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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Detroit Lions Uniform and Team History

Please click on the evolution of the Lions uniform poster above for a close-up version of the poster. The descriptions below give you some insight and background about the uniforms and/or eras depicted in the poster.

Fall 2022: To purchase a reasonably priced 8" x 24" plaqued mounted version of the Lions poster that's ready to hang on your wall, please visit Heritage Sports Stuff.

Detroit Lions 1935 uniform
In the 1920's, three different attempts to establish a pro football team in Detroit failed: the Detroit Heralds in the American Professional Football Association (later named the NFL) lasted only 4 games into the 1920 season but came back for 7 more games in 1921; the Detroit Panthers in the NFL in 1925 and 1926; and the Detroit Wolverines in the NFL in 1928.

But in 1934, Detroit radio executive George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth, Ohio Spartans for the then remarkable sum of $8,000 and moved the franchise to the Motor City, where it remains to this day – fourth time lucky!

The Portsmouth Spartans joined the NFL in 1930. In 1932, they played in one of history's most pivotal games, a hastily-scheduled NFL championship game against the Chicago Bears. The game was won by the Bears 9-0 in the first ever INDOOR pro football game, played December 18, 1932 in Chicago Stadium because of inclement weather. By winning, the Bears ensured themselves of the ‘World’s Champions’ title in what was the first ever NFL playoff game. What made the game even more important, however, is the fact that the NFL changed as a result of the game: the decision was made to divide the league into two divisions, and an annual NFL title showdown was established between the winners of each division.

Unlike the three earlier Detroit teams, the 1935 Lions were loaded with some of the finest players of the day. The team leader was Dutch Clark, a triple-threat star (and the last NFL drop kicker) who became a charter member of the Hall of Fame.

After going 7-3-2 and winning the 4 team Western Division in just their second year in Detroit, the Lions won the NFL championship in 1935 beating the New York Giants 26 – 7 in front of 15,000 fans at the University of Detroit Stadium. Those early successes (they finished 10-3 in their first year in Detroit) firmly established pro football in Detroit and for more almost 70 years the sport has been an integral part of the Michigan sports scene.

The Lions name was simply chosen by team owner George Richards. “The lion is monarch of the jungle,” a team spokesperson said, “and we hope to be the monarch of the league.” Our guess is the fact that the long established baseball Tigers also had some bearing on the name choice, but it’s just a hunch.

The 1935 uniform consisted of a simple blue jersey with white numbers and white pants. The helmet, on the other hand, was silver.

Detroit Lions 1938 uniform
In 1938 the Lions moved from the University of Detroit Stadium to Briggs Field, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, where they stayed for 37 years until the end of the 1974 season. Briggs Field was later named Navin Field and then Tiger Stadium, and the Tigers stayed there until the end of the 1999 baseball season, another 62 seasons.

The Lions continued their winning ways, going 8-4 in 1936 and 7-4 in 1937, but had the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Packers and the Bears. And 1938 was more of the same as the Lions went 7-4 but finished a game behind the 8-3 Packers.

An interesting sign of the times was the fact that Bill Shepherd, the Lions great fullback, rushed for 455 yards in 11 games and finished 3rd in total rushing yards, behind league leader Byron “Whizzer” White of Pittsburgh who amassed 567 yards (this is the same Whizzer White who would go on to greater fame as a Supreme Court Judge).

This jersey is once again a simple blue top with white numbers, and the helmet is silver. The blue of the jerseys is sometimes referred to as a Hawaiian blue. Note the pant extensions designed to protect the kidneys from side blows.

Detroit Lions 1948 uniform
After enjoying a pretty successful first decade, the Lions took a step backward in the 40’s, having just two winning seasons (1944 & 1945). The 1948 Lions had a tough season, going 2 and 10, finishing in fifth (last) place.

The only Lions to be among the league leaders in any offensive category was halfback Bill Dudley, who scored 6 TD’s and booted 30 extra points and 5 field goals for 81 points scored.

