other local stars in the 1950s, including Willie Kirkland, Leon Wagner, Alex Johnson and Lenny Green, the first Black Detroiter to make it to the majors. The St. Louis Browns, signed Green in 1952.

For Black Detroiters, having a local Black face on the team visually represented a future that for Black residents would be integrated and also full of economic opportunities. But if the most talented could not get a shot in baseball, a game that was touted as America’s merit-based pastime, what would happen to the others? As a Black writer noted in 1956, “In this day and age when all Americans are earnestly concerned with making democracy a reality for all, the national sport has seen its responsibility and has taken the lead in many instances.” The Tigers, however, were behind the times. “The Detroit Tigers,” he told his readers, “home town team of the Arsenal of Democracy and representative of one of the most dynamic and growing cities in the nation, still insists on a ‘bush league’ approach to player recruitment. They do themselves and the citizens of the Motor City a dis-service.”[2] Two years later, when the Tigers remained one of two teams to maintain the color line, a Black writer pointed out the larger meaning to the continued Tigers’ racism, commenting, “the area of professional sports is vitally important since it has been through the achievements of athletic excellence that the true meaning of teamwork and brotherhood has been most graphically demonstrated to the Free World.” He further added that, “The Detroit Baseball Company has not yet adopted a realistic attitude toward its responsibility to all citizens of our city.”[3]

Thus, in June 1958, when the Tigers signed Ozzie Virgil, it demonstrated to Black Detroiters that things would get better. As a writer for the Michigan Chronicle exclaimed, “We are happy and proud that one more institution in our community has demonstrated its belief in, and adherence to the principle of equality of opportunity in our democratic way of life.”[4]

While 1958 showed potential for a new relationship between Black residents and the Tigers, 1961 seemingly cemented the love affair. That season, the Tigers started with five Black players and added Gates Brown—they discovered Brown playing ball in an Ohio prison—giving them a total of six Black players, tied for the most in the American League. When asked about the sudden increase in Black players, new manager Bob Scheffing claimed he did not care about color, only talent, a remarkable statement of celebrating merit and skill, in a city where racism was still squeezing Black residents out of good paying jobs.

And then the Tigers took another major step to racial reconciliation when the team signed their first local Black player, Willie Horton. The home town kid, or the “People’s Champ,” was a muscular 18-year-old high schooler out of Northwestern High with prodigious talent. To keep him from signing with other teams, the Tigers gave him a car and $50,000 bonus, the third highest bonus a Black player had received. The kid who grew up in a household of 13 brothers and sisters, living of their dad’s $75 a month pension, took the relationship between the Black community and the Tigers to the next level. As Lawrence Casey, editor for the Michigan Chronicle said of his signing, “the Tigers upped their popularity in the Negro community many times over.” Equally as important, the Tigers portrayed a color-blind public philosophy when they signed Horton. “To me, it never mattered that Willie was colored,” their local scout touted.[5]

But while the Tigers put on a front of colorblindness, race still remained a problem for their organization. In his first spring training, in 1962, Horton, like his other Black teammates, could not stay with his White teammates. Instead, they boarded with Black families in segregated neighborhoods. By that time, despite Jim Crow laws in Florida, teams could get around state sanctioned racism by buying private property and integrating their facilities. The Tigers embarrassingly took their time. While a young Horton stayed publicly silent about the situation, his Tiger teammate, Bill Bruton, spoke truth to power. An activist athlete, Bruton was the de facto leader amongst all Black baseball players fighting for equal rights and led the fight to fully integrate baseball in Florida. In 1963, with Bruton leading the charge, the Tigers finally integrated their Florida facilities. Upon hearing the news, Michigan Governor John Swainson, celebrated, “This action of the Tiger management is most welcome as an important step in making the American past time truly American.” Bruton, bluntly bemoaned, “This, of course, is what we’ve been seeking ever since we came into organized ball. There was absolutely no justification for a situation of that type to exist.”[6] The last racial hurdle was supposedly out of the way, now the Tigers just had to win the AL pennant for the first time since 1945.

With the Black ace, Earl Wilson, mowing down batters, and the power of Horton, 1967 was supposed to be their year. Then the rebellions started.

