Detroit, City of Champions: How the Greatest Season Ever Impacted the Lions

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Detroit, City of Champions: How the Greatest Season Ever Impacted the Lions
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
"Spirit of Detroit." This statue has become synonymous with the idea that there is a close relationship between the fans, the city and the teams in Detroit. A bond which was firmly established as a tangible idea on account of the City of Champions sports season of 1935.

I'll start my first article on Bleacher report with a question.  What year did the Detroit Tigers, Detroit Lions and Detroit Red Wings win their first Championships?

Now I know what some of you may be thinking, who cares about the Tigers and Red Wings, this is a Lions section! Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Charles Avison and I am about to explain to you, why, as a Lions fan you should absolutely care about these other two teams' first championships.

As a "history guy" and diehard Detroit sports fan, I grew up reading the books, watching the games and listening to my old man tell me so many stories that I was quite convinced that I pretty much knew all the major stuff and that I could hold my own in conversation with anyone regarding my favorite teams. 

I was wrong. And I will be the first to admit, that I had no idea that THE greatest sports season in American history took place in Detroit, in 1935.

So back to my question; which should be the easiest answer in all of sports because the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings all won their first championships in the same season (1935-1936)!

When I first heard this statistic, it was because my friends and I were up late one night trying to stump each other with questions from a Detroit Tiger media guide. What really stood out to me was how I had never heard the information before. 

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
The Lions defense in 1934-1935 was legendary. They gave up less than a touchdown per game and no points at all through the first 7 games of 1934. The Eagles scored on them in the 8th game which infuriated the Lions players. A recently discovered audio tape of the 1935 Lions at a 25th reunion of their championship records how in the first game of 1935 they put an extra special thrashing on the Eagles as a result (35-0 Lions win).

I was a senior at Western Michigan University at the time (2005) and chose this stat to write a two-page paper. The only problem was that I could barely find enough information in all the available books to fill it.  Intrigued, I made this the subject of my thesis with which to graduate (B.A. Liberal History W.M.U.) and went to the original newspapers to find out more.

What I found was that this season was far greater than I or anyone under 95 years old had any idea of. The statistic about these three teams was only the beginning of the story, because in this same season the legendary Joe Louis had risen from becoming an unknown fighter to an international superstar and A.P Most Outstanding Athlete of the year.

But there was more, much more...

What I found was that Detroit athletes in almost every sport that one can think of, could all boast of world championships and world records in this same season, including: Golf (Walter Hagen) speed on water (Gar Wood) sprinting (Eddie Tolan) bowling (Stroh's bowling team) swimming, diving, tennis, softball, distance running, weight lifting, billiards and many more (14-plus), including perhaps the greatest example of Detroit's dominance, Newell Banks. Yes, even the 1935 World Checkers Champion was from Detroit!!

But there was more...

Seven days after the Red Wings had completed the championship trifecta, a party was held at the Masonic Temple in Detroit called "The Greatest Gathering of Champions Under a Single Roof," while the date of the dinner (April 18th) was declared by the Governor of Michigan and City Council of Detroit.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
The first thanksgiving game for the Lions was 1934 which they lost to the Bears, but it was the first "coast-to-coast" football game broadcast on the radio. In 1935, the Lions won the game (against the Bears) and propelled them to their first NFL Championship.

Champions Day.

This then, is how Detroit became known as the City of Champions.

But so what? Why should we care about a season that took place 75 years ago? If it's not in any books, or the newspapers, or being mentioned for its 75th anniversary (2010-2011) it obviously isn't that big of a deal right?

Wrong. This was not only the greatest season to ever take place on American soil, but also THE most important season in Detroit Sports history.  It represents the birth of Detroit sports, and without it we may not even have the Lions or Red Wings to this very day. In fact, this one season is the primary reason for the shaping of the sports culture in Michigan and endearment that we feel towards our teams to this very day. 

I'll explain: As the story goes, the Lions were named because of the Tigers, after arriving from Portsmouth Ohio in 1934. This is absolutely true; however, it is only part of the story. To understand the full story, one must understand the situation at the time.

Prior to 1934, Detroit was a "mid-western baseball town," that's it. The Tigers had never won a World Series in three attempts and baseball in Detroit was on life support following 25 years of futility (where have we heard that before?) having not even been to a World Series since 1909.

