Remembering the Football Greats and Gridiron History at the Tiger Stadium Site

Program from the first game played at Briggs Stadium in 1938.

Legendary Lion Hall of Famer Dutch Clark graces the program for the first Detroit Lions game at Briggs Stadium, October 16, 1938.

When discussing the history of Tiger Stadium and the memories that surround the sacred ground at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, far too often the football history that occurred there is often overlooked.

You will hear a lot more about Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Al Kaline playing there, than you ever will Dutch Clark, Johnny Unitas, Jimmy Brown, Bobby Layne, and Joe Schmidt.

And that is very unfortunate.

Of course it doesn’t help that for the past 41 years the famous green field has not had white gridiron lines painted on it.

Yet this famous site was home to the Detroit Lions from 1938 to 1974 and where they won two World Championships in 1953 and 1957. (Sadly, it is also where Lion wide receiver dropped dead of a heart attack in 1971 as he became the only professional athlete to die on the field of play during a game.)

Prior to that, as noted by author Richard Bak in his excellent book, A Place for Summer, A Narrative History of Tiger Stadium (Wayne State Press 1998) the Tigers and Panthers, two of several unsuccessful attempts to establish a NFL franchise in the city during the 1920’s played at Navin Field.

You want to talk about famous athletes who played at Michigan and Trumbull?

Try this one.

In 1926 the legendary athlete Jim Thorpe and his Canton Bulldogs played the Detroit Panthers at Navin Field in 1926.

In addition to pro football, college and high school football games have been played on the site.

On October 5, 1951, the University of Notre Dame played its first night game ever when Frank Leahy’s Fighting Irish routed the University of Detroit 48-6 under the lights at Briggs Stadium.

And every November between 1938 and 1967, the champions of the Catholic and Public School leagues met in the Goodfellows Game, a benefit event that during its 30-year run raised nearly $1 million for the Goodfellows Fund.

In 2011 on this blog, I provided the names of the 204 Baseball Hall of Famers who played at the Tiger Stadium site.

I think you might also be impressed, and perhaps reflect a little bit more on the glorious history of the Tiger Stadium site when you read the names of the following 132 pro football hall of fame players who played at least one game at Michigan and Trumbull during the Lions’ 1938-1974 tenure at the ballpark. Here they are:

Herb Adderley, Doug Atkins, Lem Barney, Sammy Baugh, Chuck Bednarik, Bobby Bell, Raymond Berry, Fred Biletnikoff, George Blanda, Jim Brown, Rosey Brown, Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Dick Butkus, Jack Butler, Tony Canadeo, Jack Christiansen, Dutch Clark, George Connor, Lou Creekmur, Curley Culp, Willie Davis, Len Dawson, Mike Ditka, Art Donovan, Bill Dudley, Carl Eller, Tom Fears, Len Ford, Frank Gatski, Bill George, Frank Gifford, Otto Graham, Forrest Gregg, Lou Groza, Chris Hanburger, Mel Hein, Ted Hendricks, Arnie Herber, Gene Hickerson, Clarke Hinkle, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, Paul Hornung, Ken Houston, Sam Huff, Claude Humphrey, Don Hutson, Jimmy Johnson, Deacon Jones, Stan Jones, Henry Jordan, Sonny Jurgensen, Leroy Kelly, Walt Kiesling, Frank Kinard, Paul Krause, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Willie Lanier, Yale Lary, Dante Lavelli, Bobby Layne, Dick LeBeau, Alphonse “Tuffy” Leemans, Floyd Little, Sid Luckman, Tom Mack, John Mackey, Gino Marchetti, Ollie Matson, Don Maynard, George McAfee, Mike McCormack, Tommy McDonald, Hugh McElhenny, John “Blood” McNally, Wayne Millner, Bobby Mitchell, Lenny Moore, Marion Motley, George Musso, Bronco Nagurski, Joe Namath, Ray Nitschke, Leo Nomellini, Merlin Olsen, Jim Otto, Alan Page, Ace Parker, Jim Parker, Joe Perry, Pete Pihos, Les Richter, John Riggins, Jim Ringo, Dave Robinson, Andy Robustelli, Charlie Sanders, Gale Sayers, Joe Schmidt, Art Shell, Jackie Smith, Bob St. Clair, Bart Starr, Jan Stenerud, Ken Strong, Fran Tarkenton, Charley Taylor, Jim Taylor, Emmitt Thomas, Mick Tingelhoff, Y. A. Tittle, Charley Trippi, Emlen Tunnell, Bulldog Turner, Johnny Unitas, Gene Upshaw, Norm Van Brocklin, Steve Van Buren, Doak Walker, Paul Warfield, Bob Waterfield, Roger Wehrli, Arnie Weinmeister, Dave Wilcox, Bill Willis, Larry Wilson, Alex Wojciechowicz, Willie Wood, Ron Yary, Jack Youngblood.

So when you’re talking Tiger Stadium history, or when you walk on the field today, think about Ted Williams’s game winning 1941 All Star game home run. But also recall that this is where the Lions won their last World Championship…so many, many years ago.