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Bennett Park and the foundation of Old Tiger Stadium

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Before there was Navin Field, there was the legacy of Charlie Bennett.

Tiger Stadium Photo by Ezra Shaw/Gettyimages

There was a park at Michigan and Trumbull before Navin Field/Briggs Stadium. Built in 1896, Bennett Park would be the first place the Tigers ever took the field as a team, it was where the Tigers called home when they officially became a major league team in 1901, and it was the last place the Chicago Cubs won a World Series for 108 years.

In 1896 it played host to the first night game in Detroit history, when string lights were installed above the stadium so a double header against the Cincinnati Reds could go on. This didn’t start a night-game trend, however, since it wouldn’t be until 1948 that another night game was played, this time at Briggs Stadium.

But Bennett Park was more than just the first home of the Detroit Tigers. It also served as a memorial for the man whose name it borrowed: Charlie Bennett.

Charlie Bennett never played for the Detroit Tigers, but was rather a Detroit Wolverine from 1881-1888, the entire duration of the club’s run. He played for a number of other early baseball clubs as well, the Milwaukee Grays, Worcester Ruby Legs, and Boston Beaneaters. He was a gifted catcher who is credited with inventing the first catcher’s chest guard. His was a simple vest made of cork, but may very well have changed the way catchers today are protected from stray pitches.

Bennett was one of the best defensive catchers of his era (even according to Bill James), and was recognized for his fielding, double plays, and putouts (he had 445 in a single season in 1886) long before those stats were measured with the same scrutiny they are today.

Bennett’s career ended unexpectedly in 1894 when he was 39, after he lost both his legs in a train accident in Kansas. He was en route to Williamsburg, Kansas with his dog and pitch John Clarkson. He slipped on a rain-slicked platform as the train began to move and the train ran over him. He subsequently lost his left foot, and his right leg above the knee. Though he was fitted the prosthetics it was obviously the end of his time in baseball.

In spite of his incredible numbers and his contributions to player safety, Bennett has been largely forgotten by sports, and unfairly overlooked by the Hall of Fame.

In 1896 Bennett Park was opened in his honor in Detroit, and he was on hand to catch the first pitch. This tradition stood until Bennett 1926, when Bennett was 71. By that point it was no longer “Bennett Park” but a much larger complex for the Tigers, now named Navin Field. This stadium would remain the home of the Tigers until 1999.

Bennett passed away in 1927 at the age of 72, but the grounds that once bore his name still stand at Michigan and Trumbull.