A legendary Detroit sports personality has just passed away, and even though he was not an athlete, Johnny Butsicaris was nearly as famous as the players who frequented his watering hole.
Reading that Johnny died at age 91 this past Saturday after a long illness brought back wonderful memories of the Lindell AC Bar that he and his brother Jimmy ran for years on Cass Avenue near Michigan Avenue.
Detroit’s version of New York’s Toot Shor’s was a mecca for visiting athletes, sports fans, hometown heroes, and media personalities who would feast on burgers, fries, onion rings, stories and a favorite drink, while surrounded by wall to wall photographs and museum quality sports memorabilia. The forerunner of its kind, USA Today once crowned it the “number one sports bar in America.”
Although Jimmy could be seen at the bar in the evening talking to customers, Johnny was the one who would greet customers at lunch and help them find a seat.
I used to love to meet friends there before or after a ball game for a cheeseburger, fries and a beer and then walk around looking at the tons of photographs on the walls. Of course the most eye catching item was a large frame that contained the game used jerseys of Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Alex Karras, Wayne Walker, Dave Bing, and Bob Lanier.
Thanks to a suggestion by Yankee infielder Billy Martin, (who would later create his own Lindell legend) one of America’s first sports bars was created in the mid 1950s when autographed photographs and donated game used artifacts were displayed on the walls. Visiting athletes from all four sports stayed at the nearby Leland and Book-Cadillac Hotel and joined local scribes in adopting the watering spot as a favorite hideout. Before long, sports junkies began frequenting the bar to rub elbows with Mickey Mantle, Detroit athletes, and traveling entertainers like Milton Berle who were taken care of by the street wise Butsicaris boys.
Originally located in the Lindell Hotel, the bar relocated just down the street at Cass and Michigan in 1963, and officially became the Lindell AC (“Athletic Club”) thanks to Detroit News columnist Doc Greene who added the moniker “Athletic Club” in a left hook aimed at the high brow Detroit Athletic Club (“DAC”) a few blocks away.
Pugilistic episodes in the 1960’s involving Lion star Alex Karras and Billy Martin along with two television films brought the bar national attention.
In 1963 NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Karras and Packer Paul Hornung for gambling on games and ordered Karras to sell his one third partnership in the Lindell, claiming the bar was a haven for undesirable characters.
During his one year suspension Karras wrestled professionally. Six days prior to an Olympia Stadium bout against “Dick the Bruiser”, the two were involved in a Lindell brawl that tore up the bar and sent a handful of Detroit police officers to the hospital. Years later as a movie actor, Karras portrayed Jimmy Butsicaris in the CBS film, “Jimmy B and Andre”, the true story of how the tough bar owner had taken a young black ghetto kid under his wing.
Six years after the Karras-Bruiser donnybrook, Twins manager Billy Martin KO’d his own pitcher, Dave Boswell with 20 stitches in the alley behind the Lindell after the drunken hurler “sucker punched” teammate Bob Allison. A decade later, Martin and Jimmy B played themselves in the TV movie, “One In A Million: The Ron Leflore Story” which described how Butsicaris convinced then Tiger manager Martin to give Jackson Prison inmate and future All Star Ron Leflore a tryout.
Thanks Johnny for all the great memories!
(By the way, a new “Lindell AC” has opened up in Waterford at 3150 Elizabeth Lake Road, 248-494-4012, and it’s one of the finer places to play billiards and talk about sports in Detroit.)