10 most shocking stories in Detroit sports history

Gordie Howe

Red Wings’ right wing Gordie Howe recuperates in the hospital after suffering a fractured skull and brain injuries during the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1950.

There are times when news from the sporting world leaps off the sports pages and onto the front page, to use somewhat antiquated newspaper terminology. But, you get the point. At times, sports news transcends sports and becomes the topic of discussion.

That’s the idea behind this list, which I’ve reluctantly named the “10 most shocking stories in Detroit sports history.” I mean, what’s “shocking” and how do you rank such things? But that’s what I’ve tried to do. I recognize that several of these stories deal with tragic events, in once case a death. While a few are transactions that sent ripples of disbelief among Detroit fans. Is it fair to compare the two types of events? I don’t know, I tried. If you have qualms or suggestions for the list, share them below in the comments section.

Harvey Kuenn traded for Rocky Colavito

Three things were at play here that made this April 17, 1960 trade shocking: (1) Kuenn was a very popular player, a sort of gritty, everyman who was loved by Tigers fans, (2) the two players were the reigning batting and home run champion, and (3) the transaction occurred on the eve of the regular season.

Kuenn was a tobacco-chewing outfielder who hit line drives all over the field and hit .300 annually. He was a perfect fit for Tiger Stadium and he fit nicely in the lineup with the great Al Kaline. He’d hit .353 and led the American League in hits in 1959, the fourth time he’d done so for the Tigers. Colavito seemed like a one-trick pony: he could hit towering home runs. In 1960 he’d slugged 42 for the Indians.

But it didn’t take long to see that the Tigers got the better of this dramatic trade. Colavito hit 35 home runs in 1960 and hit behind Kaline. He also showed off a powerful throwing arm in right field (Rocky played right in 1960-61 and left field in 1962-63, with Kaline moving to center the first two years). As he had been in Cleveland, “The Rock” was a fan fave in Motown, with his bulging muscles and Italian good looks. In his four seasons with the Tigers Colavito averaged 35 homers and 108 RBIs. Meanwhile, Kuenn hit .283 with little extra-base power after being dealt away.

Alex Karras suspended for gambling

Prior to the 1963 season, Detroit Lions’ defensive lineman Alex Karras couldn’t keep his name out of the headlines, most of it for items not related to playing football. He’d made a controversial decision to perform as a professional wrestler, he’d admitted to owning part of the famed Lindell AC Bar in downtown Detroit, the drinking hub for athletes and celebrities in the city. Unfortunately the Lindell AC was also a meeting spot for Detroit’s most notorious gambling and underworld figures. The NFL investigated Karras’ association with gamblers and eventually determined that he’d not only been rubbing elbows with “bad guys,” but had actually bet on professional football games. As a result, Karras was suspended for the entire 1963 season.

Karras wrestled under the name “Dick the Bruiser” during his time away from the NFL. He was reinstated in March of 1964 and returned to the Lions in the fall. He was usually surrounded by some sort of controversy however, whether it be his disdain for the head football coach, or refusal to accept contract terms. At one point, Karras made light of his suspension. Before one game when he met at the center of the field he was asked to call the coin toss, but replied, “I cannot sir, since I’m restricted from gambling.”

Tigers fire Ernie Harwell

How could anyone fire the most popular man in Michigan? It seems incomprehensible, but that’s exactly what Bo Schembechler did in 1990. That December, it was announced that popular broadcaster Ernie Harwell would not be asked back after the 1991 season. While the team said it was a decision made by radio station WJR, the radio station pointed the finger at Bo, the president of the Tigers. It’s likely that the order came from team owner Tom Monaghan, an obtuse man who didn’t know how to run a baseball team and didn’t understand public relations. To Monaghan, having a 73-year old call the games meant his team wasn’t “current.” He soon learned how stupid the decision was.

