Welcome to the 1880s. Baseball fever is sweeping the country! Urban centers boast professional teams of paid, recruited players, like the Detroit Base Ball Club pictured on the trade card below, part of the National League from 1881 to 1888. (The Detroit Tigers were created in 1901, as part of the newly organized American League.) The Detroit Base Ball Club is gaining some notoriety. They'll win the pennant (the forerunner of the World Series) in 1887, beating the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in 10 out of 15 games.
Trade Card for the Detroit League Base Ball Club, Sponsored by "Splendid" Plug Tobacco, P. & G. Lorillard, 1886 / THF225148
Chief among the team's heroes is star catcher Charley Bennett (pictured upper right). Charley is the first professional-league catcher to wear a chest protector outside his uniform. Detroit fans so adore him that they will name their first official ballyard Bennett Park. Charley is the team's "muscle"; center fielder and team captain Ned Hanlon (pictured center) is its "brains."
The passion for baseball is equally evident in small-town America. Amateur clubs show up just about anywhere that nine men can agree on a time and place to practice. Games against rival towns and villages engender fierce local pride. Over in the village of Waterford, Michigan, some country lads have formed a team called the Lah-De-Dahs. Their exploits are well documented in the local newspaper. On September 2, 1887, local fans will smile to read, "George Wager is the best catcher in the township and of the Waterford nine; if he fails to catch the ball with his hands he will catch it with his mouth."
The back of the trade card features an ad for Lorillard’s “Splendid” plug tobacco, as well as the home and “abroad” schedules for Detroit. / THF225149
See the Lah-De-Dahs in Action
Would you like to see the Lah-De-Dahs in action? You can, every summer in Greenfield Village. Our own team borrows the look and playing style of an 1880s amateur baseball club like the original Waterford Lah-De-Dahs.
When you go to a Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village game, you will notice some different baseball terminology. For example, instead of "batter up," the umpire will declare "striker to the line." When he notes "three hands dead," he simply means that the side is retired.
Visit a Historic Base Ball game this summer and learn some new terminology for yourself!
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This article was adapted from the May 1997 entry in our previous “Pic of the Month” online series.
The Base Ball Player's Book of Reference, by Henry Chadwick, 1867 / THF214794
Almost 40 years before Major League Baseball's first World Series, the city of Detroit hosted the "World's Tournament of Base Ball."
On July 14, 1867, the Detroit Free Press carried an announcement of the tournament, which was held at the grounds of the Detroit Base Ball Club from August 14 to August 21. The international tournament attracted teams from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ontario. When Detroit hosted the World’s Tournament in 1867, it announced it would abide by the rules as published in Henry Chadwick’s book, Haney’s Base Ball Player's Book of Reference. Chadwick and Albert G. Spalding were the two individuals who helped baseball achieve national prominence.
Trade Catalog, “Black Band” Spalding Bat / THF624007
Chadwick, a New York sportswriter, immigrated to the United States from England as a boy. He reported on baseball games and created a system for scoring games that continues to appear in sports pages today as the box score. Chadwick also authored a number of instructional books on how to play the “national game.” Books such as Chadwick’s helped create a uniform game, and promote baseball as acceptable recreation for men, and appropriate for men, women, and children to watch. Chadwick also authored the annual publication Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide until his death in 1908.
Albert G. Spalding started his baseball career as a player, and later became a manager and president of the Chicago White Sox, which at the time was part of the National League. Spalding also created a popular sporting goods company, specializing in baseball equipment. The popularity of Spalding equipment is represented in photographic images from the late 1800s. The individual player shown above has a Spalding bat, and Spalding bats may be seen in the team photograph below of the Round Oak Club of Dowagiac, Michigan.
In the early 20th century, Spalding and Chadwick put forth different versions of the origins of the game of baseball. Chadwick had long asserted that baseball developed based on British bat and ball games, such as “rounder." In an era of American nationalism, Albert Spalding hoped to find an American source for the game. He cajoled professional baseball to appoint a commission in 1905 to investigate the origins of the game. Chaired by A.G. Mills, the commission received a letter from a Denver, Colorado, engineer by the name of Abner Graves, asserting that Graves was present when Abner Doubleday developed the game in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Chadwick responded with evidence detailing the history of English bat and ball games without avail. Spalding’s zeal to establish baseball as a purely American game, and his connections within the commission, compelled the group to recognize the circumstantial evidence and acknowledge Doubleday as baseball’s founder.
If only someone had bothered to research Doubleday’s life, it would have revealed that he was at West Point in 1839, and could not have devised baseball in Cooperstown, as many now believe. In actuality, games of baseball (or “base ball,” as it was spelled into the early 20th century) were reported in newspapers in the 1820s. The Knickerbocker Club of New York is credited with formulating the nine-player team format that eventually led to the formation of the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1858. Pitching was done underhanded and balls caught on the fly or the first bound were outs. The rules continued to evolve into the game that is now America’s pastime.
"American Sports, Base Ball, Striker & Catcher" Plate, circa 1850 / THF135816
"On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 10, at the farm of Louis Bradley, might have been seen a small gathering of people. They came to see the final game between the Lah-da-dahs, of Waterford, and the White Lakes of Webster neighborhood."
–Pontiac Bill Poster, September 14, 1887
In the 1880s, many Michigan towns supported baseball teams, including Waterford, in Oakland County, but the game's history goes back further. The game of base ball (as it was often spelled into the 1890s) had its origins in a number of children's games, but especially a British game called "Rounders." Rounders rules called for the game to be played on a diamond, with a striker (batter) who faced a feeder (pitcher).
The American game of base ball gained in popularity in the mid-1800s, so much so that English ceramic makers produced dishes such as the "Base Ball" plate above, depicting a "Striker & Catcher," to appeal to American consumers. American interest in base ball in the late 1800s is evident in the production and marketing of such a plate.
Americans purchased these English-made ceramics to celebrate their national game, but base ball did not have all the regulations we know in modern baseball today. Until the 1880s, rules stated that the pitcher had to deliver the ball underhanded with a straight arm. The batter could call for a high or low pitch. A high pitch was considered one between the belt and shoulders, and a low pitch was to be delivered between the belt and knees, a range close to the modern strike zone. Balls and strikes were usually not called until the 1870s.
Some rules called for home plate to be made of marble or stone, but there was no batter's box, only a line that bisected the plate. Consequently, today's historic base ball umpires will frequently signal the start of a game by calling, "Striker to the line!" Early rules discouraged, and often forbade, players being paid.
You can browse artifacts related to both the early and more modern forms of baseball in our Digital Collections. Or, if you want to see vintage base ball firsthand, check out the schedule for the Greenfield Village Lah-De-Dahs, who borrowed the name of the old Waterford team. The Village nine suit up to play teams from Ohio and Michigan throughout the summer as a part of Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village. Though the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was not written until 1908, you might hear the band play it. If you wish, you can sing along and cheer on the base ball strikers for the Lah-De-Dahs.
This post was adapted from the July 2000 entry in our former Pic of the Month series.
A new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories has made its debut in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our What We Wore exhibit. With spring here and summer on the horizon, this time it’s a look at garments Americans wore as they delighted in the “sporting life” in their leisure time.
By the 20th century, recreational sports were an increasingly popular way to get exercise while having fun. Most Americans lived in cities rather than on farms—and lifestyles had become less physically active. Many people viewed sports as a necessity—an outlet from the pressures of modern life in an urban society.
The easy-to-ride safety bicycle turned cycling into a national obsession in the 1890s. At the peak in 1896, four million people cycled for exercise and pleasure. Most importantly, a bicycle meant the freedom to go where you pleased—around town or in the countryside.
Women found bicycling especially liberating—it offered far greater independence than they had previously experienced. Clothing for women became less restrictive while still offering modesty. Cycling apparel might include a tailored jacket, very wide trousers gathered above the ankles, stockings, and boots. Specially designed cycling suits with divided skirts also became popular.