As shown here, the Detroit Lions wore red jerseys for a short period of time in 1948 and 1949. This radical departure was thanks to the Lions new coach - shortly after a syndicate headed by Edwin J. Anderson purchased the Detroit franchise in 1948, Alvin "Bo" McMillin, a successful coach at Indiana University, was named head coach and general manager. One of McMillin's first acts in his new duties was to change the color of Lions game uniforms. According to the 1948 Detroit Lions Media Guide, he did just that and brought Indiana's coloring scheme with him.

We have read that not only were red jerseys worn, but that black jerseys with white numerals were also worn in 1948. The all-black uniforms were worn for big games, much like how Notre Dame wears green uniforms. The Lions, however, did not fare well in 1948 and finished with a 2-10 record. In 1949, the Lions brought back the Honolulu blue and silver uniforms for home games, but continued to wear the scarlet uniforms on the road. That season, Detroit finished 4-8.

In 1950, the Lions abandoned the scarlet uniforms and returned to the Honolulu blue and silver coloring scheme. Because it was costly to purchase the uniforms, McMillin decided to keep the red jerseys have the team wear them during practices and scrimmages. Thus some people have seen photos of Doak Walker (who played for the Lions from 1950 - 1955) wearing a red jersey - this was actually a shot of him in his red practice uniform.

A note about the facemask, or lack thereof: Almost all players in this era played without face masks, and many would continue going mask-less well into the 50’s, some as late as 1960.

Detroit Lions 1952 uniform
The 40’s behind them, the Lions practically owned the 50’s.

It was the 50’s that saw the Lions enjoy their finest years ever, as they won four division titles and three league championships (1952, 1953 and 1957). Among the stars on those teams were such future Hall of Famers as quarterback Bobby Layne (1950-57), running back Doak Walker (191950-55), tackle-guard Lou Creekmur (1950-59) and defensive back Jack Christiansen (1951-58).

The Lions tied the LA Rams for first in the 6 team National Conference with identical 9-3 records, and thus had to play a one game playoff against the Rams. For reasons that are slightly unclear to me (perhaps because they won both regular season games vs the Rams), the playoff game was played in Detroit at Briggs Stadium. In front of 47,000+ fans, the Lions handed the Rams a 31-21 loss to advance to the NFL Championship game. This was the 5th such playoff game needed to decide a division winner since the NFL began two division play in 1933 (1941, 1943, 1947, 1950 and 1952).

In the NFL Championship, the Lions took on the powerful and favorite Cleveland Browns in front of 50,000+ at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. In a game that was statistically dominated by the Browns (the Browns had 22 1st downs to Detroit’s 10), the Lions came out on top 17-7 on the strength of their great defense, Bobby Layne’s 7 for 10 passing and Doak Walker’s 67 yard touchdown run.

In 1952 the Lions’ home jersey was again a Hawaiian blue with white numbers. But interestingly, for what we believe to be only one season, the helmet has changed to a gold color.

Detroit Lions 1954 uniform
Before we head to 1957, lets touch on the Lions’ championship season in 1953, when they went 10-2 to win the West outright. They faced the Browns yet again, only this time the game was in Detroit. In a hard fought game, the Lions came from behind in the 4th to edge the Browns 17-16. This time, however, the Lions held the edge in play (18 1st downs to Cleveland’s 11).

And in 1954, the same two teams went at it again. Finally Cleveland came out on top, winning handily in Cleveland by a 56-10 count in a game that was remarkably close statistically except for the 6 interceptions thrown by Bobby Layne.

Detroit Lions 1957 uniform
From 1950 to 1957 the Lions had only one losing season (1955), and during this stretch they went 61-33-2. In fact, the Lions enjoyed their finest years in the 1950's, when they won four division titles and three league championships (1952, 1953 and 1957).

This is the first road white jersey we have seen in the poster, and it features the addition of blue stripes, and numbers, on the sleeves. After a brief hiatus in 1952 when the helmet was silver, and perhaps 1955-ish when the helmet was blue for one season, the helmet is once again silver. Note the addition of a face mask on this helmet (by now the majority of players wore face masks, although Bobby Layne would play without one right into the 1960 season).

