The controversies currently swirling around the New Orleans Saints and their involvement in the “Bounty Gate” scandal might have amused the Detroit Lions squads of the1950s, the glory years of the local pro football franchise.
The National Football League entered the decade fighting for national recognition as a sport worthy of competing with baseball for attention and television exposure as a pastime fighting — sometimes literally — to qualify as a national obsession.
And by the early1960s pro football was the hot new American sport, a game that had parlayed a modest 12-game annual regular season schedule — with a resulting one-game “world’s championship” playoff — into the most exciting and talked-about annual competition in the country. Baseball had enjoyed its sacrosanct position as THE “national pastime” since before Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were kids; football’s popularity exploded across TV screens and before standing-room only crowds in that pivotal decade of the ’50s.
One of the most pivotal and publicized attractions of the exciting new game (as evidenced on the cover of Time Magazine) was the Lions, football’s raucous version of the “Gashouse Gang” baseball team from St. Louis that grabbed attention in the usually staid baseball world of the 1930s.
Certainly baseball had seen its share of heated rivalries and brawls in its time as the country’s unrivaled center of sports attention. It had its claims and rumors of bean-ball wars and spikes-high sliding (Cobb’s way of saying hello) since the game’s inception. But football was built on violence; aggression both sanctioned and illegal. And America, which had seen its lifestyle accelerate from 33 to 78 rpm in the tension and muscle of the World War II years, seemed increasingly at home with muscle and speed — applied in ill temper, with ’good sportsmanship’ rapidly becoming a fading frame of mind — as epitomized by the National Football League.
The NFL of the 1950s saw teams representing that new sports style grab national attention, the Giants, the Browns, the Colts … but chief among them the Lions. The Lions not only won — three world’s championships in four tries; two frustrating second place finishes that came with agonizing final-game losses — but they won with character, style, arrogance and… muscle. A member of the Lions’ most glorious squads (1952-1957) once pointed out the team had an impressive array of war veterans, grizzled combat survivors, who took the field with an ‘attitude’ that often gave them a natural pre-game advantage over younger, more impressionable opponents. The swagger of those Lions teams not only put them in the winner’s circle at the end of many seasons, but also in courtrooms and police stations on pretty-much a year-round basis, under suspicion of brawling in restaurants and bars, drinking and driving in public, and only-God-knows-what in private.
And as might be imagined, those Lions teams didn’t clean up their act on fall Sundays on fields across the country. One suspects that the Lions of old, along with their NFL contemporaries, would have mocked the New Orleans Saints, and their organizational pursuit of putting opposing stars out of football games. And, in the process, you might guess that they would have laughed at the League for demanding, for ordering that such nasty play be excised from the game.
This is not to allege that the Lions of old had a “bounty” system by which players were paid by their fellows, or by the team, for kayo-ing opposing stars. No, this is to suggest that such practices went on, commonly, on a purely voluntary and freelance weekly basis.
The Lions had a defensive halfback in the glory years named Jimmy David, who — except for Hall of Fame halfback Doak Walker — was annually the smallest player on the team. To make up for his size deficit, David — known to mates as “The Hatchet” — seemingly found ways to cut opponents down to his size.
In 1953, for example, the Lions fielded arguably the greatest team of their long history, a squad that was one of the few NFL franchises ever to repeat as World Champions. Standing in the way of the ‘53 team that was looking to continue its 1952 success, were the San Francisco 49ers, the offensive powerhouse of the time as led by quarterback Y.A. Tittle. Standing in Tittle’s way,however, was The Hatchet. The co-favorites for the Western Division crown, both off to 2-0 starts, met at Briggs Stadium on a beautiful Sunday, October 11th , before an all-time record crowd of 58,079 gathered at the fabulous old ballpark.
Tittle did his part in the big game; plowing head first into the southern end zone after bootlegging three yards to the 49ers right side, he cut the Lions lead to 24-21 in the third quarter. David did his part on the same play. Seeing Tittle making for the end zone on his side of the field, the 5’10,’’ 170 pound defensive back sped across the lush end zone and crashed, knees first, into the falling QB, connecting with the defenseless Tittle’s jaw, breaking it into three pieces and knocking the 49er star unconscious … AND, out of the NFL wars for a few precious weeks.
