Who Ya Gonna Call?: Pop Music and the 1984 Detroit Tigers

Detroit Tigers celebrating their World Series victory: Willie Hernandez, Lance Parrish, Darrell Evans and others

Pop music in the 80’s had a distinct sound, and one that didn’t age well.  Whether it was the new-wave or dance club music smeared with keyboards in the first half of the decade or the trite hair metal in the second half, it was all sheen and glitz and big, dumb riffs.

1984 saw the tail end of the most tinkly keyboard music played by people with fuchsia hair wearing tin foil jump suits.  The capstone in this area was Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 album “She’s So Unusual,” whose later singles, ’84 radio hits “True Colors” and “Time After Time” ventured into less day-glo territory as did the rest of pop music.

As guitars made a bit of a comeback—albeit with keyboards painted over them on every single—the Tigers became the center of attention in baseball.  It’s hard to remember that summer without remembering the music.  But the connection is tighter, since some of the Top 40 hits of the time have become bedfellows with the team ever since, appearing in highlight reels, intermingling with the lore, and remaining a quirky part of the whole story.  So, let’s look at the dated pop nuggets that are inextricably linked with the 1984 Detroit Tigers.

Let’s Hear it for the Boy—Deniece Williams

As the snow was melting in Michigan, teenagers in their Nikes and Lee jeans bopped on down to the two-screen theater to see the new cinematic celebration of youth, Footloose.  It was about music and it included a lot of it. The soundtrack did contain a couple of recent hits, but was mostly original material which would become instant smashes.

One of the singles to come out after Kenny Loggins’ title track was “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” by Deniece Williams, a very tinkly synth number with synthed-up percussion.  It appears in the film in one of the sequences that Roger Ebert, in his review from the time, called one of three in the movie meant to look like a music video, the feel-good montage in which Ren (Kevin Bacon) tries to teach Willard (the late, great Chris Penn) how to dance.

First off, the lyrics are about an everyday guy who doesn’t have money, but you know, he’s a sweetheart.  It makes sense for baseball highlights, and its “bum-bum-buh-boym-buh” opening riff was too much for radio and TV producers to resist when choosing that music that played into commercial breaks during games.

After the season, WJR produced a wonderful documentary called “Wire to Wire Champions: the 1984 Tigers World Championship Baseball Season”, essentially a compilation of highlights from Harwell and Carey broadcasts of games.  The bouncy opening riff of Deniece Williams’ hit begins at least one sequence in the cassette, and it’s hard for me to think of the season at all without hearing the song.

Holding Out for a Hero—Bonnie Tyler

If you were writing a song with the express hope that it would be picked up by every single TV station for highlights of the local team, you’d write this one.  Fresh off her enduring hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” British singer Bonnie Tyler was asked to add her husky rasp to the Footloose soundtrack.

“Hero” accompanied another of Ebert’s idea of a music video, the tractor chicken fight scene.  The lyrics pine away for a “streetwise Hercules” (which rhymes if you want it to) and says stuff about being strong and fast and fighting.  But, let’s face it, just the title is enough, and if you were around at the time, you certainly saw more than a few highlight reels—of any team, any sport—set to “Holding Out for a Hero.”  

Here’s the opening sequence of ABC’s Monday Night Baseball on Jun. 11th (Tigers vs. Blue Jays) in which Tyler shrieks about needing a hero over footage from the week before when Bergman hit his iconic 11th inning homer off Roy Lee Jackson.

The Tigers needed a hero and called on Bergman

Ghostbusters—Ray Parker, Jr.

Ivan Reitman’s quirky tale about paranormal hunters came out mid-Summer, and with it, Ray Parker, Jr’s theme song, which got him sued by Huey Lewis for plagiarizing “I Want a New Drug.” It also gave us oft-repeated phrases “who ya gonna call?” “I aint’ ‘fraid a no ghosts” and “bustin’ makes me feel good.”

Well, Ray Parker, meet Rich “Goose” Gossage and his foe the Detroit Tigers.  The Goose didn’t play much in the series, but when he entered game 5, he immediately served up a lineshot homer to Lance Parrish, giving the people who’d produced a large “Goose Busters” sign a chance to let it fly.

Harwell used the phrase “goose buster” in “Wire to Wire.” It’s another song inextricably linked with the team and the season.  I bet Huey Lewis has no idea.

