Cars, Bars, Booze and the Legend of Bobby Layne

How good was Bobby Layne?   Consider three facts:
1.  As starting quarterback of the Lions from 1950-58, he led the team to three NFL championships (Super Bowl victories before there were Super Bowls) in four league championship games — those four appearances coming within six years of play, 1952, ’53, ’54, ’57.
2.  Layne played eight full seasons for the Lions, 1950 through 1957; in those eight years the team either played in a championship final or had the division championship decided by their final game of the regular season SIX times.  (They fell short of being champions by last-game losses in 1951 and 1956.)
3.  He used to park his car on the sidewalks of Detroit.
It’s that last fact that I wish to address here, ’cause that’s maybe the key indicator of Layne’s stature in Detroit.  Having recently disposed of the absurdity of the bogus “Curse of Bobby Layne” at this locale recently, I found myself sharing stories about #22 with some friends who weren’t around town in the 1950s.  There was no doubt about it, Bobby was the King of Detroit in those days. 
The Lions were not only good back then, but they played a colorful and dramatic brand of football that seems almost like fiction when recalled today.  Led ferociously — and completely — by Layne, the Lions exhibited a style of comeback football that was directly tied to Bobby’s penchant for erratically cruising through two or three quarters before deciding to go to work and pulling games out in the fourth.  He often seemed to will the Lions to victory by the force of his charismatic personality.  He wasn’t above screaming at Lions players who had displeased him, wagging his finger under their noses in front of 50,000 astonished fans.  A hotshot halfback once gave Layne some lip about his player criticisms in a huddle at the Lions summer camp; Layne grabbed the guy by his facemask, dragged him across the field, and with a heave deposited him at the feet of Buddy Parker, telling the head coach “Keep that blankety-blank out of my huddle!”
In the early ’50s there was a huge billboard across Michigan Avenue, facing Briggs Stadium, and when I was a kid it blew me away every time I was downtown.  The double-sized board had the huge figure of Bobby Layne, in his blue Lions #22, with a football in his hand.  The ball moved back and forth, back and forth, behind Bobby’s helmet, as if he were passing a pigskin the size of a ’52 DeSoto.  The sight of it was awfully impressive.
Impressive also was the sight of Layne’s car deposited on a sidewalk outside of a Detroit bar.  And that would mean just about any Detroit bar.  When Bobby was out on the town, which was often, he had little care for such niceties as parking, which tended to cut down on his happy hour time.  A common result of such flagrant lawbreaking was the entrance of Detroit cops who — upon learning the car was Bobby’s — were treated to game tickets, autographs, and stories they could tell their buddies about encountering the legendary Layne. 
Joe Schmidt tells a story of bar-hopping with Bobby as a young Lion one night in the ’50s, when Bobby pulled up to the front door of one local establishment.  And I mean he pulled UP to the front door.  When the cops filed in, demanding to know who had parked on the walkway, Joe feared the worst.  His fears were eventually banished when he found himself back in Bobby’s car as it sped up Grand River Avenue, following a police escort, with lights and sirens blazing, running red lights on their way to the next saloon.
Bobby got arrested once in Detroit.  Once.  And it was the biggest news in town when it happened in August of 1957.  Yes, the charge was erratic driving.  The idea that some officer had actually busted Bobby was as newsworthy as the charges themselves.  With a celebrity of the athletic status of Layne, just as with Bob Probert decades later, it’s a good bet that if a star jock is booked once for an alleged crime, he has been let go with a warning — and an autograph and game ticket promises — about a hundred other times.  When Bobby went to trial on his charges — the officer testified that from his voice and behavior the Lions quarterback likely had been drinking — he threw himself on the mercy of the court by explaining that what some thought was a drunken slur was actually the way people from Texas, like ol’ Bobby, spoke the language.  NOT GUILTY!   News of Layne’s acquital quickly spread across town, and the Lions celebrated it with a wild drinking party at a tavern that hung a sign saying “Ah ain’t drunk … Ah’m from Texas!”  
So how good was Layne?  That good; bigger than life, bigger than the law.  Complain about special treatment if you want; demand more vigilant enforcement of drinking and driving laws if you will.  If somebody comes along in Detroit who steers our Lions to their next three NFL championships … keep the kids and old women off the streets.  And you will lose any doubts you may have ever entertained … about this being a fanatic football town.

5 replies on “Cars, Bars, Booze and the Legend of Bobby Layne

  • Keith

    Seemed to me a very good leader. The type of player that other players play a little bit better with. Before my time, as I was born in 1955 and didn’t start playing football until the middle 60’s. He seemed rough around the edges, but always with that will to win.

  • Tom Dorsey

    In 1954 Jim Doran was trying to decide whether to quit Football or stay home and farm, he was going to make about $5000 either way. The coach had been calling Jim to come back for another year. The day before the first practice Jim drove from his home in Paton, IA to Detroit and arrived in time for practice. Jim says Layne showed up about three hours late. Bobby came into the locker room and through nearly $4000 on the table (he had been playing poker all night) and said boys I think there is enough money here to drink and f**k our way to another Championship.

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