In 1957 the Lions tied the San Francisco 49ers with similar 8-4 records, and this time the Lions headed west to break the tie (as in 1952, I’m not sure what the criteria was to decide where the playoff game was played – this year each team won their home game against the other). After being down 27-7 in the 3rd quarter, the Lions roared back to steal the game 31-27 over the 49ers in a game played in San Francisco at Kezar Stadium.

And who do you think the Lions faced in the NFL Championship? Of course, the Browns. And turnabout being fair play, the Lions slammed the Browns 59 - 14 in a game played in Detroit at Briggs Stadium before 55,000+ screaming fans. The hero this time out was QB Kyle Rote, who (with a little help from halfback Howard Hopalong Cassady) completed 13 of 22 passes for 296 yards and no interceptions.

Detroit Lions 19365uniform
As the NFL and AFL are locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of football fans, the Lions are purchased for $4,500,000 in 1964 by William Clay Ford.

Meanwhile, on the field the first half of the 60’s are pretty kind to the Lions as they have winning seasons 4 of the 1st 5 years. In 1965, however, the Lions fall below .500 with a 6-7-1 record, good only for 6th in the 7 team Western Conference. One star is kickoff return specialist Tommy Watkins, who gains 584 yards via kickoff returns. But perhaps the most amazing stat of the season is the 1544 yards gained by Cleveland running back Jim Brown in his 9th and last season in the NFL – in second place was Gayle Sayers of the Bears with 867 yards.

This is once again a blue jersey with white numbers on the front and on the sleeves above the triple white stripes. The blue in this jersey is slightly toned down from the brighter blues of the 40’s and 50’s. Note also that this is the first time we have seen the Lions logo on the helmet although it made its first appearance several years earlier.

Detroit Lions 1969 uniform
The period of time between 1966 and 1969 warrants a bit of explanation. The 8 team AFL began in 1960 as a rival league to the NFL - both leagues competed head to head for players, fans and TV revenue. And thus it was for 5 years - two separate leagues, two separate champions (although few people would have honestly believed that the AFL champion could have beaten the NFL champs). Then in 1965 the two leagues agreed to merge. It was decided that beginning in 1970 there would be only one league, the NFL, and that between 1966 and 1969 the AFL Champion would play the NFL Champion for the “World Championship”. It was only after the first World Championship had been played in 1966 that the name “Super Bowl” came into being.

Thus the 1966 season saw the first meeting of the AFL and NFL champions, with the NFL Champion Green Bay Packers humbling the AFL’s KC Chiefs 33-10. (Even though the game was played in 1967, most football historians refer to this as the 1966 Super Bowl because it was the culmination of the 1966 season.) The NFL superiority was on display again in 1967, when the NFL’s Packers pounded the AFL’s Raiders 33-14. Then came 1968 and the stunning upset - the AFL’s NY Jets shocked the football world by beating the NFL’s heavily favored Baltimore Colts 16-7.

After that great buildup, I wish we could report that the Lions took on the AFL’s best in 1969, but the truth is that the Lions finished a very respectable 9-4-1, but well behind the Vikings’ 12-2 record and therefore out of the playoffs.

On this blue jersey we see the patch on the left shoulder marking the NFL’s 50th anniversary. This patch was worn by all 16 NFL teams in 1969, but not by any AFL squads. When I see this jersey I can just about see the great and charismatic Alex Karras, the 6’ 2” 250 lb. defensive tackle for the Lions roaming the field in search of prey. Karras played 12 straight years for the Lions, never missing a game from 1958 until his final year in 1970.

Detroit Lions 1974 uniform
The Lions have been looking for their fourth NFL title for almost 20 years (they won it all in 1952, 1953 and 1957), but the 70’s won’t be their decade. While they had great players in the 1970’s - such as Joe Schmidt, Yale Lary, Lem Barney and Dick "Night Train" Lane, each of whom has been elected to the Hall of Fame—the best the Lions of the 70’s could do was slip into the playoffs once, and even then it was as a wildcard team in 1970.

In 1975, the Lions left Tiger Stadium (where they had played since 1938) for a new home, the 80,494-seat Pontiac Silverdome, a then state-of-the-art facility in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, MI.

