Fans shell out big bucks for relics from doomed Tiger Stadium.
Rarely are rusted and jammed turnstiles, defunct hot dog rollers and heavily stained trough-style urinals the stuff of bidding wars. That is, unless they were fixtures in one of sports' most revered venues.
Such is the latest in a series of oddities that have surrounded Detroit's Tiger Stadium during the eight years since its closing after the final home game of 1999. The ballpark has been transformed into a film set, acting as historic Yankee Stadium in the movie 61*; it has served as a performance venue for Snoop Dog; and it has been targeted by crooks who allegedly repeatedly greased a security guard with $20 bills to gain uninhibited access.
Now much of Tiger Stadium - which was renovated from wood to concrete and steel in 1912 - has been sold piece by piece, however begrimed. The month-long auction, which ended in October, attracted thousands of bidders, far exceeding even the auctioneer's expectations.
"It's going very well," Dan Rosenthal, chief operating officer of Schneider Industries, which recently ran the online auction of more than 700 items that effectively gutted the historic ballpark, save the foul poles, an infamously in-play centerfield flagpole and the outfield scoreboard, said two weeks into the sale. Midway through the auction, popular demand dictated that Rosenthal add another 30 items - most of them urinals. "I would have never thought about that, but the fans want them," he said. "Give the people what they want."
The auction saw fans buy all kinds of nontraditional memorabilia, including a batter's-box stencil, cement-encased base pegs and football down markers (leftovers from when the Detroit Lions called the stadium home). More historically significant objects included Al Kaline's locker, players' duffle bags and the door to the press booth manned by Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell for more than 40 years. Auction sales were anticipated to reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Stadium auctions represent a relatively new but growing trend. According to ESPN, the Pittsburgh Sports & Exhibition Authority in 2000 banked about $1.1 million by selling Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates booty salvaged from Three Rivers Stadium. In 2004, an auction of items culled from Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium yielded about $700,000. And Rosenthal says his company led a 2005 auction of memorabilia, including Albert Pujols' locker, from inside St. Louis' old Busch Stadium that netted multiple millions of dollars. All of those stadiums, however, were rummaged for relics and demolished within months of their franchises' decampment - not left to collect spiderwebs for eight years.
"We're very clear up front that it is all being sold with the dust and rust and all of that," Rosenthal said of the Tiger Stadium liquidation. "Some people like that historic dust."
Detroit's mayor and city council have announced their intention to use the auction proceeds to demolish the building. But just days removed from the outset of the sale, Harwell and his longtime friend and well-known sports lawyer Gary Spicer joined the nonprofit Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy in an effort to protect at least some key portions of the stadium, including the playing field, dugouts and clubhouses. The group is trying to raise some $8 million to $10 million, according to Spicer, that also will provide for about 3,000 wooden replica seats and about 60,000 square feet of office space that will potentially feature Harwell's own $4 million collection of baseball memorabilia.
"Ernie will tell you that his fondest memory of Tiger Stadium is the last game he called there because of how wonderful the fans were and how deferential they were to the stadium," says Spicer. "We are a baseball town." While Spicer and Harwell also plan to bring amateur baseball to Tiger Stadium, the city is anxious to market the site to developers, and the threat of total stadium and field demolition looms.
"Since 1999, the city has had a lot of would-be suitors, but I don't know if any of them have been financially qualified," says Spicer. "I think that's been the city's biggest frustration. But that stadium has a big hold on a lot of people. There are a lot of memories there."
Memories even in a single piece of porcelain used in relief situations. At the time of this writing, one home dugout urinal had fetched 11 bidders, driving the price up to $700.