The old centerfield scoreboard at Tiger Stadium—before modern technology replaced it in 1979—slapped you in the face. And no wonder; it had arms.
Trudging up the runway from the concourse to your seats, whether in the upper or lower deck, chances are one of two things would enrapt you: the famed “short porch” overhang in right field, or the behemoth scoreboard above the centerfield bleachers.
But the porch wasn’t big enough, or interesting enough, to hold your attention for very long.
The scoreboard was the 400-pound gorilla in the room.
It was made up of body parts.
The clock was the head—first a Longines with an hour and minute hand, then a digital version consisting of hundreds of lights.
The clock/head rested squarely on the torso, which towered over the bleachers.
The scoreboard’s upper chest contained the meat and potatoes: score by innings, balls and strikes and outs, player at bat, etc. Toward the belly button were the umpires’ numbers, upcoming home dates, and the space for an “E”, if the official scorer ruled an error.
Extending left and right were the arms, which ran from upper deck to upper deck.
The arms contained the out-of-town scores; American League on the left, National League on the right.
With no fancy-shmancy game casts from the Internet to help him, the scoreboard operator received his information the old-fashioned way. Not quite from courier pigeon, but not much quicker. Even the phones were slower back then.
Sometimes there’d be no score at all—but rather the letter “R”, which meant there was a rain delay going on.
The scores changed much like the tally of hamburgers served on a McDonald’s sign: when nobody was watching.
The Braves would tie up the Phillies and you wouldn’t see the lights change. All you knew was that it was 3-2, Philadelphia a few moments ago, and now it was 3-3.
The scoreboard changed its scores much like how the tortoise ran his race: slow and steady.
It was July, 1971, and the hated Baltimore Orioles were keeping the second-place Tigers at arm’s length in the old East Division.
The Tigers won the league pennant in 1968—the last year before baseball quartered itself into four divisions—but the Orioles were the kings of the East Division, winning it in 1969 and 1970. Easily.
The Tigers were busy trying to keep at the Orioles’ heels when I settled into my seat that July night in 1971, ready to witness my first big league baseball game in person.
I wasn’t quite eight years old, but already I knew enough to keep my eye on the left arm—the one displaying the American League scores.
Despite my attentiveness, I missed it.
The Orioles were winning elsewhere, while the Tigers were taking care of the Yankees before me.
But then, when the action on the field didn’t dictate it, there was nonetheless a low, dull roar forming throughout the stadium.
The Orioles had given up some runs, and were now losing their ballgame. The scoreboard operator with his crude method of keeping track of such things changed the Orioles from winning to losing.
The Detroit baseball fans, so wise, noticed and gave their loud approval.
The crowd’s reaction fascinated me, still fascinates me to this day, because it wasn’t like an announcement was made over the PA system. Craggy Joe Gentile hadn’t said a word about the Orioles from behind his microphone in the press box, through which his words were heard from the box seats to the washrooms.
The Orioles score simply changed and somehow the fans noticed. And reacted. Loudly.
The Tigers wouldn’t catch Baltimore when all was said and done, and the Orioles captured their third straight East Division title in three years of divisional play.
Scoreboard watching in mid-July might seem a little premature, but now we’re in the thick of that exercise.
August is slipping away, and behind it comes the most dramatic month of all.
I’ll spot you a thrilling Stanley Cup playoff run, or NFL games in December that are pocked with playoff implications, yet you won’t come close to my September baseball schedule.
There isn’t anything like baseball in fall’s first month.
All over the Major Leagues, games are played with a chill in the air and fire in the belly.
Every game, every inning—indeed, every pitch—matters, when the mad rush to the playoffs takes place in September.
The scoreboard watching is delectable.
Today, of course, you don’t watch scoreboards, per se—you surf the Internet looking for your up-to-the-minute dope.
But the premise is the same. The objective hasn’t changed one iota: to see how the teams ahead or behind yours are doing.
It’s mushrooming now in Detroit.
Did the White Sox win? How are the Twins doing?
Damn—Jermaine Dye hit a home run in Chicago. White Sox up, 4-3.
Yeah! The Rangers just had a big inning in Minnesota.
Friday night presented yet another opportunity for scoreboard watching.
The Tigers were handling the Tampa Bay Rays—themselves embroiled in scoreboard watching with the Red Sox and Rangers for the Wild Card spot—and so everyone around Detroit felt free to zero in on the White Sox’ battle in New York with little impunity.
The Tigers finished off the Rays and now undivided attention could be paid to what was going on in the Bronx.
The Yankees had taken an early 2-0 lead, but the White Sox scratched out a couple of runs later on to tie it. The game moved into extra innings.
Doubtless Tigers players watched in the clubhouse, likely half-dressed, as the drama played out in new Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees were batting in the bottom of the tenth. They managed to put a couple of runners on base with two outs.
Second baseman Robinson Cano then decided matters with a three-run homer to give the Yankees a 5-2 win, one of those newfangled “walk off” jobs. But, more importantly for the Tigers, it meant a 5-2 loss for the White Sox.
The White Sox dropped to third place, behind the surging Twins, who are 8-2 in their last ten games and who can never be trusted.
The Tigers woke up Saturday morning with a solid four-and-a-half game lead over the Twins and a full five games ahead of the stumbling White Sox.
The scoreboard watching is just getting started. So will be, soon, September baseball.
Gentlemen, start your keyboards!