On this white road jersey we see short sleeves for the first time on a Lions jersey as well as an attractive silver outline around the numbers – now this is a good looking uniform. The lion on the helmet now has also has a white outline around it.

Detroit Lions 1980 uniform
As much as the 1970’s weren’t particularly kind to the Lions, the 1980’s may have been worse. The Lions will finish above .500 only twice, and make the playoffs only once, in 1983. They exited just as quickly, although the 1983 season is memorable because the Lions are paced by superstar running back Billy Sims, who played just 5 short years (1980-84) before retiring.

As for 1980, the year of this jersey, the Lions finished 9-7 and Billy Sims gained a very respectable 1303 yards – 5th in the league. This white road jersey hasn’t changed much over the years, the only minor change is perhaps the width of the white area between the sleeve stripes.

Detroit Lions 1991 uniform
The Lions returned to respectability in the topsy-turvy 90’s. Over the 10 year period, the Lions almost establish a pattern of finishing .500 or better one year, then below .500 the next. They end the decade with five winning seasons, one .500 season and 4 losing seasons.

The great news is that the Lions won division titles in 1991 and 1993, and in 1991, they won their first playoff game since1957 (they only made it to the playoffs 3 times since 1957 and lost all 3 in the first round).

In 1991, however, the Lions finish a terrific 12-4 under coach Wayne Fontes, and win the NFC Central. After clobbering the Cowboys 38-6 at the Silverdome, the Lions advanced to the NFC championship game for the first time in franchise history. Alas, they came up against the inspired Redskins, who cruised to a 41-10 win en route to their 3rd Super Bowl Championship in 9 years.

If you look closely at this jersey, you will note a smaller patch of the NFL shield on the jersey’s neckline. Most NFL uniforms added the NFL logo patch to the neck and upper left thigh of the pants beginning in 1991 - an exception being in 1994 when teams occasionally wore "throwback" uniforms celebrating the NFL's 75th anniversary.

The “JRT” patch on the left side is in honor of Russ Thomas, the team’s much loved General Manager who passed away suddenly before the season began.

Detroit Lions 1994 uniform
After falling to a 5-11 record in 1992, the Lions came back in 1993 with a 10-6 record to capture their 2nd NFC Central Championship in 3 years.

In 1994, the Lions finished tied for second in NFC Central with a 9-7 record. They would go to the playoffs only to lose an wild NFC Wildcard game 28-24 in the 4th quarter to the Green Bay Packers.

During this 1994 season, the NFL and its franchises were showcasing ‘throwback’ jerseys, or replicas of older uniforms to help commemorate the NFL’s 75th anniversary. The 75th anniversary was also commemorated by the diamond patch on the upper left part of the torso - this patch was worn on all 1994 jerseys whether they were "throwback" jerseys or not. Every NFL team wore a throwback jersey for one or more games during the 1994 season, and the Lions wore this one to celebrate their 1957 Championship season.

One note about the uniform: If you look closely at almost all NFL uniforms worn from 1991 on, you’ll note a small NFL shield patch on the jersey’s neckline. Most NFL uniforms added the NFL logo patch to the neck, and to the upper left thigh of the pants, beginning in 1991. The only major exception to this practice was in 1994 when the teams wore their throwback uniforms – in these instances, as is the case here, most teams did not wear the NFL shield patch.

Note also the Lions’ throwback helmet – like it’s 1957 counterpart, there is no logo on this helmet – it’s amazing how naked the helmets look without logos on them.

Detroit Lions 1998 uniform
Proving there is life after Barry Sanders (he retired at the end of the 1988 season), the Lions go a respectable 8-8 on the season and sneak into the playoffs with a .500 record, a rare occurrence in the NFL playoff structure. In the playoffs the Lions come up short against the Redskins by a 27-13 score in DC.

This is a white jersey with blue pants, the first time we’ve seen the Lions in blue pants. While this is a departure, I’d say it’s a great look, one we hope the Lions will hang on to. The helmet is traditional with the lion logo on it.

