Bobby Layne was a late-night carouser who loved Cutty Sark, cards, gambling, jazz, a roomful of drinking buddies singing “Ida Red” and picking up the tab enhanced with a huge tip.
Considered to be the first “two minute quarterback”, the swashbuckling ‘ramblin,’ gamblin’ Texan relished the challenge of coming from behind against all odds and pulling out a last minute victory in front of delirious fans at Briggs Stadium.
“I still say the one guy responsible for the success of football in Detroit was Bobby Layne,” said Lion legend Joe Schmidt, himself once voted “Mr. Detroit Lion” by a local media panel.
Some fans and writers continue to refer to the mysterious “Curse of Bobby Layne” as an excuse for the Lions’ losing ways by pointing out that ever since he was traded fifty one years ago, the team has won just a single playoff game.
However the real mystery is why the team’s most celebrated player was suddenly traded after the second game of the 1958 season.
Despite all of his success, the seeds for Layne’s eventual departure began in the last game of the 1956 season when Detroit lost the division title to Chicago. Layne was knocked out of the game on a “dirty” blindsided late hit by the Bears’ Ed Meadows and back up Harry Gilmer failed to rally the Lions.
In need of a solid back up quarterback, Detroit surprisingly picked Green Bay’s pocket and acquired Tobin Rote, the NFL’s leading passer in 1956.
The shrewd move would quickly pay off in 1957 in a season full of controversy.
Buddy Parker suddenly resigned during training camp, new coach George Wilson announced that he would alternate quarterbacks, and two weeks before the season, Layne was arrested for drunk driving. (ashamed, Layne even offered to retire). He was acquitted just days before breaking his ankle in the second to the last game of the season. Rote became the gridiron hero in leading the Lions to their third championship in six years.
As the 1958 season started, Layne and Rote still split time as they team dropped three exhibition games and the opener in Baltimore.
On the eve of the second game in Green Bay, George Wilson told the Free Press that “we have not had a solid quarterbacking job from them yet but we know what Layne and Rote can do, it’s simply a matter of getting everything working together.”
However the Green Bay game would be Layne’s last as a Lion.
Although a business friend talked him out of quitting, Layne’s wife Carol flew into Detroit. As the couple walked in the terminal, Layne was paged over the public address system. It was George Wilson who informed him that he had been traded to Pittsburgh for quarterback Earl Morrall and two draft choices. For Layne, the only consolation was that he would rejoin Buddy Parker who had taken over the Steelers.
The move sent shock waves through Detroit.
“My reaction like everyone else was ‘why?’” said Alex Karras from his home in Los Angeles. “No one could give us a real explanation and that disturbed a lot of his. Once he was gone the team just wasn’t what it used to be. It must have been something he must have done that wasn’t good for the NFL.”
Wilson told reporters that the trade had been made because it had been difficult rotating two number one quarterbacks, and by obtaining Morrall the Lions were getting a younger quarterback and two high draft choices.
However, beneath the surface, there has been speculation that Layne’s sudden departure may have been due to alleged gambling on his own games.
Former Packer Paul Hornung, who played against Layne in the 13-13 game revealed in his 2004 autobiography “Golden Boy”:
“In the second game of the 1958 season, Layne did something peculiar against our team in Green Bay. The Lions were 3 ½ point favorites and as Layne told me later, he had bet on them to cover the spread. With the score tied at 13 late in the fourth quarter the field goal team came onto the field to win the game but Layne shushed them off. Layne then overthrew his receiver in the end zone (note: this fact is wrong)and the game ended in a tie. It was obvious he had bet on the game. Layne later told me he was confident he could get a touchdown and win the game that way. Bobby gambled more than anybody who ever played football period. How did the league go all those years without ever getting him?”
Investigative reporter Dan Moldea wrote in his book “Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football” that Detroiter Donald “Dice” Dawson, a convicted gambler, told him that he had placed bets with Layne and that Layne “had fixed games or shaved points in no fewer than seven games over a period of four years while Layne played with the Detroit Lions and later the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Dawson told Moldea, “I was involved with players in at least thirty-two NFL games that were dumped or where points were shaved.” Moldea added: “Layne was thought to have shaved points or participated in the fixing of several NFL games according to several bookmakers and law enforcement officials.”
A key source for Moldea’s book was Vincent Piersante, the former head of the organized crime unit of the Michigan attorney general’s office. In the book’s footnote, Moldea writes, “Piersante told me, ‘the Detroit team management broke up the (gambling) operation. The way it was broken up was Bobby Layne was sold to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958 in midseason.”
Former WXYZ television sports anchor Dave Diles, an Associated Press reporter in the late 1950s says that getting into the gambling allegations about Layne is a little like “shooting Santa Claus”. But I heard the rumors back then and knew some Lion players very quietly discussing them and some bookmakers who knowingly smiled,” said Diles. “I did investigate it as well as I could with the Lions and NFL but I couldn’t get anywhere and couldn’t get a bookie to talk. I heard that George Wilson had no choice but to trade him.”
Towards the end of his 1962 autobiography, “Always on Sunday” published during his last season Layne, flat out denied betting on games.
“I know I’ve been accused of betting on games, especially when my team loses, but I take it with a grain of salt. Losing gamblers grumble no matter what happens. First of all, I would have to be crazy to endanger my livelihood for a few thousand dollars…..but I owe a lot to football and to jeopardize my reputation would be ridiculous. Even if I had been betting, it would have come out in the open long ago.”
Layne was never charged nor was it ever proven that he was involved with point shaving or otherwise fixing games.
He finished his career with the Steelers in 1962, and his very last pass was intercepted by friend Yale Lary of the Lions in the Runner Up Bowl in Miami.