The NFL was founded way back on September 17, 1920, in Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile auto showroom by owners and representatives of 10 teams. Four more teams ended up joining the league, making the NFL original teams tally up to 14 for the league in the first season.
This was a big deal, because believe it or not, Pro Football played second fiddle (if that) to College Football during the early parts of the 20th century. It was difficult to maintain order for the professional ranks, thus the need for this league.
And what better way to celebrate the NFL’s 100th birthday than to go back and relive the stories of the original teams? That’s what this week’s episode of The Football History Dude has in store for you. We also have the “Knights of Football History” roundtable to share the origin of each team.
You should listen to the full episode, but also below is even more information provided by the football history experts in “The Ultimate Guide to the NFL Original Teams.”
I highly recommend you use this table of contents hovering at the top of your page to go back and forth between the team and expert you’re interested in learning more about.
Jump To Your Team (Minimize to the Right --->)
Note – As an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases
Take My DeLorean Back In Time
This time as we step off the Delorean, the date is November 6th, 1869, in New Brunswick, New Jersey to witness a very special event. On this day, about 100 spectators witnessed history. Rutgers took on New Jersey (later the name changed to Princeton).
The game? Well, this is where it gets good, because this was the first American football game to be played. Now, it didn’t look anything like it does today, but it was a start.
During the early days it was still basically rugby, and it would remain the same for roughly the next 7 years. Then, the man we talked about in the very first episode of this podcast got involved.
His name was Walter Camp, aptly referred to as the Father of American Football, for his contributions to changing the game away from rugby/soccer to more of a resemblance of what we watch today. Of course, it still looked way different than what we are used to seeing nowadays. But we were on our way.
Over the next decade and a half, Walter Camp and his buddies continued to evolve the game to something we are more familiar with. Then, on November 12th, 1892, everything changed. This is when the subject of the 2nd episode of the podcast was paid $500 by Allegheny Athletic Association to play a game of football against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.
The man’s name was William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, a standout at Yale. Thus, becoming the first known player to be paid to play football, but it wasn’t realized he was the true first until about 80 years or so after the event. This is because in 1895, John Brallier was the first openly paid player.
We found out in a few episodes ago from Joe Horrigan how it was found out to be Pudge and not Brallier. Go back and listen. It was an interesting conversation.
Then a few years later a team was formed, which brings us to the point where I’m going to tell you about the special episode we have for you. We gathered experts for sort of a roundtable, if you will, to discuss the original teams of the NFL.
The reason? Because tomorrow we celebrate the 100th birthday of the NFL, which if you’re listening to this in the future, the NFL’s birthday is September 17th, and the league will be 100 years old this year (which is 2020).
The reason why we bring up September 17th is due to an event that happened in 1920 when Ralph Hay brought together other owners in his Hupmobile auto showroom to finalize the formation of what would end up becoming the National Football League. We covered this in depth in a couple different episodes, as well, but what we’re going to do this week is beyond that.
So sit back, strap on your seat belt, and get ready for the wild ride before you. This is “The Ultimate Guide to the Original NFL Teams.”
Akron Pros : By Ken Crippen
Ken is the president and former executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. He has been researching and writing about pro football history for over twenty years. In that time, he has published two books and numerous articles. He has also won multiple writing awards, the latest being the 2012 PFWA Dick Connor Writing Award for Feature Writing. In 2011, he was awarded the Ralph Hay award by the PFRA for lifetime achievement in pro football history. His writing has been featured on National Football Post, Cold Hard Football Facts, The Packer Report, and Coffin Corner. I have also appeared on Fox Sports Radio, ESPN Radio, and WGR (Buffalo). More on Ken in episode 121.
Ken Crippen Books
Akron Pros - The NFL's First Champion
It’s time to dig deep into the archives to talk about the first National Football League (NFL) champion. In fact, the 1920 Akron Pros were champions before the NFL was called the NFL. In 1920, the American Professional Football Association was formed and started to play. Currently, fourteen teams are included in the league standings, but it is unclear as to how many were official members of the Association.
Different from today’s game, the champion was not determined on the field, but during a vote at a league meeting. Championship games did not start until 1932. Also, there were no set schedules. Teams could extend their season in order to try and gain wins to influence voting the following spring. These late-season games were usually against lesser opponents in order to pad their win totals.
Peggy Parratt Comes to Town
To discuss the Akron Pros, we must first travel back to the century’s first decade. Starting in 1908 as the semi-pro Akron Indians, the team immediately took the city championship and stayed as consistently one of the best teams in the area. In 1912, “Peggy” Parratt was brought in to coach the team.
First "Legalized" Forward Pass
George Watson “Peggy” Parratt was a three-time All-Ohio football player for Case Western University. While in college, he played professionally for the 1905 Shelby Blues under the name “Jimmy Murphy,” in order to preserve his amateur status.
It only lasted a few weeks until local reporters discovered that it was Parratt on the field for the Blues. When brought before the university’s Athletic Board, Parratt admitted his wrong-doing and was subsequently barred from all intercollegiate play. He was the first college star to be disciplined by his school for playing professional football.
He finished the 1905 season with the Lorain Pros before he moved on to the Massillon Tigers in 1906. That year, October 25 specifically, Parratt threw a pass to Dan “Bullet” Riley. That is considered by some to be the first forward pass in a professional football game. Parratt continued his pro football career with the Franklin Athletic Club before he returned to the Blues as player-coach-manager in 1908.
In 1909, the Blues tied the Akron Indians for the state championship and won it outright in 1910. Shelby would again see themselves in the championship game in 1911, this time against the Canton Pros. A disputed offside ruling during the game angered Canton to the point of forfeiting. Parratt joined the Akron Indians in 1912 and immediately changed their name to Parratt’s Indians, but the little known Elyria Athletics took the championship.
Parratt immediately set out to raid the champion Elyria roster and brought back the 1913 crown after a 9-1-2 season. They repeated as champions in 1914 with an 8-2-1 record. Of note during that season, in their November 15 matchup with the Canton Pros, Akron fullback Joe Collins tackled center, Harry Turner, breaking his spine and severing his spinal cord. He died a short time later.
Akron’s roster was decimated in the offseason.
The Massillon Tigers and Canton Bulldogs stole the bulk of Parratt’s players and the 1915 season was a disaster for Parratt. Going 1-4-2, including four games played as the Shelby Blues, was enough for Parratt and he left to head up the Cleveland Tigers.
1916: Leading Up to the NFL
The 1916 squad was reorganized by Howe Welch, footballer out of Case, and brothers “Suey” and “Chang.” The Akron squad also picked up a sponsor in the Burkhardt Brewing Company, namely Gus and Bill Burkhardt. The team was renamed the Akron Burkhardts and went 7-4-1 for the season. However, that sponsorship only lasted one season as Stephen “Suey” Welch and Vernon “Mac” McGinnis bought the team and renamed them the Akron Pros.
Welch and McGinnis brought in Al Nesser, the youngest of the seven Nesser brothers that played for the Columbus Panhandles between 1904 and 1922. Alfred “Al” Louis Nesser did not play college football but started immediately in the pros with the Columbus Panhandles in 1910.
He stayed on and off with the team through 1919, with stops on the Canton Bulldogs, Massillon Tigers, as well as the Akron Pros. The 1917 incarnation of the Akron team went 6-2-0 before temporarily disbanding during World War I. They retook the field in 1919 as the Indians, with “Suey” Welch out and Ralph “Fat” Waldsmith, Art Ranney, and Park “Tumble” Crisp joining McGinnis as owners. Waldsmith played for the Indians in 1914 and the Canton Bulldogs in 1916. Crisp played for Canton in 1916 and Akron in 1917.
The new owners brought in halfback Fritz Pollard, who was one of the first African-Americans (along with Bobby Marshall) to play in the NFL in 1920. Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard played his college football at Brown University. He graduated in 1919 and joined the Akron Indians to start his professional career.
After the 1919 season, the team was sold to Art Ranney, an Akron businessman and former player for Akron University, and cigar-store owner Frank Neid. The Indians’ name was sold to “Suey” Welch, who fielded a team in 1921. Welch later became a successful boxing promoter and was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame. His brother Charles “Chang” Welch also became a boxing promoter.
A New League on the Horizon
Even though it had been attempted previously, 1920 saw yet another push to form a professional football league. Teams in the mythical “Ohio League” saw clubs from other parts of the country draw more fans to the games, which obviously translated to increased revenue for the teams participating.
The fear was that more talented players would be drawn away from the smaller Ohio towns to other cities in search of larger salaries. Something needed to be done to keep the Ohio teams on a competitive level with organizations from outside of the Buckeye state.
The first step was taken on August 20, 1920, when four of the Ohio League teams met at Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio. Hay owned the Canton Bulldogs and was joined by his star player Jim Thorpe. Also at the meeting were Frank Nied and Art Ranney of Akron, Jimmy O’Donnell and Stanley Cofall of the Cleveland Tigers, and Carl Storck of the Dayton Triangles.
Since no minutes were recorded for this meeting, the final outcome is a bit of a mystery, but a few things could be ascertained from media accounts of the event. First, the name of their new “league” was to be called the American Professional Football Conference, and Hay was elected Secretary. Now, the focus could shift to the major issues facing those teams. Players were running from team to team to collect a paycheck.
The members wanted this to stop and agreed to refrain from enticing players to leave their current club. Next, they needed to get player salaries under control, so they introduced a salary cap. Finally, they needed to address the increasing row between colleges and professional clubs with respect to undergraduate players. Colleges increasingly frowned on their players involving themselves in professional contests.
The members of the league agreed to not allow these undergraduates to play on their squads. With that, all of the major issues addressed, they needed to get outside clubs to join and agree to the aforementioned stipulations.
Would All the Hard Work Be Forgotten?
All of the work that came out of the meeting would be for naught if only the four attending clubs were members of the league. They needed to bring in the organizations they most feared would induce their players to leave.
Hay was responsible for contacting top-notch professional clubs in the surrounding states to have them attend the next meeting. Before that, however, the league received letters from three clubs, expressing interest in joining. The first was from Leo Lyons of the Rochester Jeffersons.
Actually, it is not absolutely certain that the letter was from the Jeffersons, but since they were by far the strongest Rochester team, it can be assumed that it was from the Jeffersons. Couple that with the fact that Leo Lyons attended the follow-up meeting to the August 20th affair, it is safe to say that the letter was from the Jeffersons.
Leo had always pushed for a league and when he heard that there was the possibility of one forming, it is assumed that he jumped at the chance to participate and sent the letter. The second letter was from Buffalo. Again, since no meeting minutes were recorded, there is no way to be absolutely certain who wrote the letter, but it is assumed that it was the Buffalo All-Americans, who were essentially the 1919 Buffalo Prospects under new management.
The third letter was from Hammond, but it is unclear as to which Hammond team sent the letter. The Hammond Pros attended the second league meeting, but the Hammond Bobcats were also a strong contender in the area. The answers to these questions remain to this day.
A New League is Born
The second league meeting was held on September 17, 1920, in Canton. Hay and Thorpe were there, along with previous attendees Nied, Ranney, Storck, Cofall, and O’Donnell. New to the meeting were Leo Lyons of the Rochester Jeffersons, Doc Young of the Hammond Pros, Walter Flanigan of the Rock Island Independents, Earl Ball of the Muncie Flyers, George Halas and Morgan O’Brien of the Decatur Staleys, and Chris O’Brien of the Chicago Cardinals.
One of the first items to come out of this meeting was to change the name of the league to the American Professional Football Association (APFA). Next up was to choose the leadership. Jim Thorpe was elected as president, Stanley Cofall was elected vice-president and Art Ranney took the secretary-treasurer position.
With the leadership in place, they could now get down to the details. Young, Flanigan, Storck, and Cofall were responsible for drawing up a constitution and bylaws. It was also decided that each team would provide a list of all players used during the 1920 season and that this list was to be provided to Art Ranney (Association Secretary) by January 1, 1921.
This was in reference to teams enticing players to jump teams, the only of the three items that actually addressed the reasons why the league was formed. The league was shaped up as follows: Akron Pros, Buffalo All-Americans, Canton Bulldogs, Chicago Cardinals, Chicago Tigers, Cleveland Tigers, Columbus Panhandles, Dayton Triangles, Decatur Staleys, Detroit Heralds, Hammond Pros, Muncie Flyers, Rochester Jeffersons, and Rock Island Independents.
All that was left was to play the games. Of note, the official meeting minutes of the first league gathering were kept on Akron Pros stationary.
Akron Pros and the First NFL Season
The Akron Pros opened their 1920 season by playing the non-league Wheeling Stogies. End Al Nesser scored the first three touchdowns – two fumble recoveries and a blocked kick recovery – and back Fritz Pollard added two on end runs. Back Harry Harris finished the scoring with a fourth-quarter touchdown to seal the 43-0 victory.
In the sweltering heat, Akron continued their winning ways by beating the Columbus Panhandles 37-0. Akron seemed to gain yardage at will, while the visitors struggled to drive the ball. Fullback Frank McCormick started the scoring with a three-yard dive through the Columbus line and again scored to give Akron a 14-0 lead. Harry Harris, Bob Nash, and Fred Sweetland scored touchdowns, and end Scotty Bierce tackled Frank Nesser for a safety to finish the scoring.
Akron continued their home stand by taking on the visiting non-league Cincinnati Celts. The game was not as close as the 13-0 final score indicated. Akron seemed to drive the ball with ease, while Cincinnati did not register a first down. Tailback Rip King scored approximately five minutes into the game to give Akron a 7-0 lead, while Fritz Pollard clinched the victory with a touchdown run in the final period. Scoring would have been higher, but Akron missed on three field-goal attempts.
Next up for Akron was the visiting Cleveland Tigers. The Pros racked up twelve first downs in the game, but it took a freak play to put points on the board for the home team. In the first quarter, tailback Stanley Cofall dropped back to punt for the Tigers. As the ball was snapped, Bob Nash streaked through the line, caught the ball as it was punted, and raced the final eight yards for a touchdown. Even though Akron was able to move the ball, the Cleveland defense held firm as Akron approached the goal line.
The final score was 7-0 to preserve Akron’s undefeated streak. Ten thousand fans saw Akron dismantle the perennial powerhouse Canton Bulldogs on October 31. Coming off their first loss since 1917, the Bulldogs were expected to rebound on their home field, but the Akron squad was too much. In the first quarter, Charlie Copley put Akron on the board with a 38-yard field goal.
The legendary Jim Thorpe entered the game in the third quarter and Canton showed some signs of life. However, a strong defensive effort by Akron prevented Canton from crossing the Pros’ ten-yard line. Canton tailback Joe Guyon returned Rip King’s punt to midfield. Johnny Gilroy dropped back to pass, but Bob Nash and Pike Johnson split the line and blocked Gilroy’s pass. Johnson caught the deflection and ran 50 yards for the touchdown. Canton’s only chance to score came in the third quarter when Thorpe failed to kick a field goal from the Akron 18-yard line.
Akron traveled to Cleveland for their second road game of the season. Two weeks prior, the Pros beat Cleveland 7-0, but the Tigers wanted revenge. To this point in the season, Akron was undefeated, untied and gave up no points to their opposition. The Pros wanted to keep that streak alive. It started with two beautiful twenty-yard runs by tailback Fritz Pollard to give Akron a 7-0 lead in the second quarter. In the third quarter, Cleveland struck. Back Mark Devlin hoisted a 25-yard pass to tailback Tuffy Conn, who raced 25 yards for a touchdown to tie the game.
These were the first points scored against Akron all season. The game ended in a 7-7 tie, breaking Akron’s undefeated – untied record. The following week saw Akron take on the 4-0-2 Dayton Triangles. Dayton’s defense held for the first three quarters, but Akron broke free in the final period. Rip King passed to Frank McCormick for a touchdown to break the scoreless deadlock. Soon after, Fritz Pollard ran around end for a 17-yard scoring scamper to give Akron a 13-0 victory.
At this point in the season, the Akron Pros were 6-0-1 and ready to face a rematch with the 6-1-1 Canton Bulldogs. With only a few days rest after the win over Dayton and an undefeated season still in play, the Pros could not afford a letdown against the championship-contender Bulldog team. Even though Akron beat Canton earlier in the season, there was an unwritten rule that with tie-breakers, second games count more than the first when it came to the final standings.
Canton made a costly mistake in the first quarter. Canton quarterback Tex Grigg fumbled an Akron punt and end Scotty Bierce fell on it to give the ball to the Pros at the Canton 32-yard line. A pass from Rip King to Bierce put the ball on the Canton twelve-yard line and a pass from King to Bob Nash gave Akron a 7-0 lead. After that, Akron’s defense took charge and Canton was unable to score. In two games, Akron held Canton scoreless and preserved their undefeated streak.
Next, Akron faced a rematch with the 5-1-2 Dayton Triangles. The only loss for the Triangles was against the Pros. It was a hard-fought match, but Akron took charge in the second half. With Dayton quarterback Al Mahrt going down to a broken collarbone, the Triangles’ offense sputtered. In the third quarter, Rip King received a Dayton punt but fumbled the ball around midfield.
Fritz Pollard recovered the loose ball and weaved his way to the goal line for the first score of the game. In the fourth quarter, Akron’s offense drove to the Dayton 20-yard line. A fumble and two penalties pushed the Pros back to the Triangle 32-yard line. On the next play, King dropped back to pass but was hit by tackle Max Broadhurst. King fell to one knee, but the play was not over. King got up and tossed a pass to Pollard for a score and a 14-0 victory. That essentially eliminated Dayton from championship consideration, while the 8-0-1 Akron Pros were on their way to a title.
Around December 5, 1920, the Akron Pros sold end/tackle Bob “Nasty” Nash to the Buffalo All-Americans for $300 and five percent of the gate receipts for their game with the All-Americans. That was considered the first player transaction in league history. However, Nash did not suit up for either team in their December 5 matchup.
Only 3,000 fans showed up in the Buffalo winter weather. Intermittent rain and snow, combined with a blustery wind made things difficult for both teams. However, late in the second quarter, Akron’s offense provided a spark. Five straight first downs put the ball on the Buffalo two-yard line, but the defense of the All-Americans held on downs. Akron again drove to the shadow of the Buffalo goal in the fourth quarter, when Rip King tossed a pass to end Al Nesser, who rumbled his way to the one-yard line. Buffalo back Tommy Hughitt stopped Nesser short of the goal.
Near the end of the game, Hughitt dropped back to punt from his goal line. His punt went about five yards, but with an Akron man touching it and failing to recover the loose ball, Buffalo’s Bodie Weldon fell on it to regain possession for the All-Americans. A poor pass by Lud Wray almost caused Buffalo guard Swede Youngstrom to fall back into his own goal for safety. That was the last scoring opportunity for either team. The game ended in a scoreless tie.
With only one game remaining, 8-0-2 Akron needed to beat the 10-1-1 Decatur Staleys to leave no doubt as to the first champion of the APFA. Decatur did not leave anything to chance and hired Chicago Cardinal tailback, Paddy Driscoll. However, even with all of the stars on the Staley team, neither team was able to put points on the board. Akron’s offense had a slight advantage in yards, but the Staleys drove deeper into Akron territory. Obviously, without points to show for their efforts, it really did not matter.
The champion would be determined by a vote of the membership, with Akron and Decatur both claiming the title. The two teams had to wait until April 30, 1921, to see who would take home the crown.
That marked the end of the first year of the APFA.
Even with their best efforts, the league was not able to stop the three things that forced them to create the Association in the first place: skyrocketing salaries, team jumping, and the use of college undergraduates. In fact, it was as if the Association did not even exist. The end of the 1920 season still called for the formation of a pro football league, even by members of the Association!!
Regardless, the APFA decided to continue and had a meeting on April 30, 1921. Thorpe and Cofall did not attend, so Art Ranney took charge. Other attendees included Joe Carr, Leo Conway (Union Athletic Association), George Halas, Ralph Hay, Lester Higgins (brother-in-law of Hay), Charles Lambert, Leo Lyons, Frank McNeil, Frank Nied, Chris O’Brien, Morgan O’Brien, Carl Storck, and Doc Young.
A Champion is Crowned
First on the agenda was to vote for the “champion” of the association. Carr nominated the Akron Pros and it was approved. Akron was able to rack up an impressive unbeaten 8-0-3 record, playing tough opponents. That is what carried them to the “championship,” even though Decatur tied Akron (and thought that would be enough to get them the championship) and Buffalo tied Akron and beat Canton.
Regardless, Akron won the championship based on the vote of the membership. The Pros were awarded a loving cup from the Brunswick-Balke Collender Company. Unfortunately, the cup has been lost to history, as its current location is a mystery. It has never been mentioned or seen since.
The next item on the meeting agenda was the appointment of a new leader. After a short discussion, Joe Carr was elected the new Association president, replacing Jim Thorpe. Morgan O’Brien was elected vice-president and Carl Storck secretary-treasurer.
Making good on the promise from the previous meeting, members of the Association had until May 15th to submit a list of all players that played on their squad the previous season. These players were not allowed to be enticed into leaving until the club management released them from their contract. This was to address the team-jumping issue that plagued clubs of that era. Finally, the Association was taking a hard stand to clean up the sport.
Another point that needed to be addressed was players playing for more than one team in the same week. This hit home with Conway and McNeil, as both teams were guilty of this practice.
McNeil’s Buffalo All-American players suited up for Conway’s Union team on Saturdays and then returned to Buffalo to play for the All-Americans on Sunday. This was pretty much overlooked up to this point, but the situation would boil toward the end of the 1921 season. Another Association meeting occurred on June 18, 1921, at the Hollenden Hotel in Cleveland.
The main purpose of this meeting was to start establishing schedules and to approve a new constitution (it looked like one was never written, as promised in the 1920 meetings). Rochester’s Leo Lyons never attended this meeting, but representatives from Akron, Buffalo Canton, Chicago, Columbus, and Dayton all made the trip. There is no official record of Buffalo ever being admitted to the Association in 1920, but it was brought up at this meeting.
Also attaining membership at this meeting was Cleveland, Detroit, Rock Island, and Toledo. Even though Rock Island was a member in 1920, there seemed to be an issue with whether they were still members at the end of the 1920 season. It is unclear as to the exact reason, but the Independents played a team from Washington and Jefferson at the end of the season, a frowned-upon offense.
As if the first two meetings were not enough, a third meeting was held on August 27, 1921, at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago. Leo was able to make it to this meeting, which also included members of the Akron, Buffalo, Canton, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Decatur, Detroit, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Green Bay, Louisville, Minneapolis, Rock Island, and Toledo squads. Coming out of this meeting was an agreement that any organization receiving a request to have a college player suit up for their team, must notify university officials.
There are no records showing that any club followed through with this agreement. Also, Buffalo was officially admitted to the Association, along with Minneapolis, Evansville, Tonawanda, and Green Bay. The Washington Senators and Brickley’s New York Giants were not admitted at this meeting but were admitted before the beginning of the season.
Beyond the Championship Season
For the 1921 season, Fritz Pollard became co-head coach with 1920 head coach Elgie Tobin, becoming the first African-American head coach in NFL history. With an 8-3-1 record, they again made a run for the league championship but fell just short of the 9-1-2 Chicago Staleys (formerly the Decatur Staleys and would be named the Chicago Bears the following season) and the 9-1-1 Buffalo All-Americans.
In 1922, the American Professional Football Association changed its name to the National Football League. The Akron Pros started to fall apart in 1922, only going 3-5-2 that year, 1-6-0 in 1923, and 2-6-0 in 1924. They saw a slight improvement in 1925, finishing fourth in the league with a 4-2-2 record, but fell apart in 1926, only winning one of eight games as the newly renamed Akron Indians.
The National Football League was going through some difficulty by 1927. The feud with the rival American Football League (AFL) had a financial impact on NFL franchises. As they tirelessly worked to prevent the AFL from getting any foothold and quickly expanded to compete in every AFL city, they subsequently weakened their own league. Something needed to be done. The weaker franchises were dragging down the stronger clubs, preventing them from making a profit.
Blueprint For Akron's Demise
February 5, 1927, was the date of the first league meeting to discuss what to do to strengthen the NFL. The AFL was pretty much history, so the focus of the owners shifted internally to the league. Clubs like Rochester, Akron, and Canton were not strong enough to draw the crowds necessary for the bigger clubs to succeed.
The league meeting would start with Dr. Harry March requesting that a committee be formed to design a reorganization plan. NFL Commissioner Joe Carr appointed representatives of the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Frankford Yellowjackets, Kansas City Cowboys, Akron Indians, Columbus Tigers, Providence Steamroller, Pottsville Maroons, and Green Bay Packers to this committee, with Charles Coppen of the Providence Steamroller being named chairman.
Chairman Coppen reported back that the league should be divided up into two distinct sections: an “A” section and a “B” section. The “A” teams were the strongest teams in the league, while the “B” members were the weakest. This plan immediately drew the ire of the teams labeled under “B” and the meeting was adjourned to discuss other alternatives.
When the meetings the following day got back around to reorganization, chairman Coppen was still unable to put forth a plan that was agreeable by the membership. The “A” and “B” concept would eventually be accepted, but the method of determining who belonged into what classification was still to be completed. Coppen was again appointed to find a solution to this problem and he enlisted the help of Shep Royle of the Frankford Yellowjackets, Johnny Bryan of the Milwaukee Badgers, Jim Conzelman of the Detroit Panthers, and Jerry Corcoran of the Columbus Tigers. The committee came back with the following designations:
A: Providence Steamroller, Frankford Yellowjackets, Milwaukee Badgers, Detroit Panthers, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals, Cleveland Bulldogs, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bisons, and the Brooklyn Lions with the Duluth Eskimos, Kansas City Cowboys, and Pottsville Maroons relegated to traveling teams.
B: Akron Indians, Canton Bulldogs, Columbus Tigers, Dayton Triangles, Hammond Pros, Hartford Blues, Louisville Colonels, Minneapolis, Racine Tornadoes, and Rochester Jeffersons.
The next item up for discussion was how to dismantle the “B” franchises. Each team was resigned to their fate, but proper compensation needed to be established. Corcoran insisted that the “B” teams sell their franchises back to the league at the current rate of $2500 each. The “A” teams immediately rejected that suggestion. It was now up to Carr to come up with a compromise and the league gave him until April 15 to make that decision.
Carr did not make his plan known until the April 23rd meeting at the Hotel Statler in Cleveland. Most of the “B” franchises did not show. The only representatives for those franchises were men who also held league positions; namely, Jack Dunn (Minneapolis) who was NFL vice-president, Carl Storck (Dayton) who was secretary-treasurer, Aaron Hertzman (Louisville), and Jerry Corcoran (Columbus). They devised a six-point plan:
1) Any franchise that wished to suspend operations for the year may do so without having to pay the requisite dues. Any franchise that wished to sell their franchise back to the league may do so and will receive a pro-rated share of the monies in the league treasury at the time. This would be approximately a couple of hundred dollars.
2) If a club decided to suspend operations for the year, the teams could sell player contracts up to September 15, 1927. If the franchise decided to withdraw from the league, but still wanted to operate independently, the league will respect the rights of the players on that franchise.
3) If several franchises decide to operate independently and form their own league, the NFL would respect the rights of the players and the NFL would offer assistance in the operation and organization of the new league, including playing exhibition games with league members. Since Carr wanted a minor league with a close working relationship with the NFL, this was a pretty good option for him. He would have eliminated the weaker teams from his league, while still having a minor league from which to groom players for the NFL.
4) Any franchise that wished to suspend operations could sell their franchise for the current application fee. The downside was that the new owners needed to be approved by the league. Since the league did not want to expand, this was pretty much a moot point.
5) Any franchise that decided to resign from the league could not associate or participate in any other league without permission from the National Football League. This was to guarantee that the AFL would not come back.
6) Franchises had one year to make a decision before the league took more drastic action.
On July 16th and 17th, the league held another set of meetings to discuss scheduling. Obviously, the first item on the agenda was to determine who would remain in the league and who would resign. Brooklyn sold their franchise to Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants. Milwaukee operated as an independent franchise. Detroit and Kansas City unloaded their rosters and Minneapolis suspended operations for a year.
The Rochester Jeffersons suspended operations on July 16, 1927, but failed to re-activate or sell the team by the July 7, 1928 deadline indicated in the plan. Therefore, the franchise was canceled. Akron also suspended operations on July 16, 1927, and forfeited their franchise back to the league in 1928.
Buffalo All-Americans: By Jeff Miller
Jeffrey Miller is an award-winning author and resident Buffalo All-American guru, and he stops by the show to tell us the story of the first NFL team in the Queen City. He has even more books on Amazon than what are listed below.
Jeff was in episodes 98 and 99.
Jeff Miller Books
A Name That Fits the Queen City
When the American Professional Football Association began play in 1920 (it was renamed the National Football League in 1922) with teams such as the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Columbus Panhandles, Dayton Triangles, Decatur Staleys, and Rochester Jeffersons, the Buffalo All-Americans were there.
Led by coach/quarterback Tommy Hughitt and a bevy of actual college All-Americans such guard Swede Youngstrom, tackle Lou Little, end Murray Shelton and halfback Ockie Anderson, Buffalo might have had the most aptly named team in the history of the league.
All photos below provided by Jeff Miller.
Joining the New League
The team was an outgrowth of a local semi-pro outfit called the Buffalo Niagaras (named for a Queen City street), who in 1918 had won the Buffalo Semi-Pro Football League title. A year later, the Niagaras’ core players formed a new team, called the Prospects (after another Buffalo street).
The Prospects carried on the tradition of success, taking the New York State championship in its first and only season.
After claiming local and state titles in successive seasons, Buffalo’s gridders were eager to try their luck with the new national league they had read about. Having missed the initial league meetings, a letter requesting membership was submitted to the league founders, and the Queen City’s team was welcomed as a charter member.
Much of the early legwork for the Buffalo team was performed by Howard E. “Barney” Lepper, a former member of both the Niagaras and the Prospects. All of the early press announcements refer to Lepper as the team’s manager, and it was Lepper and local businessman (and Lepper’s eventual successor as team manager) Frank J. McNeil who signed the lease for the team to play their home games at local Canisius College’s open area known as the Villa.
One of the first players signed up was a feisty, 27-year-old quarterback out of the University of Michigan named Ernest “Tommy” Hughitt, a teammate of Lepper’s on the Niagaras and Prospects. After guiding those teams to respective championships, the diminutive Hughitt–all of five feet, eight inches in height and weighing 150 pounds–was the obvious choice to call the signals for the new franchise.
After recruiting such college stars as guard Adolph “Swede” Youngstrom of Dartmouth, halfback Ockie Anderson of Colgate, end Murray Shelton of Cornell, and end Henry “Heinie” Miller and center, Lud Wray of the University of Pennsylvania, the team eventually adopted a most logical nickname, the Buffalo All-Americans.
The All-Americans established themselves as one of the elite teams in the early days of the APFA, finishing within one game of the title in each of the first two seasons of the league. In 1921, the All-Americans actually claimed the title but lost it to the George Halas’ Chicago Staleys in an executive decision.
Papa Bear and an Early League Controversy
They had gone undefeated in their first nine games that year, and after defeating the Dayton Triangles at the old Canisius Villa to end their season on November 27, the All-Americans claimed the league title with a record of 8-0-2. But for some unknown reason, team manager McNeil had scheduled his team to play two more games that, he told local papers, would have no bearing on the team’s claim to the title.
Enter George Halas. Halas’ Staleys (who became the Chicago Bears a year later) had amassed a record of 7-1-0, with their only loss coming against Buffalo on November 24 (Thanksgiving Day). He scheduled a rematch with Buffalo at Chicago for December 4, hoping to exact revenge against the team that had marred his perfect record.
McNeil made the mistake of scheduling his team’s two “post-season” contests on the same weekend, the first for Saturday, December 3, against the tough Akron Pros, after which his men would take an all-night train to Chicago to play the Staleys on Sunday.
After dispatching the Pros on Saturday, the All-Americans were off to Chicago, where they disembarked the next day in no condition to take on Papa Bear’s hungry brutes. The All-Americans fought hard, but the Staleys took the game, 10-7.
McNeil still believed his team was champion, but Halas had other ideas—he argued the title belonged to the Staleys, basing his claim on his belief that the second game of their series with Buffalo mattered more than the first. He also pointed out that the aggregate score of the two games was 16-14 in favor of the Staleys.
McNeil insisted his team’s last two games, including the one against Chicago, were merely exhibitions. It didn’t matter. The league declared the Staleys champions.
McNeil spent the rest of his life arguing that his team had been swindled but was never able to get the league to reverse its decision. Some historians still agree that the title is rightfully Buffalo’s, but it is unlikely the city will ever see the 1921 decision overturned.
All-Americans in the News Long After
The All-Americans enjoyed winning seasons in 1922 and ’23 but never again attained the success they had in those first two years.
McNeil sold the franchise in 1924 to a group led by Warren D. Patterson and Tommy Hughitt, who changed the team name to Bisons. Hughitt lasted one more year before hanging up his cleats. Further changes in ownership and name occurred throughout the decade but to no avail. By 1929, Buffalo’s first professional football team had run out of money and time.
Fast forward nine decades … The Buffalo All-Americans were thrust into the limelight on October 30, 2011, when the San Francisco 49ers tied an obscure record set by the All-Americans in the league’s inaugural season. The record in question was for most games at the start of a season with at least one rushing touchdown scored while not allowing a rushing touchdown. The long-standing record of seven games set by the All-Americans took 91 years to break!
The All-Americans made sports headlines again in 2019 when ESPN announced that the New England Patriots had compiled a startling point differential (points scored versus points given up) of 175 through the season’s first seven games.
The network, however, used a graphic that showed the Pats’ differential was only good enough for second-best in league history. The best? The All-Americans of 1920, who compiled a plus-minus of 218 points through their first seven games! What’s more, the All-Americans of 1921 had the fourth-best differential with 163 points.
George Halas’ Chicago Bears held the third spot with 173.
Canton Bulldogs: By Chris Willis
Chris Willis is the Head of the Research Library for NFL Films, a position he has held since 1996. He also is an author of 7 books. Chris has been nominated and won Emmy’s for his work on NFL documentaries, including HBO’s Hard Knocks. He was elected in 2018 to the Urbana University Hall of Fame and was also given the Pro Football Researcher’s Association Ralph Hay award for lifetime achievement in the pursuit of preserving the game. Learn more from Chris’ website.
Chris Willis Books
Canton Bulldog Team History
The Canton Bulldogs were a Pro Football team located in Canton, Ohio. The Canton team started playing in the unofficial “Ohio League” from 1902 to 1906 and then 1911 to 1919, as well as in the National Football League from 1920-1923 and again in 1925-1926.
The Bulldogs would go on to win three “Ohio League” championships in four seasons, 1916-1917, 1919. They were also NFL Champions in 1922 and 1923, as the Bulldogs played 25 straight games without a defeat, still an NFL record. As a result of their success, and the NFL’s founding in Canton, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located there. Jim Thorpe, the Olympian and well-known athlete, was the Bulldogs greatest player.
In 1924, Sam Deutsch, the owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Indians, bought the team and took the Bulldogs name and players with him, naming his team the Cleveland Bulldogs. The Cleveland Bulldogs went on to win the 1924 NFL Championship with a team stocked with former Canton players.
The Canton Bulldogs were re-established in 1925 with new owners and the NFL considers the 1925-1926 Bulldogs to be the same team as the earlier ones (1920-1923).
All photos below provided by Chris Willis.
City of Canton
The City of CANTON is the county seat of STARK COUNTY. The municipality is located in northeastern Ohio and is situated on Nimishillen Creek, approximately 24 miles south of Akron and 60 miles south of Cleveland.
Canton was founded in 1805, incorporated as a village in 1822, and re-incorporated as a city in 1838. Bezaleel Wells, the surveyor who divided the land of the town, named it after Canton (a traditional name for Guangdong Province), China. The name was a memorial to a trader named John O’Donnell, whom Wells admired. O’Donnell had named his Maryland plantation after the Chinese city, as he had been the first person to transport goods from there to Baltimore.
Canton developed into an important agricultural and industrial center due to the Civil War. Canton, along with Akron, emerged as the leading agricultural implement manufacturers in northeastern Ohio in the years leading up to and following the Civil War. Canton also developed as an important center for iron production.
In 1888, Canton’s manufacturing establishments brought in almost five million dollars in income. Machinery produced in Canton’s factories was shipped across the world. Equally important to Canton’s traditional industries during the 1880s was the emergence of watch-making establishments. The two main watch producers in Canton were Hampden Watch Manufacturing Company and the Dueber Watch Case Company. In 1890, these two companies employed over 2,300 people, roughly ten percent of Canton’s population.
Upon arriving in Canton from Connecticut and Cincinnati, Ohio respectively, these two companies merged, remaining in operation until the 1930s.
Canton was the adopted home of President WILLIAM MCKINLEY who until the 1930’s was regarded as one of America’s great Presidents. Born in Niles (just north of Youngstown in the northeastern part of state), McKinley first practiced law in Canton around 1867, and was prosecuting attorney of Stark County from 1869 to 1871.
The city was his home during his successful campaign for Ohio governor, the site of his front-porch presidential campaign of 1896 and the campaign of 1900. Thus a world and a cultural empire first sprung from Canton.
The city originally functioned as a prominent manufacturing center which expanded during the turn of the century due to industrialization and the addition of railroad lines. During the twentieth century, many Canton businesses continued to be iron and steel manufacturers, but other businesses emerged.
- In 1898, HENRY TIMKEN obtained a patent for the tapered roller bearing, (a bearing similar to a ball bearing but using small cylindrical rollers instead of balls) and in 1899 incorporated as The TIMKEN ROLLER BEARING COMPANY in St. Louis. In 1901, the company moved to Canton as the automobile industry began to overtake the carriage industry. Timken and his two sons chose this location because of its proximity to the car manufacturing centers of Detroit and Cleveland and the steel-making centers of Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
In 1917, the company began its steel-and tube-making operations in Canton to vertically integrate and maintain better control over the steel used in its bearings. World War I had created an increase in demand for steel, affecting its supply and price in the market.
At this time the city of Canton had a very popular trolley service, as well as a booming car industry.
Canton marks the halfway point between New York City and Chicago, and the city was a hub for gangsters. During the height of prohibition, Canton earned the nickname of “Little Chicago” (some historians have cited Al Capone for giving the city the nickname).
A mayor and his brother was removed from office, and DONALD RING MELLETT, the editor of the Canton Daily News, spent his short time in Canton calling out the corrupt to account for their misdeeds. On July 26, 1926, he was rewarded for his vigilance with a bullet in the back of the head.
The chief of police was convicted of being involved in the murder, but was later acquitted after a retrial. The former chief of detectives and three local thugs spent the rest of their lives in prison for the murder.
Prior to the debut of Pro Football in the city, an amateur team from Canton was considered as the best team in Stark County. Until about 1902 it competed with the Akron East Ends for the Ohio Independent Championship. When the Massillon Tigers arrived on the scene and went professional, Canton, as an amateur team, was no longer competitive.
The CANTON BULLDOGS were officially established on November 15, 1904 as the CANTON ATHLETIC CLUB, a club designed to operate baseball and football teams. The statement stated that the football team was to be a “professional organization,” complete with a “professional coach.”
Blondy Wallace Comes to Canton
The main goal of the new Canton professional team was to defeat the Massillon Tigers, who had won the “Ohio League” Championship in 1903 and 1904. To do this, Canton recruited several of the best players in the game for more money than what they were getting.
Bill Laub, a player, team captain, and coach of the Akron East Ends, was hired as the team’s first-ever coach.
The team began its 1905 season with a 7-0 record. The Bulldogs then traveled to Latrobe, Pennsylvania to play the Latrobe Athletic Association, led by quarterback John Brallier. Latrobe was not only the current Pennsylvania champions, but had gone undefeated for the last three seasons.
In a tough back-and-forth contest Canton lost 6-0. But the worse part of the setback came when Laub became injured and was unable to finish. BLONDY WALLACE, a former All-American for the Penn Quakers, was named his replacement. Two weeks later Canton lost the Ohio League title to the Tigers, 14-4.
During the 1906 season the team from Canton became known as the “Bulldogs.” Early in November R.C. Johnson, an editorial cartoonist for the Canton Repository drew a picture with a man next to a cub lying in wait for the Massillon Tigers. Suddenly, overnight the team was called the “Bulldogs.”
Wallace began the season by signing several players off the Massillon team, such as Jack Lang, Jack Hayden, Herman Kerchoff, and Clark Schrontz away from the Tigers. Due to the money being spent by Canton and Massillon on professional players, both teams ended up with a spending deficit that had to be shouldered by local businessmen.
That year the Bulldogs won their first game against the Tigers (at Canton), but lost the second game at Massillon. Due to rules of the championship series, the win in the second game allowed Massillon to claim the Ohio championship.
Shortly after the game, a Massillon newspaper charged Wallace with throwing the second contest, to entice Massillon to play a third game to decide the championship.
Canton denied the charges, maintaining that Massillon only wanted to ruin the club’s reputation before the final game against Latrobe. Although Massillon could not prove that Canton had thrown the game, the accusation tarnished Canton’s name and no one attended the Latrobe game.
The scandal nearly ruined pro football in northeastern Ohio. The Canton Morning News put a $20,000 price tag on the 1906 Massillon Tigers team, while many speculate that the Bulldogs probably cost more. While Massillon was still able to field a local team in 1907 (and still won the Ohio League Championship) the Canton team folded.
Bulldogs Return and Jack Cusack Takes Over
In 1911, Canton finally fielded a new team called the Canton Professionals. This would be the first time, but not the last, that the city of Canton showed their resolve by not letting their pro football disappear. The community was now in love with the sport.
That fall the team was made up entirely of local players and the pay was undoubtedly small. In their comeback season, the Pros finished in second place in the “Ohio League” standings behind Peggy Parratt and the Shelby Blues.
In 1912, at the age of 21, JACK CUSACK became the team’s secretary-treasurer, at no cost to the team, as a favor to team captain Roscoe Oberlin. However Cusack was disliked by the current manager H.H. Halter. Cusack later went behind Halter’s back to sign a contract with Peggy Parrett’s Akron Indians, concerning conditions for a match between the two squads, something Halter was unable to do.
When Jack’s actions were discovered by Halter, he tried to dispose of Jack’s services through a team meeting. However during the meeting the team sided with Cusack, after discovering he had secured a 5-year lease on LAKESIDE PARK for the Pros. The result was Halter being removed from the team and Jack being named the team’s new manager.
As manager of the Pros, Cusack slowly added college players to his roster along with the local sandlotters who constituted the bulk of the team. To make the team more profitable he had 1,500 seats added to Lakeside Park. Cusack felt that the Pros had to live down the 1906 scandal and gain the public’s confidence in the honesty of the game.
It was his theory that if he could stop players from jumping from one team to another, it would be a first step in the right direction.
Therefore, several Ohio League managers made a verbal agreement that once a player signed with a team he was that team’s property as long as he played, or until he was released by management – although some pro teams did not abide by this agreement.
In 1914, the Pros challenged Parratt, this time with the Akron Indians, for the Ohio League title. In a game that served as a precursor to the championship, Canton defeated Parratt’s Akron team, however Canton captain HARRY TURNER, was severely injured while attempting to tackle Akron’s Joe Collins. Shortly after the game Turner died of a fracture to his spinal cord.
According to Cusack, who was at Turner’s bedside when he died, his last words were “I know I must go. But I’m satisfied for we beat Peggy Parratt.”
Canton beat Akron 6-0. The death of Turner was taken hard by the team. It was the first fatal accident involving a major professional football team in Ohio. The Canton Pros easily lost a rematch with the Indians a few days later.
The Signing of Jim Thorpe (1915)
Cusack revived the Canton-Massillon rivalry in 1915. With the rivalry, fans began referring to Canton as the “Bulldogs” once again and Cusack reinstated the name. That season Massillon and Canton began hiring bigger name players.
When Canton began the season with a 75-0 victory over a team from Wheeling, West Virginia, the Bulldogs’ starting lineup included newcomers BILL GARDNER, a tackle and end from Carlisle Indian School, Hube Wagner, an All-America end from Pittsburgh, and EARLE (GREASY) NEALE, the coach at West Virginia Wesleyan and an outstanding halfback.
Massillon also had some big names in its lineup. The Tigers were represented by four former Notre Dame players – ends Knute Rockne and Sam Finegan, tackle Keith Jones, and halfback Gus Dorais – and Ohio State halfback Maurice Briggs.
As the two games between the renewed rivals approached, it was just like old times, with Canton and Massillon appearing to be the best teams in the state. Each had lost only once, and Canton’s defeat had been while traveling out of state, a 9-3 verdict to the Detroit Heralds. With fans anxiously awaiting the first game, Cusack, in a move reminiscent of the old Canton-Massillon wars, signed the best football player in the world – JIM THORPE.
Thorpe first earned national attention in 1911-12, when he was an All-America halfback at the Carlisle Indian School. He received the acclaim of the world when he won gold medals in both the decathlon and the pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. It was there that King Gustav V of Sweden told him, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe also had played pro baseball, as well as football, with the Pine Village team in Indiana. When Cusack contacted him, Thorpe had slid into semi-oblivion and was coaching backs at the University of Indiana. Nevertheless, he was still Jim Thorpe. The great Indian was a star at any sport he set his mind to, but on a football field he was in a class by himself.
Some players could run as well, some could pass, a few were on a par defensively, and a very few could kick equally well, but no one at the time – or possibly since – combined all these skills to an equal degree of perfection. Still, when fans heard that Thorpe had been promised $250 for each game, they figured Cusack had lost his mind.
But Cusack had the last laugh. The paid attendance for the Bulldogs’ games had averaged 1,200 before he signed Thorpe. For the final two games with Massillon, Thorpe helped draw crowds of 6,000 (where Massillon raised their ticket prices to seventy-five cents) and 8,000. Everyone wanted to see the world’s best football player in action.
Unfortunately, Thorpe didn’t help the Bulldogs as much on the field as off in the first game as Massillon won 16-0. Thorpe didn’t start, although he did break loose for a 40-yard run to the Massillon 8-yard line, before he slipped trying to avoid Dorais.
Canton vs Massillon, 1915
“Nowhere in this country today are there two football teams possessing such a galaxy of stars as do the Tigers and Bulldogs.”
Massillon Independent, November 14, 1915
“There was a large amount of money [bet] up on the game and the fans, crowded into a stadium much too small for the crowd, were at a fever pitch when the game started.”
Canton Daily News, November 29, 1915
Two weeks later, the teams met at Canton, with the Bulldogs winning 6-0. First, Thorpe dropkicked a field goal from the 18-yard line and later he made a 45-yard field goal from placement. But it was one of the most exciting finishes ever that earned the game its place in history.
The second game was played before a crowd so large that fans had to stand in the end zones. Ground rules for the game were adopted providing that any player crossing the goal line into the crowd had to be in possession of the ball when he emerged from the crowd. Late in the game, Massillon drove the length of the field to try to score the winning touchdown. That is when the fireworks really exploded, according to Cusack:
Maurice Briggs, right end for Massillon, caught a forward pass on our 15-yard line and raced across our goal right into the midst of the “Standing Room Only” customers. Briggs fumbled – or at least he was said to have fumbled – and the ball popped out of the crowd right into the hands of Charlie Smith, the Canton substitute who had been following in hot pursuit.
Referee Connors, mindful of the ground rules made before the game, ruled the play a touchback, but Briggs had something to say about that. “I didn’t fumble!” protested the Massillon end. “That ball was kicked out of my hands by a policeman – a uniformed policeman!”
That was ridiculous on the face of it. Briggs was either lying or seeing things that didn’t happen to be there — for most everybody knew that Canton had no uniformed policemen in those days. But Briggs was unable to accept this solid fact.” It was a policeman!” he insisted. “I saw the brass buttons on his coat.”
As the arguing over the call continued, the crowd grew more and more restive. Only three minutes remained in the game that would determine the Ohio professional championship. If the touchdown counted and Massillon either won with an extra point or tied, the Tigers would win the undisputed championship. However, if the score did not count and the Bulldogs held on to win, they might be awarded the title. Finally fans of both teams could stand the strain no longer, broke down the fences surrounding the field, and swarmed by the thousands onto the playing surface.
The officials, unable to clear the field, ended the game. However, the officials were not allowed to escape. The Massillon team and its fans demanded that they settle the matter by making a definitive statement about the referee’s decision. The officials agreed to make the statement, but only if it were to be opened and read by the manager of the Courtland Hotel at 30 minutes after midnight. That would give the officials time to leave town, thereby avoiding the wrath of either the Canton or Massillon fans.
That night the lobby of the Courtland was filled to capacity with both Canton and Massillon fans, waiting for the statement to be read. When it was announced, the fans learned that the officials had backed the referee’s decision and ruled that the Bulldogs had won the game. The last chapter of the season did not end at the hotel, however. It was not until 10 years later that Cusack solved the mystery of Briggs’s fumble and the phantom policeman. As Cusack recalled:
While on a visit back to Canton I had occasion to ride a street car, on which I was greeted by an old friend, the brass-buttoned conductor. We began reminiscing about the old football days, and the conductor told me what had happened during that crucial final-quarter play back in 1915. Briggs, when he plunged across the goal line into the end zone spectators, fell at the feet of the conductor, who promptly kicked the ball from Briggs’ hands into the arms of Canton’s Charlie Smith.
“Why on earth did you do a thing like that?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “it was like this – I had thirty dollars bet on that game and, at my salary, I couldn’t afford to lose that much money.
That kick might have saved the conductor $30, but it cost Massillon a consensus state championship. Instead, the Ohio League title race was left in a muddle, with three teams – Canton, Massillon, and Youngstown – all claiming the championship. As it turned out, the only clear winner in 1915 was Canton, and that was off the field, where the signing of Thorpe not only led to immediate financial success but gave the Bulldogs a bright future.
Thorpe actually did more than that, helping football throughout Ohio. More important than anything he did in any single game, Thorpe’s presence at Canton focused the attention of the whole country on Ohio professional football. More players of quality began arriving and both attendance and salaries went up. Ohio sportswriters – without blushing – began to trumpet the “world professional championship.” True, pro and semi-pro teams could be found from New England to Iowa in nearly every town will eleven able-bodied men and a flat expanse of 100 yards, but they all took the aspect of minor leaguers; Ohio held the majors.
The presence of Thorpe on the field in football-crazy northeast Ohio doubled the attendance and escalated the demand for former college all-stars to the point where no team could hope to become a state, regional or national championship contender without a significant number of paid former college stars on its team. Soon, the annual talk of forming a real pro league – with Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs as the cornerstone – became more vocal than ever before.
Golden Era of Canton Bulldogs Football
The following year the Bulldogs, with Jim Thorpe, beat Massillon 24-0, and went unbeaten at 9-0-1. They were regarding as the best team in the Ohio League as well as the entire country, outscoring their opponents 257 to 7 and giving up only one touchdown all season.
In consecutive weeks they showed the country how good they were by blowing out the Buffalo All-Stars, 77-0, then the following week crushing the New York All-Stars, 67-0.
Because Thorpe was able to draw big crowds, Cusack was able to put together a financially stable squad that included several All-Americans. The average attendance prior to Thorpe’s arrival was around 1,500. That soon rose to 5,000, 6,000 and eventually 8,000 spectators, which was the capacity of Canton’s Lakeside Park.
For the two big games at the end of the year against cross-town rival Massillon, each game drew over 10,000 fans- some reports claim that the game in Massillon had nearly 15,000 spectators.
Massillon vs Canton, 1916
It was a gala day in Massillon. Thousands of Canton fans were bedecked with red and white. They had a forty-piece band backing them up on the east side of the gridiron. Massillon fans were dressed in orange and black, and they too had a band. Unfortunately, there was a strong there was a strong wind, the field was soft, and the footing was unsure. The rough-and-tough game ended in a 0-0 tie.
The second game…Massillon was outplayed and outclassed. Jim Thorpe and company gave an artistic exhibition of all that is great in the rough sport, through laboring under trying conditions. A muddy field proved a woeful handicap, robbing the contest of many of the anticipated features…Jim Thorpe was a veritable demon and Pete Calac was extraordinary…This was a regular victory. It had no semblance of a fluke. If left no room for alibis.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 3, 1916
Thorpe would remain pro football’s chief attraction until Red Grange entered the pro game in 1925.
In 1917 the Bulldogs once again claimed the Ohio League championship by finishing with a 9-1 record. Neither Canton nor Massillon played during the 1918 season because of World War I and the flu epidemic. During that missed season Jack Cusack wanted a bigger pay day. He decided to try and strike it rich by leaving Canton to start up an oil business in Oklahoma. He sold the Bulldogs to RALPH HAY, a successful automobile dealer in Canton.
In 1919 the first rumblings of a “pro league” was being discussed by the football press and team managers. Ralph Hay knew his Bulldogs would be at the fore-front of this movement. In Canton, Hay responded cautiously, insisting, “We will be on the ground floor when a meeting for the formation of a league is called.”
But, he added, the Bulldogs wouldn’t even consider such thoughts until the present season ended. Hay was no doubt miffed that rank newcomers to the pro football wars had initiated the call for a league without checking with Canton. Additionally, he had more immediate worries. Canton’s first meeting with Massillon was scheduled for the following Saturday.
On November 16, Canton staked its claim for the Ohio League championship with a 23-0 victory over Massillon. Thorpe again played magnificently, but he was helped by two other Indians, Pete Calac and Joe Guyon, the latter having signed with the Bulldogs out of Georgia Tech. Almost certainly, he gave Canton the best set of backs in football – pro or college.
In the next three weeks, all the pretenders to the Bulldogs’ throne were eliminated. Massillon defeated Cleveland 7-0, while Canton ended any title hopes in Akron by beating the Indians 14-0. On Thanksgiving before a crowd of 10,000 in Cubs Park at Chicago, the Bulldogs met Hammond (IN).
At this time the Indiana team had added a high-priced player, former Northwestern star John (Paddy) Driscoll, one of the best kickers and open-field runners in the game. Nevertheless, Thorpe’s eight-yard touchdown run and a stingy Canton defense gave the Bulldogs a 7-0 victory.
Three days later, the Bulldogs met the Tigers again, with the Massillon players and fans hoping a victory in the season finale could propel them to the national title.
But Thorpe took over. In the third quarter he kicked a 40-yard field goal for the only points of the game, and in the fourth quarter he punted 95 yards to keep the Tigers away from Canton’s end zone. The Bulldogs left the field with a 3-0 victory, a 9-0-1 record, and the state and national professional championships.
NFL's First Meeting (September 17,1920)
On a hot and muggy Friday night in Canton, Ohio on September 17th ten professional football teams convened at the automobile showroom of Ralph Hay. The football managers arrived into town by train but nobody really stopped the presses to announce their arrival.
Hay really didn’t know how many owners would actually show so his small office wasn’t big enough to have the meeting so they moved out in the spacious showroom with the cars on display. It was quite a scene as these milestone men met in the showroom of an automobile dealer. One of the ten owners would always remember the trip to Canton. George Halas in his autobiography, Halas, described the experience:
Morgan O’Brien, a Staley engineer and a football fan who was being very helpful in administrative matters, and I went to Canton on the train. The showroom, big enough for four cars -Hupmobiles and Jordans – occupied the ground floor of the three-story brick Odd Fellows building. Chairs were few. I sat on a running board.
At the meeting were the four teams who were at the August get-together with the same representatives; Hay and Thorpe for Canton; Neid and Ranney for Akron; O’Donnell and Cofall for Cleveland; and Storck for Dayton. Also present were Walter H. Flanigan, the veteran manager of the Rock Island (IL) Independents; Earl Ball of the Ball Mason Jar Company and the backer for the Muncie (IN) Flyers; George Halas and Morgan O’Brien, representing A.E. Staley’s Decatur team; Chicago contractor Chris O’Brien, who operated the Chicago Cardinals; Leo Lyons, represented his Rochester (NY) Jefferson and Dr. Alva A. Young, owner of the Hammond (IN) Pros.
After some informal discussion beforehand the meeting started at 8:15 pm by Hay. Frank Neid of the Akron squad took the minutes and had them typed up on letter head of the “Akron Professional Football Team.”
Although the meeting officially started at 8:15 some of the main issues might’ve been decided before Hay suggested they go on the record. What they did decide was to change the name of the organization to the American Professional Football Association (APFA). The managers might’ve felt that the use of the word “association” was much more loose and general than using a word such as “league,” denoting maybe less of a commitment.
Several managers urged Hay to take the association’s presidency but he realized that the organization needed a bigger name to earn respect from the public and the nation’s sports pages. “Thorpe should be our man. He’s by far the biggest name we have. No one knows me,” Hay would say. So they choose the biggest name in pro football to be President – Jim Thorpe.
Old Jim was elected and sure enough Hay was right as the headlines in sports pages across the country would lead with the naming of Thorpe as the league’s President. Most of the managers in the room knew that Thorpe’s executive abilities didn’t match his athletic prowess but they expected Hay to work behind the scene to help guide the league. Stanley Cofall was named Vice-President and Art Ranney was elected secretary-treasurer giving the three main Ohio clubs all the executive positions.
The group decided to charge $100 fee for membership but this was just for show. “We announced that membership in the league would cost $100 per team. I can testify no money changed hands. I doubt if there was a hundred bucks in the whole room. We just wanted to give our new organization a façade of financial stability,” Halas would admit. Other business discussed was the appointment of a committee to draw up rules and regulations and the decision to furnish a list of all players used during the season to all clubs by the first day of the new year.
Accorded to the league minutes the three major problems in professional football had not been directly addressed. But the association must’ve talked about them because the media coverage of the meeting would stress the action of the managers not mentioned in the minutes. Most of the newspapers announced that the Association would not use undergraduates and that all contracts would be honored. News of the new pro football league spread across the country but it was not the main headline in every sports page.
Even in the Canton Repository the day’s big news was the Canton Bulldogs’ signing of Pete “Fats” Henry, the former Washington & Jefferson All-American tackle and only on the following page did the paper mention that a new pro football league was formed.
APFA Seasons (1920-1921)
In 1920 the APFA (forerunner of NFL) saw the Akron Pros win the first ever championship for the new league. The Canton Bulldogs, under Hay and coach Thorpe, started strong with a record of 6-1-1, but faded by winning only one of its last five games to finish 7-4-2 (a 8th place finish). After the season Thorpe left the Bulldogs and joined the Cleveland Indians.
Cap Edwards took over as coach, but the Bulldogs came up short again finishing with a 5-2-3 1921 record and a 4th place finish in the APFA.
NFL Champs!!! (1922)
As the league owners’ changed the name from the APFA to the National Football League (NFL), veteran owner Ralph Hay and new coach GUY CHAMBERLIN, the Canton Bulldogs unloaded most of the mediocre squad from 1921 and rebuilt in 1922.
Chamberlin began with one marvelous player already on the roster, roly-poly WILBUR “PETE” HENRY – nicknamed “Fats.” At 5-11 and 245 pounds, Henry looked like an amiable pudding until the ball was snapped. Then his surprising speed, agility and strength made him by nearly all accounts the best tackle of the day.
A bulldozing blocker and bone-crushing tackler, he could slip into the backfield to become an occasional powerhouse line-smasher or zip downfield as a surprise receiver on tackle-eligible plays. On top of all that, he was an outstanding punter and deadly drop-kicker.
To man the opposite tackle, Chamberlin added fellow University of Nebraska alumnus ROY “LINK” LYMAN, another who was to enjoy a long and storied NFL career. Lyman was a “finesse” player, generally credited with pioneering defensive tackle play along more sophisticated lines with his shifting, sliding style. Both Lyman and Henry are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Former Chicago Staley TARZAN TAYLOR and second year pro BOB “DUKE” OSBORN gave the Bulldogs a brace of strong guards. Osborn added a colorful touch in that he usually wore a baseball cap instead of a helmet. Two players split time at center: rookie Bill Murrah from Texas A&M and ageless Norman “Dutch” Speck, nearing 40 but still capable.
At one end, Elmer “Bird” Carroll was rated by his coach as one of the best. Chamberlin should have known – he was THE best! No doubt Coach Chamberlin’s most valuable player was himself. On offense, he could block with anyone and showed a knack for catching key passes. On defense, he was unmatched at his position.
More than anything, he could inspire his team. In 1922 he began a streak that marks him as the most successful player-coach in NFL history – four championships in five years and a career winning percentage of .780.
The Canton backfield, however, looked weak at the start of the season. After experimenting with a few combinations, including himself at wingback, Chamberlin settled upon rookie Walcott “Wooky” Roberts from Navy as his blocking back, converted tackle Ed Shaw into a fullback, and used second-year man Harry Robb at wingback and journeyman Norb Sacksteder at tailback.
Later in the season, the Bulldogs added backfield strength in veterans Cecil “Tex” Grigg and Lou “The Hammer” Smyth and rookie Wallace “Doc” Elliott. This essentially undistinguished group of backs combined with the strong line to form a granite-hard defense and a steady ground-oriented attack.
The Bulldogs dominated the NFL in 1922. Holding off the Chicago Bears (9-3 record) and the Chicago Cardinals (8-3), Chamberlin’s squad went unbeaten with a record of 10-0-2. They outscored their opponents 184-15.
The National Football League gave out no awards in 1922 except for the tiny gold football watch fobs the members of the champion Canton Bulldogs received after the season. If the struggling league wasn’t going to invest in trophies for individuals, it was certain that the wire services who gave the NFL scant coverage weren’t about to crown a Player of the Year as they now do.
If they had, they might have given the nod to Paddy Driscoll, the Chicago Cardinals’ great triple-threat. Other likely candidates might have been Racine’s Hank Gillo, who scored the most points, or player-coach Guy Chamberlin, the Canton leader.
But of all the achievements of 1922, the one that boggles the mind is Canton’s record of allowing only 15 points in a dozen games. And although that was obviously the result of a team effort, one man stood above the other Canton defenders in both reputation and performance. If anyone had seriously considered naming a Player of the Year, he couldn’t have done much better than to choose Pete Henry, Canton’s magnificent tackle.
With the league’s strongest lineup, Canton couldn’t have kept its payroll below $1,200 per game by any stretch of the imagination. Whether Hay planned to sacrifice his own money for the honor of his city or really expected to pay the bills out of the gate receipts, the simple fact was the Bulldogs were winners on the field and losers in the ledger.
Despite near-filled stands at Canton’s Lakeside Park, the small capacity meant the ‘Dogs usually made more money – though not enough – by playing on the road.
Ralph Hay Steps Away From Football
As summer arrived the situation in Canton took an unexpected turn. Ralph Hay, who owned the Canton Bulldogs since 1919, wanted out of the football business. His asking price was $1,500, which, after a great deal of hand-wringing with Canton businessman, was about $500 more than they thought the 1922 champions were worth.
Things were still up in the air when Hay and Chamberlin left for Chicago in July to attend the annual summer meeting. At the meeting Hay assured Carr, other owners and the city of Canton that the Bulldogs would play in 1923. Chamberlin would continue as coach-player. He just needed to close the deal back home.
When Hay returned to Canton he unloaded the Bulldogs onto a group of local businessman, who formed the CANTON ATHLETIC COMPANY. The Canton A.C listed 18 stockholders, including H.H. Timken (Owner of Timken Bearing), Guy C. Hiner (Canton Bridge Company) and Ed E. Bender (owner of Bender’s restaurant – NFL President Joe Carr’s favorite Canton nightspot). Chamberlin’s coaching assured the team’s success on the field but didn’t off it.
In his four years as owner he brought two national titles (1919, 1922) to Canton, helped start what was now known as the NFL, gained a lot of publicity for his Hupmobile business and lost a ton of money. Although four years doesn’t sound like a long time, Ralph Hay, just like his predecessor with the Bulldogs – Jack Cusack – was another vital contributor to the growth of the pro football.
Running a Pro Football Team
Running a pro football team at that time did have its problems. It cost us $3,300 to put a team on the field for a game. When we played on the road, we got a guarantee of $4,000 a game. That was to cover the players, player salaries and the expense of traveling. In those days, of course, there were no airplanes; we traveled by train in sleepers. When we’d leave, say for Chicago, we’d occupy the whole sleeper. We had 18 men and the trainer and we’d take this sleeper out of Canton on Friday night to Chicago, stay the one night, play on Sunday, and come back. It was tough.
Lester Higgins, treasurer, Canton Bulldogs
Back-to-Back Champs (1923)
Despite the change in ownership the 1923 Canton Bulldogs were even better. Once again led by player-coach Guy Chamberlin the Bulldogs remained stacked with great players. They continued their dominate ways by going unbeaten again with a record of 11-0-1, the only tie was a 3-3 contest against the Buffalo All-Americans. They also blew away the competition by outscoring their opponents 246-19.
The previous two seasons saw the Bulldogs outscored their opponents 430-34 (17.9 points per game/1.5 points per game allowed). After losing to the Decatur Staleys on December 11, 1921 the Bulldogs would go unbeaten their next 25 games (22-0-3), setting an NFL Record that stills stands to this day.
There was only one opponent they couldn’t defeat.
Bulldogs Sold (1924)
As the payroll for Canton players became more and more expensive (the team lost about $13,000) in 1923 the Canton Athletic Company sold the franchise for roughly $2,500 to Cleveland sports promoter SAM DEUTSCH, owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Indians. Perhaps a great team could be profitable in the big city.
Cleveland sports promoter Sam Deutsch was involved in both minor league baseball and boxing in the city and in 1923 he acquired the Cleveland NFL franchise vacated a year earlier by Jimmy O’Donnell. He took the name “Indians” for his club – it not only matched the American League baseball club but also there was tradition, sort of: everyone had called O’Donnell’s ’21 team that because Thorpe, Guyon and Calac played for them.
But Deutsch was determined to put on a better brand of football for Clevelanders than O’Donnell had ever delivered. Going into their final 1923 game Deutsch’s Indians were undefeated in six games.
Unfortunately, it was all illusion. They’d beaten or tied league patsies to keep their record immaculate. Then the real article – the Canton Bulldogs – came to Cleveland for that final game and showed Deutsch what he really had by pounding his team 46-10. Their teamwork, defense, and scoring ability was better than any pro team he’d ever seen. The ‘Dogs were a gridiron success.
But a financial disaster.
High salaries and low attendances, traveling expenses and lousy weather had combined to put the team deep in ink redder than their jerseys. The stockholders of the Canton Athletic Company had put up money from their businesses and one year of losing money was enough for them to say “let’s get out.”
On August 3, 1924, the Canton Repository reported that due to losses of approximately $13,000, the C.A.C. had sold the Bulldogs to Clevelander Sam Deutsch, “and [the Bulldogs] will henceforth compose the Cleveland team, with a few exceptions.”
The sale of the Bulldogs caused consternation in Canton. The Bulldogs had never had a losing season on the field! They’d had Thorpe, Guyon, Chamberlin, Henry, Calac, Lyman, and a whole raft of other stars in their lineup at one time or another. They’d just won two straight NFL titles and had taken U.S. professional titles in 1916, 1917, and 1919 before there was a league. How could the best pro football team in the world be sold “down the river” to Cleveland?
Actually, the team hadn’t made a profit since the pre-World War I days of Jack Cusack, a state of affairs that had turned Ralph Hay to first push for a league and finally to sell the club. Attendance at Lakeside Park was pegged at a 2,500 average, assuring the Bulldogs of dropping better than a grand per home game. Some of that could be made up on the road if the weather held. When it didn’t – and it didn’t in 1923 – the losses went through the roof.
In a statement to the Repository, C.A.C. spokesman LESTER HIGGINS (Ralph Hay’s brother-in-law) explained:
Some time ago letters were sent out to Canton merchants and manufacturers, informing them of the financial situation and probability that the Bulldogs would hardly be continued without assistance in a substantial way. The letter brought very few favorable responses and but few promises of aid. Hence the decision to give up the ghost. Deutsch was the only bidder for the team and his offer of $2,500 was accepted by telephone Saturday night to clear up the whole matter.
Deutsh had bought the team for only slightly more than its weekly payroll! Now that the sale was accomplished, Bulldog fans came out of the woodwork, raising a hue and cry. Some formed a “fans committee” to raise hell. The gripes came so loud and often that three days after revealing the sale, Higgins announced that the C.A.C. was reconsidering.
There would be a public meeting, he declared, where Cantonians could put up or shut up. “If only a few of the followers are kicking on the sale, there will be no Bulldogs for Canton this season, as those who backed the team last year will allow the sale to Deutsch to go through. But, if the Chamber of Commerce hall is jammed and packed to its full capacity tomorrow night, then it will be apparent that the football bugs of this city want to retain the Bulldogs for another season at least.”
Predictably, Bulldog loyalists responded with an intimidating mob of 500 people. The Canton Athletic Company waffled. According to Higgins, there existed a legal technicality that could block the sale of the Bulldogs. One of the stockholders Attorney William B. Quinn contended that a quorum was not present at the meeting at which the sale was approved. Furthermore, Deutsch had bought only the players, not the franchise or the uniforms, as the Clevelander insisted.
Well, sure! Players like Wilbur Henry and Guy Chamberlin were a dime a dozen. Just so long as Canton saved the jerseys and a piece of paper. Still, the quorum dodge sounded promising. Perhaps the Bulldogs might yet be saved. Higgins contacted NFL President Joe Carr and asked him if the league would object to the sale being blocked.
“Not if it’s legal,” said Carr. What else could he say?
But, from a reality standpoint, anyone might note that in all the angry multitude at the Canton assembly there was a real paucity of hard cash support. If words were dollars, the Bulldogs could have stayed in Canton for a decade. Their support came from the heart, but the bills had to be paid from the wallet. Sam Deutsch had a healthy wallet and able lawyers. From Cleveland, he thundered he’d acted in good faith and now his prestige as a sports promoter was at stake. He’d not give up his Bulldogs without a fight, he vowed. Both sides exchanged threats of legal action.
For Deutsch, his day in court promised vindication and a powerhouse team in Cleveland. For the C.A.C., it meant more bills. Although many of the Canton businessmen who made up the C.A.C. sincerely wanted to find a way to keep the team at Lakeside Park, most of them recognized the Bulldogs as a White Elephant. They’d originally subscribed for $250 apiece to run the Bulldogs when they acquired the team from Hay.
Now they found themselves deep in debt, with no prospect of the team ever paying off. They wanted out from under, but they didn’t dare appear too eager. After all, they had to do business with the same folks who were wringing hands over losing the team. For days, the Canton Repository and Daily News filled up with rumors of compromises and possible solutions. New backers, new players, new hopes.
Finally, ten days after the initial call for public support, the matter was resolved. Lawyer Quinn told the C.A.C. stockholders that, after a lengthy investigation, it was his opinion that, “Deutsch’s purchase, while presenting a few technicalities, had no flaws in it worthy of a defense in court,” and hence was considered valid. The Canton Bulldogs were no more.
Deutch had the players, the uniforms, and the franchise in the National Football League. As a matter of fact, he had two – his Cleveland Indian franchise AND his “Cleveland” Bulldog franchise. If he’d decided to operate both of them, he could have presented the league with a sticky problem. But, of course, he didn’t and never intended such a thing. He simply transferred all the best Bulldog players to the Indians’ roster and then offered to sell the stripped franchise back to Canton.
A few football-desperate Cantonites actually thought it over, but sanity prevailed. So Deutsch let his new-purchased Canton franchise gather a thick coat of dust during the 1924 season.
However, to confuse later histories, Deutsch changed the name of his Indians to “Bulldogs.” Ever since, the question has been: Were the Bulldogs who went on to win the 1924 NFL championship the same team that won the ’22 and ’23 titles, thereby scoring the league’s first triple?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, the team had most of the same players, the same coach, the same nickname, and apparently the same uniforms. But no, it did not have the same city or owner, and most important not the same franchise, and so – technically – it was not the same team. Nor was it the same kind of championship race. The two Canton wins had been, except for one or two scares, pretty much cakewalks. The 1924 race was a donneybrook that wasn’t finally resolved until the following January.
Bulldogs Still Tough
Deutsh hadn’t got all the old Bulldogs. Pete Henry, the great tackle, defected, along with center Larry Conover and back Harry Robb. The trio chose to play for the independent Pottsville Maroons in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania rather than go to Cleveland.
Deutsch threatened to sue, but he really had no way to compel the ex-Bulldogs to play for him and he knew it. Besides, he still had plenty of firepower. Guy Chamberlin, “Link” Lyman, “Duke” Osborn, Rudy Comstock, “Doc” Elliott, “Wooky” Roberts, and Ben Jones gave him seven outstanding players. “Scotty” Bierce, Joe Work, Olin Smith, and Jerry Jones filled in ably along the line. Two rookies, slashing wingback Dave Noble and “Hoge” Workman, an outstanding passer from Ohio State, made the backfield super.
Cleveland broke on top of the Bears at Dunn Field (formerly League Park) when “Doc” Elliott connected on a 20-yard drop kick in the first quarter. The Bears roared back to take the lead before the period ended. Laurie Walquist flipped a short pass to Joey Sternaman who eluded several tacklers in a dazzling, 60-yard sprint for the Bears’ first points of the season. When he dropkicked the extra point, the score stood 7-3.
The second quarter was scoreless as both teams exercised their defenses, but in the third quarter the Bulldogs went back to basics. Elliott and Ben Jones smashed into the Bear line again and again on a 50-yard march. It wasn’t pretty, but it was certainly effective. Jones crashed over and Olin Smith drop kicked the PAT to make it 10-7, Bulldogs. A few moments later, the big Bulldog line poured through to block a Bear attempt. Smith scooped up the bouncing ball and rumbled into the endzone for a touchdown.
The goal was missed, but a 16-7 lead looked safe as the final quarter began. It wasn’t safe as far as Joey Sternaman was concerned. When the Bulldogs punted to him at his own 30, he put on a one-man show, twisting and dodging down the field 70 yards to a touchdown. His following drop kick tightened the game to 16-14.
Twice in the remaining minutes he tried for field goals that could have brought victory, but his luck had run out for the day. Deutsch’s Bulldogs had survived their first challenge.
On November 16, the Frankford Yellow Jackets took on the undefeated Cleveland Bulldogs. A bitter winter wind wailed across Dunn Field, but Welsh’s toe was accurate for a pair of first half field goals of 33 and 40 yards. Way broke loose for 48 yards to set up a third quarter touchdown plunge by Hamer. Cleveland didn’t get untracked until the final period when they marched 90-yards to a touchdown, but a desperation pass in the final seconds fell incomplete.
The loss was the first ever suffered by a Guy Chamberlin coached team. It also temporarily dropped Cleveland into a first-place tie with Rock Island, both at 5-1. Frankford, at 7-2, was second. The early upset by Dayton was coming back to haunt them. The Bears, who again tied Racine on that day, had an odd 3-1-4 record were still in the race with two weeks to go.
It was really no contest. Rock Island removed itself from further consideration by losing to Duluth on November 23. Cleveland finished with two easy wins over Columbus and Milwaukee, only a few steps removed from shooting fish in a barrel. The Milwaukee game was played at Canton on Thanksgiving, giving old Bulldog fans a chance to see what they’d been missing all season. The ‘Dogs celebrated their homecoming by piling up a 53-10 score. On a less festive note, the decision to play outside Cleveland was a sure tipoff that the Bulldogs were not being well supported at home.
