Terror in the City of Champions: Murder, Baseball, and the Secret Society That Shocked Depression-Era Detroit by Tom Stanton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Imagine an America just starting to right itself after an economic calamity. Imagine a changing America where racial and religious resentment lead to a sometimes polarized society, whipped up further by demagogues and religious media stars. Imagine "a low type of mentality, men easily incited by mob psychology, who have taken a silly pledge and gone through a crazy ritual apparently created by a fanatic who seeks power."
Imagine, too, politicians and police who often place political gain or personal prejudice above the common good. Imagine further a sports-crazed America, in love with the champions of professional baseball, football, hockey and boxing. Imagine Detroit in the mid-1930s, a place amazingly similar in many ways to America in 2016.
"Detroit the Dynamic" was home, of course, to the mighty American auto industry, the 1935 Champion Detroit Tigers in baseball, the Lions in football, and the Red Wings in hockey, a major sports trifecta that no other city has ever matched, making Detroit truly "The City of Champions." Add to that, Detroit native Joe Louis' rise to the ranks of the boxing elite.
However, Detroit was also home to the notorious Purple Gang, and to the secret and sinister Black Legion, a Klan-like organization that draped itself in flag-waving, Constitution-spouting patriotism, but who terrorized and murdered people simply for being black, or Catholic, or leftist.
Author Tom Stanton brings the long-ago streets of Detroit to life again, along with the outsized personalities of Tiger player-manager Mickey "Black Mike" Cochrane, his Jewish star player Hank Greenberg, Catholic radio priest Father Coughlin who drifted from bible lessons to antisemitic diatribes before being shut down by his Bishop, and the strangely disinterested FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Stanton also brings to life the mean, violent, racist members of the black-robed Black Legion and the people they harassed, bombed, shot and sabotaged.
From the bright sunshine of Navin Field and the World Series (What exactly DID happen to star pitcher "Schoolboy" Rowe's hand that caused him to lose to the Cardinals in the 1934 World Series? What led to Cochrane's nervous breakdown in June of 1936?) to the shadowy clandestine meetings of the Black Legion, to the offices of the three major Detroit dailies and the halls of government and justice, this is a truly a tour through one American city's best of times and worst of times. What really struck me the most is how little people and institutions have changed since then. Highly recommended.
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