Sportswriter Eddie Hayes recalls the Detroit Lions of the 1930s

Detroit Lions Chicago Bears 1935

In this photo, the Detroit Lions battle the Chicago Bears in a game from 1935.

“Somewhere around here,” said Eddie Hayes, poking around his unkempt Southfield apartment, “I have the check used to purchase the Detroit Lions in 1934.” It was a fruitless, half-hearted search, and the old sportswriter, who spent much of each day tethered to his favorite living room chair by an oxygen tank and cannula, quickly said the hell with it.

Anyway, the check was for less than $8,000, he said. That’s how much a syndicate of Detroit investors headed by George A. Richards, the owner of radio station WJR, paid to bring the team from Portsmouth, Ohio to the Motor City. To be more precise, the new owners paid a $15,000 franchise fee plus $7,952 to pay off the Portsmouth Spartans’ old debts. The point was: the National Football League was a low-rent enterprise in the 1930s. “A good lineman made $65 to $85 a game then,” he continued. “A good running back made maybe $115 and a super back $150. There are players today who make more money than the entire National Football League made in 1934.”

Eddie and I were having this conversation at some point during the Billy Sims-Doug English era, a time when most top-flight players still made “just” six-figure annual salaries. Given the eye-popping across-the-board escalation in prices and salaries since the 1980s, I imagine that today even cheerleading consultants are pulling down more than the entire league made in a year, back in the day.

“Do you know,” Eddie said, “that in the late 1930s Dutch Clark played quarterback for the Lions, was the team’s coach, and the best player in the league, and he never got $6,000 a year? And talking about money, there was one year, 1932 or 1933, when Clark first started playing pro ball with Portsmouth. He skipped the championship game at the end of the season because he needed to go back to Colorado to get a job to support his family. All of this would be unbelievable to athletes today.”

Edgar “Eddie” Hayes was born in Corktown in 1907 and considered himself “maybe the worst baseball player that ever went out for a team.” So he took to hanging around the downtown offices of the Detroit Times. He joined the staff as a high school stringer in 1924 and wound up retiring as the paper’s sports editor in 1960. By the time I got to know Eddie he was a septuagenarian with a scruffy beard, thick glasses, and a bemused perspective on life. I enjoyed listening to his observations on sport and society and stories about the personalities he observed up close and personal during Detroit’s golden age of sports.

Eddie was particularly enamored with the Lions of the period, possibly because they played at the University of Detroit’s now-vanished Dinan Field for several seasons before moving into Briggs Stadium. In fact, the Lions won their first championship at Dinan Field, beating the New York Giants on a wet, blustery Sunday afternoon in December 1935. Eddie was in his junior year at U-D when the Times offered him a full-time gig in 1927. “So I dropped out of school and went to work for $25 a week, plus an extra $6.40 for working Sundays,” he said.

The adversarial relationship that exists today between the press and athletes was unknown during Eddie’s time. For one thing, it was a much smaller universe then, he said. Fewer teams, fewer leagues, fewer players, fewer reporters. Those insatiable beasts, 24-hour cable and the internet, didn’t exist; for that matter, neither did television for most of Hayes’ career. Now even the NFL draft is a laughably huge deal, filled with weeks of prognostication, posturing, and pontification.

Eddie recalled inviting players and coaches to dinner for a much-appreciated home-cooked meal and some pleasant conversation. His favorite was Dutch Clark, he said, “the finest athlete I ever had the pleasure to know. First of all, he was a super, gifted athlete. Beyond that, he was a fine gentleman. He had class. I remember once when a bunch of Lions were up in one of the players’ rooms at Webster Hall, where the Lions stayed during the season. They were all watching dirty movies, when someone came in and said, ‘The Dutchman’s just come into the lobby.’ They wouldn’t have gotten into any trouble, but they put the movies away all the same. They thought so highly of Dutch they wouldn’t run them in his presence.”

Eddie remembered a time when collegiate gridders valued education over athletics. He pointed out that the NFL then was widely referred to as “post-graduate” football, something to help legitimize it in the eyes of a skeptical public that preferred and trusted the more “pure” collegiate game. Players were more intent on earning a diploma than playing pro ball, he said. Many draft picks had absolutely no interest in playing in the NFL. In fact, in the very first collegiate draft held in 1936, 57 of the 81 players selected said “No, thanks,” including the No. 1 pick, Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger. Those who did sign with Detroit more often than not saw their time in a Lions uniform as an opportunity to make connections in the auto industry, to use their degree (typically in business, education, or engineering) to land what they considered a “real” job.

Eddie Hayes has been gone for a while now, as have all of the young men he once covered as a reporter and invited into his home as friends.

One Christmas Eve late in life, Eddie got a call from Austin, Texas. On the line was Gover “Ox” Emerson, an All-Pro lineman for the Lions in the ‘30s. “It’s Christmas Eve, Mr. Editor, and I’m calling up relatives,” Ox said. “I’ve always thought of you and Mrs. Hayes as family, and I just want to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

Eddie enjoyed sharing that anecdote. “Could you imagine that happening today?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.