The first black player to play for the Detroit Lions

Bob Mann

Bob Mann scores a touchdown for the Detroit Lions in a game at Briggs Stadium in the late 1940s.

A new era dawned for the Detroit Lions on April 20, 1948. After 14 seasons in Detroit, the team finally signed a black player.

They did not have to look far in their search. Bob Mann, a 24-year-old native of New Bern, North Carolina, had starred as a senior on the Michigan Wolverines’ undefeated national champion team of 1947. Under coach Fritz Crisler, the squad had gone 10-0 in the Big Nine (With the departure of the University of Chicago, and before the arrival of Michigan State, there were a couple of years in which the conference only had nine teams.).

Mann was a potent offensive threat for the Wolverines. Playing left end, he caught 12 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns. He had impressive agility as a receiver, and was featured heavily in Crisler’s favorite end-around play. Fifteen times in 1947, Mann was the featured carrier on the trademark play, gaining 129 yards.

Mann originally began his college career at Hampton Institute, a black university in Hampton, Virginia, a school that later produced Rick Mahorn of Pistons’ Bad Boys fame. He wanted to pursue a medical career, like his father. At Hampton, however, he began playing football, and it became clear from the start that he had the potential to go pro. At his father’s urging, Mann transferred to Michigan in 1944, in order to get more exposure (and the school had an excellent medical program).

Back then, there were not many minorities on the Ann Arbor campus, and Mann was one of only two blacks on the Wolverines football team when he joined up.

In the 1948 Rose Bowl, Michigan trounced USC by a score of 49-0. While it may have been a yawner if you were not a U of M fan, it is noteworthy that the game, as well as that day’s Rose Bowl Parade, was the subject of the first newsreel shot in color.

Mann’s time at Michigan included one year off for military service. After his senior year, he was voted to the Associated Press All-Big Nine team, and a second-team AP All-American. The pre-med student graduated in February 1948, and was sought after by several National Football League teams. He signed with the Lions for a reported $7,500, along with a $2,500 bonus. Mann intended to continue his medical studies even though he was now a pro football player.

Just an inch short of six feet tall, he was the lightest end in the NFL at only 167 pounds. He got into his first game as a Lion on Friday, August 26, 1948, in Muskegon, Michigan. It was the final intra-squad game before the start of the regular season. Suiting up for the Grays against the Blues, Mann scored a pair of TDs, and intercepted a Blues pass to set up a third, in a 21-0 Grays win. The 6,842 fans in attendance likely agreed that Mann could be an important cog for new head coach Bo McMillin. Soon, the Detroit Free Press was referring to Mann as “the slippery little flanker,” “the fleet-footed end from Michigan,” or “the Michigan speed merchant.”

The Lions would need all the help they could get. They finished 3-9 the previous year, and had not made the playoffs since winning the NFL championship in 1935. Interestingly, 1948 was also the year of a blip on the Lions’ sartorial radar. McMillin, who had coached the Indiana Hoosiers for years, decided that the Lions should dump their traditional Honolulu Blue and Silver uniforms in favor of a more Indiana-like maroon and black. It was an experiment that lasted only one season, fortunately.

The team did not perform any better, however, despite the new color scheme. Mann’s first regular season game in the NFL was at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, a 44-7 Lions loss to the Rams. Before 22,609 fans at Briggs Stadium on October 9, Mann played his first home game in Detroit. The Lions dropped their third loss in a row, 17-14, to the Boston Yanks. Off the gridiron, Mann’s face became prominent among Detroit’s black community as a spokesman for the local Goebel Brewing Company.

Indeed, it was a rough season. Detroit went 2-10, their only victories coming against the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, both at home. As for Mann, he played in every game, but started in none. He was second on the team in receptions with 33, as well as in yards with 560.

One incident in the 1949 exhibition season did not sit well with Mann. The Lions were scheduled to play in New Orleans, a city that forbid blacks from playing on the same field as whites. Coach McMillin explained the situation to Mann and the Lions’ two other black players (Mel Groomes and Wally Triplett). Mann was hoping that McMillan would be strong enough to take a stand and demand the three be able to play in the game. McMillan, however, did not want to be thrust into the role of trailblazer, and told the players such. While they could not stay at the team hotel in New Orleans, and could not play in the game, he would allow them to sit on the bench. Mann took it as an insult, and never forgot it.

He followed 1948 with his best season ever, leading the NFL in yards receiving with 1,014 in 1949 for the Lions, and receiving yards per game with 84.5 (The team again finished out of the playoff running.). That, however, was his last season with Detroit.

Mann’s departure from Detroit was not without controversy. Balking at the team’s request that he take a pay cut of $1,500, Mann fell into disfavor with management. When camp opened in July, Mann failed to show up for the first day of practice. The Lions considered him an official holdout, and finally dealt him to the New York Yanks of the NFL (That team had just changed its name from the Bulldogs, and would relocate from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium for the 1950 season.).

The player the Lions acquired for Mann was none other than Bobby Layne, who went on to become perhaps Detroit’s greatest quarterback ever.

And what happened to Mann? His new coach in New York, Red Strader, was upset about losing Layne. Out of pique, Strader gave Mann precious little playing time, and was even accused of ordering the team’s quarterback not to throw to Mann.

The story gets worse from there. The Yanks eventually released Mann, and for a couple of months he was unable to find work in the NFL. He felt the league was still angry with him for having the hutzpah to refuse the Lions’ pay cut. In his heart, he believed he was being blackballed, and the color of his skin probably played a part as well.

Mann did make it back to the NLF, becoming the first black player to suit up for the Green Bay Packers. He played five seasons for the green and gold. While the team never made the playoffs in that time, he had some solid years, including leading the team in receptions (50) and yards (696) in 1951.

His playing days over, Mann made his way back to Motown, graduating from the Detroit College of Law in 1970. A noted defense lawyer, he set up shop under the name Robert Mann and Associates, the offices of which were just a stone’s throw from Ford Field. He died in 2006 at age 82.

A member of the Packers Hall of Fame, Mann was just recently inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.