WKFR Owner ‘Made It Happen’, First Black Player on Tigers
In addition to dealing with a global pandemic, in the United States the topic of race relations has also been at the top of our minds this year. Shootings around the country have brought on a wave of protests all over the country, some which, right here in Kalamazoo, have turned violent.
In the process of doing research on some other things, I ran across a story I didn’t know, and it has to do with a former owner of WKFR, and how he was instrumental in the integration of the Detroit Tigers in 1958.
Fred Knorr was a Detroit native, who became a broadcaster after graduating from Hillsdale College. (The Knorr Center at Hillsdale is named after him.) He started out in radio in Port Huron, but landed a job at WJBK in Detroit as a disc jockey. He was also quite the salesman (he built a big insurance agency), and ended up owning a group of radio stations, including Detroit’s WKMH, which aired the Tigers games in Detroit. By most accounts, he was a people person, very outgoing and sociable.
From 1935, the Tigers were owned by Walter Briggs, Sr. In fact, the ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull was named Briggs Stadium for many years. Briggs died in 1952, and Knorr along with Kalamazoo (WKZO - TV/ Radio) broadcast pioneer John Fetzer, put together an ownership group and ended up buying the team from Briggs’ estate for $6 Million. (Teams routinely sell for amounts in the billions now. One site estimates the Tigers are worth $1.3 Billion now. How things have changed in 65 years.)
There is a quote from Fetzer about Knorr in a Sports Illustrated story at the time. “Our aim is to return a profit on our investment. The Detroit baseball club, to each of us, is a business venture. None of the men in this group has ever been associated with failure....There is one other reason why Fred Knorr is the president of the Detroit Tigers: the whole thing was his idea in the first place.” (Both Knorr and Fetzer had broadcast ties to the team, so it was in their best interests to invest and improve the ball club.)
Part of the deal with the Briggs estate was keeping Walter Briggs, Jr. on the payroll. Briggs, Sr, was pretty staunchly against blacks playing in the major leagues. The son wasn’t much different, but he had the title of General Manager. So while, the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson and the Cleveland Indians with Larry Doby, were the first to integrate in 1947, the Tigers were among the last in 1958.
The Knorr-Fetzer group took over in 1956. Knorr, as lead owner, was initially also the team president. He and his partners pushed for a new direction, and a year later, Ozzie Virgil became the first black player on the Detroit Tigers. Author Dan Holmes, who has written numerous books on the Tigers, says simply “the Tigers didn’t field their first black player until 1958, and only because Fred Knorr made it happen. On June 6th, Ozzie Virgil appeared at third base for the Tigers to finally integrate the team.”
There’s no happy ending to the story, as Knorr died tragically just after Christmas 1960, accidentally falling into a bathtub of scalding water. He died from the burns. He was only 47 years ago.
But, also in 1958, Knorr bought WELL-AM & FM from the Battle Creek Enquirer. Knorr’s widow Nellie, who took over the company after his death, changed the call letters in 1963 to WKFR AM &FM, and moved the FM station’s frequency to 103.3, where it’s been ever since.