Columbia Model 60 Women's Safety Bicycle, 1898. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. H. Benjamin Robison. / THF108117
This 1895 poster for bicycle road maps offered a pleasant route for cyclists north of New York City. / THF207603
Young men and women enjoy cycling and socializing in Waterville, Ohio about 1895. Gift of Thomas Russell. / THF201329
Baseball has long been a popular pastime—countless teams sprang up in communities all over America after the Civil War. During the early 20th century, as cities expanded, workplace teams also increased in popularity. Companies sponsored these teams to promote fitness and encourage “team spirit” among their employees. Company teams were also good “advertising.”
Harry B. Mosley of Detroit wore this uniform when he played for a team sponsored by the Lincoln Motor Company about 1920. Of course, uniforms weren’t essential—many players enjoyed the sport while dressed in their everyday clothing.
Baseball glove and bat, about 1920, used by Harry B. Mosley of Detroit, Michigan. / THF121995 and THF131216
The H.J. Heinz Company baseball team about 1907. Gift of H.J. Heinz Company. / THF292401
Residents of Inkster, Michigan, enjoy a game of baseball at a July 4th community celebration in 1940. Gift of Ford Motor Company. / THF147620
The game of golf boomed in the United States during the 1920s, flourishing on the outskirts of towns at hundreds of country clubs and public golf courses. By 1939, an estimated 8 million people—mostly the wealthy—played golf. It provided exercise—and for some, an opportunity to build professional or business networks.
When women golfed during the 1940s, they did not wear a specific kind of outfit. Often, women golfers would wear a skirt designed for active endeavors, paired with a blouse and pullover sweater. Catherine Roddis of Marshfield, Wisconsin, likely wore this sporty dress for golf, along with the stylish cape, donned once she had finished her game.
Dress and cape, 1940–1945, worn by Catherine Prindle Roddis, Marshfield, Wisconsin. Gift in Memory of Augusta Denton Roddis. /THF162615
Golf Clubs, about 1955. Gift of David & Barbara Shafer. / THF186328
Woman putts on a golf course near San Antonio, Texas, 1947. / THF621989
Clubhouse at the public Waukesha Golf Club on Moor Bath Links, Waukesha, Wisconsin, 1948–1956. Gift of Charles H. Brown and Patrick Pehoski. / THF622612
Swimming had become a popular sport by the 1920s—swimmers could be found at public beaches, public swimming pools, and resorts. In the 1950s, postwar economic prosperity brought even more opportunities for swimming. Americans could enjoy a dip in the growing number of pools found at public parks, motels, and in suburban backyards. Pool parties were popular—casual entertaining was in.
For men, cabana sets with matching swim trunks and sports shirts—for “pool, patio, or beach”—were stylish. The 1950s were a conservative era. The cover-up shirt maintained a modest appearance—while bright colors and patterns let men express their individuality.
Cabana set with short-sleeved shirt and swim trunks, 1955. Gift of American Textile History Museum. / THF186127
Advertisement for Catalina’s swimsuits—including cabana sets for men, 1955. / THF623631
In the years following World War II, the number of public and private swimming pools increased dramatically. Shown here in this June 1946 Life magazine advertisement, pool parties were popular. / THF622575
Swimming pool at Holiday Inn of Daytona Beach, Florida, 1961. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Moores. / THF104037
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Opening Day is behind us, so baseball season is now in full swing (pun intended), and the return of Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village is just around the corner. Celebrate this beloved sport with a few artifacts and stories from our collections.
H.J. Heinz Company Baseball Team, circa 1907 / THF292401
The H.J. Heinz Company, at the forefront of employee welfare during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, offered many recreational activities for its workers. This photograph from 1907 shows the Heinz company baseball team, comprised of its employees.
Portrait of a Baseball Player, circa 1880 / THF94413
In the decades following the Civil War, base ball clubs came to represent a community’s identity and honor. Players donned colorful uniform shirts to make the team readily visible to its supporters and opponents alike.
This bright red wool base ball shirt is a great example of uniforms of that time. The oversized “A” would have identified the community, company, or school the team represented, while the “BBC” stood for “Base Ball Club” – the two-word phrase later changed to “baseball” in 1884.
World Tournament of Historic Baseball in Greenfield Village, August 2007 (Photographed by Michelle Andonian) / THF52274
In 1867, Detroit hosted the World Base Ball Tournament. To commemorate this event, Greenfield Village hosts the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball every summer—one of the finest exhibitions of historic base ball in the country, playing by 1867 rules.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball was canceled last year, but it will be back in 2021! Until then, you can learn more about historic baseball at Greenfield Village by watching this video.
Deborah Sussman began her design career as an intern at the Eames Office in 1953. There, over the course of a decade, she was promoted to an art director and worked on graphic design, exhibitions, films, toy design, packaging, and photography. In 1963, she acted as designer for the “Beware of Imitations” image below, with Charles and Ray Eames as creative directors. Appearing as an advertisement in Arts & Architecture magazine, it celebrated Eames-designed furniture produced by Herman Miller. The image is a fascinating herald, hinting at how Sussman’s approach toward the power of large-scale graphics to communicate within environments would define her future vision.
Herman Miller “Beware of Imitations” Advertisement. / THF147716
The foundation image was printed to poster size and affixed to the outside wall of the Eames Office, where it was photographed in situ. The weathered brick wall, scrabbly Californian plant life, and spray-painted stencil additions surrounding the paste-up add texture to the image, revealing it to be evidence of a process. An image at the Library of Congress takes us one step further into this moment, revealing Sussman pasting up the original work.
If you look closely toward the bottom left of this image, you will also see a bouquet of flowers on a placard with the text, “Zeeland, Michigan.” Zeeland is, of course, home to the Herman Miller company, but the floral design has its own interesting lifespan. It appears on Herman Miller’s stock certificates and on the underside of a kiosk designed by the Eames Office for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Sussman is credited with contributing to both projects.
Kiosk from the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. / THF156766
Detail of the underside of the IBM Kiosk. / THF171121
Sussman left the Eames Office temporarily to continue her design studies through a Fulbright scholarship in Germany, but was eventually “lured back” to California to work on the Mathematica exhibit. When The Henry Ford acquired the 1964 version of the Mathematica exhibit (now on permanent view in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation), extensive research was undertaken in the Charles & Ray Eames Papers at the Library of Congress to create the most historically accurate version of the exhibit possible. Photographs at the Library of Congress documented numerous contributions made by women to the exhibit’s design, including Sussman, Ray Eames, and many others. Sussman, for her part, once recounted setting the type for the mathematician biographies that appear on the History Timeline and also appears in a photograph working on the graphics for the base of the Multiplication Cube interactive.
Detail of the Multiplication Cube from the Eames Office-designed Mathematica exhibit. / THF164150
Detail of the History Timeline in Mathematica. / THF170845
In 1968, Sussman formed an independent design practice as Sussman/Prejza & Co. with her husband, Paul. Together they designed things like the “urban branding” for the cities of Long Beach and Santa Monica, California, and wayfinding signage for Walt Disney World and EuroDisney. Her favorite kind of work involved vibrant, larger-than-life graphic and typographic treatments installed in architectural spaces and outdoor urban areas. For this work, she is credited as a pioneer of “environmental design” and “Supergraphics.”
Design Preview / Brand Identity Guidelines for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. / THF287946
This approach is especially obvious in her design identity work for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The look and feel of the LA Olympics—created by Sussman/Prejza & C0. in collaboration with the Jerde Partnership—transformed the city of Los Angeles. The holistic plan was for “an energetic montage of color and form [to] appear on everything from tents to tickets.” There were 43 art installations, 28 game venues, 3 Olympic villages, and wayfinding signage. There was a monumental 145-foot tower of colorful scaffolding erected in Exposition Park. Color-coded gateways and walkways lined with concrete “Sonotubes” wrapped in bright abstract graphics. Uniforms for officials and volunteers.
An entire issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the project, in which the designers explained their hopes for a successful event as “a modern environment that recalls the imageable qualities of a medieval jousting festival” and one that anticipated that “the city will be transformed overnight, as if an invasion of butterflies has descended upon it.”