Boy George in a “Bless You Boys” promo for WDIV

Thank God I’m a Country Boy—John Denver

Though not an ’84 release, this song became the focal point of a pseudo controversy in late Spring.  It had been played during the entire Sparky era (though that was just a coincidence) mid-game when the ground crew would come out and mist the infield dirt and sweep up.

Herbie Redmond, one of the crew, had become a fan favorite for dancing to Denver’s Bill Monroeesque fiddlefest, and the ritual was a big part of coming out to the park to see a game. 

But Denver, it turns out, was an Orioles fan (Rocky Mountains, hikes in the woods….Baltimore, it all makes sense) and the players were getting tired of the song.

Here are the two problems Denver faced: first, in the 80’s, country music was leprosy.  Everyone ran around saying they liked all music but country.  I couldn’t name a country song at the time, no one wore t-shirts of, I don’t know, Randy Travis, to school, and whoever liked the stuff was in the closet.  This was half a decade before “Friends in Low Places” and “Achy, Breaky Heart,” before NASCAR was a cultural touchstone, before Larry the Cable Guy.

1984 was also a few years before the advent of The Simpsons and a decade before it became funny to drink PBR or Blatz out of a sense of irony.  People at that time liked things if and only if they really liked them.  In 2004 or so, Denver’s anthem to fiddlin’ and griddlin’ would get crowds in most cities stomping and clapping, some ironically, some not really sure, but in 1984 it was seen us just a dumb song, at least by a vocal faction.

The players, who were permanently miffed at Campbell for being a general tightwad, were spoiling for some Van Halen or, presumably, Purple Rain during batting practice, and the poor nature of Tiger Stadium’s sound system was an actual issue with guys like Parrish and Morris.

Mike Downey, Free-press scribe, tried to make an issue out of “Country Boy,” literally saying in his column that since everything was going fine with the team, there had to be something to bitch about.  And so it would be done.  There were a few mini campaigns to figure out what to replace the song with, and Campbell said he was fine with anything recorded before roughly 1952.

In June—again, before the age of irony—Campbell briefly went with“Tiger Rag,” a jazz standard penned back in 1917 by Nick LaRocca , trumpeter and band leader of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  It sounds like a lot of 20’s jazz, rambling, fast, energetic, and it became a world-famous song, covered by the whole jazz universe.  In 1931, a cool vocal (and hand trumpet) band called the Mills Brothers had a huge hit with it, and it made appearances played by a live band in Tiger Stadium during the 1935 World Series.

By the time the Mills Brothers got hold of the rag, a lyricist named Harry Da Costa had written words to it, with the refrain “hold that Tiger,” a phrase the song became named by.

In short, Tigers fans weren’t “Tiger Rag” fans that June, and Herbie—jaunty and lively as the song was—couldn’t dance to it.  When the rag met a bad reception, Detroit style, the team presumably went back to Denver, though it is unclear.  They didn’t play “Ghostbusters” or “Let’s Hear it For the Boy,” that much is sure.

I ain’t fraid a no Goose

All three songs, “Let’s Hear it For the Boy,” “Holding Out for a Hero,” and “Ghostbusters,” in varying degrees of sincerity, celebrate the idea of an everyday Joe (though a streetwise Hercules is also acceptable) coming in and saving the day, you know, when there’s somethin’ strange in your neighborhood.

The themes translate to the Tigers pretty well, since the cry “who ya gonna call” was answered, at one point or another, by basically the whole roster.  Anyone who remembers the season at all recalls the heroics of the role players: big homers mid-year by Howard Johnson, Bergman’s fabled blast, Grubb’s big weekend in Toronto and his double in Game 3 of the ALCS; Rooftop Ruppert and Lopez’s dominant two innings in Game 5, when things hung in the balance; Rusty Kuntz’s .286 average; Castillo’s Game 3 dinger.

And of course the main guys came through all the time.  Willie Hernandez was the “lovin’ one man show” who put up a season for the ages, and on a team with no Reggies or Rickey Hendersons, a lot of the guys sounded like the aw-shucks dime watcher from “Let’s Hear It.”

The team’s official slogan “Bless You Boys,” which always felt hopelessly arbitrary, and honestly meaningless to me, doesn’t fit as well as “Who Ya Gonna Call?”  It was a Summer of “boys” who weren’t perfect or glamorous but who did what they did well.  And when it came right down to it, bustin’ made the 1984 Tigers feel good.

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