Immediately after the announcement, fans and the media reacted in an uproar. A movement materialized to fire Schembechler, which was amazing considering how popular Bo had been as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. Nonetheless, 1991 appeared to be Harwell’s last season behind the microphone at Tiger Stadium. His final broadcast of the season (which was also the last one for partner Paul Carey) was treated like a farewell and Harwell was gracious even though he was fuming under the surface. It didn’t take long for Ernie to fire back. Days after he was forcibly “retired” he penned a release revealing that he’d been fired. Fans were outraged and threatened a boycott.

After one season away from the Tigers in which he did some broadcasting for the Angels, Harwell got his job back. After the ’92 season when Mike Ilitch bought the team from Monaghan, his front office announced that Ernie would make a return to the broadcast booth. The legendary voice of the Tigers would do games for ten more years, finally retiring on his own terms in 2002.

Mike Utley suffers career-ending injury in game at the Silverdome

On November 17, 1991, in a game at the Pontiac Silverdome, Utley suffered an injury to his  sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae in a game against the Los Angeles Rams. After the game was halted for several minutes, Utley was transported from the field strapped to a stretcher. As he left he lifted his right hand and gave a “thumb’s up” sign to the crowd. It was the last time Utley played football. He was paralyzed. The news stunned the Lions and their fans.

Utley’s career-ending injury seemed to inspire the team, as they won the last six games of the season to finish 12-4 and win the NFC Central division title. They proceeded to defeat the Cowboys in the playoffs for their first playoff win in decades. Utley’s “Thumbs Up” was the team focal point as they went on an inspired run in the postseason.

The great Charlie Bennett loses both of his legs

No one is alive now to remember it, but at one time Charlie Bennett was the most beloved athlete in Detroit and one of the most famous and popular citizens in the city. From 1881 to 1888, Bennett was the catcher for the Wolverines, Detroit’s entry in the National League. As a player he was tough, talented, a leader, and innovative. Some sources credit him with inventing the shin guards. Revered by his teammates, Bennett guided Detroit pitchers from his station behind the plate during “The Guilded Age.” While playing for the Wolverines, Bennett is often credited with receiving the first “curtain call” in sports history. Even after he was purchased by Buffalo, Bennett kept his house in Detroit and made the city his home. He was visible in the city as a celebrity and model citizen.

But Detroit was rocked on January 11, 1894, when news came that Bennett had both of his legs crushed when he slipped under a train in Kansas. His left leg was amputated just above his ankle, and his right leg was amputated at his knee. The career of the strong 39-year old, still playing professionally for the Boston club, was suddenly over. In Detroit it was hard to believe that Bennett, the symbol of Detroit’s baseball excellence in the 1880s, was now without his legs.

After the accident, Bennett returned to Detroit where he opened a cigar shop. One admirer wrote to him, “If you open a cigar store in Detroit, all the ladies will commence to smoking.” Two years later, the new ballpark in Detroit was christened “Bennett Park” in his honor. That day he walked to the mound on his artificial legs and tossed out the first pitch on opening day, a tradition he continued until 1926 (by that time at Navin Field), a year before his death.

Lions trade quarterback Bobby Layne

In the 1950s, Bobby Layne was the most electrifying quarterback in pro football and he belonged to the Detroit Lions. In both 1952 and 1953 the pass-happy QB led the Lions to the NFL title, and in ’54 he commanded them to the championship game for a third straight season. Three years later he started the season at quarterback for another great Lions’ squad but was injured in the 11th game of the 12-game season, missing the playoffs. Detroit once again won the title, making Layne a three-time champion.

Layne’s style of play and wild off the field activities endeared him to fans. He was proficient at throwing the forward pass, especially the deep ball, something few QBs did in the 1950s. Layne helped usher in a wide-open style of offensive play and his Lions were usually among the league leaders in points scored. The Texas native was excellent at orchestrating comeback victories. It was famously said that he’d never lost a game, “only run out of time.” Off the field, Layne was a hard-drinking, fun-loving good ol’ boy. His exploits in bars and at parties were legendary.

