Remembering Detroit’s Original Sports Bar: The Lindell AC

The days when athletes used to frequent local sports bars and mingle with the fans stopped some time ago, and definitely came to an end when the Lindell AC Bar on Cass Avenue, truly one of America’s first true “sports bars” closed its doors. It was Detroit’s version of Toot Shor’s in New York.

The following is an excerpt of a piece I wrote on the Lindell AC for Hour Detroit magazine.

Lindell ACFor half a century, the legendary Lindell AC bar in downtown Detroit was a mecca for visiting athletes, sports fans, hometown heroes, and media personalities who would feast on burgers, fries, onion rings, stories and a favorite drink, while surrounded by wall to wall photographs and museum quality sports memorabilia. The forerunner of its kind, USA Today once crowned it the “number one sports bar in America.”

When Johnny Butsicaris and his son Mel closed the storied saloon at Cass and Michigan under a flourish of media coverage, mourning patrons couldn’t accept the idea of “one last call”. After all, this was the place where Detroit Tiger players squeezed behind the bar and gave out free drinks to customers on the raucous evening the team clinched the 1968 pennant.

In 1949, Greek immigrant Meleti Butsicaris and his sons Johnny and Jimmy purchased the bar located in the seedy and since torn down Lindell Hotel at Cass and Bagley.

Thanks to a suggestion by Yankee infielder Billy Martin, ( who would later create his own Lindell legend) a sports theme was created in the mid 50’s with photographs and donated game used artifacts. Visiting athletes from all four sports stayed at the nearby Leland and Book-Cadillac Hotel and joined local scribes in adopting the watering spot as a favorite hideout. Before long, sports junkies began frequenting the bar to rub elbows with Mickey Mantle, Detroit athletes, and traveling entertainers like Milton Berle who were taken care of by the street wise Butsicaris boys.

When the bar relocated just down the street at Cass and Michigan in 1963, it officially became the Lindell AC (“Athletic Club”) thanks to the late Detroit News columnist Doc Greene, a regular drinking patron and the joint’s “Godfather”. It was Greene who added the moniker “Athletic Club” in a left hook aimed at the high brow Detroit Athletic Club (“DAC”) a few blocks away.

Pugilistic episodes in the 1960’s involving Lion star Alex Karras and Billy Martin along with two television films brought the bar national attention.

In 1963 NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Karras and Packer Paul Hornung for gambling on games and ordered Karras to sell his one third partnership in the Lindell, claiming the bar was a haven for undesirable characters.

During his one year suspension Karras wrestled professionally. Six days prior to an Olympia Stadium bout against “Dick the Bruiser”, the two were involved in a Lindell brawl that tore up the bar and sent a handful of Detroit police officers to the hospital. Years later as a movie actor, Karras portrayed Jimmy Butsicaris in the CBS film, “Jimmy B and Andre”, the true story of how the tough bar owner had taken a young black ghetto kid under his wing.

scan0001Six years after the Karras-Bruiser donnybrook, Twins manager Billy Martin KO’d his own pitcher, Dave Boswell with 20 stitches in the alley behind the Lindell after the drunken hurler “sucker punched” teammate Bob Allison. A decade later, Martin and Jimmy B played themselves in the TV movie, “One In A Million: The Ron Leflore Story” which described how Butsicaris convinced then Tiger manager Martin to give Jackson Prison inmate and future All Star Leflore a baseball tryout.

A favorite pastime of Lindell patrons was walking through the bar and identifying the dozens of sports photographs and 8 by 10s of celebrities who had frequented the tavern.

With the closing of the Lindell, along with Reedy’s Saloon, and the Hummer in Corktown, Nemo’s on Michigan Avenue just east of the Tiger Stadium site is really the last of the true sports bars in downtown Detroit where players used to mix with the fans.

What a shame.

© 2009 by Bill Dow.  All rights reserved.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.