When Frenchman Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded and named a bank on the strait (Detroit River) connecting the Great Lakes in 1701, he could have never surmised that his humble settlement would grow into one of America’s largest cities. Augustus B. Woodward, who oversaw Detroit’s street layout plan, would be smiling if he saw how his ideas have evolved.
As Detroit elevated itself as the automobile capital of the world, a sports paradise and a music and entertainment place to be, it at one point in 1950 was the fourth-largest city in the USA. In recent years its population has shifted to the suburbs making it the nation’s eleventh-largest metropolitan area.
No matter the natural shift in humanity and living space that is taking place throughout America, Detroit has been consistently lauded as one of, if not the best, sports towns in the country. In fact, in 1964 and 1968 Detroit finished a very close second to hosting the Summer Olympic Games.
Ironically, as the Michigan Chronicle celebrates its 75th year bringing its unique brand of news reporting to its readers, the Detroit sports community is also celebrating the 75th anniversary of the 1935 Champions Year — the year the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings all won league championships for the first time.
The 1935 sports teams’ success helped elevate Detroit in the minds of many as a place to be. As front and sports pages throughout America held Detroit’s teams as the best in the country, besides the Great Migration, many looked at the Motor City as a booming city full of opportunity and its sports teams provided a vehicle many could galvanize around.
To this day, out of the over 35,000 cities in the Unites States, Detroit remains one of the few to be home to four professional sports teams — the Lions, Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings.
As America continued to grapple with its inability to arrest discrimination and segregation, the sports world was continually breaking racial barriers long before the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King forced America to look in the mirror and adhere to its Constitution that called for liberty and justice for all.
On playing fields and boxing arenas throughout Detroit and America, Black athletes were challenging White separatist and supremacist ideas.
All know that Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s racial baseball barrier in 1947, but long before him Detroiters were giving it to the supremacists.
Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson both started their legendary boxing careers at Detroit’s famed Brewster Recreation Center. Louis won his first heavyweight title in 1937 and Robinson won his first title in 1946. They are recognized as two of the greatest boxers in history.
In 1932 Eddie Tolan, a Black sprinter who had graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1927, won the 100- and 200-meter Summer Olympics gold medals.Following Tolan, Louis and Robinson, thousands of Detroiters have crashed the national and international sports scene. Men like Dave Debusschere, Ed Budde, George Gervin, Spencer Haywood, Pepper Johnson, Willie Horton, John Mayberry, Thomas Hearns, Alex Johnson, Larry Foote, Ron Johnson, Henry Carr and Jerome Bettis, to name a few.
Others have come to the Detroit area and claimed it as their own. People like Dave Bing, Lem Barney, Ray Scott, Mel Farr, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Bobby Layne, Alex Karras, Gordie Howe, Barry Sanders, Isiah Thomas, the Fab Five, the Flint Stones, Steve Yzerman, Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson, Cecil Fielder, Scotty Bowman and Sparky Anderson, to mention a few.
As team sports go, Michigan Chronicle writers have been there to document the Tigers ten American League pennants (the most recent being in 2006) and four World Series titles. The Red Wings have won 11 Stanley Cups, the Pistons have won three NBA titles, and the Detroit Shock have won three WNBA titles. In 2007, Detroit was given the nickname “Sports City USA” in recognition of its numerous sports teams with impressive game statistics and a large amount of dedicated fans.
Recently Ford Field hosted the 2009 Final Four of NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament and Super Bowl XL in 2006. Ford Field also hosted the largest verified crowd in basketball history (78,129) at the University of Kentucky versus Michigan State University contest.
Comerica Park hosted 2005 Major League Baseball All-Star Games and games 1 and 2 of the 2006 World Series. The Palace also held NBA Finals games 3, 4 and 5 in both 2004 and 2005, and also hosted all but two of the Shock’s WNBA Finals home games in their four Finals appearances (championships in 2003, 2006, and 2008, plus a losing appearance in 2007).
Detroit has also been home to the Detroit Indy Grand Prix. The race took place on the streets of downtown Detroit from 1982 until 1988, and then in 1989 moved to Belle Isle.
Detroit sports have been like the Motown sound, making sweet music on the playing field, courts and boxing arenas, while giving its hard working populace civic entities to rally around and at the same time enjoy themselves.
Leland Stein can be reached at email@example.com.
Pictured: Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson