Yes, The Detroit Lions Were Actually Great Once

Detroit won 3 NFL titles in the 1950s. Author Richard Bak’s new book, “When Lions Were Kings,” dives into the reasons for the team’s success.

The Detroit Lions are one of four National Football League teams that have never played in a Super Bowl. The only time they came close was in 1991, when they beat the Dallas Cowboys in the National Conference playoffs, but lost to Washington in the NFC championship game.

The victory over Dallas is Detroit’s only postseason victory since 1957, the last time they won an NFL championship. That title capped a six-year stretch in which the Lions won three league titles and were regarded as one of pro football’s elite franchises.

LISTEN: Author Richard Bak discusses the Detroit Lions’ glory days.

A new book, “When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties” dives into the team’s last decade of success. Author Richard Bak says the Motor City’s gridiron heroes were the NFL’s big cats.

“They had great players like Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, Joe Schmidt and Yale Lary, all Hall of Famers,” Bak says. 

Older Lions fans might remember Layne, who came to Detroit in a trade with the New York Bulldogs in 1950. The University of Texas alumnus had a reputation for partying as hard as he played. But Bak says much of Layne’s legend is just that.

“You always hear stories about how he’d show up at games drunk, then he’d sober up at halftime and lead the Lions to victory in the second half,” Bak says. “That’s a bunch of malarkey.”

Layne, paired with Texas teammate and Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker, formed the backfield that led the Lions to consecutive NFL titles in 1952 and ’53. 

Detroit Lions Season Records, 1950-59

Year  W  L  T  Result
1950  6  6  0  4th place, National Conference
1951  7  4  1  2nd place, National Conf.
1952  9  3  0  NFL Champions (def. Cleveland, 17-7)
1953  10  2  0  NFL Champions (def. Cleveland, 17-16)
1954  9  2  1  Western Conf. champs, lost NFL champ (at Clev., 56-10)
1955  3  9   0  6th place, Western Conf.
1956  9  3   0  2nd place, Western Conf.
1957  8  4  0  NFL Champions (def. Cleveland, 59-14)
1958  4  7   1  5th place, Western Conf.
1959  3  8   1  5th place, Western Conf.

Between 1952 and ’57, the Lions played in four NFL championship games, winning three. Their opponents in each contest were the Cleveland Browns, one of the other four teams never to play in a Super Bowl.

While they were local and national celebrities, Bak says players of that era were not paid the way today’s competitors are. Some had regular jobs in the offseason. A few even worked in Detroit factories.

“Joe Schmidt was a school teacher,” Bak says. “Charlie Ane was selling sporting goods downtown, and other guys were working on asphalt paving crews.”

Bak says the average NFL player earned an average of $7,500 to $8,000 annually, which is equivalent to $80,000 to $85,000 in 2020.

After the Lions won the title in ’57, the Lions traded Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played five more seasons, but never returned to the playoffs. The Lions would not return to the postseason until 1970 when they won 10 games under head coach and former player Joe Schmidt. Detroit lost to the Dallas Cowboys, 5-0.

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  • Pat Batcheller
    Pat Batcheller is a host and Senior News Editor for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news, traffic and weather updates during Morning Edition. He is an amateur musician.