One looks heavenward and cries out, “What have I ever done that deserves having the Detroit Lions thrust upon me every Thanksgiving?” No answer.
Has Detroit ever fielded a watchable team? If so, has that watchable team appeared in my lifetime? Ultimately, this annual Thanksgiving visitation is the NFL’s responsibility. Detroit gets to bore the life out of a continent of football fans, the NFL gets…what, what, what does the NFL get?
Thursday will mark the 70th time Detroit has played on Thanksgiving day. It’s like an annual reenactment of the plague. As of this writing, there is no end in sight. Mayhap, if we go back and track this joy-killing ritual from its beginning, we can find the spot where everything went wrong.
The first National Football League was formed in 1902 and consisted of three Pennsylvanian teams, all of whom claimed to have won the 1902 professional football championship. The league folded after one season.
All attempts (and there were many) at creating a pro football league failed until 1920, when the American Professional Football Association (APFA) was formed. Two years later, the APFA changed its name to the National Football League.
Jim Thorpe, Carlisle Indian School alumnus, gold-medal winner at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, worldwide sports celebrity, future security guard, alcoholic, Hollywood movie extra, and ditch digger was the first president of the APFA/NFL. It was an unimportant job. Thorpe was already making huge money — $250 a week — as player-coach for the Canton Bulldogs. He served as nominal president of the new league for one year while playing for Canton. The original NFL teams were: Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Tigers, Dayton Triangles, Akron Professionals, Rochester Jeffersons, Rock Island Independents, Muncie Flyers, Decatur Staleys, Chicago Cardinals, and Hammond Pros. Upon this rock…
In the league’s second year, 1921, eight new teams were enrolled, including the Green Bay Packers and the Tonawanda Kardex of Tonawanda, New York. Unhappily, Tonawanda lost its first game to the Rochester Jeffersons (45-0) and then folded, leaving behind a perfect 0-1 record.
It was a mess — leagues were slapped together and disbanded. Teams came, went, and rose again under new names. In 1922, the Oorang Indians, home-based in LaRue, Ohio (population 775), was a bona fide NFL team. Oorang was an all-Native American team. Their sponsor was not an Indian tribe but a dog kennel: the Oorang Kennel Company, owned by Walter Lingo. Proprietor Lingo had ponied up $100 for his NFL franchise. The Oorang Indians played one home game in its two years of existence and boasted a player-coach by the name of Jim Thorpe.
The Detroit Lions came out of this mix of sports and P.T. Barnum. The team was founded in 1929 as the Portsmouth Spartans, an independent pro team, and joined the NFL in 1930.
The Spartans were purchased in 1934 by George A. Richards, an automobile dealer and owner of radio stations in Detroit, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. He led a group that acquired the team for $7900 and immediately moved the franchise to Detroit.
Detroit was then a wasteland of startup NFL franchises having already gone through three (Detroit Heralds, Detroit Panthers, Detroit Wolverines) before the newly named Detroit Lions arrived in town.
The Lions had some good years, all of them before you were born. As things stand today, the Lions have not won an NFL championship in the past 52 years. That long-ago championship season also happens to be the last time Detroit won a playoff game, save for one win during the 1991 playoffs.
Although other football teams played football on Thanksgiving before the Lions did, the game Detroit played on that Thanksgiving of 1934 stuck in the public mind. With good reason — the 10-1 Detroit Lions went up against the undefeated, defending NFL champion Chicago Bears. NBC radio network carried the game coast-to-coast on 94 stations. Although the Lions lost 16 to 13, it was that game — and especially the sold out University of Detroit Stadium — that created the madness that has since infected two generations of American sportspersons.
In 1940, George Richards sold the franchise to Chicago department-store executive Fred Mandel for $225,000. Eight years later, Mandel sold the team to a group of Detroit area businessmen for $165,000. William Clay Ford became the Lions’ sole owner in 1964 for a lousy $4.5 million. And then everything went dark.
The 2009 Forbes NFL Franchise Valuations report pegs the Lions as worth $872 million. Incredibly, four teams are worth less than that. Of course, the Oakland Raiders are last, but I’d argue they’re more of a private sanitarium for Al Davis than a football team. The Chargers are 24th at $917 million.
Enjoy the game.