Just two games into the 1958 season, Lions’ fans were stunned when Layne was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the worst teams in the NFL. Pittsburgh coach Buddy Parker, the former head man for the Lions, desperately wanted Layne to play for his young team. Detroit made the deal feeling that Layne had passed his prime. When he retired in 1963 Layne held NFL records for most completions, yards, and touchdowns. The Lions have yet to win another title since they sent Layne packing. As a result, some claim the franchise is haunted by “The Curse of Bobby Layne.”

Gordie Howe suffers fractured skull in 1950 Stanley Cup playoffs

The Stanley Cup playoffs had just started when on March 28, 1950, Detroit fans were frightened and sickened at the sight of their best player laying motionless on the ice at Olympia Stadium. Howe had careened head first into the boards and suffered a fractured skull. He also had damage to his brain and at one point he was placed in critical condition. Careful work by brain specialists relieved the pressure from Howe’s brain and he recovered, though slowly. By April 23, nearly a month after his grizzly injury, the 22-year old Howe was able to walk onto the ice after his teammates won Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. He doffed his cap showing a bald spot where his hair had been shaved for an operation. He had more than 300 stitches and countless injuries in his long NHL career, but the 1950 head injury was the most serious and it almost cost him his life.

Barry Sanders suddenly and mysteriously retires

Just days before he was scheduled to report to the Lions for summer training camp, on July 27, 1999, Barry Sanders, the greatest running back in football, sent a letter to the Wichita Eagle announcing his retirement from the NFL. To say Detroit Lions’ fans were stunned is an understatement.

In his ten years in the NFL, Sanders was a ten-time All-Pro running back, rushed for at least 1,000 yards every season, and won the rushing title four times. In 1997 he became the third running back to go for more than 2,000 yards, an amazing feat considering he had only 53 yards through the first two games of the season. For his career, he had a 5.0 per carry average, a figure passed only by the great Jim Brown.

Why did Sanders retire? There are many theories, but the simplest is the truth: his desire to play the game at a high level had left him. Fans were in one of two camps: they either loved Barry and wished him well, admitting they would miss watching his great running style, OR they were angry that he’d quit the team. Some still have bitterness toward #20 to this day.

Lions’ receiver Chuck Hughes dies during a game at Tiger Stadium

Only one NFL player has died on the playing field, and that happened at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium on October 24, 1971. The sight was shocking: wide receiver Chuck Hughes, only 28 years old, was lying motionless on the field. Fans were silent, and teammates were inconsolable. Only 62 seconds were left in the game, but after Hughes clutched his chest and collapsed while running back to the huddle, the outcome was unimportant. After several minutes with doctors frantically trying to revive him, Hughes was rushed by stretcher to an ambulance and taken to a hospital. He died less than an hour later.

A very good eyewitness detail of the tragic death of Chuck Hughes can be seen elsewhere on our website.

Konstantinov injured in car accident days after Stanley Cup title

It had been more than 40 years since the Detroit Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup when the drought was ended in 1997. The city was in a frenzy. The team was heralded as one of the greatest in history, filled with stars. One of those stars was Vladimir Konstantinov, one of the famed “Russian Five.” Known as “Vladdie” or “Vlad the Impaler,” Konstantinov was a ferocious defender known for tough physical play. He was the epitome of Russian rugged strength and hockey dominance. But then, only six days after hoisting the Cup on the ice at Joe Louis Arena, tragedy interrupted the celebration.

On June 13, 1997, following a party, Konstantinov and a few teammates and others were riding in a limousine when the driver lost control and smashed the vehicle into a tree in Birmingham, Michigan. Konstantinov suffered the worst injuries, he was in a coma for weeks and it was unclear whether he would survive. Ultimately he did, but he was paralyzed below the chest. His legendary hockey career was over, and a black cloud suddenly hung over the Red Wings and their first title in 42 years.

The following year the Red Wings repeated as champions and in a touching moment, Konstantinov was wheeled onto the ice to celebrate with his former teammates.