How the Detroit Tigers made me like reading

No one disputes that newspapers are in serious decline: The question that remains unanswered is how far they will fall.

A recent conversation with a local attorney offered evidence of the industry’s decline. His is a family of six: two college-educated parents and four kids who all attend private school and will almost certainly go on to college themselves.

Yet, the family no longer receives a daily newspaper.

Such would have been almost unimaginable just a decade ago. Up until as late as 2000, at least, college-educated families, and many blue-collar families, took the daily paper as the best means to keep up with what was going on both locally and statewide.

No more, as the Internet and cable television have helped fragment the media market beyond anything imaginable even into the late 1990s.

Pondering the state of newspapers – where I spent a good bit of my career – brought me back to my formative years, when the medium essentially helped shape my life.

It did so by serving as the all-important conduit between me, beginning at age 9, and the first sports team I started following religiously, the Detroit Tigers.

My family moved to Michigan for 2-1/2 years in the early 1970s and, having started playing Little League and having attended my first Major League games at Tiger Stadium at that time, it was natural that the Tigers became my team.

Of course, I’d listen to games on WJR radio with Ernie Harwell each night, especially when school was out, but the other highlight came late each weekday when the paperboy for the Detroit News would ride by and chunk the paper into the yard.

During baseball season, I was often on it before it had skidded to a stop in our gravel driveway.

On days when the weather was good, I’d slip the rubber band off the paper and lie in the grass and read the sports section right then and there. I didn’t care a whit about what was in the rest of the paper – Yeti sightings, the threat of nuclear annihilation from the Soviets, the Second Coming – nothing else mattered when Tigers baseball was at hand.

I devoured not only all the news there was to read about Al Kaline and his quest for 3,000 career hits and 400 career home runs, but underrated Jim Northrup’s power surges, big Frank Howard’s attempts to keep from hitting into triple plays and John Hiller’s heroics out of the bullpen.

And, without realizing it, my reading skills improved immeasurably.

I began to recognize and understand words such as “sacrifice,” “balk” and “rookie.” I may still have floundered when it came time for a social studies quiz on Johnny Tremain, but I had earned-run averages, ground-rule doubles and the heretofore mysterious “magic number” down.

However, this need for instant gratification, not surprisingly, didn’t always sit well with my mother.

She sometimes got the paper in a disheveled mess when I was done with it; sometimes had to hunt up the paper as it blew around the back yard if I’d found something interesting to do after I was done reading about baseball, and sometimes only got parts of the paper, depending on how windy it was while I was reading it.

Personally, I didn’t understand her aggravation when I only brought her part of the paper; the sports section was always there, and that was what mattered, right?

Later, my father likely enlightened me to the then-almost-impossible-to-believe concept that not everyone was a dyed-in-the-wool Tigers fan. This included my mother.

I believe he further implied that even had she been a diehard Tigers fan, she still wanted to be able to count on getting the paper each day. In its entirety. And as neatly folded as possible, rather than the ball-like mass I sometimes deposited on the table before dashing out.

It’s been nearly 40 years since I first began to pour over the pages of the News, and, at the times, the Detroit Free Press, scouring both for each and every item about the Tigers, and baseball in general.

I don’t recall what sort of “resolution” was reached to remedy the problem of me absconding with and roughing up the newspaper before the adults of the house had had a chance to peruse it, but, unlike remedies for other intractable situations that occasionally popped up in my house, it likely never came to a leather belt meeting my rear end.

That’s probably because my parents were wise enough to realize that I was not only reading every day, I was doing it on my own and I was enjoying it. No mean feat when dealing with a hardheaded 9-year-old boy.

Given the lackluster effort I put into much of my schooling, I, in retrospect, give no small amount of credit to both the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit News for developing my love of reading and, by extension, writing.

I wonder how many other kids developed an appreciation for reading through newspapers, particularly boys who browsed the sports pages regularly when they weren’t interested in reading anything else?

I also wonder what will take the place of the sports pages as an unintended literacy aid for this same group of boys as newspaper circulation declines, fewer families subscribe and there’s less opportunity for kids to come across newspapers in their everyday lives?

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