News & Opinion

Will Detroit answer bell for Brown Bomber?

DETROIT – When the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings skate on home ice for their season opener tonight, they will do so inside the lavish, sparkling new downtown Little Caesars Arena, an homage to . . . the patron saint of pizza?

As Graham DeLaet, a PGA Tour pro from Canada and a hardcore hockey fan, tweeted: “So Joe Louis Arena is now Little Caesars Arena? That’s like Pebble Beach being renamed Carl’s Jr. Links.”

The late Joe Louis, the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949 and a longtime Detroit resident, was the last athlete to have a stadium or arena housing a team in one of the “Big Four” professional sports leagues named after him. “The Joe,” as it came to be called, had been dedicated to the Brown Bomber on Oct. 8, 1983, two years after he died at age 66. It wasn't that long ago that San Diego’s baseball/football stadium was named after an ink-stained wretch named Jack Murphy, until Qualcomm backed up its Brink’s truck and paid for the distinction. This story isn’t meant to be another screed on the over-commercialization of sports in this country – we already know that money talks – but rather how a city can honor an American hero. 

There is a movement afoot to name one of Detroit’s municipal golf facilities the Joe Louis Golf Course at Palmer Park.

Louis is the patron saint of Detroit sports, an American hero for his 1938 knockout of German Max Schmeling, who had become a symbol of Adolf Hitler’s reputed master race. Louis’ fight against Schmeling, in a rematch two years after the previously undefeated American had been knocked out in the 12th round by the German, had become a crusade against fascism.

So why honor Louis at a golf course? Niall Hay, an executive with Penske Automotive Group, is one of the proponents of renaming Palmer Park Golf Course in honor of Louis.

“People say to me, ‘What does Joe Louis have to do with golf?’ ” Hay said. “I tell them, ‘Plenty.’ ”

Indeed, he did. Louis was a champion of integration, inclusion and social progress. He was the first black to play in a PGA Tour event during an era when the PGA of America bylaws included a Caucasian-only rule. In 1952, sponsor Chevrolet persuaded the PGA to suspend its bylaw limiting participation to Caucasians for one week so Louis could play in the San Diego Open. The rule wasn't dropped until 1961, but Louis' participation sent a message that blacks should be eligible for the same tournaments. 

Louis loved the game, and his fascination with golf often has been blamed for his first defeat, at the hands of Schmeling on June 18, 1936, at Yankee Stadium.

“That was the year I took up golf. I shot 109 one day for 18 holes. Hype Igoe of the Journal [-American] and Walter Stewart of the World-Telegram broke me into it. John Roxborough, my co-manager, said that had more to do with my losing the Schmeling fight than anything else. He said the timing in golf is different. He says you use different muscles and you lose your speed, and that golf dries a man out fast because it takes him out in the sun. . . . I don't argue about it with Mr. Roxborough any more, but I don't like to say anything to hurt golf,” Louis wrote in his autobiography.

Palmer Park, a city-owned facility in the heart of Detroit, is where Louis learned to play the game. It now is home to a First Tee chapter. When The First Tee was launched 20 years ago, Detroit was one of the founding chapters, but The First Tee of Southeast Michigan chapter ceased operation in 2012. Hay stepped in two years ago and resurrected it, christening it the First Tee of Greater Detroit.

Already, more than 550 young people have come out to play at Palmer Park and three other local golf facilities, and more than 9,000 have participated in First Tee's National School Program. Having laid the foundation, Hay, 39, is organizing an effort to make golf a centerpiece of affecting the larger community surrounding Palmer Park, much like New Orleans and Atlanta before it.

“It would be an East Lake story on steroids because it would impact the whole area,” said Hay, who is leading the effort as board chairman of the local First Tee chapter. “You can improve this entire corridor. It would be the perfect case study.”

Naming the Palmer Park golf course after Louis would be a step in the right direction. It wouldn't, however, be the first course to be named for the boxer. Louis was a regular at Pipe O'Peace, a course 30 miles south of Chicago that was favored by the black community. It was renamed Joe Louis “The Champ” Golf Course in 1986.

Joe Louis Barrow Jr., the boxer's son and longtime executive director of The First Tee who will retire at the end of the year, penned a letter of support to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in March. “I believe the renaming will help a new generation of young people learn of his story, his contribution to golf, and most importantly, that golf is a game open and welcoming to people from all backgrounds,” Barrow wrote.

When asked about why his father’s name deserved such recognition, Barrow elaborated: “The name Joe Louis is very special because he came along at a time when the country needed a hero, and that hero came from Detroit. And I want young people to understand the impact that he had to a generation of whites, blacks, rich and poor coming out of the postDepression ’30s and ’40s.” 

So far, the mayor has been mum on plans to honor Louis once the arena that bore his name is knocked down. Naming Palmer Park's golf course after Louis would be a simple and meaningful way to honor “The Champ” and keep his name part of the Detroit sports landscape. Some might say it would be a knockout.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email:; Twitter: @adamschupak