The bittersweet story behind Charlie Bennett’s park

For three decades, former star catcher Charlie Bennett threw out the first pitch before home openers in Detroit.

Shaking hands with Charlie Bennett was like grabbing a fistful of pretzels. He had the mangled fingers of most 19th-century catchers, handling fastballs, curves, and other pitches with only thin, unpadded, fingerless gloves to cushion the impact. By the end of a game his hands were swollen from bruises and tiny fractures, and bleeding from dozens of cuts.

“If he felt the punishment,” a reporter remarked upon Bennett’s death in 1927 in Detroit, “he took it as stoically as an Indian warrior.”

Bennett played eight seasons with the Detroit Wolverines of the National League, backstopping the team to a world’s championship in 1887 that solidified his position as the fans’ favorite. During this period, even a person without the slightest interest in what was making Recreation Park rock every afternoon could still pick out the local hero in a restaurant or hotel lobby. Bennett was the fellow who could barely lift a spoon of soup to his lips, who struggled to tie a loose shoelace.

On a spring day in 1896, Bennett’s battered digits were not his only conspicuous physical deformity. There were also his legs, or what was left of them. Hushed accounts of the accident that had recently cost him his limbs, his career, and nearly his life circulated through the crowd as the 41-year-old hobbled to home plate to catch the ceremonial first pitch from Wayne County treasurer Alex McLeod.

A year and a half earlier, in the fall of 1894, Bennett had slipped while boarding a train in Kansas. People watched in horror as the heavy wheels of the moving train sliced off his left foot and crushed his right leg, which later had to be amputated below the knee. Bennett, a Pennsylvania native who had first played ball in Detroit as sprightly 21-year-old amateur shortstop, returned to the city with artificial legs. To support himself he ran a cigar stand and, in his later years, painted china dishes. Bennett’s dignified response to his tragedy elevated him to near-sainthood status among his many friends, which included almost every person in Detroit.

Although Bennett repeated the first-toss ritual every spring for the next 30 years, this particular opening day was the most noteworthy of the bunch. It was the first game played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.

It was April 28, 1896, a cool, wet Tuesday. The weather didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the overflow crowd of 6,000 on hand to watch the Tigers launch its third season in the Western League. Fans left happy, as following the usual pregame hoopla – a parade, brass bands, some speechifying and a cannon shot – the Tigers clobbered the visitors from Columbus, Ohio, by a score of 17-2.

Along with the outcome of the game, the issue of what to call the Tigers’ new home had been resolved. Owners normally didn’t concern themselves, principally because the wooden parks of the era never were intended to be permanent structures. And nobody in 1896 dreamed of selling the park’s name. Who in the world would want to buy it? And what would they do with it? So it was left to the public to informally decide such matters.

For weeks, local fans had mulled what to call the park. Suggestions had been mailed to owner George Vanderbeck and discussed in the newspapers. They ranged from the prosaic (Vanderbeck Park, League Park) to the more fanciful (American Beauty Park, Au Fait Park).

Soon Detroiters settled on a name. In conversations and in print, the Tigers’ lair habitually was referred to as “Charlie Bennett’s park”  -or Bennett Park – as it officially came to be known during its 16 summers of service. There was a purity to the process. There were no polls, no contests, no discussions of merchandising possibilities or corporate tie-ins. It was simply a heartfelt, grassroots form of public applause for a favorite son who had long had trouble putting his own hands together without wincing.

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