By: Kurt Snyder
It’s been a long time since I have been to Lakeland. Like 50 years! Even though I’ve been there, it’s nothing I remember considering I was only 2 or 3 years old.
But thanks to my brother, Doug, I am able to share with you stories about a time when things were so simple. Tigertown and the players themselves have changed more than you can imagine. The game was so much different in the 1960’s when my father worked as an Assistance Scouting Director for the Tigers. It was a completely different world; a completely different atmosphere.
There were no multimillion dollar contracts. There was no free agency. The players were literally employed for life with one baseball team unless they were traded. That was really the only way they could play for another team.
Players really didn’t make that much money back in the 60’s. They worked second jobs in the office season, just to make a living. This practice went on for quite a long time, well into the 80’s. Dick McAuliffe was in the vending machine business while Mickey Lolich owned a donut shop.
I remember Richie Hebner, who played third base for the Tigers for 3 years, used to dig graves in the off-season. It might have been his way of staying in shape, but it was a second job all the same.
These jobs weren’t hobbies. In most cases, the players needed second jobs because they needed the money. So there was very little arrogance. It brought a certain humbleness to their character. There were exceptions of course, but for the most part, players didn’t feel like they were above anyone else or that they were too big to hang with “regular people.” And the atmosphere at spring training was a perfect example.
My father would leave home for Lakeland every February. Mom stayed home to be a wife, mother and homemaker for 3 sons and finally the all-important 4th son, me!
A few weeks after my dad headed to Florida, we would head down to Lakeland to see him and stay for a couple of weeks. Rumor has it I was there once or twice, but way too young to have the kind of experiences my brothers had during their almost annual trips to spring training.
It was great for them because they got two weeks off of school even though homework and lesson plans went with them while they were gone. It was a small price to pay for experiences that would last a lifetime.
They met and would often hang with a lot of the players. My brother shared a story about their daily trips up to the pool at Tiger Villa. You see, they had to run up a grassy hill to get to the pool, only to be met more times than not, by Norm Cash himself.
Stormin’ Norman apparently loved to mess with the kids when they wanted to swim. When they arrived at the top of the hill, out of breath, Norm would roll them back down the hill. After a while it became a game and was all part of the fun of going swimming. Not to mention the fact that one of the Tiger greats was even giving them the time of day.
It was a great family atmosphere at Tigertown in the ‘60’s. Everyone’s families, players or not, generally ate meals together. Not just in the same places but a lot of times right at the same tables.
Everyone would eat meals in a barracks-style cafeteria, and all the families would be in the same lines with the Tiger players grabbing food from the buffet. While my brothers would grab their food it was not uncommon for a Tiger player to be in line behind them. At one point, they turned and looked, and with wide eyes, gazed at the huge man behind them. There he was, as big as life; it was Willie Horton!
Players along with team management and their families often hung together, ate together, swam in the same pool and played games together. It was a kids dream; one my brothers have never forgotten.
The players were just different. They were just like regular people. My brother Doug recalled playing ping-pong with Chico Fernandez in the rec room. Fernandez, a Cuban born shortstop, who played for the Tigers in 1960-63, was a relative unknown right? Well not for Doug, who, as he told this old story, immediately blurted out his name as the guy he played ping-pong with more than 50 years ago, as if it was just yesterday.
It could have been anyone, but he was a player, whether it was Al Kaline or Chico Fernandez, my brothers were in awe of how they were treated and included in just about every activity, sometimes even on the baseball diamond.
That’s right, my oldest brother Gary, at the age of 16, actually played third base in a minor league game at Tigertown! How does something like that happen? Well, my dad just asked the manager if he could play a few innings. “He’d get a kick out of it,” my dad said.
Come on, are you kidding me? Well, it just wasn’t a big deal. All they did was change his name to Gary Brown on the stat sheet so the name Snyder didn’t cause any undue suspicion.
But that was it. Nothing like that ever happened again. The minor league career of Gary Brown was very short, but for a fleeting moment, it’s all he ever wanted.
These were the kinds of experiences our family was able to realize during my dad’s long career with the Tigers. I have so many memories that I have been able to share and will continue to share about the days my dad spent as Tiger Stadium manager. But those years only represent the second half of his career.
His 23 year career in scouting was the first half. And it all started when he responded to a “want ad” on a bulletin board for an Assistant Scouting Director position with the Detroit Tigers.
We sure are glad Dad got the job, especially Gary “Brown.”