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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Terror in the City of Champions

I grew up in Michigan, as did my dad, my mom, and both sets of grandparents either were born there or spent many years there. Yet I'd never heard of the Black Legion, a kind of Klan knock-off, that murdered several people during the 1930s in the Detroit area. Tom Stanton writes about them in Terror in the City of Champions: Murder, Baseball, and the Secret Society that Shocked Depression Era Detroit.

I did know about the Detroit Tigers of the '30s, who won two pennants and one world championship, their first ever (they only have four total in almost 120 years). Erik Larson, with his book The Devil in the White City, kind of invented, or at least made popular, the juxtaposition of two stories linked by geography or something else. Sometimes, like with that book, it works. Stanton's book, while he covers both subjects well, can't convince that they had anything to do with each other except it was Detroit.

"Within a six-month period in 1935 and 1936, the Tigers, Red Wings, and Lions all captured titles as Detroit’s own Joe Louis reigned as boxing’s uncrowned champion. Detroit remains the only city to score the trifecta of a
World Series, a Stanley Cup, and an NFL championship in one season." Stanton (who wrote a fine book called The Final Season about the last Tiger campaign in Tiger Stadium) knows his baseball. He begins with the arrival of Mickey Cochrane, who had been a star catcher for Connie Mack's A's during their three straight World Series wins. Cochrane was hired by Tiger Owner Frank Navin to be player-manager. Cochrane is the through-line in this story. He was surprisingly sophisticated, loved to fly airplanes, but was also riddled with anxiety.

"By mid-1934 the legion had expanded in southeast Michigan to four regiments of 1,600 men in Detroit, one regiment in Highland Park, one in the downriver area south of the Ford Rouge plant, two farther south near Monroe, two north of Detroit in Pontiac, one or two in Flint, one in Saginaw, and possibly others. There were regiments in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois as well." The Klu Klux Klan had flourished in Michigan in the '20s, but faded out, but the sentiments remained. A new organization started up, based on nativism. They were anti-Black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-leftist. Men would be invited to a gathering and forced to swear an oath at gunpoint. Though Stanton's description of most of then make them sound hapless, like the guys who know tote around machine guns at the CVS, they were deadly. In Lansing, it was thought that Earl Little, father of Malcolm X, was murdered by the legion. Two of them killed a black man just because he was black.

Stanton alternates between these two stories, touching somewhat on Louis, who was antithesis of Jack Johnson and thus acceptable to white fans, and very briefly mentioning the Lions and Red Wings. I would have liked more about them, especially since the games are so much different now than then (no one wore helmets in hockey, and it football they were leather). I was interested to learn that the Red Wings had no American players--they were all Canadian, except for one Englishman.

The main thread through the Black Legion story is Dayton Dean, who was eager to prove his mettle and accepted many assignments to kill people, such as the mayor of Highland Park. Perhaps because of feet of clay, he never did, not until he and Harvey Davis killed Charlie Poole for erroneously believing he beat his wife (he was murdered in Dearborn, my home town. Why didn't I ever hear of this?) This murder finally brought the law down on the Legion, who had escaped punishment because it was thought many police and judges were members. The prosecutor of the case against Dean and Davis was an ex-member himself.

There's no telling how many people they killed--a sink-hole was rumored to contain at least seven bodies. The Legion faded away, but the racial attitudes remained. A popular clergyman, Father Coughlin, held sway on the airwaves with anti-Semitic rhetoric, aimed at keeping America out of the war in Europe. All of this went away after Pearl Harbor.

As for the Tigers, they won the pennant in '34 but lost to the Cardinals in a seven-game series (they just couldn't hit Dizzy Dean or or his brother Paul). They came back in '35 to beat the Cubs in the series. In addition to Cochrane, they had three other Hall of Famers on the squad--Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer (I'm a distant relative of his), and Goose Goslin. The city was ecstatic about the victory. They were tough times in Detroit: "The Great Depression had devastated the whole nation, but Detroit had suffered more than most. The year had brought bank panics and closures, unemployment of 45 percent, winding food lines, burgeoning public-relief rolls, and severe wage cuts for surviving auto workers. Car sales fell by four million units between 1929 and 1932. Almost half the city’s population qualified for assistance, limited as it was." But the stands were packed for the World Series.

To fully enjoy this book you have to be a sports fan (preferably for Detroit teams) and a true crime buff, especially about secret societies. I enjoyed the book moderately, feeling Stanton straining at times for metaphors ("Rumors of trades swirled around Walker like Kansas twisters.") and relying on old-time sports reporting styles that went out with the transistor. I think his biggest success is giving the reader a very good insight into what living in Detroit during that time period was like.

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