Thanksgiving Day. Family and friends. Turkey and stuffing. Four-day holiday. Leftovers. Day of thanks. Football.
How exactly did football join this list? Probably the same way that green bean casserole was included on Turkey Day. The Campbell’s Soup Company wanted to sell more product so in 1955 it enlisted employee Dorcas Reilly to come up with a recipe that would become an annual dish. Now, it is a staple on every holiday table. And of course, one of the main ingredients is Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.
Football on Thanksgiving Day was conceived almost the same way – as a method to sell the nation on professional football. Played on Thanksgiving Thursday, the Detroit Lions host this annual game as well as the Dallas Cowboys. Since 2006, a third game has been installed at alternate sites and decided by the league schedule makers.
But why Thanksgiving? And why Detroit?
Thanksgiving games are not a new invention for football or the NFL for that fact. In 1869 a college game was played in Philadelphia marking the very first Thanksgiving football contest. Yale and Princeton played an annual contest on Turkey Day from 1876 until 1881. One of the oldest traditions in New England is the annual high school game with Brookline against Newton North in Massachusetts which began in 1894. New York State holds their statewide high school championships on Thanksgiving weekend.
As far as pro football, the holiday was a natural draw as most Americans were off that day anyway. The New York State League, one of the precursors of the NFL, held its annual championship game on Thanksgiving Day. The Ohio League, another pro football league that led to the development of the NFL, scheduled most of its key matchups on this day in order to get major gate revenues with so many Americans idle.
Both of these former loosely-formed professional league traditions would become a standard for future major organized pro football entities.
The first organized pro football league to host a game on Thanksgiving Day was in 1926 with the first American Football League. This association was formed by C.C. Pyle, the agent of superstar Red Grange after the NFL refused Pyle’s admittance to start another New York team. The football Giants had territorial rights and the NFL simply did not want another team in the Big Apple so they turned Pyle down repeatedly. Pyle then established his own league and set up the New York Yankees as his club. The Los Angeles Wildcats and Chicago Bulls played to a 0-0 tie in front of 3,500 fans in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day.
A game on Thanksgiving in 1929 pitted the Chicago Bears against their city rival Chicago Cardinals. Ernie Nevers, the Cards star running back, scored all 40 points in his team’s 40-6 victory. Nevers’ achievement still remains an NFL record today.
Another NFL rival league, the All-America Football Conference, had annual Thanksgiving Day games the entirety of its existence from 1946-149. The first contest in 1946 pitted the Yankees against the crosstown Brooklyn Dodgers.
The last American Football League (from 1960-1969) also played Thanksgiving Day games. But this league did so because the NFL had already set a precedent for the success of the holiday time frame and the success of the gate and TV as an attraction to pro football.
Which brings us back to Detroit
Throughout the first decade of the NFL’s existence, many teams played a Thanksgiving home game including the Frankfort Yellow Jackets, Buffalo All-Americans, Canton Bulldogs, Pottsville Maroons, plus the Chicago Bears vs. the Chicago Cardinals played their annual matchup for a few seasons.
After the Portsmouth Spartans were sold to Michigan radio station owner George Richards and relocated to Detroit, Richards wanted something special that his new club could call their own. Strictly set up as an attendance boost for a day when most folks were off from work, Richards’ radio station WJR was able to broadcast the game to an NBC network audience.
So, for the 1934 season, the 10-1-0 Lions played host to the 11-0-0 Bears in front of a standing-room crowd of 26,000 fans. Another 20,000 fans were turned away because the stadium was full. 94 radio stations broadcast the event to a national following and listened intently to the 19-16 Bears narrow and exciting victory.
From there, Richards scheduled a game every Thanksgiving Day. Back then, schedules were put together by each team and regularly had non-NFL opponents to fill out a season. All Richards had to do was find an opponent and schedule it for their home field, the University of Detroit Stadium.
And it was as simple as that.
The only time the Lions have not played on Thanksgiving was the years 1941-1945 during World War II. A shortage of players during that period forced some clubs to combine rosters, close down or have abbreviated seasons.
In 1956, the first televised Lions Thanksgiving game was broadcast. In the 1960s, the league wanted to schedule a second Turkey Day game. Every NFL club turned down the opportunity citing the short week of preparation as a deterrent.
Tex Schramm, always the innovator with the Cowboys, thought the nationally televised game would give his franchise much-needed exposure and establish some popularity with areas that were devoid of NFL teams. So, in 1966 the Cowboys hosted their first Thanksgiving contest against the Cleveland Browns. With a gate of 80,259 and a 26-14 hometown victory, the trial became an annual affair just like in Detroit. At one point, several NFL owners - the same ones who turned down the proposed holiday event - filed complaints with the league and cited an unfair advantage for a road club to have to play during a short week.
Other football clubs may have invented the idea of playing games on Thanksgiving Day, but it was the Lions who made it a holiday tradition.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association