Souvenir Street Banner designed by Deborah Sussman for the LA 1984 Olympics. / THF171692
Color played an essential role in unifying the visual language of color, graphics, and typographic treatments. Notably, Sussman broke away from the palette of traditional red, white, and blue, and captured the “Southern California spirit” through shades of vibrant magenta, vermillion, aqua, purple, and sunset orange. A favorite quote in the Design Quarterly issue states: “The glorious colors—the banners, the kiosks and booths, even the trash cans and hot dog napkins—were happily original, all Toyland confetti, in light and airy shades all their own. We get enough of red-white-and-blue everywhere else, don’t we?”
Partial credit to Sussman’s approach can be connected to her early training at the Eames Office, where her mentors emphasized the value of playfulness. There, she had the opportunity to document festivals in other countries. She learned to appreciate folk art and the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Rim. And the “kit of parts” approach to design was part of everyday life at the Eames Office too, which undoubtedly influenced Sussman’s own adaptable “visual alphabet” for the 1984 LA Olympics. Today, her contributions for this and other projects stand as beloved and masterful examples of environmental graphic design. Like many designers who passed through the Eames Office, Deborah Sussman took what she learned, remixed it, and made it an evolved and color-saturated language all her own.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Winter weather means winter sports and activities: skiing, ice racing, ice boating, sledding, ice hockey, and even snowball fights. Throughout the archival collections in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center, images, brochures, pamphlets, and books shed light on the various activities people participate in during the cold months of the year. Below are some of the highlights from January’s virtual History Outside the Box, which was featured on The Henry Ford’s Instagram and Facebook Stories.
Winter morning at the corner of Canfield Avenue and Second Avenue in Detroit, Michigan, circa 1905 / THF110432
Grayling, Michigan, became a winter sports destination in the 1920s and 1930s, with toboggan runs, a hockey rink, and a ski jump dotting the landscape. A yearly carnival was held, with the crowning of a winter Sports Queen. This image shows the 1939 Winter Sports Queen, holding snowshoes, standing next to a Mercury V-8.
Grayling Winter Sports Queen with Mercury V-8, January 1939 / THF271673
Skiing, and ski jumping, have been popular in Iron Mountain, Michigan, for over 100 years.
8th Annual Kiwanis Ski Club Tournament, Iron Mountain, Michigan, February 1941 / THF272300
Ice skating has been a popular wintertime activity for over 150 years. And yes, even Henry Ford would get in on the fun.
Jump on the Weiser Railroad and take a tour of Greenfield Village and eventually, you’ll see a lush patch of grass behind Cotswold Cottage. It may just seem like an open field until you listen to your fellow passengers, as I did this past week.
“That’s where we watched the baseball game,” said one mother to her kids.
“Remember when we saw the Lah-De-Dahs play here? That was so cool!” said another family to each other. Then they are told that the season has been canceled, and a wave of disappointment hits.
Do we understand that it had to be done to ensure the safety of visitors, volunteers and staff? Sure. Does that make it any easier to accept? Not at all.
During the second weekend of August, the attention of everyone is usually focused on this seemingly unassuming patch of grass behind Cotswold Cottage. Groups of people from all over the Midwest put on uniforms reminiscent of 1867, bring a bat they made themselves, leave their gloves at home and prepare for two days to relive the glory of their times. Visitors bring their chairs, find a spot on the hill with plenty of shade, pick up a free program, and keep track of the day’s results. The kids who come don’t see computer programmers, lawyers, government employees, or professionals. They see ball players that they want to emulate. The players sign an autograph and pause for a picture to help commemorate the occasion. Sure, we would love to raise a trophy, but the best reward is the sight of our spectators coming back day after day, year after year.