The NFL had tried three times to establish a team in Detroit, and each time it had failed miserably. The Red Wings were only so named in 1932 after changing their name twice. Jack Adams (Red Wings GM/Coach) was even spotted exchanging potatoes for tickets! Detroit was not a major sports town, and anyone who disagrees with that statement can go and try to read one week of a 1933 Detroit newspaper without falling asleep and then get back to me.

Leon Halip/Getty Images
Drew Stanton is wearing the jersey number 5 which was first worn by Leroy "Ace" Gutowsky. Who was to the Lions what "Bronco" Nagurski was to the Bears (i.e. an intimidating 2 way fullback/linebacker). In the 1935 NFL Championship Gutowski scored the Lions first touchdown reminiscent of Stanton scoring on this play. The Lions would beat the Giants 26-7 at the University of Detroit stadium.

In 1934, all of this began to change. The Tigers came out of nowhere and dominated their way to the American League Pennant; all of a sudden Detroit was baseball-crazy and the fans who had been mired in the misery of the Great Depression suddenly found themselves caught up in the excitement as their fervor for sports was awakened. Two months before the World Series, this article appeared in the Detroit Times newspaper:

"Inspired by the spirited fight the Detroit Tigers are making for the American League Baseball championship, sponsors of the Detroit Professional football team have decided to call their entry into the National Football League, the Detroit Lions..."

So yes, it was because of the Tigers that the Lions were named, but it was because of the enthusiasm of the reinvigorated Tigers that this fourth attempt of bringing a team to Detroit was even undertaken. In essence, the new owners of the Lions were trying to associate their team with the wildly popular Tigers in order to draw fan enthusiasm and give their team the best possible chance of success.  

This theory worked out a million times better than they could have ever dreamed, because in 1935 the Lions would join the Tigers on their championship pedestal. Now, they were associated not only by name but also by deed. 

The newspapers had a field day with stories of "two kings of the jungle in Detroit," and the instant visual impact of seeing the beloved Tigers posed in photos with Lions players was a recipe for the creation of new fans. Even if a person had never seen a football game, they were instantly a Lions fan by virtue of this association.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
"Thank God for Eli Manning." I never thought I would have uttered those words in my life, but what no Detroit Sports fan realizes is that when Manning (and the Giants!) won the superbowl and beat the Patriots a few years ago, he kept Boston from winning three pro championships and threatening Detroit's position as the last City to do so (note*: Red Sox and Celtics both won their championships that year).

What is truly interesting though, is how the complexion of this season shifted after the Lions won their championship. Now the City was full of winners, including the Tigers, the Lions, and Joe Louis; all that was missing was the Red Wings. Now the feeling was: "Can the Wings do it?" Sports became king in the city and true multi-sport conversation began:

"The result on city life was astounding. Detroit became the sport center of the world and woke up one morning to find all the important titles belong to its citizens.  The talk became nothing but sports.  The other problems didn't seem so important as the winning of a flag or a cup..."

Of course the Wings would win their championship (4/11/36) a few months after the Lions but it kept the Lions on the front pages of the newspapers because of the accomplishments of all. 

Perhaps to understand the importance of this season for the Lions, we should speculate on what might have happened had they NOT won in 1935 and also, had they NOT been part of this season.

Firstly, the Lions would not win another championship until 1952. As was mentioned earlier, the NFL had tried to establish a team in Detroit three times before this and in much better economic times. Without adding the foundation stone of their first championship, would this team have survived 18 years where three previous attempts hadn't lasted a combined six years?

George Rose/Getty Images
Here Barry Sanders is wearing a Pro Bowl jersey. After winning their first championship, the Lions went to Honolulu (chosen on account of the Honolulu Blue/Silver color scheme) but had to "play their way there." Over the course of 12,000 miles, the Lions played 5 exhibition games in order to pay their expenses.

If they didn't survive into the 1950s and the "golden age" of Detroit football, would we even have football in Detroit to this day? If we weren't endeared to this team and didn't have the heritage of the Lions to fall back on, would we as fans have stuck by them for nearly 50 years of modern day futility?

If they hadn't been part of this season, and every other team had won except them, what kind of a detrimental effect would it have had?  

Thankfully, these are questions that never need be asked. What should be asked, however, is what does this season mean to us?  It is often mentioned that Detroit sports fans are some of the greatest if not THE greatest fans in the country, "unique," but what makes us different? Why are we unique? Was there some ancient prophecy that predicted that one day in this particular region, a "unique" breed of sports fans would emerge? Is there something in the water of the Great Lakes that makes us Love our teams unlike any other fan?

