A Detroit Tigers-Red Wings-Lions Fan’s Rite of Passage in the Fall of 1954

With the onset of the football season comes the opportunity to recall another refreshing and blessed autumn, the magical season long ago — too long ago — when I began my love affair with the color and characters and ever-renewing drama of our local sports scene.

Every fan experiences a singular moment when he is wholly pulled into the circle and cycle of his local sporting world, and I have no problem with using the masculine example for the ‘EveryFan.’ While sports have properly opened to include girls in both the playing and appeal of athletics, there is surely something uniquely male in the early and overwhelming attraction sports may offer.

Perhaps there’s some ancient call to the shared experiences of hunting or warfare that live somewhere deep in the male psyche. My brother and I and the score of young boys who roamed our east side neighborhood in the postwar years were seemingly all obsessed with the fates of the Tigers, the Lions, the Red Wings as each of their seasons rolled back into our lives, and — though surely there are exceptions to the gender divide — it seems most of the guys remain enchanted to this day.

Best I could tell, my sisters and her friends — whatever the reasons — just never gave a damn. I’ve known women who were “interested” in local pro sports, particularly the appeal of the Red Wings, and other women — mostly younger — who have had the opportunity to play sports in their early years.

But I’ve never known a female who wanted to throw her bike off the garage roof, smashing it into the driveway, because the Yankees eliminated the Tigers in September of 1961, or would understand why a local draftee called to combat in Vietnam would carry Gordie Howe’s hockey card as a talisman that would guarantee safety while overseas. Those are guy things. No right or wrong, just the apparent stirrings of ancient sexual role fulfillment.

So now that the women are out of the way, let’s get to it: My rite of passage, my initiation into the fabulous world of Detroit sports, coalesced in the fall of 1954. It was a call owing to many influences — the voices of male relatives discussing Richard vs. Howe; the talk of an older kid on the corner challenging all comers to spell Lions fullback “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer’s last name; my Dad telling my older brother about this skinny young outfielder coming up with the Tigers who somehow owed all his hitting prowess to his thin wrists (his name was Kaline, the same Tiger who threw a guy out at second base from a seated position in right field in 1954 after falling while fielding a single on wet Briggs Stadium grass); it was the voices on radio, my Dad and I heard the Lions dramatic comeback to tie the NFL Championship 16-16 with a late TD in December of 1953, and a guy named Van Patrick had dramatically intoned that “Doak Walker is putting on his kicking shoe” to seal the title with the extra point … and we had heard the Red Wings win the 1954 Stanley Cup that spring in Game 7 overtime amid the wild explosion of noise from Olympia Stadium after little Tony Leswick lifted a long soft shot over the shoulder of the Montreal Canadiens goalie; it was faces and voices on our first TV, purchased by my family’s scrimping and saving just that summer, when it was revealed to me that the heroic sounding guy with the booming voice, Van Patrick — I had been sure he looked like Superman, he had to — was actually a fat guy with a balding head who brought us a Lions game all the way from Los Angeles that October and from the booth at halftime he introduced Bob Crosby of Bob Crosby and the Bobcats, whoever the hell they were; but most of all it was those CARDS … those gorgeous full-color 1954 Bowman NFL cards, especially that beautiful shot of little (everybody said he was the smallest guy in the league, though maybe the best) Doak Walker in his striking blue Lions uniform with the number 37 catching a bright white football on a field of gorgeous green … it was those football cards that brought me forever under the spell of Detroit sports … with the miracle-worker with the magic name, Bobby Layne, tossing an underhand lateral on the Briggs lawn … and big old Les Bingaman, all 350 pounds of him, honest! … “he’s some Big a’ Man” was the worn-out local joke … and the aforementioned Hunchy and speed demon Jack Christiansen and defensive tackle Fum McGraw … these guys were the champions of the WORLD … and I had ’em all in my pocket, and I kept spreading ’em all out across my desk at school until our nun threatened to take them away from me … it was those guys, and those cards, that pulled me fully and wholly and forever into a lifelong obsession with our local teams.

And would you believe, COULD you believe … that some dumbass kid from a nearby neighborhood came driving up to our corner on his bike one fall day, and he had a baseball card clipped onto the spokes of his bike to give it kind of a dopey engine sound … and we saw that the card was actually a new football card … and I looked and it was Bill Bowman the rookie of the LIONS! Bent up on that kid’s bike tire! I carefully removed the card — I didn’t have Bill Bowman yet, rookie from William and Mary, whoever they were — and gave him another card to replace it, like a Pete Pihos card from the Eagles maybe, or an Andy Robustelli — and after a verbal tirade we sent him on his way. What a dope! The guy had to be nuts.

Because those cards, that time … all of it was holy. The autumn my fandom was born, was fully realized. I will remember it, and remember them … each of those players, looking out from every Bowman card … til the end of my life. They landed on me as nothing ever has. Yeah, Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay and all the Red Wings came out on Topps that very same fall … and those cards were beauts … and the Al Kaline card on Topps I got the following spring is still magic to me, horizontal with two pictures, an all-time classic … but it was the Lions of 1954 that pulled this seven-year old kid eternally into the local sports fold.

I’m still there, in the embrace of that phenomenon. After years of triumphs and defeats, eventually some more Stanley Cups, even some World Series titles for the long-futile Tigers of my youth. But not with the Lions, alas; I’ve slipped that attachment. Because a guy named Ford came along and hijacked the team in 1964. And I don’t want to encourage them while he’s still in charge. But that’s a whole other story. A story for another time. ‘Cause autumn is here, and nothing can dim the recall of the magic that was Detroit in 1954 … I felt it down to my soul … and I’ve still got the folded up Bill Bowman card to prove it.