The Detroit Lions’ First Thanksgiving Day Game at Briggs Stadium

This photo from 1938 shows the Lions (with the football) playing the Cleveland Rams in a game at Titan Stadium on the campus of the University of Detroit on November 6.

The Detroit Lions had outgrown their digs at the University of Detroit’s Titan Stadium. In 1938, their fifth season since moving from Portsmouth, Ohio, where they were called the Spartans, the Lions booked several appearances at Walter Briggs’ newly expanded home of baseball’s Tigers, Briggs Stadium. Briggs had added an upper deck all the way around what had been called Navin Field. The Lions would stay at Titan Stadium through the end of the baseball season, then move in at Michigan and Trumbull.

One thing the Lions took with them to their new field was their tradition of playing the Bears on Thanksgiving Day. It began in 1934 with a memorable showdown between the 10-1 Lions and undefeated Bears that Lions owner George Richards persuaded NBC to carry on national radio. The Bears won a thriller, 19-16, but Detroit had secured a perennial role as Thanksgiving host.

Heading into their Thanksgiving Day debut at Briggs Stadium on November 24, 1938, coach Dutch Clark’s Lions were still reeling from a 28-7 loss before a packed house at home to Curly Lambeau’s Green Bay Packers. That win gave the Packers command of the Western Division, but a win over the Bears would keep the Lions alive.

Whether it was the Lions’ sinking fortunes or the novelty of the holiday home game, Briggs Stadium was only half full for kickoff on a frigid Thanksgiving morning, but the Free Press stayed upbeat about the atmosphere.

“Fur coats were brown, black, or gray (and bundled well over the ears), noses were bright pink and voices definitely hoarse for the annual Thanksgiving classic at Briggs Stadium Thursday morning,” the Free Press wrote. “The game has become practically as much a matter of course as the turkey dinner that follows. In most cases the two important occasions tied up nicely together, whole families cheering on Dutch Clark’s men at then going on to the holiday reunions.”

The Free Press dutifully noted which families from the city’s upper crust were in the stands. It spotted auto body titan Charles T. Fisher and his wife, who was dressed “in a deep mink coat, with a brimmed hat of raspberry suade.” They sat next to Briggs and his family and would enjoy dinner afterwards at the Briggs house.

The fans were treated to a close game, though the Free Press suggested it wasn’t as competitive as the score suggested.

The Free Press praised the Lions’ “superior and more aggressive blocking, and tackling that was more certain.”

The Lions notched the only score of the first half on a 64-yard drive led by quarterback Vern Huffman. “Huffman’s piloting of the team was his best of the season,” the Free Press reported.

The Lions were without injured Ernie Caddel, their captain who had led them to the 1935 NFL championship, so Huffman ran it in himself from the one yard line to put the Lions up 7-0.

The Lions held the Bears scoreless the first half, but Chicago tied it in the third quarter on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Masterson to Bill Karr.

With the game tied in the fourth quarter and the Lions on their own 20, Huffman marched them down the field to the Bears’ 23-yard line. Huffman then dropped back and found receiver Chuck Hanneman, who ran it in for the touchdown. The Lions won 14-7.

“One of the most impressive things about the Lion triumph was the way the squad took hold of itself and hammered home its second touchdown,” lauded reporter Tod Rockwell in the Free Press. These Lions, he added, “didn’t appear to the same team which appeared so badly against the Packers here two weeks ago.”

The win kept the Lions’ slim postseason hopes alive: they could beat the Eagles at home in their regular season finale to force a one-game playoff with the Packers, to decide the Western Division crown and the right to play the Eastern Division winner in the NFL championship game. Instead, the Lions went on to lose to the Eagles, sending the Packers to the NFL championship game, where they lost to the New York Giants.

After the Lions played on Thanksgiving Day in 1938, Detroit fans enjoyed football leftovers on Saturday, with the inaugural high school Goodfellow Game at Briggs Stadium. Matching the champion of the City League versus the champion of the Parochial League, the debut game featured Catholic Central defeating Hamtramck 19-13 in front of 30,000 fans.

The NFL would take a hiatus from Thanksgiving games until after World War II, but when it resumed, the Lions’ continued to play holiday host, and have ever since. The Goodfellow Game (named for the charity) also became a holiday mainstay, and that tradition continues this week as well, with the MHSAA championship games on Thanksgiving weekend at Ford Field.