The date was November 13, 1935, exactly one month and six days since the Detroit Tigers had finally won their first World Series.
Grace Navin was out horseback riding that morning with her husband, Frank Navin, the owner of the team. The two were members of the Detroit Riding and Hunt Club on Belle Isle, and had ridden there almost daily for the past 15 years.
That day, Grace’s horse had been trotting considerably ahead. Suddenly, her husband’s horse, named Masquerader, came galloping up the path. But Frank was not on the mount. Immediately, Mrs. Navin knew that something was wrong.
She followed the riderless Masquerader to the stables, where she notified others of her fears. A search party was organized. Very soon, Frank Navin’s body was discovered by Harry Link, his chauffeur, and three employees of the club. He was lying next to the riding path, unconscious.
He was rushed to a Highland Park hospital, but pronounced dead on arrival. There were no bruises or marks on his body, and an autopsy was performed later that day. Coroner Albert O. Hughes declared that the Tigers’ owner had died of a heart attack.
One of the stable grooms had made the observation that Mr. Navin reported feeling a bit weak that morning. The 64-year-old had also had a hard time mounting his steed.
The news of Navin’s death traveled swiftly, casting a pall on what had been a joyous autumn for the Motor City. While the tragedy was a terrible blow to the team and his family, as well as the legions of Tiger fans in Detroit, it was not a shock to the doctors who had been treating him for the last five years. Mr. Navin loved his baseball team, but the stress and excitement of building a winner had taken a toll on his health. Physicians had urged him to sell the Tigers if he wanted to prolong his life.
But Navin refused to listen. They Tigers were his pride and joy.
Making matters worse was the fact that most of Navin’s fortune had been wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929. While Navin was the face of the Tiger franchise, it was co-owner Walter O. Briggs who had recently emerged as the money man. He had even lent Navin $100,000 to purchase catcher Mickey Cochrane, who, as player-manager, was the man most responsible for bringing a winning club to Detroit.
William Harridge, the American League President, said this of Navin: “His sudden death was a tragic loss… He was the highest type of sportsman, offering no alibis for defeat and accepting victory modestly.”
Where would the Tigers go from here? Only the previous day, Cochrane and Navin had gone out riding together at the club, and had talked over their plans for defending their world championship. “I found him in the best of spirits,” said Cochrane. “We were going to go to the minor league meeting in Dayton together. It’s tough to think he won’t be there.”
The flag at Navin Field was flown at half-mast. Construction workers, who had been in the process of removing the right field pavilion in preparation for an enlargement of the grandstand, were told to cease their labors.
Navin, who had been known as “Old Poker Face,” had always held his emotions close to the vest. He wasn’t a meddling owner. In all the years that he was associated with the Tigers, only twice did he ever give a direct order to his manager.
The first time was during the regime of Hughie Jennings. Navin was high on a pitcher that Jennings didn’t particular care for, but at the request of Navin, Jennings gave the hurler a starting assignment. After the young pitcher gave up five runs in the first inning, Navin ordered the pitcher taken out of the game.
The second time was in the 1935 World Series. After Hank Greenberg was lost to injury in Game Two, the Tigers were desperately in need of a first baseman. Navin ordered Cochrane to shift third baseman Marv Owen to first, a position he had played in the Pacific Coast League. Navin also directed Cochrane to insert the seldom-used Flea Clifton at third.
In a team meeting, Cochrane told the players of their owners’ decree. Almost to a man, they didn’t think the move would work, and many, including Goose Goslin, were vocal about their feelings. But Navin didn’t back down. “If you lose the series, I’ll take the consequences.”
They didn’t, of course, and Navin looked like a genius.
But now he was gone, and somehow the Tigers would have to carry on.