Column: Detroit Fans Might Party Like It’s 1935

Lions and Tigers shock fans – at least for now – by winning
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Once in a while something happens that is so unusual, even those who don’t normally pay attention have to stop and take notice.

Halley’s Comet, for example, only comes along once every 75 years. Man has landed on the moon just six times in the entire history of the universe. And Lindsay Lohan goes to jail – no, wait, that happens almost every week.

Well, this week, Detroit sports fans got Halley’s Comet, a moon landing, and a clean and sober Lindsay Lohan all wrapped up into one: The Tigers clinched the American League Central Division, and even more shockingly, the Lions won their first three games.

That’s right: It’s September 30, and both the Tigers and the Lions are in first place. Go find a newspaper – if your town still has one – pull out the standings, and get them laminated. This might not happen again in our lifetimes.

That’s no exaggeration. By 1934, Detroit’s three big league teams – the Lions, the Tigers and the Red Wings – had never won a championship in their combined 45 attempts. But that year, the red-hot Tigers won 101 games, and faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

When the Cardinals’ star pitcher, Dizzy Dean, heard the Tigers manager say, “We think we can win,” he replied, “If they thinkin’, they already licked.” Apparently so. Dizzy Dean’s team won in seven games.

The next year, 1935, marked the nadir of the Depression, with the world slipping toward war. The Motor City needed a distraction, and the Tigers provided a great one when they won their first World Series. A couple months later, the Lions won their first NFL title. And just four months after that, the Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup. They called Detroit – hang on to your hats here – the City of Champions.

No city has pulled the trifecta since – and Detroit hasn’t come close. In the ’70s, no Detroit team won a single title, a glorious 0-for-40 stretch. No more “City of Champions.” People started calling the Lions the Lie-downs, the Red Wings the Dead Things, and the Tigers – well, everyone pretty much agreed just calling them the Tigers was bad enough. Hard times were these.

The Tigers were even worse in the nineties, but topped it in 2003 by losing 119 games, an American League record. But manager Jim Leyland, an old salty dog with a gray mustache yellowed from years of chain-smoking, led them back to the World Series in 2006, and he could do it again this year.

The Tigers’ resurgence is surprising. The Lions return to respectability is positively shocking. The Lions are one of only two NFL teams who have failed to make it to every Super Bowl, and the only team in NFL history to lose all 16 games – a perfect mark that no one, by definition, can ever break.

What makes this story better are the long-suffering fans that have stuck with their teams during those down… decades – and the dynasties who own them.

The Ford family owns the Lions, and a large part of a certain car company. The Ilitches founded Little Caesar’s Pizza, and now own the Tigers and the Red Wings, too. Both families have invested heavily in the city, they have never threatened to move their teams to Nashville, and they desperately want their teams to win – though their teams haven’t always cooperated.

But this might be the year. Okay, the Pistons are almost as non-existent now as they were in 1935, but the Red Wings are as good as always, the Tigers have a real chance with the American League’s top pitcher, and the Lions – well, the Lions are undefeated. I can’t recall saying that in October – and tomorrow, you can.

No, these teams don’t solve Detroit’s problems. But they make people feel better, and they bring us together.

And if it all goes right, then maybe – just maybe – Detroit fans will party like it’s 1935.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the upcoming “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football,” due out Oct. 25. You can pre-order the book from Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor or on

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  1. September 30, 2011 at 8:57 pm | permalink

    I’d be content to party like it’s 1984, when the Tigers won the World Series.

  2. October 1, 2011 at 11:50 pm | permalink

    “The Lions are … the only team in NFL history to lose all 16 games – a perfect mark that no one, by definition, can ever break.”

    Well, technically no one can “beat” that mark, but it can be surpassed the same way the 2008 Lions surpassed the 1976 Buccaneers (0-14), and the Buccaneers surpassed the 1942 Lions (0-11).