Sunday, June 5, 2016

Murder and Baseball in Depression Era Detroit

Terror in the City of Champions: Murder, Baseball, and the Secret Society that Shocked Depression-Era Detroit by Tom Stanton is a thrilling and terrifying read.

Stanton begins his narrative in 1933 as Frank Navin signs Mickey Cochrane in hope that his Tigers would finally win a championship under his watch. At the same time a series of unsolved murders in the Detroit area were ruled suicides. Stanton weaves the narrative thread of winning teams and murderous mayhem through 1936 when the Black Legion was finally identified.

Detroit became the "City of Champions" when wins by the Tigers, Redwings, the Lions, and Joe Louis brought together a city crushed by the Depression.

Detroit was also the 'automotive capital of the world', attracting workers from the South to factory jobs. The largest Catholic congregation met in the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, MI, now a national shrine. When it burned down in 1935 controversial Father Coughlin rebuilt it with money contributed by his radio followers. He preached a mixture of worker's rights, government control of railroads and major industries, Antisemitism, and he supported some Fascist policies. President Roosevelt finally shut his radio station down in 1939.

It was also a time when the Black Legion's reign of terror pressed men into membership on threat of death, flogged or executed backsliders, and assigned hit men to kill targeted 'enemies' of America: Catholics, Jews, Socialists, Communists, African Americans, liberal lawyers and newsmen. The leaders' ultimate goal was to depose President Roosevelt and take over the American government--to save it from Communism.

Reading about the Black Legion carrying out their meetings and activities in locales known to me was sickening. The group grew out of the ashes of the KKK. Men were invited to a club or gathering, but when they discovered what was really going on it was too late to back out. Pledges were signed at gunpoint and members given a bullet to remind them that betrayal meant death. It was a reign of terror. Bigwigs ordered regular 'joes' to carry out abductions and executions. At least one African American man was murdered just for sport.
Black Legion robes and guns found by police
Membership climbed into the tens of thousands across the Midwest, reaching into the ranks of police, courts, and elected officials. It was said all of Oakland County's government were members! I live in Oakland County!

When Captain Marmon came from Lansing to investigate he soon announced the Black Legion was responsible for at least 50 Michigan deaths. Old cases were reexamined; murders had been ruled as suicides. But his investigations were stymied. Cover-ups prevented following through on leads. J. Edgar Hoover ignored demands for action. The Ford Motor Company would not allow permission for the police to drain Ford Mill Pond, said to hold bodies. Major-General Bert Effinger of the Black Legion lived in Lima, Ohio. The local police would not execute a search warrant on his house. Effinger went missing.

Had it not been for a Legion member's confessions and telling police of activities and crimes no one would have been brought to justice. The downfall of the Black Legion was a relief for thousands who spent every day in fear.

I am not a sports fan myself but my limited knowledge did not prevent me from appreciating, or following, the book's saga of the Tigers. I now know who Schoolhouse Rowe, Hank Greenberg, Micky Cochrane, and Frank Navin are! I proudly can say I now know why Navin Field is important to my acquaintance who is involved in vintage baseball played there and why the Navin Field Grounds Crew are fighting the installation of artificial turf on the field. I do love when history books make one understand and appreciate the present! Stanton is able to bring these men to life.

This multi-layered book offers a full picture of Depression Era Detroit. It has always been a complicated city.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

"Once in a blue moon, a city bears witness to the best and the wort of times. Such was Detroit's fate more than a generation ago as the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings reached new sports heights while the Black Legion too often ruled the night. It's a great tale and Tom Stanton has done a marvelous job telling it." Tim Wendel, author of Summer of '68
Terror in the City of Champions: Murder, Baseball and the Secret Society that Shocked Depression Era Detroit
Tom Stanton
Rowman & Littlefield
Publication June 1,  2016
ISBN 978-1-4930-1570-2 hard cover $26
          978-1-4930-1818-5 eBook $24.99