Obviously these are ridiculous, but why then? What is the reason? I will put forth the following argument, that in the middle of the Great Depression, when these people were looking for any reason to get excited, these teams gave them every reason to be.

That these teams endeared themselves to the fans on a level that no other city ever has or ever will. That by embracing the identity of "the greatest sports fans" and the "City of Champions" they created a sense of pride in themselves and in their community as a whole. From their day till ours, these feelings have only grown with every passing generation, while the reason why has faded.

Harry How/Getty Images
In 2009, the Penguins and Steelers won their championships in the same year. At the Penguins victory parade Sidney Crosby (pictured above) announced to the crowd "Pittsburgh you truly are the City of Champions." Really? I disagree. Here's the argument: Following one of the 4 superbowl victories of the Steelers in the 1970's, an emotional Howard Cossell blurted out "Pittsburgh you are truly the City of Champions." In 1988, a book was published titled "Pittsburgh City of Champions" about the dominance of Pittsburgh teams in the 1970's (6 total championships). Now, what is the ultimate goal of a city regarding sports? To win a championship. What's the next best thing? Winning two Championships! And the ultimate accomplishment?? Winning 3 or 4 championships and thereby "running the table" or being THE most dominating city in all of sports. Detroit invented the title "City of Champions" and defined it as "the greatest season in the history of American sport." No city has reached this level, let alone surpass i

In essence, there is a chapter missing in the mainstream collective understanding of Detroit and Detroit sports because the story of our teams is dramatically different than any other city. Our story is not one of individual teams, but rather a history bound together by this one remarkable season. You might be asking yourself, "Why haven't the teams, radio, newspapers, television picked this story up?" That's a good question!

I published my research in a book titled "Detroit City of Champions: The Story of the Most Important Season in Detroit Sports History" (www.detroitcityofchamps.com) in 2008 and have been met with complete indifference by the mainstream media. I can't even get someone to argue with me!

I believe that the reason for the indifference is that change is hard. Sports fans have a great deal of pride and those who actually are in the business of writing sports have financial reasons for not wanting to rethink and re-write the various publications that have put them into their positions of authority. Which is why I bring this story to this site, in hopes that the information might finally get out to the people who will see the true value in it.

I would like to leave you with one final thought. If I have convinced you that this is indeed the "greatest season in the history of American sport" what are we to do about it? Is this a story that should just be relegated to bar trivia questions designed for stumping, drunken patrons? Or is this a story that should be celebrated and given its proper place in the annals of our history? Obviously I consider this to be important! But what do you think?

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images
Anyone remember the "Orange out?" I was there as was this Bengals stormtrooper. When are the media going to get behind a positive story instead of just looking for negatives?

How much do we really love our teams? Is it worth the effort to pause in our modern day ever changing, sports saturated world and bring something back which was lost?  I believe that embracing this season for the 75th anniversary 2010-2011 ("April in the D?" April 18th is Champions Day!!) and celebrating our heritage, might lead to a tremendous boost in civic pride. 

Currently, Detroit and Michigan are struggling in its most difficult time since the era in which this story took place (Great Depression).  Our region could most certainly use a rallying cry, or something, anything which would set our sights on a higher ideal than just the day-to-day toil of survival.  Why not dust off the proclamations calling for Champions Day? This story has passed to us through a whisper, and I firmly believe that it is time for it to be shouted once again.

The origin story of Detroit Sports was based on the Greatest Season in the history of American sport, and it is time for it to receive the recognition that is due.  It is time to begin the discussion, it is time to dismiss all other city’s frivolous claims on a title that was created and won by right of conquest.  It is time to tell the world that Detroit was then, is now, and will forever be…The City of Champions.  

(For more information on this season or to see the original proclamations for Champions Day, I invite you to visit my website www.detroitcityofchamps.com)

I intend in the near future, of writing articles about the impacts of this season on the Tigers, Red Wings and Joe Louis in the effort to explore this season in more detail. So if you are interested and don't mind a little eye strain from reading lengthy articles, look for the links which I will post between them.  Also, I’ll probably do a few exploratory articles on the various players from this season 95 percent of which have also vanished from the mainstream historical record.

Long Live Champions Day!

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