Professional sports have been a part of life in Detroit dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. The Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons have brought both joy and agony to fans and residents of the Motor City. City of Champions, a new book by Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck, makes the case that sports have played a major role in many aspects of daily life in Detroit. They argue that in many ways, the city’s history with the four main major league teams is closely linked to political power, housing policy, race relations, economic development and financial stability. Each chapter of City of Champions uses a major sports event in the city’s history and links it to how it impacted the city in some way. The chapters are arranged in reverse chronological order, starting with the opening of Little Caesar’s Arena in 2020, and working back to the city’s founding in 1763. This is done to show how past sports events have built the city of Detroit as we know it today.
First and foremost, City of Champions is wonderful sports read. The title refers to 1935-1936, when the Lions, Tigers and Red Wings all won the championship in their respective leagues. The authors point to this signature achievement as a force in bringing the city out of the Great Depression, and as an event where Detroit citizens forgot their racial differences, even if it was for a short period of time.
The book also looks at the impact of the various team owners have had on the city’s development. Henry Ford was a pioneer in the automobile industry and created the concept of the production line in the mass production of cars. He also was the first business owner to provide healthcare coverage to his workers and to build parks and recreation centers for the city. Unfortunately, he was also antisemitic and a violent union buster who believed in keeping the races separate. The Ford family still owns the Detroit Lions today. Mike Illich made his fortune as the creator of Little Caesars pizza. He was responsible for building many of the sports palaces including Little Caesar’s Arena, as well owning both the Red Wings and the Tigers. As a result, he had a huge influence on zoning issues around the city.
Obviously, Detroit is now a very unionized city. It hasn’t always been that way. Henry Ford hired thugs to break up and discourage union formation within the auto industry. In 1952 the Detroit Red Wings powered their way to win the Stanley Cup. Ted Lindsay, a left winger on the team, worked on starting a player’s association in order to have more orderly contracts and to provide medical coverage for players who were permanently injured and could no longer play. He was traded to another team as a result of these efforts. It was many years before the NHL had a player’s association in the NHL.
Joe Louis was a sports icon in Detroit, a hometown fighter who went on to win several boxing titles. He also served honorably in the armed forces during World Wat II. He was celebrated in public for these achievements, yet he was shut out of any management positions with the major automakers due to the color of his skin. The Tigers were one of the last teams in the MLB to integrate their lineup.
Another chapter of City of Champions investigates the loss of the Lions and the Pistons to stadiums and arenas in the suburbs as a precursor of white flight from Detroit. Detroit’s population has gone down dramatically as a result of both the downturn in the auto industry, as well as white flight. This left the city with greatly reduced tax revenues, resulting in Detroit’s government declaring bankruptcy.
The earliest link between sports and the city of Detroit actually dates to 1762. At the time the British maintained a fort in the area. As a sign of friendship, the Iroquois Indians led by Chief Pontiac offered to play a game of lacrosse as a form of entertainment on the Queen’s Birthday Celebration for the British troops garrisoned at the fort. The ball used in the game suddenly was hit out of bounds towards the fort. This was a signal for the Indians to charge on the fort with weapons they had hidden away. In time, the Iroquois turned the fort over to their allies the French. As a result, Detroit became a French settlement. Today, French names on streets, in neighborhoods, and on car brands (think Chevrolet and Pontiac). Today, the city of Detroit’s flag still includes the fleur- de -lis, the symbol of Royal France.
These are just a few samples of the links between sports and the city of Detroit. Sports lovers and history buffs will discover many more interesting stories of how Detroit’s history was shaped by sports. We heartily recommend that you add City of Champions to your reading list.