San Franciscans went loco. They called David “dirty”; a football hit-man, out to take Tittle out of the game, out of the hot championship chase. The Lions, for their part, cried foul in reverse, citing David’s momentum, his keen sense of competition, and sterling record as a sergeant in the American infantry. Lions coach Buddy Parker cried the loudest, saying this latest criticism of David — he’d had a bunch previously — was going to hinder his ability to play ‘his’ game on Sundays. Still, an objective fan of the game, on studying Lions game films from the ‘50s — (hell, I’M the objective fan, even though David was one of my favorite players) — can’t help but notice that little #25 in Honolulu Blue regularly used to stick his knees, his helmet, his elbows, his cleats … into the backs and fronts and limbs of opposing players at nearly every opportunity that came his way, in every game he played … often — in fact more often than not — several seconds after plays had ceased and whistles sounded. Opposing players hated his guts, as you might surmise.
Which takes us to another alleged “bounty hunter” of the ‘50s. In 1956 our Lions, wouldn’t you know, needed to win their final game of the regular season to clinch the Western crown. They needed to beat the Bears, at Chicago, with whom they were tied for the division lead. The Lions had defeated the Bears at Briggs just two weeks earlier, 42-10. Looked good for the Detroiters, no? No.
In the second quarter of that heatedly contested match — Chicago coach and professional bounty-hunter extraordinaire himself George Halas had worked himself and his city into a fury for this game — the Lions leader and All-Pro quarterback, the legendary Bobby Layne, had the Lions on the move early in the second quarter at Wrigley Field, looking to overcome the Bears‘ 3-0 lead. On a routine running play, he handed the proverbial pigskin to halfback Gene Gedman. The Lions runner cut through the Bears line on the left side, and made his way into the Chicago secondary.
As Layne watched Gedman’s progress, Bears defensive end Ed “Country” Meadows, accelerated to full speed as he circled behind the Lions quarterback, then crashed into him with as much force as he could muster — Layne’s hands were down at his sides — and effectively ended the game, almost three quarters too soon. He lifted Layne into the air, then pile-drived him head first into the ground, knocking him unconscious, and out of the game. The Bears, of course, won the game and the Western Division crown, 38-21.
Cries of ’foul’ and charges of bounty hunting echoed all the way across Lake Michigan from here in Detroit. Lions coach Parker, The Hatchet’s handler and defender, was the most offended of all, threatening to quite football as a result of such a blatant display of bad, uh, sportsmanship. Meadows, a born idiot, even as seen by objective fans, posed for ridiculous newspaper pictures the next day, pointing at huge “Layne Kayoed!” headlines from the game with an innocent “Who, ME?” look on his idiotic face.
So … a Lions’ title won, in 1953. And a potential Lions’ title lost, in 1956. (Dorne Dibble, by the way, a famed Lions end from Michigan State who starred throughout the Lions glory years, has said that the 1956 Detroit team was THE best of any he’d played on in those years. Don’t that starch your shorts?)
But … bounty hunting? Suspensions? Outrage from the commissioner? Nah, Bert Bell, the league’s first commish, ruled that both David and Meadows were just doing their jobs, and surely NO player in the NFL would purposefully hurt another, much less try to knock one out of a game.
And that was that. Oh, except for one thing. If I remember correctly, and sometimes I do, the 49ers in 1954 had a huge jump in their seasons ticket sales. And the 1957 and 1958 Lions set NFL records for ticket sales, exceeding 39,000 peddled following the Lions last NFL Championship in 1957.
So, things worked out to the NFL‘s advantage. Bert Bell was deliriously joyful. Sure, Y.A. Tittle had some trouble chewing. Bobby Layne, who had suffered the latest of many severe concussions because of Meadow’s heads-up play, had a hell of a headache for a hell of a long time. And television viewership of the NFL went through the roof by 1960.
But bounty hunting? Dirty play? Naw. You gotta be kidding ….