By Tom DeLisle
I recently compiled a list of the most exasperating defeats and disappointments in my long observation of local professional sports.
In the interests of fair play and balance, it seems only fair to also look back at the greatest moments I’ve experienced in following our local teams, reflecting on the finer times I’ve witnessed across more decades than I’d like to count. My Worst Moments list constituted a baker’s dozen of defeat and despair; this compilation of golden memories will stop at ten. This IS Detroit, after all:
1. December 22, 1957: Lions at San Francisco, Western Division playoff. This is surely the greatest game in Lions history. Down 27-7 in the third quarter of this championship confrontation, the Lions roared back for a 31-27 victory that left ‘em weeping at Kezar Stadium, with Detroiters delirious in front of their TVs on a Sunday night. The then-never-champion 49ers didn’t recover until the Montana era. Tobin Rote, Joe Schmidt, and Tom Tracy led the Lions in their stunning comeback.
2. December 29, 1957: Lions vs. Cleveland, World’s Championship game. The gashouse gang that was the ‘57 Lions topped a season of miracles with an astonishing 59-14 rout of the favored Browns at Briggs Stadium. Everything they tried worked. Yup, the LIONS. Personally, my first attendance at a Lions game. I thought they’d all be this wonderful and joyous.
3. December 4, 1960. Lions at Colts. Down 15-13 after a spectacular Unitas-Moore TD pass, the Lions have time for one play. It’s a beaut–a 65 yard Morrall to Gibbons TD pass that deflates Baltimore, 20-15, and brings an end to their two year domination of the NFL, and the Lions. The Miracle on Turf.
4. Thanksgiving Day, 1962. Detroit vs. Green Bay. The Lions, again. Yes, they really USED to be that good, that colorful. This time it was the Thanksgiving domination that was as good as the historic hype. I was attending my third Lions game. It was the last great moment of a once-great NFL franchise. The Lions threw the elite Packers around like they were tackling dummies. Plum to Cogdill; Brown, Karras, Schmidt et al. to Starr. The 26-14 final was illusionary, this was 59-14 all over again.
5. October 1964, Red Wings Opening Game. One of the most amazing comebacks in major sports history begins when Ted Lindsay electrifies the opening night crowd at Olympia by skating out as a surprise member of the ‘64 Wings team. Leader of the Red Wings in their glory years, the 39-year old Lindsay had retired in Chicago following the 1960 season. Second only to Gordie Howe in local hockey esteem, the scrappy Lindsay (at 5-8 and maybe 160 pounds) helps lead the Wings to their first regular season championship since 1957 with 14 goals and 173 penalty minutes.
6. April 1966, Red Wings vs. Chicago, Stanley Cup semi-final. In the deciding game of a classic and dramatic series (remember Bugsy Watson vs. Bobby Hull?) the Wings are down 2-1 in the waning minutes, when Dean Prentice scores two electric back-to-back goals that ignite Olympia and propel the Wings into the ‘66 Stanley Cup final. A victory reminiscent of the team’s glory days, it was the last hurrah at Grand River’s glorious old barn.
7. October 1968, Game 5 of the Detroit-St. Louis World Series. Down 3-1 in the Series, trailing early in the game, the Tigers are poised at last to take the lead. At bat is Al Kaline, with everything on the line. His unforgettable single into short right/center, connecting on a wicked low-outside strike pitch, sends the Tigers ahead to stay for this game and the two that follow in St. Louis. As important as Horton’s throw to Freehan earlier in the game, it is the single that saves the Series. And a golden moment of salvation for the greatest Tiger of our time.
8. October 14, 1968, Game 7 Detroit at St. Louis. Mickey Lolich strides into local lore with the greatest pitching performance in Tigers history. His magnificent third Series victory — mowing them down at the plate and on the basepaths, cool as a cuke — reduces what Denny McLain did during the regular season nearly to insignificance. Better, our town gets to finally shove it to the Cardinals IN St. Louis some 34 years after the Cards embarrassed the Tigers in the 1934 World Series in Detroit. Real Detroiters never forget.
Okay, I was wrong. I’m not even half done, not even out of the 1960s yet, and already nearly out of space here. Who’da thunk we’d have so many glorious local moments worth recalling? Certainly not a naysayer like myself. This has been more fun that I figured. But it will have to continue with more Glorious Moments in Part Two ….