Three Times a Charm

Detroit teams won professional titles in baseball, football, and hockey during the 1935-36 sports season. The label “City of Champions” stuck — along with the notion that pro sports teams are a vital part of local commerce.

Tiger left fielder Goose Goslin wanted nothing more than to get back to the Book-Cadillac Hotel, have a cup of coffee, and relax. But passing through downtown Detroit that evening was impossible — Woodward Avenue could only have been crossed by walking over cars mired in the traffic jam. A blizzard of tickertape drifted down from the city’s financial district’s towers on Griswold Street. Car horns blared so long and loud that people couldn’t sleep until 3 a.m.

Goslin’s game-winning hit had delivered more than the first World Series championship for the Detroit Tigers. It singularly represented a growth spurt for the city. The team’s general manager, Frank Navin, announced that Tiger Stadium (then known as Navin Field) would undergo a $500,000 expansion, adding 12,000 seats before the 1936 season. Already, the Tigers had led the Major League in attendance, with 1,034,929 tickets sold. Despite the Great Depression, even more growth could — and would — be achieved.

Presiding at the next day’s victory banquet, master of ceremonies Harvey Campbell declared, “We’ll be as unbeatable in the business and financial world as the Tigers are on the field of battle,” according to author Charles C. Avison in Detroit: City of Champions, his history of that triumphant year. Avison emphasized how the Tigers’ traditional excellence and their first championship opened a large umbrella over other franchises. And without the baseball team’s early success, the Lions and Red Wings might never have solidified themselves.

The hockey team, in particular, was a craftily marketed commercial project. Arguing that pro clubs helped any city’s identity, sports writer and Detroit Athletic Club co-founder Charlie Hughes led an investment syndicate in paying the $100,000 franchise fee in 1926. After the Detroit Cougars, as they were then known, lost $84,000 that first season, Hughes hired Jack Adams as coach and general manager (Adams remained the GM until 1962). Hughes also opened Olympia Stadium, designed by architect C. Howard Crane, on Nov. 22, 1927, welcoming a throng of 14,000.

Later, James “Pops” Norris Sr. acquired the team and stadium for $100,000. In 1932, he coined the name “Red Wings” and created the now-iconic wheel-and-wing logo. Stalwart players such as Ebbie Goodfellow were ultimately joined by the likes of center Syd Howe and defenseman Bucko “The Socko” McDonald. In the first playoff series of the 1935-1936 season, these men endured an epic, nine-period game with the Montreal Maroons. Between periods, players received fortification from coffee laced with brandy and sugar. “Mud” Bruneteau’s goal after the 176-minute mark won it for the Wings, 1-0.

At the Stanley Cup victory banquet, Pops Norris reaffirmed his commitment to Detroit. Yet the original $100,000 franchise fee still seems astronomical for an unproven sport, especially when considering the Lions were purchased in 1934 for $15,000.

Radio station WJR diligently marketed the football squad that first year, choosing the big-cat nickname as a way of associating with the Tigers.

Having 26,000 fans turn out at University of Detroit stadium for the first Thanksgiving Day game — a loss to the undefeated Chicago Bears — suggested the proposition’s success. The Lions dumped the New York Giants by 26-7 in the 1935 title game, claiming the Ed Thorpe Memorial trophy. Their testimonial dinner at the Detroit Athletic Club “represented an official introduction to the citizens and society of Detroit,” Avison wrote.

With today’s Tigers striving for a fifth World Series title, the Red Wings as perennial contenders, and Ndamukong Suh joining an improving Lions team, hope swells yet again, along with the realization that the teams are vital to the city.