The historic base ball program here at The Henry Ford brings together families by giving them something familiar—with a twist. A children’s game played by men in knickers might gain a laugh or two until you see how hard they can hit the ball or catch it without the aid of a glove. The World Tournament of Historic Base Ball is the culmination of a season’s worth of work by our home clubs, the Lah-De-Dahs and Nationals, while at the same time welcoming in multiple other teams from around the Midwest. It’s a vital part of The Henry Ford’s summer lineup of events, because it demonstrates our strength in the living history field, tells the American story through ball and bat and shows our visitors how innovations turned a kid’s game into America’s pastime.
Baseball Bat Presented to John L. McCord for First Prize at the World's Tournament of Base Ball, 1867 / THF8654
The original World Tournament was held in Detroit during the summer of 1867 (why the Lah-De-Dahs and Nationals play by the rules of that year). The hosts, the Detroit Base Ball Club, had an exciting 1866 and were hoping to make Detroit into a new Midwest hub of base ball (written as two words at the time) and to answer the question, “Who is the best team in the world?” At the conclusion, the Unknown Base Ball Club of Jackson, Michigan, won the first-class championship and earned $300 as well as a beautiful rosewood bat. Unfortunately for the Detroit club, 1867 didn’t pan out the way they would have liked, and the World Tournament would go into a 136-year hibernation.
In 2003, the World Tournament was reborn here at Greenfield Village. The Clodbuster Base Ball Club of Ohio would win three of the first four events (2004 was rained out with no definitive winner other than “Mother Nature”). The Lah-De-Dahs would win their first crown in 2007 and then add three more titles in 2008, 2016, and 2018. The Saginaw Old Golds have won the most World Tournaments, with six total.
It is, however, a much larger event than just watching the games (though for many visitors, that is enough to keep them entertained). The Dodworth Saxhorn Band plays songs of the 19th century with instruments of the period. Kids can test their skills on the Village Green along with a hands-on display of the game of cricket, one of baseball’s forefathers. In recent years, there was a pop-up exhibit featuring artifacts, including the original rosewood bat won by the Unknowns in 1867, as well as modern trophies created by the Liberty Craftworks pottery team for presentation to that year’s winning teams.
We may not be back this season but rest assured: To those disappointed fans who pass Walnut Grove on the train, we will be back! We hope you will be, too!
Jeff “Cougar” Koslowski is a volunteer with The Henry Ford’s Historic Base Ball Program.
Ring received by Charlie Sanders when he was enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. THF165545
The Henry Ford has in its collection this commemorative bust and ring that had once been owned and cherished by Charlie Sanders, Detroit Lions tight end. He had received these items when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 4, 2007, along with five other players.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame was created in Canton, Ohio, in 1963, to commemorate the game and players of professional football. As of 2017, 310 players are enshrined here, elected by a 46-person committee that is mostly made up of members of the media. An Enshrinement Ceremony is held annually in August. Thousands attend this ceremony and millions more watch and listen as the nationally televised event unfolds.
Sanders is one of 19 Lions enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Seven of the 19 are African American, including Lem Barney, Barry Sanders, and Dick “Night Train” Lane.
Charlie Alvin Sanders (1946-2015) was born in rural Richlands, North Carolina, where his aunt raised him after the death of his mother when he was only two years old. At age 8, after his father got out of the military, the family moved to Greensboro—a hotbed of racial tension, most famously the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.
He graduated from James B. Dudley High School (Greensboro’s first all-black public school, established in 1929). There he starred in football, baseball, and basketball. His dislike of Southern racial attitudes discouraged him from attending North Carolina’s Wake Forest University; he decided instead to play football at the University of Minnesota.
The Detroit Lions chose him in the third round of the 1968 NFL Draft. Initially, he wasn’t sure about playing for Detroit after witnessing the civil unrest in that city in 1967, reminding him of the racial tensions in the South when he was growing up. He almost went to Toronto to play hockey, but the Lions offered him a contract he decided to accept.
Sanders has been considered the finest tight end in Detroit Lions history. He played for the Lions from 1968 to 1977, totaling 336 career receptions (a Lions record that would hold for 20 seasons) for 4,817 yards and 31 touchdowns. He was also known as a superior blocker.
