Detroit fans have history of combustible behavior

November 25, 2004|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The roots of Detroit's raucous reputation as a sports town go deep.

Seventy years ago, Tigers fans pelted St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Joe "Ducky" Medwick with garbage during the seventh game of the 1934 World Series. Provoked by Medwick's mettle on the bases - he had just spiked a Detroit player - the crowd took aim. Bottles, shoes and rotten tomatoes flew at Medwick for 20 minutes.

Enough, said baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who ejected the Cardinals Hall of Famer "for his own good." St. Louis won the series anyway.

That was just the start of a string of spectator misbehavior that has dogged Detroit through the years. The incidents cut a swath across a number of sports - baseball, basketball and hockey - and stand out as embarrassing chapters of the city's pro sports legacy.

None scarred Detroit's image like the basketball brawl at last week's Pistons game, which erupted into a free-for-all between the home team's fans and players from the Indiana Pacers. Though the episode took place at the Palace of Auburn Hills, a 45-minute drive from Motown, the melee still occurred at the home of the Detroit Pistons.

"Don't blame the city for this," said Louise Jezierski, an urban sociologist at Michigan State University. "The Pistons play in the suburbs to mostly white, middle-class fans."

The rap sheet for Detroit is plenty long.

Championships by two of the city's teams triggered some of the worst violence in U.S. sports history. The riots that erupted after the Tigers' World Series victory over the San Diego Padres in 1984 left one person dead and 80 injured. Eight rapes were reported, along with millions of dollars in property damage. Detroiters overturned and burned a squad car and a taxi and hurled rocks and bottles at police wearing riot gear.

Six years later, the Pistons won an NBA title and the aftermath turned deadlier still: eight homicides, including four children, three of whom were killed when a car jumped a curb and struck them on the sidewalk.

Such chaos isn't limited to Detroit. Last month, in the wake of the Red Sox's American League Championship Series victory, Boston police shot pepper spray pellets into a group of unruly fans, killing a college student.

"Any of these sports, in any city, can trigger fan violence," Jezierski said.

Detroit has celebrated in an orderly fashion, too - in 1989 (Pistons); 1997, 1998 and 2002 (hockey's Red Wings); and 2004 (Pistons again).

Moreover, said Jezierski, the Tigers' victory in the 1968 World Series worked to reconcile a city still smoldering from that summer's race riots.

"That championship helped heal Detroit," she said.

But other historical incidents suggest a fractured relationship between athletes and fans.

In 1968, at Tiger Stadium, Boston's Ken Harrelson was struck in the back by a firecracker that had exploded just behind him in right field.

"I could have been blinded," Harrelson said. "Detroit is the only town in this league where this happens."

In 1981, at Joe Louis Arena, seven members of the New York Rangers charged into the stands after fans who had peppered them with debris, including a container of beef. Two players were suspended, and one fan was arrested.

Back to Tiger Stadium: Crowds became so rowdy, chanting obscenities at players in the summer of 1985 that, for one month, the center-field bleachers were closed. One result: The team began selling low-alcohol beer.

"Historically, Detroit is a blue-collar town with hard-nosed fans who'll confront you with their opinions," said Rob Silverman, an urban sociologist who once lived there. "They love their teams and like to articulate that in an in-your-face way."

During baseball's home opener in 1995, spectators emptied their pockets to show their disdain, both for the rival Cleveland Indians and for the labor problems that had shortened two seasons. They littered the field with whiskey bottles, beach balls and toilet paper rolls. Twenty fans were arrested.

"I've never played in worse conditions," said the Indians' Kenny Lofton, who barely dodged a metal napkin dispenser.

In June, during the NBA Finals, Los Angeles' Karl Malone squared off with a Pistons fan who allegedly spat on the Lakers star during warm-ups. Malone reportedly retaliated by poking the man in the face. But tempers cooled, and no charges were filed.

For years, fans have sought to give their teams every psychological edge, Silverman said.

"I grew up in Los Angeles, and I remember going to a game where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stepped over the Lakers' bench to have words with a fan who was heckling him," he said.

"At some level, taunting is part of the game. The fan is the `12th man.' He's his own team's advantage.

"But when the fans actually engage the players, things have gone too far."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.