Horton quickly realized that while celebrated as a bridge between the Black community and the Tigers, the slugger had no power in the community. His world seemed so distant. Although the players had no clue about the rebellion during the game, after the contest finished, management warned of the chaos and told them to leave the stadium as quickly as possible. Horton didn’t bother to shower, he exited in his white uniform, and drove his car straight into the belly of the rebellions. These were the streets he grew up in. These were the people he represented. Horton, who had grown accustomed to being treated like a hometown hero, drove his car to 12th Street, stopped in the street, got on the roof of his car, and proceeded to lecture the crowd. He told them to go home, and asked “Why are you burning up and tearing up the neighborhoods you live in?” And pleaded, “Whatever message you are trying to make will surely be lost in the violence.”[7] They did not listen. He might have been a hero on the baseball diamond, but down on the block, he represented the establishment. Perhaps they could not see past his white uniform. Someone in the crowd told him to go home before he got hurt. He left the hood like he did when he got his new contract.

The next day, the Tigers left too. Instead of playing a planned home series against the Baltimore Orioles, the teams decided to play the games in Baltimore. Even if they wanted to play in Detroit, there was no chance of that happening. That week, authorities cancelled Monday’s boxing program at Cobo Arena, and Governor George Romney closed Hazel Park racetrack. The city would not risk in further incidents. But with the Tigers scheduled to play in Baltimore on Tuesday, authorities hoped that if they televised the game the rioting would cease and the community would rally around their Tigers. Instead, rain stopped all false hopes that a baseball game would solve the tensions built up around police brutality and economic disparity. The rebellion officially ended on the 28th, the day after the Tigers played their make-up game with the Orioles.

With a massive riot tearing apart their city, the Tigers bonded. Although they did not win the pennant in 1967, they came within one game, losing the pennant on the final game. This, despite having to play 8 double-headers in August and deal with the pressure of saving the city. But next year would be different.

With a healthy team, and a goal of bringing the city back together, the Tigers won the pennant and the World Series in 1968, defeating the Cardinals in an epic 7-game series. Winning the AL pennant provided proof, according to the Michigan Chronicle, that Detroit could come together. In an editorial, a writer observed, “everyone became a Detroiter, not a Black Detroiter, not a White Detroiter, just a Detroiter. There was a spirit of tremendous pride.” The writer also reflected, “The pennant glow lingers and for the moment we are the Detroit that is Tigertown, USA, not the Detroit of Watts, Newark, and Detroit.” He ended his editorial suggesting, “In the alchemy of fulfillment, the Tigers have offered Detroiters more than a pennant, more than the high excitement of a campaign won, they have opened a wedge through which a war can be won by all of us in Detroit.”[8] And after the Tigers won the World Series, the Chronicle celebrated the victory as part of the healing process the city needed to go through. Frank Lett Sr., their golf writer, said, “A championship and the World Series title could be a big factor in cementing race relations in this town and, believe me, there is much to be desired in this area. Sports fans perhaps do more to ease this tension than any of the media and that includes newspapers, radio, and TV combined.”[9]

But that wasn’t true. Whites fled the city at a remarkable rate, and the problems of poverty and police brutality never ceased. Sports can’t change a designed history of structural racism, but they can blind people to the power of structural inequality.

Louis Moore is an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of a forthcoming book, I Fight for a Living, which explores boxing, Black manhood, and race in America from 1880-1915, and also We Will Win the Day, a book about the Civil Rights Movement and the Black athlete. He is on Twitter at @loumoore12 and can be reached at moorelou@gvsu.edu.


Notes:

[1] Pete  Waldmeir, “String of Helicopters,” Detroit News, July 25, 1967.
[2] Charles Wartman, “Tiger Policy has Definite Impact on Relations Here,” Michigan Chronicle, June 16, 1956.
[3] Bill Matney, “Absence of Negro Players is Cited,” Michigan Chronicle, April 26, 1958.
[4] Bill Matney, “Sports Community Deserves Credit,” Michigan Chronicle, June 14, 1958.
[5] Lawrence Casey, “Horton’s $50,000 Contract Called Excellent Deal,” Michigan Chronicle, August 12, 1961.
[6] “Gov. Lauds Tigers,” Michigan Chronicle, May 5, 1962; Lawrence Casey, “Bill Billy’s Bat Speaks Out,” Michigan Chronicle, May 5, 1962.
[7] Willie Horton, The People’s Champion (Detroit: Immortal Investments Publishing, 2004), 65-66.
[8] “Editorial,” Michigan Chronicle, September 28, 1968.
[9] Frank Lett, Sr., “Sports Front,” Michigan Chronicle, October 19, 1968.

5 thoughts on “Black Tigers: Detroit and the 1967 Rebellion

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