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History is Written by the Victors

On November 22nd, 1963, Walter Cronkite interrupted day time television with sobering news of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Simultaneously, the destiny of the Detroit Lions next 60 years was being decided by some of the most powerful families in the world. Coincidence? Yes.

Leading up to that fateful day the Lions had been owned and operated by a number of different individuals and organizations, but in 1948 a cooperative ownership group of industrialists, led by D. Lyle Fife and Edwin Anderson, bought the NFL's last place Detroit Lions from Fred Mandel for $225,000. Fife, the President, and Anderson, the Vice President and eventually GM, did well for the city of Detroit. Between the years of 1952 and 1957 they won 3 NFL Championships (pre-super bowl era) and were consistently a top team in the league. Their success brought life back to the rabid Lion fanatics and caught the attention of the young heir to the Ford family fortune, William Clay Ford. William had recently returned from his service as a Navy Airman in World War II and married Martha Firestone, the daughter of the famed tire maker Harvey Firestone. The bonding of William and Martha undoubtedly created the most powerful industrial family in the world.

In the early 60's, a power struggle between Anderson and Fife was at it's tipping point, and William saw an opportunity to take hold of a minority ownership position in the organization that he desired to be a part of so badly. He teamed up with Anderson and won a bid for a combined 51% stake, and with that took control of the team away from Fife and his advocates. Ford and Anderson made quick business of this battle and assumed their positions as the leaders of the organization, but the conquest was not yet complete for young William. As the story goes, in 1963, just two years after becoming a minority owner, Ford purchased the rest of the organization from the remaining 144 shareholders for $4.5m. This meant the Ford family was now the sole proprietor of the Detroit Lions and the original 144 shareholders made 19x on their original investment of $225,000. All is well that ends well, right? Not quite.

It wasn't until last night when I learned the untold portion of this historical tale from the grandson of one of the 144 shareholders. He states that in 1963, William Clay and his wife Martha indeed gathered the 144 other shareholders to buy-out the team, but despite generous returns that the shareholders would yield, many of them did not want to concede their stake. It wasn't until William and Martha added an additional stipulation to the deal that the 144 began to surrender. The stipulation is not officially recorded, but according to my source the gist of it was that if you did not amicably surrender your stake to William Clay, you would never do business with Ford or Firestone ever again. In 1963, Ford made up 27% of all car sales in the U.S., second only to GM, and at the same time Firestone was making news due to a record year in profitability. For a group of industrialists living in Detroit, being blacklisted by those two companies was a death sentence, and it meant the end of whatever business they were apart of.

Since that day in 1963, the Lions have only won 1 playoff game, have a 41% win percentage and are ranked 30th in team value ($2.4bn). If nothing else, allow this story to serve as a reminder to stand-up for what you believe in even when their is an opposing force that seems unbeatable. If even 1 of the 144 industrialist shareholders maintained conviction in their beliefs they could have potentially changed the course of history for the city of Detroit and the millions of Lions fans around the world.

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