Lions’ Ford era had auspicious start

The day William Clay Ford bought the Detroit Lions, the nation was consumed by tragic news from Dallas in 1963.

The day William Clay Ford bought the Detroit Lions, the nation was consumed by tragic news from Dallas in 1963.

November 22, 1963 is one of the saddest dates in American history. That black Friday, of course, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. In Detroit, the unprecedented media coverage of JFK’s assassination and its aftermath smothered one of the top local sports stories of the year. At a shareholders meeting held that same day at the downtown Statler-Hilton, the Detroit Lions were sold to William Clay Ford.

Ford, the wealthy 38-year-old grandson of industrialist Henry Ford, bought out the syndicate that had owned and operated the club since buying it from Fred Mandel in 1948. All but one of the shareholders eagerly accepted the $6 million offer, making Ford the sole proprietor of the franchise. (The lone holdout soon settled for a nice profit on his original investment.)

Ford was viewed by some as a man on a white horse. There had been turmoil in the front office for years, even as the Lions won three NFL titles in the 1950s. Club directors, as well as coaches and players, sided with one faction or another, with players at one point even hanging an executive in effigy from the goalposts at Tiger Stadium.

Ford, the unpaid president of the team since January 1961, considered himself a sportsman and a gentleman and above the bickering. As the new owner, he looked upon the Lions as more of a civic responsibility than a sound business investment. Today the Lions are worth roughly a couple hundred times what Ford originally paid for them. But in 1963, the $6 million purchase price was the most ever paid for a professional sports franchise. There were those who thought Ford had overpaid for the team, which was on its way to a 5-8-1 record and a fourth-place finish.

Ford told the press he would hold off on making any changes until he officially took control of the team on January 10, 1964. “I want time to evaluate the situation and determine what we might need to run a tight ship,” he said.

In Detroit, as elsewhere, the reaction to JFK’s murder was one of immediate shock and grief, with most social, sporting, and entertainment events canceled as the entire country hunkered down into four days of televised mourning that would include the shocking murder of Lee Harvey Oswald and conclude with the martyred president’s state funeral on Monday. It was too late to cancel the annual Goodfellow Game pitting the champions of the Catholic and Public School leagues. It went on as scheduled, with Denby beating Notre Dame, 7-0, on a wet, gloomy Friday night at Tiger Stadium. But the entire college schedule was postponed, including Saturday’s Michigan-Ohio State game in Ann Arbor and the big Michigan State-Illinois showdown in East Lansing, with the winner gaining a berth in the Rose Bowl. The American Football League also postponed action.

However, with all of America grieving, the NFL decided to go ahead with its full slate of Sunday games, a decision that didn’t go over well with many fans and players at the time, and which still stains the league. Commissioner Pete Rozelle later admitted it was the biggest mistake of his life. “On this somber, blackest of Sundays, when no heart could truly yearn for a game, the Lions gave momentary distraction,” George Puscas wrote of the Lions’ 34-31 loss at Minnesota, though it was the Lions who appeared most distracted. They lost six fumbles, four of which directly led to Minnesota touchdowns or field goals. It was the first time the Vikings had ever beaten the Lions, but the cheers from Minnesota fans were muted.

It was “neither a day for joy or celebration,” Puscas wrote in the next day’s Detroit Free Press. “The tragedy of Washington hung over the stadium as it hangs over the nation, and not even the galloping athletes could fully escape the heaviness of the death of President Kennedy.”

For those who believe in omens, it seems fitting that the William Clay Ford era – an ongoing half-century span of controversy, turmoil, and tragedy on and off the field – began on the auspicious date of 11/22/63.

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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.