Free Press Flashback: Before the Lions, Super Bowl existed, Detroit hosted big game of its own in 1933

Detroit Free Press
Richard Bak |  Special to the Free Press

If the NFL and Madison Avenue are to be believed, today’s Super Bowl LVI between Los Angeles and Cincinnati will once again be “The Game of the Year.”

Certainly, no other American sporting event attracts more eyeballs or generates as much revenue. But between trumpet blasts on this most super of Sundays, let’s call a timeout on the hype and turn the game clock back to 1933 — back before the Super Bowl, television or even the Detroit Lions existed — to a long-forgotten moment when Detroit hosted its own ballyhooed game of the year.

In that throwback season, the NFL was still a regional league struggling for acceptance. Membership was open to just about any organized team in the East or Midwest that could demonstrate a certain level of financing, competitiveness and fan enthusiasm. The problem was that most semipro clubs of the era fielded players, both local and imported, who loved the game but fell short on talent.

Today, the notion of such a team “auditioning” for a spot in the NFL is ludicrous. Yet on a Wednesday night in the middle of the Great Depression, an overmatched squad of scrappy semipros known as the Detroit Indians squared off against the powerful Chicago Bears, defending NFL champions. At stake was the Indians’ membership in the country’s top pro circuit.

“If the caliber of the Indians’ play and the attendance warrant it,” stated the Free Press, “the Indians will be offered a franchise in the league for next season.”

What transpired is one of the most intriguing sporting events in Detroit’s history.

The date was Nov. 1, 1933. The site was Dinan Field, torn down in 1971 and today a tract of synthetic turf at the University of Detroit-Mercy. The game, broadcast on WJBK-AM radio, attracted some 10,000 fans, among the largest football crowds yet assembled in Detroit. NFL commissioner Joe Carr was present, ready to pass judgment on the Indians’ application.

Both teams were undefeated through six games. George Halas’ roster was loaded with future Hall of Famers, including such famous names as halfback Red Grange and fullback Bronko Nagurski. Guard George Musso was the largest player in pro football, weighing 262 pounds. End Bill (Stinky) Hewitt, a Bay City native who had played at Michigan, was noted for using his freakishly long arms to block kicks. Musso and Hewitt played without helmets, making them even more intimidating.

Newspapers rated the Indians as among the strongest independent teams in the country, though they likely were less influenced by the string of victories than by the promotional boasts of their gregarious 28-year-old right tackle and head coach, Don Ridler.

Ridler, a Detroit prep star who captained Michigan State’s 1931 squad, was a creative promoter who would go on to become the longtime athletic director at Lawrence Tech and one of Detroit’s leading sports figures. His flair for publicity was such that, upon his death in 1963, the Detroit Autorama — just one of the many organizations or events for which he later shilled — named an award after him.

According to the Free Press, the Indians team Ridler helped assemble consisted of “former college stars and the pick of Detroit’s sandlot.” Their home field was city-owned Chandler Park, south of City Airport. They were sponsored by a local American Legion post.

Unlike their pro counterparts, who typically were paid between $50 and $100 a game, the Indians depended on a share of ticket sales for their football wages. Most held regular jobs. They practiced after work and played at night and on weekends. Felix Fabro, for instance, drove a laundry truck when he wasn’t lined up at right end.

Cash-strapped NFL clubs routinely filled in their calendar with exhibitions. It didn’t matter whether the opponent was the Grand Rapids Polish Athletic Club. At a time when the average laborer made $20 a week, a buck was a buck. So when Halas was approached with the right numbers to play the Indians, “Papa Bear” readily said yes.

Newspaper ads, radio spots and news releases touted the upcoming match as “The Game of the Year,” which it may have been, but only in Detroit. The country’s fourth most populous city had been home to a succession of NFL flops during the 1920s, but because of its market size it remained ripe territory for a pro franchise. Some asked, “Why not the Indians?” They would soon find out.

Kickoff was at 8:15 p.m. A white painted ball was used to assist visibility on the floodlit gridiron. The Bears took the opening boot and moved smartly down the field, Nagurski scoring the first touchdown of the evening on a 5-yard run. Later in the first quarter, Grange ripped through the Detroit line for a 23-yard touchdown. A Bears scoring pass in the second quarter made it 19-0 at the half.

Because of limited substitution rules, regulars played both offense and defense, with some never leaving the field. This was smashmouth football, with the Monsters of the Midway outweighing the Detroiters by an average 25 pounds per man. The Indians were gradually worn down, though they threatened to score on three separate second-half drives, once reaching the Bears’ 1-foot line. But with their main threats, backs Harry Koss and Red Shepherd, continually bottled up, they couldn’t dent the end zone.

In the third quarter, Nagurski picked off a pass and ran 90 yards for a touchdown. Then Hewitt returned a blocked punt for another six points. The fourth quarter was scoreless, as the Bears eased their paws off the pedal. The final score was Chicago 32, Detroit 0, but most observers agreed it could have been worse. The Windsor Star declared the game “a one-ring circus.”

The battered Indians could barely get out of bed the following morning. One player spent a week in the hospital with a concussion. Four others quit the team. Several injured regulars were unable to suit up for their next game, a 6-0 upset loss to the South Bend Shamrocks, and the casualty list caused another contest to be canceled. Oddly, the rout also appeared to take something out of the Bears, who went winless in their next three league games before rebounding to win their second straight championship.

The Indians had a chance to redeem themselves. In late November, they traveled west to play the St. Louis Gunners, another independent club angling for the pros. The Gunners shelled Ridler’s “heavily advertised” squad, 41-0, and were admitted into the NFL the following season.

The Indians failed to field a team in 1934, but things worked out in Detroit after all. That fall, fans welcomed the city’s newest NFL franchise. Radio magnate George Richards had purchased the Spartans of Portsmouth, Ohio, and renamed them the Detroit Lions. The Lions would play their first several seasons at Dinan Field, winning the 1935 championship on the same ground where the Detroit Indians, full of hype and hope, had so spectacularly flunked their NFL audition.

Richard Bak is the author of “When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties.”

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