Pride of the Lions
During the fabulous ’50s, Detroit’s pro football players, fired up by toughness and discipline, were undisputed kings of the gridiron jungle, making Briggs Stadium a den of champions
By Richard Bak
The picture is etched eternally in the memory of thousands of Detroiters lucky enough to be there that bright, crisp Sunday afternoon: A silver-helmeted Joe Schmidt, carried aloft by hordes of jubilant fans, clutching a football and bobbing like a cork on a sea of topcoats and varsity jackets. The date is Dec. 29, 1957, and the Detroit Lions have just demolished the Cleveland Browns, 59-14, at Briggs Stadium to capture the championship of the National Football League. Symbolically, Schmidt and the Lions are at the apex of a dynasty that has given Detroit its third pro football title in six seasons.
“The fans picked me up at midfield and carried me around for a few minutes before they finally put me down,” recalls Schmidt, now a semi-retired manufacturer’s rep. “I think they were after the ball more than anything. To tell you the truth, I was kind of embarrassed.”
Embarrassed has become the operative word for the once-proud franchise. The 2007 season marks 50 years since the Lions last roared as champions, one of the longest ongoing title droughts in all of professional sports. Despite the NFL’s greatly expanded playoff system, the team has won just a single post-season contest during the half-century of frustration following Schmidt’s spontaneous ride.
With all of the dissatisfaction surrounding the franchise in the Matt Millen era, it’s easy to forget that during the 1950s the Motor City was considered by many to be the best football town in the country. “Detroit has always liked professional football,” Tex Maule declared in an early issue of Sports Illustrated, which debuted in 1954. “Detroit is a lusty, thriving, vigorous city, and it has found a soul mate in the lusty, thriving, vigorous game.”
Bobby Layne, a fun-loving blond quarterback from Texas, is the centerpiece of Lions lore during the Eisenhower decade. Under Layne — who was enough of a celebrity to become the first pro football player to grace the cover of Time — the Lions were one of the most dominant and glamorous teams in the NFL. Thanks to their annual Thanksgiving Day game and frequent post-season appearances, no team enjoyed greater national exposure during the fabulous ’50s. Bobby and his silver-and-blue teammates helped sell the game to a country just waking up to the joys of watching televised football on Sunday.
“Bobby liked a good time,” says Wally Triplett, who was in his second season as a Lions halfback when Layne was traded to Detroit in 1950. Triplett, one of the first blacks to play for the Lions, often would run into Layne in one of the “black and tans” — racially mixed nightclubs — in Paradise Valley, the now-vanished entertainment district centered on Hastings Street in Detroit.
“Bobby would put a $100 bill on the bar and tell the waitress, ‘When I’ve used that up, call me a cab.’ He was a great tipper. I know his wife, Carol, liked to say, ‘If I ever come back in a second life, I want to come back as Bobby’s cab driver.’”
Schmidt says Layne did like to party. “But those stories about Bobby being drunk in the huddle are just that — stories,” he says. “He worked hard and he was always prepared on the field. He had a tremendous amount of confidence in his own ability. His passes weren’t always pretty, but the ball usually got to where it was supposed to go.”
The supporting staff included halfback Doak Walker, Layne’s old high-school buddy from Texas, whose good looks and aw-shucks demeanor appealed to national advertisers such as Vitalis hair tonic and Beech-Nut gum. The Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Methodist University led the league in scoring as a rookie in 1950 and was All-Pro in five of his six NFL seasons. “He wasn’t the fastest guy in the world,” teammate Leon Hart, the giant end who had won the Heisman the year before at Notre Dame, once said. “But he had quickness and a change of pace and change of direction. He had football savvy.”
Other notables included tackle Lou Creekmur, who perfected the art of leg-whipping opposing linemen; defensive back Jimmy “The Hatchet” David, whose bag of tricks included discreetly flinging mud into a receiver’s eyes; Jack Christiansen, one of the greatest kick-returners and pass-defenders in league history; and Les Bingaman, the 330-pound middle guard who anchored the defense until Joe Schmidt came along in 1953.
Playing against this crew was no picnic, says Dom Moselle. The now-retired football coach at the University of Wisconsin lined up several times against Detroit while playing for three different teams in the ’50s. “When I was with Green Bay, I caught a touchdown pass against them on Thanksgiving Day,” he says. “But then I got wiped out on an illegal block on the kickoff and missed the entire second half. They were tough.”
The game played in the ’50s was especially brutal, thanks to rules, equipment, and medical care that were primitive by today’s standards. Until 1955, for example, a ball carrier was allowed to get up and continue running until he was securely tackled, a rule that encouraged piling on. That same year, face masks finally became obligatory; even then, many players took advantage of a grandfather clause that allowed them to continue to play without a bar protecting their face.
