If you are a business, social or pro football Lion, you do not argue with the Ford family.
This fact of Michigan life has been made clear recently to one D. Lyle Fife, who qualifies under all three lion categories. Fife, an electrical contractor who was once president of the Detroit Lions football club and who has recently been trying to regain control of it, seemed to be making some headway until William Clay Ford, the 35-year-old grandson of Henry and brother of Henry II, aligned himself with Fife's personal nemesis, Edwin J. Anderson, the general manager of the Lions. Suddenly, from being a sort of tripartite king of beasts, Fife was changed into a latter-day Daniel in the Lions' den, with prospects of winding up as a blue plate special rather than a legend.
It all began some 13 years ago, when Anderson, Fife and some other industrialists in Detroit bought the last-place Lions from Fred Mandel. Fife became president and Anderson vice-president.
In 1949 the Lions struggled up to fifth place. In November of that year, the middle of the football season, Fife, who intended to, and eventually did, marry his secretary, Mary (Judy) Hohnstine, filed for divorce from his wife of 33 years, and a month later Mrs. Fife filed a cross action charging that he "had fled to Europe with another woman." The other woman was never named in the suit, but the Lions' board of directors, known then and now as a "country club board," did not relish that kind of publicity. At this point the stories of precisely what happened take separate courses.
"I didn't even know Fife well," Anderson says. "I hadn't met him before he joined the syndicate to buy the Lions, and I didn't get him into the syndicate. I had nothing to do with firing him as president, and I was not anxious to take over as president myself. I had a full-time job as president of Goebel's brewery."
The other version has it that Fife was indeed Anderson's close friend and, although it was in the middle of the football season, he took Anderson's advice to go to Europe until the feeling about his impending divorce calmed down.
"Fife asked Anderson to keep him informed of how things were going back home," one of the then directors explains. "Andy was his sounding board. One day Andy sent a cable that went something like, 'Things are tight, suggest you resign'—which Fife did forthwith. When he got back it was hard for Fife to tell if Andy had given him the proper steer."
At any rate, Fife was out and Anderson was in as club president. As the years passed, Fife became convinced that Anderson had very deftly eased him out. During the next decade the Lions improved so much that they won three world championships and four division titles before tailing off in 1958 and 1959. In June of 1958 Anderson was ousted from his job as president of the Goebel Brewery. The Lions, believing that Anderson had lost his job because he had devoted too much of his time to their organization, took him on as general manager at $40,000 per year.
"My work at the brewery suffered," Anderson said. "You can't split time without having something suffer."
When Anderson took over as general manager, he deposed W. Nicholas Kerbawy, an efficient ex-publicity director, who was flamboyant, exuberant and talkative. Kerbawy could have remained as assistant to Anderson, but he chose instead to take a whopping long-term contract with Fred Zollner, owner of the Zollner Piston Co. and of the Detroit Pistons professional basketball team. Zollner had high hopes that Kerbawy could bring the club to life at the box office and on the court; so far he has done neither, possibly because of his preoccupation during the past two years with Fife's efforts to unseat Anderson.
Kerbawy made common cause with Fife because he missed the glory of being general manager of the Lions and wanted it back. He has denied soliciting proxies for Fife, but it is common knowledge that he has been active in the campaign, last year and this. In a terse note informing Kerbawy that he was being put on leave of absence as Piston general manager, Zollner said: "It is common knowledge that you are active in the present situation with the Lions. This leave of absence is being granted so that you may devote full time to your other activities." Kerbawy, who knows as well as anyone the power of a Ford, denied his participation in Fife's campaign and retired to the public library, where he pored sadly over histories of the Civil War.
Fife's charges against Anderson, last year and this, have been, at best, nebulous. It is hard to impute mismanagement to the administration of a pro football team that has 1) earned as much money as or more than any other team in the NFL for the past 10 years, 2) won more championships than any other and 3) seems on the verge of winning another. Fife charges that 1) Anderson negotiated an unsatisfactory television contract when, in fact, Fife sat in on the negotiations, and the Lions, with a small network, realized the third-largest return in the league from TV; 2) Anderson let Tobin Rote go to Canada by playing out his option. The fact is, the Detroit coaches did not want Rote on the two-year no-cut contract he demanded, preferring to develop rookies Jim Ninowski and Earl Morrall, who have done very well.
The only charge that seems reasonable is that Anderson, who pleaded that he had slighted his brewery duties in favor of his football duties and was rewarded with the $40,000 general manager's job, failed to point out that he was also getting $30,000 a year for five years in severance pay from Goebel. Regardless of this, Anderson has been a good manager and, more important, he has William Ford on his side. Ford took over as president when Anderson resigned that job recently, and issued a statement in full support of Anderson. He consulted his brother Henry first, and Henry said, "Why don't you just take over, Bill?" Bill told Henry it isn't quite that simple; actually, as it turned out, it is. Since Ford became president, Fife has tried to compromise and failed. Except for C. Ray Davisson, an electrical contractor, and George Cavanaugh, he has lost most of his support and may join Kerbawy in the library soon.
When the stockholders vote on February 23, the Ford-Anderson faction will be sustained. And an informed guess is that Ford will be given the opportunity to buy 51% of the stock in the club, thus ending forever the battle between Anderson and Fife.
That will be good for the team, which is ready to make a serious run for the championship in 1961. George Wilson, the head coach, sent a letter to the 144 stockholders, asking support for Anderson in the proxy fight. Wilson, understandably, is interested only in the won-lost column. Said he: "The fight is affecting our ability to sign our draftees. We need harmony on the team, coaching staff and in the front office." Once the proxy fight is over, Wilson should have all the harmony he needs.