There’s nothing like Monday night football in downtown Detroit.
The parties. The tailgating. The excitement.
Whether at Ford Field, the Pontiac Silverdome, or Tiger Stadium, the Lions have a long history of hosting evening pigskin.
It did not all begin, however, with the long-running Monday Night Football that debuted in 1970. For years before that, the NFL played occasional Monday night games, several of them in the Motor City.
You may even be surprised to know that the Lions were the first National Football League team ever to play on Monday night.
It was October 21, 1934. The Lions were in their first year in Detroit since moving from Portsmouth, Ohio. They had played five games so far that season, and had yet to lose. In fact, they had yet to give up any points, having outscored the opposition 52-0.
The Lions originally were scheduled to welcome the Brooklyn football Dodgers the day before. But inclement weather made conditions miserable, and Lions’ owner W.J. Richards decided to postpone the contest until Monday. Rather than play during the afternoon, when everybody would be at work, Richards opted for an 8:15 PM start time. In those days, the team played at old University of Detroit Stadium, which supposedly boasted one of the better lighting systems in all of sports. Detroit won, 28-0, in front of roughly 11,000 folks, which was a typical Lions home draw for that season.
The Lions went on to win their first ten games, including the first seven by shutout. But it all proved for naught as they lost their final three, finishing in second place in the NFL’s Western Division, behind undefeated Chicago. There would be no postseason football in Detroit that first year.
On Sunday, September 27, 1936, a steady downpour put a damper on the home opener for the Lions (who by this time were reigning NFL champions). Once again, the team rescheduled it for the following night at U of D Stadium. A boisterous crowd of 15,000 watched their team trounce the Chicago Cardinals, 39-0.
Detroiter had to wait another 13 years for a Monday night football affair. This time, however, it was no makeup game, but a regularly scheduled 8:30 tilt. The site was venerable Briggs Stadium at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. In town were the world champion Philadelphia Eagles. Typical of night games of this era, the NFL used a special white football with red markings, which was easier for players and fans to follow. With the Lions leading 14-5 at halftime, the 25,012 spectators were entertained by some 500 high school musicians, including the 117-piece Elkhart, Indiana high school marching band. The Eagles sliced up the Lions defense in the second half, however, to win by a 22-14 final.
The Lions’ next Monday night home game came as the result of a scheduling quirk in 1951. The entire episode highlights the NFL’s second-tier status at the time, compared to baseball. The New York Yankees baseball team and the NFL’s New York Yanks both played their home games at Yankee Stadium. Due to the World Series between the Yankees and the New York Giants that year, the football Yanks were forced to find another place to play their regularly scheduled game of Monday, October 8 against the Lions. The Lions offered to move the game to Briggs Stadium that night. It would officially be a road game for Detroit, even though they were playing at home. The Lions whipped the Yanks, 37-10, before 25,554 paying customers, to go 2-0 on the young NFL season. Quarterback Bobby Layne threw three touchdown passes. The football Yanks were now winless. The baseball Yanks, meanwhile, beat the baseball Giants at the Polo Grounds, on a home run by Joe DiMaggio, to even the World Series at two games each (are you all confused yet?)
Fast forward to September 28, 1964, for the Lions’ next Monday night home game. Once again, it was the season opener. This time, it was against the Green Bay Packers and their quarterback Bart Starr, along with a running game of Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. The crowd of nearly 60,000 was the largest ever to see a football game at Briggs Stadium to that point. They went home disappointed as the Pack won 14-10. While the game was not televised locally, fans could catch it on “theater television,” in select locations throughout Detroit. The Palms Theater reported 2,200 fans in attendance, while the Royal and the Woods drew nearly 3,500 combined.
So remember, before there was ever Monday Night Football, there was just Monday night football.