Many players were military veterans who had been hardened by their experiences in World War II or the Korean War. No matter how tough that Sunday’s opponent, it was nothing like being at Guadalcanal or Omaha Beach. “There was a different mentality then,” Schmidt says. “You played when you were hurt or you were out of a job. The Novocain syringe was very handy.”
This warrior attitude, coupled with flimsy headgear, resulted in an untold number of undiagnosed concussions. Today, a disheartening number of players from the era have grown into old age suffering from a punch-drunkenness more often associated with prizefighters. One Lions star of the ’50s recently came downtown for his regular lunch with Schmidt and became disoriented. He called Schmidt. “I’m by a big bridge,” he said. “It says Ambassador on the side.”
While acknowledging in retrospect the risks he and his teammates took, Schmidt maintains he’d do it all over again. “There was nothing like being there on a beautiful autumn day with the sun out, the smell of the freshly cut grass and the people sitting so close it felt like you could reach out and touch them.”
Detroit fans returned the love. Season-ticket sales increased from 5,000 at the beginning of the decade to more than 40,000 at the end.
“I knew everything about those guys, lived and died with each game, read everything I could find in the papers and magazines, had all the great football cards, sent in for the media guides,” says Tom DeLisle, the TV writer and producer who grew up on Detroit’s east side. Today he remains an avid collector of 1950s Lions memorabilia, including a Bob “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer jersey.
DeLisle remembers being so smitten with the Lions that he based his fifth-grade public speaking assignment on them. “I spoke so long and my subject was so boring to the girls and 40 percent of the boys in our class that the nun finally had to ask me — after almost a half-hour — to stop, which annoyed me; I hadn’t gotten to the defensive backfield yet.”
Between 1951 and 1957, a span of seven autumns, the Lions won four division titles and finished second twice, both times losing out on the final Sunday of the season. They played six post-season contests and lost just once, beating Los Angeles and San Francisco in special divisional tie-breakers in 1952 and 1957, respectively, and beating Cleveland in the 1952, 1953, and 1957 title games. Only a loss to the Browns in the ’54 title game kept the Lions from being the first team to win three straight championships.
One noticeable aspect of the Lions’ greatest era was the dearth of black players. Although the Lions were one of the first NFL teams to desegregate, having three African-Americans on the roster as early as 1949, they went through most of the ’50s with nary a black face in the team photograph. In fact, the 1952-53 Lions remains the last NFL team to win the championship with an all-white roster.
Triplett chalks it up to the institutionalized racism that characterized most of American society in the ’50s. “Detroit wasn’t a popular city for blacks,” he says. “We’d just finished a race riot [in 1943]. Because of restrictive covenants, blacks had to live in certain areas of town. The police department was racist. You couldn’t be in certain areas at certain times.”
In 1957, the team traded for John Henry Johnson, a bruising fullback who became the first African-American ever to star on a Lions championship team. It was a tumultuous season, with coach Buddy Parker abruptly quitting during training camp and Layne breaking his ankle late in the season. Newly acquired Tobin Rote stepped into Layne’s shoes and steered the club to a remarkable comeback win in a division playoff at San Francisco. The following week Rote tossed four touchdown passes as the Lions clobbered Cleveland for the championship.
“Here’s a time-capsule scene for you,” says DeLisle, who spent $8 of his carefully hoarded confirmation money for bleacher seats for him and his dad. “At one point late in the game, some drunk in our area of the bleachers jumped up and yelled something like, ‘We’re beating the s--- out of these guys!’ And with that, about four or five men, including my father, turned on the guy angrily, with one man rising to say that there were kids and women within earshot, and that kind of language wasn’t welcome. Shamed, the guy sat down, muttering apologies. Imagine that today? Among those idiots at Ford Field?”
DeLisle’s favorite memory was when Lions kicker Jim Martin booted a fourth-quarter extra point. By now the end zone was flooded with empty beer cans. After the ball sailed through the uprights, “a drunk crawled out of the stands, weaved through the beer cans into the end zone, and though staggering wildly, was able to corral the bouncing ball. He clutched it, weaved back through the cans, and was pulled back into the seats by his buddies, to wild cheering. A great moment, made in Detroit.”
Nobody would have dared predict in those heady moments that, a half-century later, Lions fans would still be waiting for their favorite team to win their next championship. What happened? Many say the trade that sent Layne to Pittsburgh the following season upset the team’s chemistry. Others point to the inept stewardship of William Clay Ford, a minority shareholder who bought the team
“Watching that mob parade around the field with Joe Schmidt on their shoulders, I naturally assumed we would have decades to come of similar results and celebrations,” DeLisle says. “Hell, I was a wild-eyed kid. I probably said, ‘Hey, Dad, let’s come back next year!’
“We all thought it would never end.”