Ex-Tiger never lost love of a game that didn’t always love him back

Detroit News

Neal Rubin
 
| The Detroit News

Warren — There’s a young man in a batting cage hitting line drives at a 71-year-old 6 yards away, and the 71-year-old doesn’t even flinch.

The grown man is Ike Blessitt, who invokes his age often, not as an excuse but as a warning. He has a screen between his body and the baseballs, and he’s seen too many hard shots across the decades to twitch now.

But if someone else worries when he cocks an opinion like a Louisville Slugger, shifts his weight and whips it toward a target? If he aims a story or two at a legendary manager who once found Blessitt’s fingers around his neck?

“A lot of people are going to resent it,” he says. “What do I care? I’m 71 years old.”

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Ike Blessitt passes on hitting skills to youth

Ike Blessitt passes on hitting skills to youth

The Detroit News

Forty-nine of those years ago, ever so briefly, Blessitt was a Detroit Tiger. Now he’s sitting on a rolling chair in a nippy warehouse, zipping pitches underhand, rapid-fire, teaching a seventh-grader from Macomb Township to be a better batter. 

Played correctly, he says, baseball is a great game, a thinker’s game, full of unseen strategy and split-second decisions. Built on failure — if you can hit safely three times for every seven outs, you’re a star — it can be a gateway to riches, with the median major league salary at $1.5 million.

But that gateway is double-locked for the average kid from Detroit, he says, at a point when only 7.8% of major leaguers are African American. The best players are expected to join travel teams, and the city doesn’t have any. Find your way to a ballclub in an adjoining suburb and the costs are steep, with dues and hotel bills and $400 aluminum bats.

He’s harbored an idea for years for an Ike Blessitt Athletic Academy, maybe at the old state fairgrounds, accessible by an Eight Mile bus and with a subsidized travel squad of its own.

“Rough, nasty, dirty,” he says. “A punky place, where when you come there, you come to work.”

Had the ball bounced just a little differently, he might be able to bankroll it himself. And yeah, he says in his gravelly voice, he wonders about that a lot.

What if he hadn’t confronted Billy Martin — if he’d just shipped off an underage girl in Martin’s hotel room and gone home? 

Or what if he’d come of age in a time when Black players didn’t always seem to be competing for the same jobs — when a Tigers executive asked if he could beat out left fielder Willie Horton, but not the white outfielders or their backups? Would he be collecting the pension he didn’t qualify for, signing the baseball cards that were never issued, living easy?

He says yes. It’s impossible to tell from five at-bats in four games across the last month of the 1972 season, but he had always believed in himself and he’d usually been right.

“No stride,” he instructs 13-year-old Josh Geill, working in the cage. “Quick hands!” Flat-footed, Geill hits more line drives, and Blessitt nods approval. “Gonna be a good player someday,” he says, just loud enough for Josh to hear.

Maybe Blessitt could have been somebody else, but it seems clear he’d still be this, a teacher of the game he couldn’t help loving even when it didn’t love him back.

The grown-ups at Tigers Fantasy Camp adore him, says Jerry Lewis, who runs the program. At home in northeast Detroit, when the summer game is in season, random kids swing by to use Blessitt’s backyard batting cage and borrow his expertise.

Otherwise, he’s at the Steal Cages training center, next to a truck and auto repair shop at the entryway to an industrial park east of Hayes Road. For $35 per half hour, or less if you can’t afford it, you get an authentic ex-big leaguer as a batting coach.

“It’s been a long 71 years,” Blessitt says. He’s played for teams as far north as Holyoke, Massachusetts, and far enough south that he was almost in Central America, and he still thinks and talks like a ballplayer and keeps ballplayer hours: in the wee hours, “I bet I’ve watched every movie on Netflix.”

In his mid-40s, he was still on the field in the outer reaches of Mexico. In his late 60s, he cut a baby toe at a charity softball game featuring former boxer Tommy Hearns, and diabetes kept him from noticing as gangrene set in.

First, the surgeon took two toes. The infection kept moving. “I told him, ‘Find out where it’s still good, and cut there,'” Blessitt says, so now there’s a prosthetic foot at the base of his right ankle.

Across the past two years, he says, he’s also had a heart attack, a stem cell heart treatment in Mexico, bleeding in his esophagus and an Aug. 7 triple bypass.

Oh, he adds, on Labor Day, he had a stroke. But he’s still in there pitching.

“Three more,” he tells Josh, holding up the last balls from a tall white bucket. “Make ’em good ones.”

A four-sport star 

Blessitt grew up in Hamtramck, where he was a force in four sports at Hamtramck High and part of an athletic heritage he complains is being ignored. That’s one of his 71-year-old-lets-it-rip issues: The push to restore Hamtramck Stadium because it’s one of the few remaining home fields from the Negro Leagues.

“We didn’t know anything about the Negro Leagues,” he says. His era spawned its own immortals — basketball Hall of Famer Rudy Tomjanovich, the three major league Paciorek brothers, tennis player Peaches Bartkowicz, Little League legend Art (Pinky) Deras. If there’s a plaque, he says, save some space for the local kids.

His school had a comfortable racial mix, Blessitt says, and he was never braced by bigotry until the Tigers drafted him in the 15th round in 1967 and sent him to Dunedin, Florida. He was 17 years old, and he and the other Black players had to stay at a boarding house instead of the team hotel.

