On May 24, 1903, the Detroit Tigers played a regular-season game in Grand Rapids, and their victory moved them into a tie for first place in the American League.
In the early 1900s, Detroit did not allow the sale of alcohol at public places inside the city limits on Sundays. That presented a problem for the Tigers, whose home ballpark was Bennett Park, at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull and inside the city limits. Detroit used Burns Park, located in Springwells Township, just outside the city limits, for Sunday games but occasionally moved the games out of town.
The Grand Rapids game was held at Ramona Park, an amusement park that opened in East Grand Rapids in 1897 and featured a figure-eight double track wooden roller coaster. It was located on Lakeside Drive near the boat landing for Reeds Lake.
The game itself was a novelty for Grand Rapids, and ticket prices were high, and everybody wanted to be in on the action. It cost 50 cents just to enter Ramona Park, and it cost another 50 cents for a seat in the grandstands and another dollar for a seat in the stands behind the screen at home plate.
The Detroit Free Press reported that game officials combed through the clothing of the players while they were on the field. The clothes were shaken in a search for loose change, and any money left in the dressing room was taken.
An estimated crowd between 3,500 and 4,000 crowded into the field, which was smaller than the one at Bennett Park. The outfield was elevated on a sloping plane, and a tree was in right field. The batters took target on the tree, knowing that if they hit the branches, they would be awarded a double, but nobody was able to hit the tree.
Detroit’s opponent was the Washington Senators, who entered the game with a 9-18 record and had lost 13 of their past 17 games. The Senators had several veteran major-leaguers but no real stars, except Ed Delahanty, who was in the final season of his 16-year career. Delahanty, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945 by the Old Timers Committee, did not play, and it is not known if he made the trip to Grand Rapids.
Perhaps the Washington player most interesting to the Grand Rapids fans was right fielder Ducky Holmes, who started the first game in Tigers major-league history in 1901 and spent two seasons in Detroit. The Senators purchased his contract in February of 1903.
Happy Townsend, a 24-year-old right-hander in his third season, started on the mound for Washington. He would be just 2-11 in 20 games for the Senators in 1903, and the following season he was 5-26 and led the American League in losses.
Holmes batted lead-off for Washington and was followed in the order by left fielder Kip Selbach, center fielder Jimmy Ryan, third baseman Bill Coughlin, first baseman Scoops Carey, shortstop Al Orth, second baseman Joe Martin, catcher Lew Drill and Townsend.
The starting pitcher for Detroit was 25-year-old John Deering, who was making just his second start of the season. The Detroit lineup had Jimmy Barrett leading off and playing in center field, followed by Billy Lush in right field, Sam Crawford in left field, Kid Elberfeld at shortstop, Charlie Carr at first base, Heinie Smith at second base, Joe Yeager at third base, Sport McAllister catcher and Deering on the mound.
The Tigers were 15-12 and one game out of first place. They had won eight of their previous 10 games.
Carr gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second. He singled and moved up on an infield ground out and scored on an error. Washington scored three in the top of the third on doubles by Drill, Selbach and Ryan to take a 3-1 lead. The Tigers answered with three in the bottom of the third as Townsend walked Lush and hit Elberfeld before Carr, Smith and Yeager each singled to get the three runs and a 4-3 lead.
It probably looked like it was going to be a slugfest, but it wasn’t. After Washington tied it in the top of the fifth, Carr doubled and scored on a double by Yeager to make it 6-5, and that is how the game ended. Townsend, the Washington pitcher, settled down, while Tigers manager Ed Barrow removed Deering after five innings and replaced him with George Mullin.
Mullin, a 22-year-old right-hander in his second season. allowed only one hit over four shutout innings to preserve the one-run lead. It was only the beginning for Mullin, who went on to a 12-year career with the Tigers that included 209 wins, the first no-hitter in franchise history and five 20-win seasons, including a 29-8 record in 1909.
Carr finished with three hits for the Tigers, and Yeager had two.
The Tigers went on to finish fifth in the American League with a 65-71 record, while the Senators finished last at 43-94. Barrow, the Detroit manager, was unhappy with the bumpy grounds and long grass at the field and said the Tigers would not return to play at Ramona Park. Detroit played two other Sunday games in 1903, both at Armory Park in Toledo, Ohio, on June 28 and August 16. Two years later, they played two games at Neil Park II in Columbus, Ohio, on July 23-24.
Ramona Park had more baseball games, and on July 7, 1909, it became the first stadium to host a professional baseball game under the lights. Portable lighting was used for a game between the minor-league teams of Grand Rapids and Zanesville, Ohio.
Babe Ruth also made an appearance at Ramona Park in 1923 when the Yankees played the Grand Rapids Billbobs in an exhibition game Ruth hit two home runs, and in the stands that day was a 10-year-old boy who would one day become President of the United States. His name was Gerald Ford.