When we think of earthquakes, we think of California, Japan, and the “Pacific Rim,” not the midwestern United States. But on a clear Wednesday evening in June of 1987, a quake emanating from Illinois shook the metro Detroit area so badly that it caused the stands at Tiger Stadium to rock and sway. It was scary enough that Kirk Gibson, staring out to face the ferocious fastball of Len Barker, jumped out of the batter’s box wide-eyed.
The tremor occurred at 7:49 PM EST, deep below Lawrenceville, Illinois, a small town of about 4,000 people resting near the Illinois/Indiana border located an hour north of Evansville. In Lawrenceville, items tumbled from grocery store shelves, roofs collapsed, and a handful of people were injured. The resulting quake traveled across 15 states, rattling structures, people, and the earth itself. It was felt as far away as South Carolina and parts of Canada.
In Detroit, at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, it was the bottom of the first inning and Gibson was at the plate facing Milwaukee’s Barker, a hard-throwing right-hander. Sweet Lou Whitaker was on third base (having doubled to lead off the game), and Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock was on first, having reached by bloop single. It was an excellent scoring opportunity for the Tigers. But when the earth trembled, Gibby wasn’t thinking about driving in runs.
“I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Gibson told reporters after the game. Though video of the moment has proved difficult to find, the author recalls watching the game on television. In that moment, as he set himself in the batter’s box and the quake hit, Gibson’s macho persona vanished. He skipped out of the box, ducked backwards toward the visitor’s dugout, and assumed a look of mild terror.
Tiger Stadium seemed to be coming apart.
“You could look through the glass in front across the other side of the press box and see a kind of shaking,” Tiger spokesman Craig Shea said. “It was swaying even.”
Sure enough, the upper deck was rocking back and forth, and for a few seconds at least, the earth at the The Corner seemed to be ready to swallow up the old ballpark.
Barker stepped from the mound, and the umpires called time. A few anxious seconds passed, and I recall George Kell, in his Arkansas twang, explaining that the ballpark had “just experienced something.”
According to the Associated Press: “Steve Thibideau, 27, of Union Lake, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, timed the tremors he felt with a stopwatch he happened to have in hand: 2 minutes, 39 seconds.
“It was just kind of odd, everything vibrated and shook. It was pretty strong for 10 or 15 seconds,” Thibideau said, “I was out in the garage checking on my fishing gear and everything started jumping up and down. … I could see the worm on the end of my fishing pole jumping up and down.”
The National Earthquake Information Center later determined that the earthquake measured 5.0 on the Richter Scale. A large quake for that part of North America.
The shaking and rattling didn’t seem to bother Gibby too much. He regained his composure and lined a deep fly ball to center field that sailed over the outfielder’s head and went to the wall. Whitaker and Madlock scampered home, and Gibson advanced all the way to third base with a triple. The Tigers scored four runs in the opening inning off Barker, who may have been the player most disturbed by Mother Nature. Unfortunately for Detroit rooters, the Brewers stormed back and tied the game in the 7th and won in extra innings.
But for many in attendance that weekday night at Tiger Stadium, the story was not the final score of the game, but the unsettling movement of terra firma.
“The press box began swaying, moving back and forth like an amusement ride. It was quite scary,” Detroit News Sports Editor Joe Falls said.