I remember when made-for-television movies used to be a big thing. Back in the 1970s, in the days before cable TV and Netflix, it seemed like each of the big three networks (there was no FOX back then) put out made-for-TV specials every few weeks. Most were pedestrian or worse, but the occasional TV movie stood out as something so watchable that it made you wonder if it was worthy of a theatrical release.
In the 1980s, one of the better made-for-TV movies involved baseball—and more specifically, the Detroit Tigers. Tiger Town, a release from Disney, came out in 1983 and first appeared on a Sunday night, October 3. The film tells the story of a fictional Tigers player named Billy Young, who finds himself in a dreadful slump after starring for the team for years. Two of Young’s biggest fans are young Alex and his father; they both remain loyal to Billy, even though he is playing poorly in his final major league season. As a team, the Tigers are faring no better, 16 games out of first place at the midpoint of the season.
Like many TV movies of the era, Tiger Town takes a tragic turn. Alex’ father, an unemployed auto worker, passes away, leaving the boy devastated. But just before his death, the father reminds his son of the importance of believing in himself and others, a value that Alex will hold.
Soon after his father’s passing, Alex starts attending Tiger games. He observes other fans jeering the slumping Billy Young, who is hitless in his last 14 games. Remaining faithful to his favorite player, Alex wishes that Young will start hitting again. Lo and behold, Billy hits a home run during Alex’ first visit to Tiger Stadium. Convinced that his belief in the Tigers is spurring the team, Alex continues to attend games, sometimes skipping out early on school and drawing the wrath of his mother and ridicule from his classmates. At a key point late in the film, he is even held up by schoolyard bullies, who try to prevent him from making his way to the ballpark.
Seemingly buttressed by Alex’ good wishes, Billy goes on a hitting tear. More importantly, the Tigers begin to play inspired ball, throwing themselves into the pennant race and setting up a showdown with the division-leading Baltimore Orioles on the final day of the regular season.
All of this sounds rather fantastic and unbelievable, but the story is well-executed and handled by director Alan Shapiro, a native of Detroit who was just 25 at the time. The presence of a great actor, Roy Scheider, also helps. Scheider takes on the lead adult role of Billy Young. (In a not-so-coincidental maneuver, Scheider’s character wears the same No. 6 as Al Kaline.) Shapiro drew some criticism for casting Scheider, who was 51 at the time and attempting to portray a 40-year-old ballplayer, but the veteran actor’s lean, toned physique makes him somewhat believable as an athlete. Smartly, Shapiro tends to show Scheider in on-field close-ups, while interspersing overhead footage from actual Tigers games as a way of making the baseball scenes more believable.
Scheider’s acting skills also make up for any gap in credibility. Best known for his work in three films (his role as Gene Hackman’s partner in The French Connection, his lead performance in the original Jaws, and his portrayal of Bob Fosse in All That Jazz) Scheider is one of those actors who rarely delivered a subpar performance. Always intense and occasionally fiery, Scheider repeatedly threw himself into his roles full-force, adding a level of raw emotion to the film, no matter the quality of the production. In Tiger Town, Scheider plays a different kind of character than some of his famously intense roles. He is congenial and charming as Young, a man whose decency matches his on-field talents.
Second billed after Scheider, the lesser known Justin Henry plays young Alex in Tiger Town. Though he’s become somewhat forgotten today, Henry had forged an excellent reputation as a child actor by the early 1980s, mostly because of his terrific performance as the young son in Kramer vs. Kramer. Henry’s portrayal earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, a remarkable achievement for a child actor. While Tiger Town was not the same caliber of film as Kramer vs. Kramer, Henry’s performance as Alex remained high-level. Henry plays Alex with a low-key, believable demeanor, adding credibility to the made-for-TV movie.
Smartly, director Shapiro gave the film an authentic Tigers feel by adding the presence of several Detroit-area legends. For example, Sparky Anderson appears as himself, as he attempts to lead the upstart Tigers to a come-from-behind pennant. Ernie Harwell and Ray Lane provide the play-by-commentary; Lane and Harwell had teamed up on Tigers broadcasts from 1967 to 1972. (Lane would eventually return to the team as one of its television voices.) Additionally, Detroit sportscaster Al Ackerman also appears as himself as he reports on the Tigers’ fortunes. Thanks to the presence of so many Detroit icons, the film offers plenty of nostalgia for Tigers fans who can remember what it was like following the Motor City sports scene in the late 1970s and early eighties.
Adding to the authenticity, Shapiro made sure to receive permission to film the baseball scenes at Tiger Stadium while taking his outside shoots to the city of Detroit. Shapiro’s efforts to use Detroit as a backdrop, while noted by local viewers, did result in one notable mistake. In one scene, we see Alex riding his bike on a bridge over the Detroit River, as he is making way from his house to Tiger Stadium. In reality, the bridge runs from Tiger Stadium to Belle Isle Park, which contains no residential housing. All in all, it’s a minor mistake, one that does little to detract from the main story line.
Shapiro made some history with his production of Tiger Town. It was the first original movie produced for the Disney Channel, which had just launched in April. Disney was thrilled when Tiger Town earned a Cable Ace Award as the Best Dramatic Film of 1983.
Oftentimes, made-for-TV movies struggle to hold up over the years, becoming dated all too quickly. Surprisingly, Tiger Town holds up relatively well. Yes, it’s corny and sappy, as Disney films of any era can be, but the material is handled with a degree of reserve by Shapiro. He also presents likable characters in a film that is well representative of 1980s Detroit.
If you’re a fan of Tigers history and Detroit culture, Tiger Town is worth a view.