Ex-Detroit Tiger Ike Blessitt won’t give up on his dream or hometown Hamtramck

Detroit Free Press

It’s the afternoon of April 18, 2022, as Ike Blessitt lays down on the hospital bed to have a new stent put in his heart.

This isn’t his most involved surgery, just the latest in a long line of them.

One day later, the former Detroit Tigers outfielder is back on his feet, leading a tour of his old stomping grounds; from the Community Center to Hamtramck Stadium to Keyworth Stadium.

He didn’t want to wait any longer to recover, not when he knew he’d have a chance to show off where he grew up.

“This is history, man,” he said, riding around in the passenger seat on a gray, 40-degree day in Southeast Michigan. “And they’re missing it. It’s all around here.”

Blessitt, 72 and a four-sport all-stater in track and field, baseball, football and basketball, is a Hamtramck legend.

The hallways inside the building  at 11350 Charest St. — his former junior high school, now a community center that houses athletic memorabilia since the old high school was demolished — has placards, pictures and records with his name on it.

These days, he walks those halls with a limp. Blessitt’s health over the past four years has taken a turn for the worse. He has undergone a triple-bypass surgery, suffered a stroke and was recently diagnosed as diabetic.

Diabetes cost him his leg.

A few years back he cut his toe playing in a softball outing. He never thought much of it at first, but as the pain persisted, it became infected and evolved into gangrene.

The doctors had to remove a few toes, but even that didn’t solve the problem. Eventually, he said enough was enough.

“I told the doctor, ‘Find out where it’s still good and just cut it right above that,’ ” he said.

As he recovers, those in the Hamtramck and Tigers community have created a GoFundMe, so he can improve his house, his backyard baseball facility and his life.

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‘Couldn’t sniff his jockstrap’

Blessitt is one of a few dozen people to be inducted into Hamtramck’s athletic Hall of Fame.

“They wouldn’t play us no more,” he said, pointing to a photo of the school’s 1959 football team that went undefeated, outscoring opponents, 385-59.

Blessitt, who in his prime would’ve been the best athlete in most schools, grew up with a number of athletes who also could lay claim to such a title — that’s where his story begins and what he’s so desperate for people to know.

“Everybody used to come to us,” he said of his city growing up. “We used to have 12 of these basketball courts and the Pistons would come here to practice in the summer.

“We had everything you needed. All (within) 2 miles.”

Rudy Tomjanovich, a Hall of Fame basketball star at Michigan, was one year his elder at Hamtramck.

Just a handful of years prior, Hamtramck was home to John, Tom and Jim Paciorek, who all played Major League Baseball. Jane “Peaches” Bartkowicz, another Hamtramck alumnus, won 17 junior titles in tennis, including Wimbledon in 1964.

And don’t get him started on Little League superstar Art “Pinky” Deras.

“These kids these days couldn’t sniff his jockstrap,” Blessitt said of Deras, the 6-foot-3 pre-teen who led Hamtramck to a Little League national title in 1959 and Pony League championship in 1961. “He’s the best Little Leaguer to ever play.

“To ever play.”

Blessitt is no slouch himself. The problem is, the town he once knew as a Detroit sports mecca is run down, the athletic facilities shells of their former selves.

A handful of businesses, restaurants and museums line the road — the famous Kowalski Sausage manufacturer still stands on Holbrook — but for every structure that is there, there’s an abandoned building and empty lot to match.

Yet you can’t ride more than half a mile without passing something of significance to Blessitt.

“I got my mural in that building,” Blessitt said, pointing out the window to the Hamtramck Historical Museum on Jos. Campau.

“They got my picture on the wall right when you walk in there,” he pointed out, passing his favorite restaurant, Maine Street.

While telling stories of his glory days, Blessitt explains his two remaining goals — making sure the sports legacies of his hometown don’t get lost and doing what he can to save inner-city baseball.

“We was all from here back in the day, but there ain’t no ball players in the city anymore man,” he said. “You look on the other side of 8 Mile, they got all the facilities they need there, they got nothing in the inner city.

“I’m hoping to get me one of these abandoned buildings. They’re just sitting here. We fix it up, and then the kids got somewhere to play ball and train when it’s cold out. ‘Cause a day like today, they got nowhere to go.”

But he doesn’t have the funds to do it and he doesn’t have the health.

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Piecing it together

Blessitt straps on his prosthetic leg just moments before he leaves the house. Before he can head out, he has to check his blood sugar.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s the next,” he said to himself. “Ninety-two. All right, we’re good, let’s go.”

But first, a quick tour. Blessitt said his house is going to be fixed up in no time, but as it stands, he knows it’s a problem.

He clarifies it didn’t look this way when he purchased it for his family with the baseball money he had in 1967, explaining why it never got the care needed over the past half-century.

Walk through the storage room into the backyard and there’s a full-size batting cage with green mats laid down. It’s not perfect, but once the excess water is cleaned out and it gets a touchup, it’s more than enough to do the job. Blessitt has worked for years as a hitting instructor.

He hobbles around to the other side of the garage and explains his vision of putting in “a tunnel.”

“For the pitchers,” he said. “I had wanted to do it before it gets warm, because these guys ain’t got nowhere to train.”

For those who know Blessitt, it’s no surprise his focus is on improving his backyard business for young players, even when there’s so much to be done inside the home.

There’s no furniture in the living room. Just a cabinet with some old Tigers bobbleheads, a few cups and a couple of wooden chairs in the dining area.

