August 7th, 2020 in Tigers
You don’t love the Detroit Tigers as much as Jerry Lewis.
No one eclipses the director of the Tigers Fantasy Camps in their fandom of the team. For nearly four decades, Lewis has been organizing camps that allow regular joe’s to be a professional ballplayer for a week.
“I’m so blessed. I’m a baseball fan, a Tigers fan, and I always wanted to be a Tiger. This is as close as I can get, and it’s a dream,” Lewis said in an interview this spring from his home near Detroit where he was waiting out the start of the 2020 season.
The 1984 Camp Launch
The Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp goes back to 1984 when Lewis decided to patch something together in Lakeland after seeing reports of a fantasy camp run by the Chicago Cubs. At the time, Lewis was working in the clothing retail business in metro Detroit. It wasn’t a difficult decision to pursue the idea. “I can hang out with the 1968 Tigers? Oh my god, that’s my team.”
In 1983, Lewis and a few diehard Tiger fans trekked to Florida where they wore Tiger uniforms and played (or tried to play) baseball for a week in the sun. A friendship with a former Tiger was key to the birth of the camp.
“I knew Jim Price, thank god,” Lewis says. Price was a catcher on the 1968 Detroit Tigers world championship team, and his connections with former teammates helped fill a roster of ex-ballplayers to serve as managers and coaches.
“I didn’t know anything about camps,” Lewis remembers. “I never went to camp, I never played sports and wasn’t much of a ballplayer, though I loved the Tigers. But we figured it out: it was a lot of work.”
Early on, Price, Gates Brown, and Willie Horton were among the players who made the camp enticing and popular with Detroit fans. The addition of Mickey Lolich, hero of the ‘68 World Series and one of the franchise’s greatest pitchers, boosted it to another level. Al Kaline, the Hall of Famer and idol to any baseball-crazy kid growing up in Michigan in the 1950s and 1960s, made autograph signing appearances.
Tigers 1980s Success
The success of the Tigers in the 1980s helped fuel a desire to attend camp, but Lewis’s irresistible positivity and charm were the secret sauce that made the event so popular. Soon, the Tigers Fantasy Camp was one of the most highly-regarded of the many offered in the sport.
“I tried to do everything I would want in a camp,” Lewis explains. “Let’s stay in the same hotel with the players so we can have drinks and eat and hear their stories. I wanted to make sure the fields were professional just like what the Tigers played on. The uniforms and the clubhouses and everything down to the bats and baseballs.”
When Mike Ilitch bought the team in the early 1990s, one of the things his front office noticed was how popular these fantasy camps were. But Lewis was not affiliated with the team, he was a separate entity operating with a good relationship with the Tigers, but not officially part of the organization.
The first year they owned the team, the Ilitch’s invited Lewis to the offices. They told him they loved what he was doing, but they would be launching their own camp that following spring. They did not ask him to stop his camp and wished him well.
“They immediately had something I never had,” Jerry says, “competition.”
That first year with two camps competing, the Tigers struggled. The team didn’t have anyone dedicated to the camp, it was entrusted as a project to employees who also had other responsibilities.”
Unable to use the training facilities at TigerTown, Lewis pivoted. “I had the loyalty of all the fantastic phenomenal people who had been to my camp. I used Henley Field. I took the camp on the road: we went to Sarasota and played the Orioles campers. We played the Reds campers in Plant City, Florida. We played at night, and we did a lot of things we didn’t do before.”
The Official Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp
Following their foray into trying to run their own camp, the Tigers asked Lewis to run the official Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp. For more than two decades starting in the mid-1990s, Lewis ran two one-week camps in late January and early February at TigerTown. Typically, about 40 percent of his campers would come to at least one additional camp. Many camp regulars have been to dozens of camps.
One day, a Tiger official called him into his office and asked Lewis if he could do something for the team.
“Can you run a camp at Tiger Stadium?” the front office member asked.
Lewis could barely stay in his seat.
“That day was like a bit of heaven. I had an unbelievable opportunity,” Lewis says. “I got the key to Tiger Stadium. Oh my god!”
Fans In Uniform At Tiger Stadium
At Tiger Stadium, Lewis ran a weekend camp, batting practices, even a home run derby.
“I am not brilliant: I just asked people what they wanted to do,” Lewis says.
As a result of the in-season camps at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, thousands of fans got a chance to step onto the field at Tiger Stadium in uniform. That kind of experience and the team loyalty it engenders can’t be quantified.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” says Lewis. “Not only did I get to live out my dream, but every year at every camp I got to witness Tiger fans fulfill their dreams. Some of these campers were 70 and 80 years old and had been rooting for their team their whole lives. There are sons and fathers, daughters and moms, and brothers, it’s so wonderful.”
Despite the threats brought on by COVID-19, Lewis is optimistic that a camp of some sort will be offered next year. The most recent one-week camp hosted 150 Tiger fans.
Lewis is humble (too humble considering his importance to these camps).
“I’m not inventing the vaccine that will save the world, I’m just putting on an event with the Tigers that will make some baseball fans happy.”