The tight end was a unique offensive position that, depending upon the coach’s strategy, can assist with blocking for the running back or quarterback as well as receive passes. Greater use of the tight end as a receiver started in the 1960s. Sanders proved to be the Lions’ “secret weapon” in the passing game during a period when the right end was primarily a blocker. He was one of the first tight ends who brought experience in both college football and basketball, and he had great leaping ability, big hands, strength, speed and elusiveness—traits not common for tight ends of his era. Hall of Fame Cornerback Lem Barney claimed, “He made some acrobatic catches. I’m telling you, one-legged, one arm in the air, floating through the air almost like a Superman. If you threw it to him he was going to find a way to catch it.”
Sanders grew up in an era that marked the transition between legally upheld segregation in the South and increasingly prominent roles of African Americans in all aspects of sports—on the playing field, in media, and as decision-makers in coaching and management. He came of age at a time when the black athlete in Detroit aspired to a more activist role in social and business matters. He spent much time in the company of Lions teammates Lem Barney and Mel Farr and Pistons star Dave Bing. Referring to themselves as “The Boardroom,” they frequently conducted meetings in which they discussed the importance of black athletes being defined by more than simply their on-field exploits.
Sanders’ look defined African American players of the 1970s. As writer Drew Sharp remarked, “He wore the huge Afro. His helmet couldn’t cover it all. It looked cool. It looked defiant. And, quite frankly, it was the only motive for any kids in my northwest Detroit neighborhood to buy a Lions helmet at that time because they wanted their Afros sticking out from the back.” He also sported a heavy Fu Manchu mustache at the time.
Bust received by Charlie Sanders when he was enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. THF165545
During his 10 years playing for the Lions, he was chosen seven times for the Pro Bowl (NFL’s All-Star game) from 1968 to 1971 and 1974 to 1976—more than any other Hall of Fame Tight End. He was also chosen for NFL’s All-Pro team in 1970 and 1971 (made up of players voted the best in their position during those two years) and for the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team. In 2008, he was chosen as a member of the Lions’ 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
During an exhibition game in 1976, Sanders injured his right knee, ending his career. After retirement, Sanders served as a color analyst for Lions radio broadcasts (1983-1988), worked with the team as an assistant coach in charge of wide receivers (1989-1996 – mentoring players who would themselves go on to earn a place in the Lions’ record book), returned to radio broadcasting in 1997, then joined the Lions’ front office as a scout. He became the team’s assistant director of pro personnel in 2000, holding that role until his death on July 2, 2015.
Sanders had also worked in the team’s community relations department and did much charitable work, serving as a spokesman for the United Way and The March of Dimes. He created The Charlie Sanders Foundation in 2007, providing scholarships for high school students in Michigan and North Carolina, and began the “Have a Heart Save a Life” program within the foundation.
Sanders spent 43 years with the Detroit Lions over parts of five decades, the longest tenure of anyone outside the Ford family. Sports blogger “Big Al” Beaton wrote about him, “…as a kid growing up in the 70’s, my favorite Lion was Charlie Sanders….We all wanted to emulate Charlie Sanders. In my mind Sanders was the best tight end I’ve ever seen play.”
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
If you've visited Ford Field to see a Detroit Lions game, chances are you've see a neon sign that now hangs over the Pro Shop. And if you've visited Henry Ford Museum to explore Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, chances are you've seen that same sign here, this time a replica that looks like a lot like the original.
We had a chance to talk with our partners over at the Detroit Lions to learn a little bit more about this familiar sign.
The sign was created in 1963 when Mr. William Clay Ford, Sr. bought the club and was hung in the Detroit Lions Headquarters. The logo on the sign came from a patch that was worn on the team’s blue blazers that they would wear when travelling.
The Lions organization, along with the neon Lions sign, then moved to the Silverdome in 1975.
When the organization moved to Ford Field in 2002, the sign was left at the Silverdome. Ford Field Director of Sports Events Danny Jaroshewich brought it to Lions President Tom Lewand’s attention that the sign was left and suggested that it be brought to the new offices at Ford Field. The sign was sent to be refurbished before being placed above the Pro Shop, where it is still currently hung.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford