Hugo Bezdek

Hugo Bezdek: The Scandal

Hugo Bezdek was a man who played professional football BEFORE he played in college, and later went on to become the only person who coached an NFL team as well as managed a major league baseball team.

Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

Early Life

His name was Hugo Bezdek and he was born on April 1, 1884 in Bohemia, or what we now call the Czech Republic. His family immigrated to the United States a few years later and eventually settled on the south side of Chicago. Hugo was short, generously listed as 5-7, but stocky, and enjoyed all types of sports, including baseball, boxing, and football—the rougher the better. However, Bezdek preferred the game of football, but was out of luck in that area since Lake High School, which he attended, did not field a football team.

Morgan Athletic Club Days

Instead, Hugo learned of a new organization in the area called the Morgan Athletic Club and joined the club’s football team in 1900 at the tender age of 16.  Not only did he play in the backfield for the Morgans, but he was also considered an assistant coach!

Oregon University Head Coach Hugo Bezdek poses with 2 unidentified men between 1913 and 1917
Photo Courtesy: University of Oregon Digital

For those who closely follow the history of the NFL’s Cardinals, the team was part of the Morgan Athletic Club in 1900 before changing over to the Cardinals Social and Athletic Club in 1901. During both of those seasons (while he was still in high school) Bezdek excelled on the field. In 1900, he scored a touchdown for the Morgans in a 22-5 win over the neighboring Dearborns. It should be noted that at the turn of the century, most of the local semi-pro clubs took the name of their “home” street as their team name. Hence, we would have the Morgans, the Dearborns, the Aberdeens, and the Halsteds all playing in the local organized leagues. Players could earn extra money through individual or team bets. For example, it was not uncommon for the teams to play each other with a $100 pot going to the winner.

As mentioned, in 1901, players from the Morgans started the Cardinals Social and Athletic Club and claimed the city championship with a 4-0-1 mark. Bezdek was mentioned in the sparse newspaper coverage by the Chicago Daily Sun for his work in the championship game, a 14-5 win over the Columbias: “Bezdek, star end of the Cardinals, carried the ball to the Columbias’ 50-yard line. And from this point the ball was finally sent across Columbias’ goal line.”

Anyway, Bezdek played two seasons with a team that would rightly be called “professional” according to the strict rules of the day, before he entered the University of Chicago in 1902 to play for the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg. Bezdek quickly earned his first letter as a freshman in 1902 and would go on to earn All-American recognition for the Maroons as a fullback and lead the club to the national championship in 1905 with an 11-0 record. That season concluded on November 30, 1905 when Chicago knocked off the unbeaten University of Michigan 2-0, ending Michigan’s 56 game undefeated streak. At no time was the question of Bezdek’s previous football playing experience with the “pros” ever mentioned. This was a bit surprising since Coach Stagg staunchly opposed the idea of individuals playing football for money, a stand that Stagg continued to support for the next couple of decades.

The Scandal

And yet, Bezdek himself was the object of a sports scandal in October of 1904 (his junior year) when the University of Illinois accused him of being a professional: not in football, but in boxing! If the news was proven to be true, Bezdek would have lost his remaining two seasons of college eligibility in all sports (he was also an excellent baseball player). While Bezdek and the University of Chicago vigorously denied the accusations, the story reached the media that Bezdek did indeed fight professionally on March 21st, 1900 at the Crystal Athletic Club where he earned the lofty sum of $12.50 per fight. He would have been just 15 years old at the time. Could this be possible?

The Indianapolis Star reported that a broken-down bantamweight boxer named Myron Faglin claimed that a fighter named Young Hugo was actually Hugo Bezdek, the aforementioned football stud at Chicago. Fagin said: “Young Hugo, the boxer, was a big, husky fellow, weighing about 170 pounds. I saw him box on several occasions. I also saw Bezdek, the crack football player in his armor three or four times. I am positive that the two are identical.”

It was later revealed that Fagin had been offered $100 to create and share the story of Bezdek’s “professionalism.” Eventually, Bezdek was deemed innocent of the professionalism charges in April of 1905 and went on to his greatest season on the gridiron the following autumn. However, there was never a mention that Bezdek once played for the Cardinals before college…which would have likely made him ineligible at the University of Chicago.

Following his graduation from the University of Chicago, Bezdek went on to a stellar career as a coach, landing first at Oregon, then later at Arkansas and Penn State.

Arkansas football team photo 1908
Photo courtesy: Louisiana State University Digital

He is also the only coach to bring three football teams (Oregon, Penn State and the Mare Island Marines) to the annual Rose Bowl. Here’s another piece of Bezdek trivia. While coaching Arkansas, then known as the Cardinals, Bezdek compared his players to a bunch of angry Razorbacks, and that nickname has stayed with the team since then!

In addition, Hugo Bezdek is the only person that has coached an NFL team (Cleveland Rams) as well as a major league baseball team (Pittsburgh Pirates). Ironically, as the head coach of the Rams in 1937, Bezdek lost a pair of games to his very first football team: the Chicago Cardinals. Among his many honors, Bezdek is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, but today, we recall Mr. Bezdek as one of the most influential members of the early Chicago Cardinals!

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