Documentary “City On Fire” looks back to 1968 and troubled 1967 in Detroit

Norm Cash takes a swing in this screen capture from the 2002 documentary “City on Fire: The Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers.”

With spring training right around the corner, I think I’ve found a good way for Detroit Tigers fans to prepare for the upcoming season. Given that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Tigers’ world championship season of 1968, it might be an especially proper time to take a look at the documentary film, City on Fire: The Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers. Produced in 2002 and first airing on HBO that summer, the film is a wonderful and in-depth look back at both the 1967 and ’68 seasons, and how the Tigers’ on-field success helped heal a city that had been ravaged by race rioting and general tensions of bigotry and hatred.

First off, the script for City on Fire was co-written by Armen Keteyian, the former reporter for Sports Illustrated and one of the best general sportswriters of the past 40 years. Like almost all of Keteyian’s work, his writing for City on Fire is top notch.

Keteyian’s writing provides wonderful material for the narration of actor Liev Schreiber, who has become a familiar voice on sports documentaries of the past 20 years. Schreiber is a good actor, but he’s even better as a narrator; his dignified tone brings just the right amount of gravitas to what is a very serious piece about sports and social history.

Then there is the format of City on Fire. Near the beginning, we see plenty of stirring footage of the actual riots during moments of high tension. From there, the film mixes those images of the rioting with in the perspectives of those living in the city at the time. Rather than just interview former Tigers players and broadcasters, the film’s producers chose to include a wide spectrum of witnesses who provide first-hand commentary on what transpired in Detroit in 1967 and ‘68. Not only did the producers include interview segments with Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Mickey Lolich, and John Hiller, but they also talked to everyday residents of Detroit from the time period, several news reporters from the Detroit papers, Tiger Stadium usher Joe Lapointe, Detroit police officer Isaiah McKinnon, Judge Damon Keith (who once served as a mentor to Horton), Congressman John Conyers, and controversial singer Ted Nugent, who was born and raised in Detroit.

The result is a wide-ranging view of the rioting that sprung up after the arrests of citizens at a “blind pig,” or speakeasy located in the city, and the police response to the uprising. In addition to the players, who were able to use Tiger Stadium as an oasis from the trouble, we hear from many of those folks who were even more directly affected by the racial tensions that swamped the city in ’67 and ‘68.

Of course, baseball is the focus of City on Fire, so there is plenty of source material coming from the Tigers themselves. One of those players is Horton, who emerges as one of the heroes of the story. It was Horton who made his way to 12th Street one summer day in 1967, shortly after the riots had broken out. Still wearing his full Tigers uniform from a Sunday doubleheader, Horton jumped on top of a truck with a bullhorn, and implored the rioters to stop their violence. Horton’s words ultimately went unheeded, but his actions remain a source of true heroism and not some gesture requiring little personal risk to one safety.

In addition to the players mentioned above, several ex-Tigers who have since passed away also appear in the documentary. They include Jim Northrup, Gates Brown, and Earl Wilson, three important figures in franchise history and three players known for their honest, forthright ways. Brown and Wilson, in particular, provide particularly hard-hitting commentary about the prevalent racism. There is also comment from the late Ernie Harwell, who not only served the Tigers as their lead broadcaster in 1968 but also arranged for Jose Feliciano to sign the National Anthem prior to one of the World Series games. When Feliciano delivered a controversial rendition of the Anthem, one that was long and offbeat in style (and one that irritated Lolich, Detroit’s starter that day), Harwell feared that he might lose his job with the Tigers. Thankfully, that did not come to pass.

Led by Keteyian and Schreiber, the film provides evidence of how the success of a baseball team can help a city heal from civic tensions, in this case bigotry and race rioting. Some naysayers have claimed the film provides no actual proof of the Tigers’ supposed “healing” of the city, as if such proof can be supplied in scientific fashion. Yet, the general absence of rioting in Detroit in ’68 and the increased attendance at Tiger Stadium certainly indicate that some sort of healing did take place. Additionally, the general consensus of those interviewed is that the Tigers’ on-field success did help alleviate some of the racial tension. They were there, and I was not, so I tend to believe what they have to say.

It’s a story that is already well known to Tigers fans who were old enough to remember the late 1960s, but the documentary has also exposed non-local fans to the pertinence and importance of the 1968 Tigers. Prior to watching the film, I had heard only brief snippets about the social significance of that team and had only a cursory understanding of the connection between the racial violence and those Tigers. For me, watching the film helped solidify the story of what Horton and the Tigers did in mending at least some of the feelings of hatred that had infiltrated the city. I suspect that it would do the same for younger fans who have no first-hand memory of the ’68 Tigers, the rioting and the looting, or the general swirl of racial tension that existed throughout America at that time.

As an added bonus, City on Fire can be viewed for free by anyone with an Internet connection. The entire documentary, which runs just under an hour, is available for viewing on YouTube. If you haven’t seen the film, watch it. If you have, take a second look. You will be entertained, and you will definitely learn something about one of baseball’s most important stories of the last 50 years. I know that I did.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.