One note about the uniform: If you look closely at almost all NFL uniforms worn from 1991 on, you’ll note a small NFL shield patch on the jersey’s neckline. Most NFL uniforms added the NFL logo patch to the neck, and to the upper left thigh of the pants, beginning in 1991. The only major exception to this practice was in 1994 when the teams wore their throwback uniforms – in these instances, most teams did not wear the NFL shield patch.

Detroit Lions 2000 uniform
This blue jersey shows that the numbers have moved from sleeves to the shoulders. The sleeve stripes are an attractive combination of silver and white stripes. Note that the blue of the jersey has become a little bit deeper blue than say 1991, although this may not be the official party line, the naked eye usually doesn’t miss a trick. The helmet is still the traditional silver and lion logo.

On the field the 2000 Lions went 9-7 but missed the playoffs by a single game. Statistically, the team is lead by QB Charlie Batch, running back James Stewart and receiver Johnnie Morton.

Detroit Lions 2003 uniform
After losing their final 8 games of the 2002 season, head coach Marty Mornhinweg was let go and disgruntled San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci was brought in to replace him.

The Mariucci-led Lions got off to a great start with a solid 42-24 win over the Arizona Cardinals at Ford Field under the leadership of QB Joey Harrington who threw for 4 touchdown passes. However the joy would be short lived as the Lions lost their next 6 games, and also lost rookie WR Charlie Rogers for the season to a collarbone injury. The Lions finished the season in last place for the third straight year, but this time at least it was with a record of 5-11, an improvement over the two previous years (2-14 in 2001 and 3-13 in 2002).

The strange thing about these Lions, they would play solid football all season at home at Ford Field (they went 5-3 at home) but on the road they lost all 8 games for the 3rd season in a row, thus establishing a new NFL record for futility with 24 straight road losses.

Prior to the 2003 season, the Lions completely redesigned their uniform and while it took fans some getting used to, it has been fairly well received. This 2003 home uniform features some subtle yet significant changes that truly enhance the style, but still keep it tied to the team’s traditional look. The new jerseys integrate a new color for the Lions – black – please note the black sleeve stripes, black trim around the numbers, black around the collar, and black cuffs on the short sleeves. Also featured in this jersey is the teams nickname “Lions” in black block letters under the collar.

The silver helmet with the Lions logo remains much the same as previous years, but the logo is now outlined in black.

If you look closely at this, and every NFL uniform worn from 2002 onward, you will notice an “NFL Equipment” patch on the jersey’s neckline and on the upper left thigh of the pants. This “NFL Equipment” patch is larger (it’s a bit bigger than the size of a golf ball) than the previous “NFL shield” patch (about the size of an average postage stamp) that had been worn on uniforms in the same two places almost without exception since the 1991 season.


Celebrate the Lions' uniform history by owning a piece of history:
If you love the Detroit Lions and the history of the Lions franchise, you might really love to own an original piece of artwork celebrating the team's historic uniforms as seen in the poster at the top of this blog - you can actually own one of those original pieces of art! There are only 16 pieces of original art available for sale, and when these 16 are sold, that's it, they're all sold out.

These original watercolor paintings would make a great gift (birthday gift, anniversary gift, retirement gift, Christmas gift, etc.) for someone you love or even a great gift for yourself (one of these framed pieces would look fantastic in your home or office). Each piece can be bought one of three ways:
1. As unframed art that you could have framed or mounted yourself (the one on the left)
2. Framed in our "Classic" framed version (the middle version)
3. Framed in our "Deluxe" framed version (the version on the right)

If you would like more information about this great artwork including the three ways you could purchase each piece, please visit our Detroit Lions YouTube video at or go directly to the artwork website where you can see and purchase the artwork.

And if someone you know loves the history of sports uniforms (but maybe another team) and loves great art, please let them know that we have over 1500 pieces of great original artwork for sale at (all NFL teams, all MLB teams, all NHL teams, all CFL teams, select NCAA football teams) or check out each team's video at the Heritage Sports Art YouTube Channel

And please search my blog archive for other blogs on the history of the Lions.


This blog was written by Scott Sillcox and was last updated August 17, 2010. I have tried to ensure the accuracy of the information, but I am human and can make mistakes. If you believe I have made a mistake, please let me know by email at !

Many thanks!!!

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