James D. Burns Residence

1801 Church in the Corktown Historic District

Baseball fanatics often pride themselves on their ability to answer trivia questions.  If you ask a baseball fan which owner of a major league baseball team lived closest to the home field of his or her team, they would answer Bill Veeck.  When he owned the St. Louis Browns from 1951 to 1953, he had an apartment built into the roof of Sportsman’s Park so he and his family resided inside the stadium his team played their home games.  Who would be second on this list of owners living near their ball park?  I presume it was the little known owner of the Detroit Tigers when they were members of the American League in 1900 and 1901.

Mayor William G. Thompson—elected in 1879—knew that Detroit was becoming a leading city.  He recognized that the city needed a team in the flourishing sport of baseball.  He used his influence to get the National League team, the Cincinnati Reds, to move to Detroit for the 1881 season.  The team was not very successful during his presidency, but in 1885, Detroit pharmaceutical entrepreneur Frederick Stearns invested in the team.  At the end of the rather unsuccessful 1885 season he made his move to bring championship professional baseball to Detroit. He bought four outstanding players from the Buffalo team to join his Detroit Wolverines.  The team won the National League championship in 1887—the city’s first professional baseball championship.   Stearns, however, apparently lost interest in the sport or discovered that it was costly to support a successful team.  He dissolved the team after the 1888  season so Detroit lost its National League team, never to return.  Booming Detroit was without a professional baseball team.

California baseball entrepreneur, George Vanderbeck, recognized that Detroit was a large market lacking a professional team.  He saw an opportunity and came to Detroit.  He organized a team for the 1894 season, hastily built a small wooden park at the corner of Helen and East Lafayette—known as Boulevard Park—and had a franchise in the Western League.  The park proved too small and, after much controversy, he won approval from the city’s leaders to build a larger park at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.  The park opened in April, 1896 and professional baseball was played at that site through September, 1999.  It was during Vanderbeck’s ownership that the team became the Tigers.

The organizer of the Western League, Ban Johnson, sought to have his league recognized as the equal of the National League.  He changed the name to the American League in 1900 and gradually switched franchises so they there were located in large cities.  For reasons that I do not know, George Vanderbeck sold the Detroit Tigers team to James D. Burns on March 6, 1900 for $12,000.  Burns was the son of a well-known and prosperous Detroit brick maker who had a large brick yard in Springwells Township just beyond the city’s border.  Burns also ran a liquor business and owned a tavern on Michigan Avenue near Campus Martius.

Burns owned the Detroit Tigers during their last year in the American League when it was considered a minor league and during the 1901 season which was the first year that the American League might be termed a major league and the rival of the well-established National League.   I presume he walked from his home to Bennett Field—or took a carriage—for the first game his team played: Thursday April 19, 1900.  In 64 degree weather, the Tigers lost eight to nothing to Buffalo in front of five thousand paying customers.  Indicative of how baseball was then played, this eight to zip game took one hour and forty minutes.  I assume that Mr. Burns was also in attendance the next year—Thursday April 25, 1901—when the Tigers played their first game in the American League as a major league.  This remains the most memorable opening day in the Tiger’s long history.  Trailing 13 to 4 in the start of the bottom of the ninth to Milwaukee, the Tigers scored 10 runs, to win the game on a 68-degree day in front of 10,023.  The Tigers have yet to duplicate such an accomplishment.

The Queen Anne style home that you see was completed just about the time Burns purchased the Tigers.  It features a second story turret with a bell shaped circular roof.  Note the leaded glass transom over the central window and the very many different pitches of various roofs.  The current siding was added decades ago and certainly was not, I presume, anything the designer ever had in mind.  It was much less than a 15-minute walk from the doorstep of Mr. Burns abode to the gates of Bennett Park where his Tigers played their home games.

Ban Johnson, the president of the League, was known to be a man of strongly held opinions.  James Burns apparently had a similar reputation.  Shortly after buying the Tigers, I infer that he ran into major conflicts with the league president about how the league should be operated and how to generate the revenue needed to support professional baseball.  At the end of the Tigers first season in the “major” American League—1901—Ban Johnson forced James Burns and his field manager, George Stallings, out.  In November of that year, Burns sold the team to a group headed by Samuel Angus.  Burns went on to be elected sheriff of Wayne County, the first Democrat to hold that office in 55 years.  He also headed the Burns and O’Shea Brick Company and, later, ran several major downtown hotels.  By the 1920s, he was, seemingly, a well-known figure in Detroit but not for his brief ownership of the city’s American League team.

Mr. Burns merits one additional footnote in the history of the Detroit Tigers.  Reflecting the views of many about keeping the Sabbath, Detroit had enacted laws prohibiting the playing of sports on Sundays, much to the displeasure of many.  When George Vanderbeck owned the team in the 1890s, he had a “boot-leg” park built in River Rouge so his Tigers played their Sunday home games there.  James Burns built a park near or on property owned by his family’s brick yard in Springwell’s Township.  The site was on Dix between Livernois and Waterman.  Thirty-four Sunday home games were played at Burns Park, also known as West End Park, in 1900, 1901 and 1902.  New owner, Sam Angus, quit playing games there after 1902.  When he was elected sheriff in 1905, James Burns—of Irish ancestry—let it be known that enforcing Sunday blue laws was not high on his agenda.

Architect: Frank V. Jahnke
Date of Construction: 1898
Architectural Style: Queen Anne and Victorian styling
Use in 2014: Residence
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Structure is within the Corktown Historic District
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P34985.  Corktown Historic District
National Register of Historic Places: Listed July 31, 1978  Corktown Historic District
Picture:  Ren Farley; July, 2014
Description prepared: August, 2014

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