The next few years were more of the same. Florida. Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where a restaurant manager told Blessitt and his friends, “We don’t serve n—— here.” Montgomery, Alabama.

He had a big season in Montgomery in 1971, with 22 home runs and 27 steals, and then an uneven season in ’72 at Class AAA Toledo. In September, when major league rosters expanded from 25 to 40 players, he was promoted to Detroit.

The Tigers’ manager was Martin, a great motivator, good puncher and bad drinker who led five different franchises and was fired or resigned under pressure nine times.

Blessitt says he was at the storied Lindell AC after a game when Martin, who was married, said he needed a favor. “I got a person in my hotel room,” he explained, “and I need to get her home.”

Blessitt tapped on a door at the Leland House, he says, and found a brown-haired girl who told him she was 15 years old.

Martin can’t confirm or deny; he died at 61 on Christmas Day 1989 when his friend, Bill Reedy, a Detroit saloonkeeper, drove Martin’s pickup truck into a culvert.  But the third of his four wives said in a post-divorce lawsuit she was 16 when they started dating.

Blessitt says he was aghast and also alarmed. No reasonably sensible 22-year-old Black man was going to transport a white teenage girl to Birmingham in a burgundy Ford Thunderbird at 1 a.m.

He gave her cab money and went back to the Lindell to express his unhappiness to Martin.

“I should have just took myself home,” he says. “The next spring, I’d have been in good with Billy Martin.”

Instead, he showed up at camp in Lakeland, Florida, 15 pounds overweight, figuring he’d play himself into shape. Martin had him put on a rubber suit and run to the point of hospitalization, then sent him off to train with the minor leaguers.

That led to a confrontation between the two in yet another bar, Blessitt says, a racial slur from Martin, and Martin pinned to a wall outside.

The Tigers demoted him two levels to Class AA, where he struggled. He signed with the Oakland A’s organization in ’74, had two good seasons, and didn’t get called up to the majors. Blackballed, he figured.

When he had a big year in 1977 with a farm club of a bad Milwaukee Brewers team and once again didn’t get the call, he was pushing 28 and the reason might have been his age. He decided it was the blackball, and that it had no expiration date.

Hola, Mexico.

The highest level

Blessitt says he liked Mexico, even if some Americans couldn’t handle the more rural of the leagues with the dirt floor accommodations and the bugs.

In big cities or small, he had something almost no one else could claim: He’d played at the highest level.

He was, for the record, the 10,909th player to appear in a major league game. On Sept. 7, 1972, pinch-hitting in a 9-0 loss at Baltimore, he struck out on a Mike Cuellar screwball.

He pinch-hit a few more times, spent five innings in the outfield on the last day of the regular season, and exited the record books forever.

“I thought I was going to be a superstar,” Blessitt says.

He wasn’t — but two weeks a year, that doesn’t matter.

“Everybody thinks they can hit a baseball,” says Lewis, 75, who co-founded the Tigers Fantasy Camp with current Tigers broadcaster Jim Price in ’84. “If they can’t, Ike can get ‘em to do it.”

Blessitt has served as hitting coach, batting practice pitcher and ice-breaking storyteller when grown-ups report to Lakeland to act out their childhood dreams. He’s also the unofficial everyman.

“They’re paying $3,700 to pretend they’re a Tiger for a week,” Lewis says. “What would we all pay to spend a month in a Tiger uniform actually playing? He represents us.” 

At Steal Cages, says owner Mike Ray, most people know Blessitt’s background, but he rarely brings it up, and he’s more likely to wear a Bulldogs sweatshirt from Ray’s travel softball teams than any of his Tigers gear.

Ray opened the training center 2½ years ago, and his two kids have come to call Blessitt “Uncle Ike.” He’d met Blessitt at a competing facility and lured him away in part because of the way he responded to a difficult student.

“If you’re going to be lazy and disrespect your mom,” Blessitt told the boy, “and she’s paying good money to send you here, you might as well go home.”

There are lots of ways to hit, Blessitt says, but there’s only one way to work, and that’s hard.

He still has fun, dispensing stories from what’s almost a library of them. He wears a batting helmet most days because the older kids have figured out that if they pop a ball up to the top of the cage, it might drop on his head, and it’s a guaranteed laugh.

The pace is brisk, though. The game can be an opportunity, and each lesson is a business meeting.

Press him, and he’ll tell you baseball owes him more than his 2007 Dodge Caravan and a phone with a cracked screen. It’ll never pay him off, but maybe he can help someone else live a dream, whether that’s a multi-year contract or a spot on the varsity.

In late December, a former minor league teammate launched a $7,000 GoFundMe campaign to pay for a portable pitching machine, a way to expand Blessitt’s instructional reach and ease the burden on his battered body.

An earlier campaign started by former Tiger Milt Wilcox lost traction last summer, but this one has slid past the goal by nearly $800, leaving Blessitt with expanded dreams of improving his backyard facility and reminding the kids they don’t have to settle for leftovers. As long as there are outs left, you keep swinging.

Jacob Jasin, 16, a junior at Warren Woods Tower High, steps up to the plate at Steal Cages. He wants to play in college and beyond.

Blessitt has helped him with his stance, he says. Helped him lead with his top hand, the one higher on the bat, so he doesn’t get under the ball. Helped him hit to right field.

“Quick hands,” Blessitt says. Jacob hits a rocket, straight at him.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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