When Detroit was known as “The City of Champions”

Tigers manager Mickey Cochrane poses with heavyweight champion Joe Louis at Detroit’s Navin Field in 1937.

One does not need to be a sports enthusiast to understand that sports holds an important place in our society. It gives a city’s citizenship a sense of belonging and pride, as well as a distraction from the rain that occasionally falls into each life. During the Great Depression, people turned to baseball to cope with the ailing economy.

Consider that Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is sold out for every Packers game, whether or not the Packers are in the hunt for a playoff berth — despite, in December and January, some of the most inhospitable weather conditions in the NFL. Tickets at Wrigley Field in Chicago are hard to come by even when the Cubs are out of the hunt before the All-Star Game. And in the NHL, arenas like Nationwide Arena in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets play, are sold out whenever the Detroit Red Wings play, as are many other arenas around the league. Such is the Red Wings following.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find better, smarter fans anywhere in the country than in Detroit. The Motor City is one of only 12 cities in the country to have teams representing the four major North American team sports.

In addition to the four major team sports, in 1967, Detroit adopted a European professional soccer club in an effort to promote the game Stateside. The city was represented by the Northern Irish team, Glentoran, which played as the Detroit Cougars. Sadly, the team never qualified for the playoffs in its two-year existence.

Detroit has bid to host Summer Olympic Games more often than any other city that has yet to host the Games, placing third in 1944, behind winner London; fifth in 1952; fourth in 1956; third in 1960; second in 1964 and 1968; and fourth again in 1972.

But the decade of the 1930s was special to the city of Detroit. Beginning in 1931, native Detroiter, Gar Wood, won the Harmsworth Trophy for unlimited powerboat racing on the Detroit River. The next year, Eddie “The Midnight Express” Tolan, a sprinter and 1927 graduate from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, won the 100- and 200-meter races and two gold medals at the 1932 Summer Olympics. While Joe Louis, who came to Detroit when he was 12 years old to start his professional boxing career, won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1937. The Detroit Lions won the National Football League championship in 1935, while the Tigers won their first of back-to-back American League pennants in 1934, winning their first ever World Series in 1935 by defeating the Chicago Cubs. To top it off, the Red Wings won the NHL’s Stanley Cup in 1936 and 1937.

What makes this so remarkable is that no other city — before or since — has held championships for three of the four major North American sports at the same time. As a result of this display of excellence, Detroit was named “City of Champions” in the 1930s.

April 18, 1936, was set aside by then governor, Frank Fitzgerald, as Champions Day. The event, commemorating the championships and achievements of Detroit natives, was held at the Masonic Temple and attended by more than 600 attendees.

Other honorees included:

  • Newell Banks, 1934 World Checkers Champion
  • Constance O’Donovan and Esther Challova Politzer, 1935 national doubles tennis champions
  • Katherine Hughes-Hallett, Midwest fencing champion
  • Clark Haskins, national Amateur Athletic Union 56-pound weight champion
  • Dick Degener, recognized by many as the greatest diver of all time
  • Tom Haynie, national medley swim champion
  • International match champion Stroh’s bowling team

With so many other professional teams in the four major team sports around the country, we may never again see a city lay claim to three yet alone four championships in a single year.

4 replies on “When Detroit was known as “The City of Champions”

  • Doc Hills

    The New York Jets famously upset the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl, then that October the New York Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series. The 1969-70 New York Knicks beat LA in the NBA Finals.

  • J. Conrad Guest

    Hi, Doc. The Jet won Super Bowl III on January 12, 1969, the Mets the World Series on October 16, 1969. However, the Knicks beat LA on May 8, 1970. Those Detroit teams I mention all won championships within a period of seven months, not sixteen months, like the NY teams you hail.

    Thanks for writing.

  • James Lord

    the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox both won the championship this year, and the bruins are in the Stanley cup finals right now. Boston is on its way to doing the same as Detroit.

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