1934 Thanksgiving Day Game, University of Detroit Stadium.
Thanksgiving. The story of Pilgrims, Native Americans and the first feast has been retold and acted out in countless grade school programs. We also anticipate foods not typically served during the course of the year: an entire turkey, cranberry sauce, marshmallows melted on sweet potatoes – and no doubt dozens more. We anticipate the Christmas shopping season, and Santa simultaneously appears in multiple cities. Since 1920, whether you like it or not, Thanksgiving is also a day for football.
“But Why Detroit?”
It is hard to grow up in Michigan and not have at least seen or heard the Detroit Lions playing on Thanksgiving afternoon. Detroit has played in every Thanksgiving game since 1934. Like turkey, it’s a tradition. But why Detroit?
Detroit entered the National Football League in 1934. A local radio executive, George A. Richards, had purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved them to Detroit. The Spartans were members of the NFL from 1930 to 1933.
Richards knew it was risky to schedule a game on Thanksgiving, but the new team needed to find it’s place alongside the Detroit Tigers (1901) and Redwings (1926). By playing on Thanksgiving, the team had the nation’s attention.
G.A. Richards, Pro Football Hall of Fame
A Detroit Tradition
On somewhat short notice, the Lions played the Chicago Bears at the University of Detroit stadium. 26,000 tickets were sold two weeks prior to the game. Despite the fact that the Bears won the Turkey Day clash 19-16, the experience was a success. In 1935, Richards signed up for the holiday game again. This time, Detroit beat Chicago in a game that propelled them to win the 1935 NFL Championship–in their second year! (The Tigers also won the World Series that year and the Redwings the Stanley Cup in 1936. Take that, Great Depression!). The enthusiasm and success of the new organization’s Thanksgiving Day game sealed the tradition for Detroit, and that tradition has been in place ever since.
While the Detroit Lions claim the longest run of Thanksgiving Day games, the Detroit Herald Football Club was the first Detroit team to participate in a Thanksgiving clash. The Heralds played the Dayton Triangles on Thanksgiving Day 1920. This was one of six separate professional football games played in the United States that day. (Click here to see a list of all Thanksgiving Day games 1920-2008).