How Detroit became America's greatest sports city
The most remarkable season in the history of professional sports
"You'd better start shaking yourself out of that second division complex of yours and get out there and hustle. Haven't you got any pride? You've been lolling in the hammock long enough."
That's what Gordon Stanley "Mickey" Cochrane, legendary catcher and player/manager for the Detroit Tigers, told his team and fans in the city of Detroit in a 1934 Detroit News story.
The Tigers, who were a perennial laughing stock in the years prior to Cochrane's arrival in Detroit, took their manager's words to heart. They went on to win the franchise's first ever World Series title in 1935, defeating the Chicago Cubs.
That year, Detroit's other major teams followed the Tigers' winning example. The Lions, at the time a new franchise in the city, went on to claim their first ever NFL Championship (yes, there was a time when the Lions could be called "champions"). On the day of the Lions' victory, the Detroit Red Wings moved into first place in their division and never looked back, eventually claiming their first ever Stanley Cup.
These three championships make the 1935-36 Detroit sports year the most impressive showing by any one city in the history of professional sports and effectively gave birth to the modern Detroit sports superfan.
Starting this tremendous year off, however, was the remarkable performance of pugilist Joe Louis, the "Brown Bomber."
"In 1935, Joe Louis put on the greatest individual athletic performance of all time," contends Charles Avison, a local historian and author of the books Detroit: City of Champions
and The Players vols. I & II
, which chronicle the remarkable sporting year of 1935-36 in Detroit.
In 1935, Louis rose from the ranks of the unknown to win all 14 of his bouts (five of which were against top ten contenders and 12 of which were decided by knock out). In September 1935, Louis defeated Max Baer
, the former heavyweight champion. Although he never got a title shot, Louis was widely recognized as the uncrowned boxing champ of 1935.
Following Louis's remarkable season, each of Detroit's major sports teams won the titles of their respective sports, drawing the attention of the rest of world. In April of 1936, Michigan Gov. Frank Fitzgerald and the Detroit Common Council both issued proclamations declaring April 18 the "Day of Champions" in the city of Detroit.
The day was commemorated with a banquet at the Masonic Temple that was attended by members of each of the championship teams, Joe Louis, and other notable Detroit sports figures like Gar Wood
(a celebrity of the day who consistently broke his own powerboat speed record between the 1910s and 1930s).
Later in 1936, the city of Detroit was presented with a plaque acknowledging its status as the "City of Champions." The plaque was signed by the governors of every state and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Yet over the years, it seems we have forgotten the legacy of the 1935-36 season. Occasionally one hears a sportscaster refer to Detroit as the City of Champions, but there is seldom any backstory given with the nickname.
"It's a major story that's been almost completely forgotten," says Charles Avison. "It's been passed on to us through a whisper. Now it's time to shout it."
Champions Week gives new life to an old notion
Will McDowell, a Detroit resident and business analyst at Detroit Labs
, grew up a Detroit sports fan, but it wasn't until recently that he learned the history behind Champions Day.
McDowell and some co-workers started developing a local history smartphone app called Landmarked
during free time at work (Detroit Labs allows its employees to develop their own ideas while on the clock during what they call "Lab Time"). He found out about Champions Day while doing research for the app.
Eventually he had the idea of honoring the legacy Champions Day by facilitating a week long celebration of Detroit sports and history that has come to be called Champions Week
McDowell and some friends have organized a slew of activities related to the past and present of Detroit sports that will take place April 12-19, Detroit's first ever Champions Week.
"Our take on the whole thing is to make it an essential Detroit spirit week," says McDowell. "There's a huge appetite for Detroiters to do fun things together. Seeing things happen like Marche du Nain Rouge, Dally in the Alley, and Detroit City Futbol Club games, we knew we wanted to be a part of that energy."
Champions week kicks off on Saturday, April 12 at 1 p.m. with the Chug-A-Lug Pub Run, a five mile run between five bars located throughout Corktown, Downtown, and Midtown. On April 13 at 3 p.m., join a pick-up game of softball on Navin Field, site of the old Tiger Stadium (corner of Michigan and Trumbull, in case you didn't know). On April 17 at McShane's Pub (at the northeast corner of Michigan and Trumbull across from Navin Field), Charles Avison will be giving Detroit Drunken Historical Society lecture on the importance of Champions Day, then he will screen Playball!
, which was filmed filmed in Detroit in 1935 and is the first ever baseball motion picture to feature sound.
Get out there and celebrate with class. Show the world you know what it means to live in the City of Champions!
For a full listing of Champions week events, visit www.detroitchampions.com.
To learn more about Charles Avison's books on Champions Day, visit http://www.detroitcityofchampions.com/
Photos by Marvin Shaouni
Matthew Lewis is Model D's managing editor and a Detroit sports fanatic. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.