A hole the size of a bowling ball exposes pipes running behind a wall where there used to be a countertop in the kitchen. That expanse sits between the sink, which has a bucket underneath it for a leak, the stove that doesn’t work and the refrigerator that’s on the fritz. It makes mealtime tough.

“Hot dogs and hamburgers,” Blessitt said of what he eats almost every day. “And it’s not easy when you’re diabetic.”

All the while, Blessitt continued to try and get by teaching baseball. The former professional works with high school teams, travel teams and individuals who wanted to get lessons from someone who played at the highest level.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“Everything stopped,” he said. “Then (my health) kept going (south) and I’ve been poor before, but now I’m real poor.

“It’s been hard, for all that in the last four years. But I don’t want that to slow me down.”

Blessitt lives on about $800 per month from social security.

From coach to family

Blessitt spent 36 days in Major League Baseball. In his era, a player needed 43 days of service time in order to qualify for a pension.

“It wouldn’t have made him rich, but that would’ve helped,” said Dave Mesrey, one of the founders of the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, a grounds crew looking to restore the ballpark Blessitt grew up playing on.

Mesrey is one of dozens who’ve tried to help the former athlete. It started a few years back, when Mesrey worked as a communications manager for a nonprofit housing organization that helps low-income people in Detroit avoid eviction and foreclosure.

Through his work, he was able to help Blessitt keep his house, get a new roof on his garage and update his central air.

More recently, the group created a GoFundMe, with the goal of not only helping him get his house back in order, but should they reach the $50,000 goal, the hope is Blessitt would have enough to revamp his backyard so he can resume his baseball lessons.

“The guy is just (expletive) resilient man,” Mesrey said. “He’s just determined to stick with baseball. That’s who he is, that’s what he does, but he doesn’t have a viable vehicle to do what he does best and that’s teach kids how to hit a baseball.

“He’s just such an amazing person, we wanted to help.”

Beyond being resilient, Blessitt is a people person. It’s why his support system has grown from his family, to those he knows through the Tigers community, to families of his former students.

Wendy Kavulick, who Blessitt affectionately refers to as “Ms. Wendy,” is the mother of Ryan and Evan, who took hitting lessons from Blessitt for years. Ryan played at a junior college in Virginia, before injuries forced him to transfer home and play at Macomb Community College.

Blessitt continued to work with him and the next year he batted .434, finishing as the team MVP with a top-10 batting average. Now, he plays in Division II at Tusculum University in Tennessee.

“Ike helped him with baseball, and baseball paid for his college,” Kavulick said. “That’s how we met, but he’s so much more than that. He’s a tremendous person.”

Kavulick visited Blessitt nearly every day in the hospital for three straight months after his leg amputation. (She laments the two days she had to miss.)

The woman Blessitt calls his “guardian angel” helped him figure out how to pay off his debts, file his taxes and budget his money. They still see each other regularly and talk on the phone every week.

“There’s just something really special about him,” she said. “He’s like an uncle or like a  grandpa to my kid, but what I found out as I got to know him is he truly cared about all the kids. He makes you feel special, but he’s always the same guy.

“He has a big heart and he loves everybody and everybody loves being around him.”

‘The living, breathing embodiment’

Hamtramck Stadium is one of five former Negro League stadiums still standing. It has been home to legends of the game, such as  Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes, now the field’s namesake.

Stearnes played there when it was home to the Detroit Stars in 1930-31, after their original stadium burned down in 1929. Ty Cobb threw out the first pitch at its grand opening.

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Blessitt played there too, for years, and while he said he looks up to people in the Negro Leagues who helped pave the way, he doesn’t want the rest of what happened there to get lost.

From the Little League and Pony League games, to his high school career. It’s all part of it.

“We used to hammer these roofs,” Blessitt said, pointing at the tops of the houses that sit not 25 yards past the left field wall. “We did that. I don’t know if we broke a window … but that roof, oh boy.”

The Hamtramck Stadium Grounds Crew continues to work,  so hopefully soon people can enjoy it again.

Mesrey, one of the founding members of the group, wants the world to know what Blessitt means to the stadium and the town.

“Ike is the living, breathing embodiment of Hamtramck Stadium,” Mesrey said. “I can’t exaggerate it and don’t know how to best quantify it other than this: There are only two Black men who played official games at Hamtramck Stadium and then as a professional at Tiger Stadium.

“One is Satchel Paige. The other is Ike Blessitt.”

It irks Blessitt, how it all unfolded. You can see it in his face and hear it in his voice. That the history of athletics in the city may slowly be forgotten. He referenced the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, saying his dream was to create a museum with all the history of Hamtramck and put it next to the stadium.

While the museum might be a long shot, in Blessitt’s mind, doing his part to save the game isn’t.

“(I’ll do it) iIn my backyard, that’s what it’s for, you know,” he said. “Until maybe somebody will help me get a building. That’s what I’d like to have, about 10,000 square feet so I can train.

“Take the teams in, work them out, throw, hit … that’s what I want.”

Blessitt loves the game.

The one he’d play until it was so dark he couldn’t see the ball. The one that never gave him a fair chance because he is Black. The one that saw him play for much less than he was worth in Mexico for 15 years.

He gave his life to it.

But those closest to him, like Ms. Wendy, see him as more than the man who will teach kids about leading with the knob of the bat and staying inside the baseball.

“He wants to leave a legacy,” Kavulick said. “I know he wants it to be baseball, but money can buy whatever. People have that.

“But to be a genuinely good-hearted individual who is caring and has a passion, that’s his real legacy.”

You can donate to the GoFundMe here.

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