When Ted Williams cleared the roof at Briggs Stadium

Just two days after Lou Gehrig benched himself at Briggs Stadium to end his record 2,130 consecutive game streak (seventy years ago this past Saturday), a tall and slender rookie from the Boston Red Sox also made history at the ballpark that had been renovated the previous season with a second tier and fully enclosed stands.

You could call it a coming out party.

Prior to the game, former Tiger and Red Sox hurler Elden Auker recalled in his splendid autobiography “Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms,” (Triumph Books 2001) a conversation he had with former Tiger teammate Tommy Bridges prior to the May 4th contest:

“Who’s this kid Ted Williams you’ve got over there that all the sportswriters have been writing so much about? Bridges asked me.

“He’s good I said. I’ll tell you what Tommy, I’ll bet you before we leave this ballpark, he’ll hit one over the right field roof.”

In 1939, Rookie sensation Ted Williams became the first player to hit a home run over the right field roof at Briggs Stadium.

In 1939, Rookie sensation Ted Williams became the first player to hit a home run over the right field roof at Briggs Stadium.

In his first appearance in Detroit, and in his second at bat, the man who would soon be nicknamed “The Splendid Splinter” walloped a serving from Tiger pitcher Roxie Lawson that bounced off the roof in right center before bounding back onto the field for a home run.

Auker’s prediction had nearly come true.

But Ted Williams wasn’t done.

In his next at bat against reliever Bob Harris, on a 3-0 count, Auker would soon be telling Tommy Bridges “I told you so.”

With a mighty swing, Williams became the first player to hit a home run over the roof at Briggs Stadium.

This is how Gerry Moore of the Boston Globe described Ted’s moonshot:

“It was a climbing liner—as much of a liner as a drive could be which cleared a 120 foot barrier, straight as a string, over the whole works about a dozen feet fair. According to eyewitnesses outside the park it landed across adjoining Trumbull Ave. and bounded against a taxi company on the other side on the first hop.”

It would take another 17 years before another player hit a home run over the roof at Briggs Stadium. That slugger was Yankee great Mickey Mantle who would later do it two other times.

However it was another home run at Briggs Stadium that Ted Williams has called his happiest moment in baseball.

Trailing 5-4 with two runners on and two out in the bottom of the ninth of the 1941 All Star game, “Teddy Ballgame” won the contest when he hit a three run homer off the facing of the third deck down the right field line.

Ted Williams is greeted by Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio as he crosses home plate after his game-winning home run in the 1941 All-Star Game at Briggs Stadium.

Ted Williams is greeted by Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio as he crosses home plate after his game-winning home run in the 1941 All-Star Game at Briggs Stadium.

Years later, Williams confessed that his favorite ballpark for hitting was Briggs Stadium. He said it was because of the darkness between the upper deck and lower deck that provided the perfect backdrop for framing the ball. By the way, the visitors who hit the most home runs at Navin Field/Briggs Stadium/Tiger Stadium 1912 to 1999 were Babe Ruth with 60 and Ted Williams with 55.

From the original Briggs/Tiger Stadium configuration from 1938 until the park closed in 1999, 36 home runs were hit over the roof of the ballpark. Four were over the longer left field roof, (Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Cecil Fielder, Mark McGuire) and the rest were over the right field roof.) Norm Cash hit the most over the roof. (four of them in 1961 and 1962.) The last to clear the roof occurred on July 9, 1999 by Jeremy Burnitz of Milwaukee.

I am lucky to say that I saw three of those home runs.( George Brett in 1988, Mickey Tettleton in 1991, and Mark McGuire in 1997.) They were all majestic shots, and it was a thrill to see that balls go out and the buzz in the crowd that lasted at least one inning as people discussed what they had just witnessed.

Amazingly, in the last game at Tiger Stadium, Rob Fick’s dramatic grand slam, the last homer hit at the ballpark, nearly cleared the roof, but it bounced off of it and onto the field.

How fitting for such a wonderful place with so much history.

Thanks Ted.

(P.S. I’m sorry, but home runs hit at Comerica Park just aren’t as dramatic as the ones hit at Tiger Stadium where balls rattled around the upper deck or even cleared the stadium. Sorry folks, it just ain’t the same.)

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.