Detroiter Richard Bak has written nearly 30 books, many of them about Detroit sports legends, including Joe Louis, Turkey Stearns, Ty Cobb and Sparky Anderson. But he may have saved the best for his newest book, “When Lions Were Kings,” which chronicles the Detroit Lions’ gridiron dominance back in the ’50s.
The Lions posted a regular season record of 68-48-4 during the ’50s, which included some abysmal seasons in the later half of the decade. But it was their postseason record that soared — from 1951 through 1957 the team won four divisional titles.
Bak chronicles the team’s incredible run of postseason victories, which including three National Football League Championships against the Cleveland Browns, another football superpower at the time.
Bak brings the Lions to life through the eyes of players like Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, Joe Schmidt and my favorite, at least for having a cool name, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady.
Early in his book, Bak puts the Lions’ ’50s superpower team in perspective. He writes: “Sixty-plus seasons have come and gone since the Lions last reigned as champions, one of the longest ongoing title droughts in all of professional sports.”
The book comes to life when Bak delves into the superstars, especially Layne and Walker, and the Lions’ one-of-a kind coach, Bobby Parker.
“Despite their record, the ’50s Lions never get much respect. A lot of surviving players told me that,” Bak said.
According to Bak, part of that is due to Lions’ winning ways coming before the intersection of TV and sports.
For his book, Bak interviewed 20 former players, fans and wives. By the time he began the book, Bak said a lot of players had already died.
“Fortunately there was a tremendous lot of contemporaneous reporting — especially from the three Detroit Newspapers at the time. There also were Sports Illustrated and Sport magazine.”
“To be successful in the era of before television, teams had to fill the seats,” Bak added. And the Lions did just that. At the home field of Briggs Stadium, the team seemed unbeatable.
Bak said he uses his writing to bring sports experience to life. “I want readers to smell the wet wool, cigar smoke, hot dogs on the grill and the crackling of thousands of transistor radios.”
Like most Lions fans, Walker and Layne were his favorite players. “Overall, Doak Walker is my favorite. Doak and Bobby were best friends until they died,” Bak said.
He writes: “After a decade in the NFL, Layne, the Lion’s quarterback, was an authentic folk hero.” His off-field antics added to his reputation. Layne was charismatic and handsome, but it was well recognized that he drank and smoked heavily.
Sports fans in the ’50s liked to say Layne would start a game drunk and by the third quarter, when he was sobering up, he would be ready for another one of his remarkable come-from-behind victories.
Bak disagrees with that shibboleth. “In my books, I dispel commonly held beliefs and that is one of the myths,” he said.
That’s not to say that Bobby Layne didn’t tip a few at the Stadium Bar, or at the more infamous Lindell A.C. In his book Bak, writes: “Some have claimed the Lindell A. C. of the ’50s was the first sports bar in the country.”
Most players were rough and tumble in that era and there were numerous bar fights. Bak writes about when a number of players visited the White Spot, “an all-night burger joint in Ann Arbor,” where they got into a fight with some high school football players. Everyone was arrested. They pled guilty, received fines and were released.
There were moments where Layne’s “after dark sight-seeing” might have cost the Lions a game or two. Bak writes of such an incident during a 1953 trip to the West Coast. He writes: “As Lion’s president Edward Anderson later described it, ‘Layne was out half the night … it showed in his play, and we lost to the Rams.’”
Walker was almost a direct contrast to his best friend, Lane. Walker was no-nonsense and one of the last dual threats as a running back and kicker before retiring in 1955.
Bak writes,t after Walker thanked his coaches, teammates and other officials after his last game, he said, “Most of all, I want to thank the people out there the people in the bleachers. They have been wonderful.”
The book, totaling 376 pages, is illustrated with beautiful color and nostalgic black and white photos. Even non-football fans will revel in the writing, which captures an era when both football and the city of Detroit were on the rise.
Bak didn’t duck any of the tough topics like extreme violence, the sexual peccadilloes of the players or the “Jim Crow” attitude of the professional sports teams. As a point, Bak said, “The Lions’ championship teams did not have one black player suit up.”