Pro football struggled in Detroit during the Roaring 20s (Part II)

A future Hall of Famer, Bennie Friedman was an early football star in Detroit.

This is part 2 of Richard Bak’s series on professional football in Detroit in the 1920s. Read Part 1 here.

After the collapse of the Heralds/Tigers, Detroit had to wait another four years, until 1925, before the National Football League returned to the city.

The Panthers were owned, coached, and quarterbacked by Jimmy Conzelman of St. Louis. The energetic Conzelman, one of pro football’s true pioneers, paid all of $50 to the NFL as a franchise fee and arranged to lease Navin Field for $1,000 a game. That was a healthy rent in 1925, and Conzelman immediately looked for ways to induce locals to come down to The Corner. He managed to interest Notre Dame’s famous “Four Horsemen” backfield in playing the 1925 season in Detroit.

As part of their contract, they agreed to perform skits and a clog dance on stage while their coach played the piano. Unfortunately for Conzelman, the proposed vaudeville act fell apart when one of the Horsemen, his nostrils evidently flaring at the smell of greasepaint, decided to take a job with the recreation department in Davenport, Iowa.

On another occasion, Conzelman vigorously promoted an upcoming game featuring Red Grange and the Chicago Bears. People turned out in droves to buy tickets to see the famous “Galloping Ghost.” But Grange suffered a leg injury and pulled out of the game. “A few hours before the game was to start,” Conzelman said, “I looked out the window and saw a long line at the box office. I remember thinking to myself, ‘What a great sports town. Grange isn’t going to play, but they’re still lining up to buy tickets.’ Then I got the news from the ticket man. They were lining up to get refunds.”

Famous names like Jim Thorpe, George Halas, and Curly Lambeau visited Navin Field during the Panthers’ two autumns at Navin Field. The Panthers’ lineup was heavy with local sandlotters and ex-collegiate stars, including the irrepressible tackle and placekicker, Gus Sonnenberg.

Sonnenberg, a stumpy, barrel-chested farm boy from Ewen, Michigan, had starred at the University of Detroit. He loved to show off by tipping over cars and yanking signposts out of cement. Like Robeson, a greater destiny awaited Sonnenberg after he left Navin Field’s gridiron. He would soon become the country’s best-known wrestler, a fixture at Olympia Arena and other venues, pulling down an estimated $1 million in ring earnings before his premature death of leukemia. The colorful Sonnenberg was dubbed “The Flying Dutchman” for a favorite football tactic that he transferred to the ring. He would leap at an opponent, wrap his arms around the fellow’s legs, then slam him to the mat.

The Panthers finished a respectable 8-2-2 in 1925. The following season they compiled a 4-6-2 record, averaging just 1,500 fans for nine home dates. Conzelman sold the franchise back to the league. “We were simply ahead of our time in Detroit,” he later reflected. “The town wasn’t quite ready for pro football.”

Two years later, in 1928, a syndicate of 20 local investors pooled $10,000 to back the third and final stab at establishing the NFL in the Motor City during the 1920s. The syndicate bought the Cleveland Bulldogs and moved them lock, stock, and jockstrap to Detroit. Coached by Roy Andrews and dubbed the Wolverines, the franchise owed its nickname, as well as its quarterback, to the University of Michigan.

Two-time All-American tailback Bennie Friedman, two years removed from U-M’s gridiron, had popularized the forward pass, regularly drawing gasps from the crowd for daring to throw the then balloon-shaped ball on first down. Sobered by Conzelman’s experience with trying to fill Navin Field, the Wolverines scheduled most of their games at the University of Detroit’s Dinan Field.

With Friedman, a future Hall-of-Famer, leading the circuit in scoring, passing yardage, and probably rushing (statistics are incomplete), the Wolverines lost only to the first- and second-place teams, finishing third with a 7-2-2 record. On Saturday, November 3, they were beaten by the Frankford Yellow Jackets, then took an overnight train from Philadelphia to Rhode Island, where they dropped a 7-0 verdict to the Providence Steamrollers on Sunday. At season’s end the Wolverines were sold to Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants, who bought the entire team just to acquire the rights to Friedman. Each Detroit investor got back $350 of his original $500 investment.

The Wolverines did manage to set a still-standing record during their brief existence. Their .778 lifetime winning percentage is the highest of any franchise in NFL history. However, it would be another six years before local radio magnate George A. Richards brought pro football to stay in Detroit.

4 replies on “Pro football struggled in Detroit during the Roaring 20s (Part II)

  • DougH

    I have a picture of my grandfather from 1927 wearing a Bauman’s Menswear jersey. It’s a team photo. I recall that he told me it was a semi-pro football team in Detroit. Any record of that team? Thanks!

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  • Joannie

    My Grandfather was Bert “Birdie” Maher and played on the Detroit Herald in 1920. He was friends with Jim Thorpe. I am in search of any new info and/or pictures of the team.

  • Elijah Summers

    I am looking for the name of the photographer who took the photo of Bennie Friedman with his arm back to throw a pass. I need it for a school history project. Thanks.

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