Peerless Portsmouth and Detroit, the City of Champions
How the Portsmouth Spartans Helped the Detroit Lions Win the 1935 NFL Championship
Detroit native and sports historian Tom Eurich knows the story better than anyone. Eurich explains that when the team moved to Detroit, with thirteen of the twenty-five Spartans -- highlighted by one of the greatest players ever, Earl "Dutch" Clark, moving north, it was hard scrabble for them.
"It was very difficult. First of all, when they came to Detroit, we were in the midst of a tremendous depression. In Michigan, the Detroit area was dedicated to the University of Michigan. When the Spartans announced they were coming to Detroit, it didn't go very well; they were basically lost. A lot of them have never been to Detroit before. They didn't know where they were going to play. They went to the old David Field, they did not want them. They ventured up to Ann Arbor to the University of Michigan Stadium. They didn't want them. The NFL was putting tremendous pressure on them because they had to have a stadium and finally they found a little stadium way out in the hinterlands at Cranbrook."
The defense for that 1934 Lions team only allowed 58 points in 13 games. Then, all of a sudden, the people of Detroit began to embrace them.
In 1935, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series, but the Lions came stumbling out of the gate, in last place as late as November 11th. Then the miracle comeback, manifesting itself in the form of the 1935 NFL Championship. That year, the Lions played their home games at University of Detroit Stadium. They finished the regular season 7-3-2 and continued to the postseason. They faced the New York Giants and won 26-7, clinching the title. The leading offensive players were Dutch Clark, who led the NFL with 55 points, and Ernie Caddel, who led the League with 621 yards from scrimmage and 6.4 years per touch.
That Lions team joined an astounding 33 (at last count) national and world sports champions from Detroit, including the Tigers in baseball, the Red Wings in hockey, Joe Louis in boxing, Walter Hagen in golf, Gar Wood in speedboat racing and so many more.
"In 1936, they celebrated the anniversary of the City of Champions," Eurich explains. "There were 139 participants that were champions of almost all of the sports known. And there were [twelve] of the original Spartans there that were in that group. And Portsmouth, Ohio was never mentioned. Portsmouth, Ohio was a forgotten city. And when I interviewed the players in 1985, there were ten of them. And there were three original Spartans that played in Portsmouth. And when I interviewed the players and sat with them at their table at the reunion in 1985, I said I would do everything I could -- it raised a tear to my eye a little bit -- to help Portsmouth know that they were included in the City of Champions."
To mark the 90th Anniversary of the Iron Man Game a new sign was installed at Spartan Municipal Stadium that memorializes the site as the "Original Home of the Portsmouth Spartans / Detroit Lions," and an historical plaque, fabricated by OSCO, Inc., was attached to the structure that reads:
"Peerless Portsmouth and Detroit, the City of Champions. In 1935, when the Detroit Lions won the NFL Championship, twelve of the Lions were former Portsmouth Spartans, nine of whom had played in the Iron Man Game of 4 December 1932. Donated by Tom Eurich (2022)."
Originally, twelve Portsmouth Spartans had their contracts renewed in Detroit. "Dutch" Clark, who was not on the 1933 Spartans roster, would join the Lions later, bringing the total number of former Spartans in Detroit to thirteen. They included: (1) Maury Bodenger, (2) Ernest Wiley "Ernie" Caddel, (3) Glenn E. Presnell, (4) Roy "Father" Lumpkin, (5) Le Roy Erwin "Ace" Gutowsky, (6) William "Bill" McKalip, (7) Harry Joseph Ebding, (8) George Washington Christensen, (9) Clare Randolph (10) "Ox" Emerson, (11) John Benjamin Schneller, (12) Granville Myrick "Buster" Mitchell, and (13) "Dutch" Clark.
In 1935, when the Lions won the NFL Championship, the precursor to today's Super Bowl, there would be twelve former Spartans on the team (Bodenger played only the 1934 season in Detroit). Nine of the original eleven Portsmouth Iron Men would help win the championship. And, in that sense, one can argue that it was the Portsmouth Spartans who won the NFL Championship for Detroit in 1935, making these Spartans and Peerless Portsmouth part of the City of Champions.