Also on Thanksgiving, Frankford showed exactly how they really compared with the Dayton Triangles by squashing them, 32-7. It was too late. The upset by the Tris in early October had cost the Jackets the league championship. Had the Jackets beaten the Triangles on October 5 (as they surely should have even had they been forced to walk all the way to Dayton), they would have reached the season-ending November 30 date at 12-1-1 for .923. Instead, they ended at .846, behind Cleveland (7-1-1 .875) and the Bears (6-1-4 .857).
Choosing A Champ
Had everyone stopped playing right there, the Cleveland Bulldogs’ championship would have been cut and dried, just as had been the Canton Bulldogs’ titles of 1922 and 1923. The equanimity of those two seasons, however, came only because no team had been able to defeat Chamberlin’s team. This time, with a defeat on their record, the ‘Dogs were not so clearly the best around.
Moreover, the general public was not at all clear how the NFL champion was to be chosen. In the days before a league existed, the buccaneer days of state and city titles, championships had been settled by the “last win” method in which a victory at the end of the season took precedence in any dispute between two teams with fairly similar records.
Certainly the Bears, with six wins and one loss, could argue “similarity” to the Bulldogs’ seven-and-one. The Bears invited the Bulldogs to Wrigley Field for a December 7 meeting. Chicago newspapers billed the game as “for the championship.” Chicago fans must have remembered that the then-Staleys had used a December “post-season” game with Buffalo to win the 1921 title. Here we go again!
Cleveland regarded the game as an exhibition and played it with all the fire such a meaningless contest deserved. They trailed 7-0 into the fourth quarter and then let everything slide to make the final 23-0, Chicago. Chicago’s newspapers immediately awarded the Bears the championship. Other papers around the country tended to agree. Not only did the Bruins have the “last win,” their overall mark was now better than Cleveland’s.
Oddly, those who wanted to add the December victory over Cleveland to the Bears’ regular-season record never seemed to remember the 5-0 Chicago loss to the Packers back in September. Furthermore, Chicago continued to play. The self-proclaimed champions trained to Philadelphia the next Saturday and took on the Yellow Jackets before a full house of 15,000. With the game tied in the third quarter, Joey Sternaman dropkicked a 20-yard field goal to make the final score 13-10. Until then, some Frankford folks had argued for the Yellow Jackets as champions because they’d totaled more wins than any other team.
After disposing of the Jackets, the Bears jumped back on a train and rode overnight to Rock Island. The Bears and Independents had twice tied during the season, but this time the tired Bruins weren’t quite up to the challenge. They trailed 7-0 with two minutes left when Joey Sternaman scored a touchdown. But with a third tie in sight, Joey missed the extra point.
At this point, the Bears could still claim the ’24 championship, but they had to be careful of their argument. The loss at Rock Island meant “overall percentage” wouldn’t work even if they ignored the early loss to Green Bay. The “last win” theory would make the Independents champs, and no one outside the Rock Island city limits believed that. That left the “championship game” contention. If the December 7 victory over the Bulldogs was — as the Bears claimed — “for the championship,” George Halas could begin warming up his flag pole for the ’24 pennant.
Although the question of the title seemed on the surface to involve only an awarding of honors to one of two teams, the ramifications went much deeper. Would the league go back on itself and ignore its own November 30 end-date and accept instead Chicago’s contention of a de facto championship game?
Certainly a decision for the Bears would please more fans (and newspaper columnists) than one favoring Cleveland. Considering the still- shaky prestige of the NFL, taking the popular road was something worth thinking about. Moreover, Cleveland was a limping franchise with a questionable shot at survival; the Bears were the league’s most important team. They easily had the most box- office “clout.” With schedules still being arranged between team managers, could any league team afford to cross George Halas?
At the root of the controversy, was a very basic question, one that had been hovering for five years ever since the idea of a league had first surfaced in Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile office back in August of 1920: was this a league of equals, all following the same rules, or was it a business in which economic might made right?
At the league meeting in January, the NFL came down on the side of the angels and Cleveland by abiding by its own rules. The championship would go to the team with the best winning percentage on November 30, just as they’d decided the summer before. Furthermore, the league had no such thing as a “championship game,” and individual clubs – like the Bears – had no right to invent one. In other words, even had the Bulldogs regarded the December 7 game as for the championship (which they didn’t), it would make no difference.
Only the league could establish a title game. Guy Chamberlin had his third championship in a row. Sam Deutsch had his first. It only took him two teams to do it.
Chamberlin became the first to coach NFL Champions in three consecutive years (joined today by Packer coaches Curly Lambeau, 1929-31 and Vince Lombardi, 1965-67).
Sold Back Again (1925-1926)
In 1925 Sam Deutsch sold the team back to Canton for a cool $3,000 with Bulldogs players Pete Henry, Link Lyman, Rudy Comstock and Ben Jones bankrolling the team. The Bulldogs were back. But the 1925-1926 Bulldogs teams didn’t have the same success as the earlier teams.
After a solid 4-4 season in 1925, Henry and co-coach Harry Robb seemed to field an old and slow team in 1926 finishing with a woeful record of 1-9-3. The only win was a 13-0 victory over the Louisville Colonels, when Jim Thorpe, who had returned to play for the Bulldogs as a 38-year old halfback, scored both touchdowns.
On Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 25th) at Lakeside Park in Canton, the Bulldogs played their last home game, a 0-0 tie with the Akron Indians. Henry missed an 18-yard field goal as the city of Canton, the place where the NFL was founded, would witness its last NFL game involving the team that defined the city. Three days later in Chicago, the Canton Bulldogs played their final NFL game, losing 35-0 to the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field.
Before the 1927 season the NFL decided to purge itself of the weaker (smaller towns) franchises and the Canton Bulldogs would be one of the victims. NFL President Joe F. Carr knew if the league was going to be successful they had to be in the big city. He was willing to sacrifice one of the sports pioneering franchises to do it.
One of the early powers in pro football was dead.
More Photos of Canton Bulldogs
Chicago Tigers: By Joe Ziemba
Joe Ziemba is the host of a podcast on the network, 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.
I also had Joe in multiple episodes on the podcast. The best way to learn more about Joe is to head to his page on the website.
Or catch up with Joe on his Facebook Page.
Joe Ziemba Books
Origins of the Chicago Tigers
While Paul Parduhn, the manager of the Hammond (IN) Pros, was sitting in his jail cell, he might have been thinking about the future of his football team. This was in December of 1919 and Parduhn had just been arrested for violating the “Bad Check” law in the state of Illinois.
He had written salary checks to his players, most of whom resided in Illinois, on November 26 that eventually bounced and the boys were not too happy about it! When Parduhn was not able to make good on the payments, some of his players promptly encouraged local authorities to arrest their boss!
As a result, Parduhn occupied his small cell courtesy of the village of Oak Park, IL after not being able to pay his hefty $12,000 bail. It was perhaps not a coincidence that many of the 1919 Hammond Pros decided to play elsewhere in 1920 where their paychecks might actually be viable.
And it was also likely not a coincidence that a couple of the angriest players, Milt Ghee and Shorty Des Jardien, were two of the primary movers behind the new Chicago Tigers team in 1920. The Moline (IL) Dispatch reported that: “The Hammond professional team of last season was harassed by players’ dissensions and broke up before the end of the season. Des Jardien and Ghee, center, and quarterback of last year’s team are running a team in Chicago, known as the Tigers.”
Des Jardien, an All-American center from the University of Chicago, paired easily with Ghee, an All-American quarterback from Dartmouth, to anchor the middle of the Tigers’ offense. The third organizer of the Tigers was fullback Guil Falcon who also handled coaching duties. On the management side, the Chicago Cubs’ ticket manager Rube Cook assisted with scheduling and organization.
Tigers in the APFA
It was an exciting time for the Tigers, especially when the Midwest media took notice of the star power on the roster. The Chicago Tribune stated on October 10: “College and university football stars of other years who still like the gridiron pastime have their first big day of the 1920 season today. Two dozen of them will mix in lists at Cub Park and from advance indications of their clash, Chicago Tigers vs. Racine Cardinals, will be on display of football class similar to that of Big Ten conference games.”
The Gazette (IA) reported on the game result and the quality of talent on the field: “A crowd of 10,000 saw the Racine Cardinals and Chicago Tigers play a 0-0 tie at Cubs Park yesterday. Twenty-six college alumni represented the two professional football teams.”
For the Tigers, it was an auspicious start to the season. The team managed to reserve Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field) as its home field for the year and attracted a large enough opening day crowd to justify the use of the facility. The following week, the Tigers edged the Detroit Heralds 12-0 at Cubs Park in front of 5,000, setting up a battle with the Decatur Staleys for the “professional championship of the Middle West,” according to the Decatur Herald. Although the contest was originally scheduled to be staged in Decatur, the Tigers ended up hosting the game in Chicago.
Before 5,000 attendees, the Staleys persevered 10-0. Eventually, the Tigers finished the 1920 campaign with a disappointing 2-5-1 record and then disappeared from the league.
However, there is one footnote to the Tigers’ history that needs to be addressed. A story has been floating around for years indicating that the game between the Tigers and the Cardinals on November 7, 1920, would be for more than bragging rights. If the report was accurate, the teams would be playing for the right to remain in existence.
In other words, the losing team would become the property of the winner, so that only one of the two would remain in Chicago. While the Cardinals won that contest 6-3, there is certainly no proof that such a “bet” ever existed. In fact, the Tigers not only failed to fold up their tent after the loss, but the team continued on with its season, losing to Canton and the Staleys, while grabbing a non-league win over the local Thorn-Tornadoes on November 28.
While the Chicago Tigers are still considered one of the original teams forming the American Professional Football Association, no one representing the club was present at the planning meeting on September 17, 1920. The Tigers joined the league between that date and October 10, when they played their first game with the Cardinals.
And, because the organization never returned for the circuit’s second season, the Tigers hold the dubious distinction of being the first league team to fold!
Cleveland Tigers: By The Football History Dude
As with most teams back in the day, there was quite a bit of turnover. The Cleveland Tigers were no different. We’ll pick up this story at the meeting. Local sports promoter, Jimmy O’Donnel, purchased the team and ended up going to the September 17th meeting in Canton, OH. Along with O’Donnel at the meeting was Stanley Cofall.
The team ended up with a 2-4-2 record, so not that successful. The one bright spot of the season was the game against the future first champions of the league, Akron Pros.
They scored 7 points against the club, the only points the Akron Pros allowed all season. Moving to 1921, the team changed the name to the Cleveland Indians and shared both the name and stadium with the baseball club. The team ended up with a 3-5 record, and then disbanded, leaving the city wanting more.
Columbus Panhandles: By Chris Willis
Chris Willis is the Head of the Research Library for NFL Films, a position he has held since 1996. He also is an author of 7 books. Chris has been nominated and won Emmy’s for his work on NFL documentaries, including HBO’s Hard Knocks. He was elected in 2018 to the Urbana University Hall of Fame and was also given the Pro Football Researcher’s Association Ralph Hay award for lifetime achievement in the pursuit of preserving the game. Learn more from Chris’ website.
Chris Willis Books
The exact date the Columbus Panhandles football team started and who founded the team has been a mystery. Most experts have credited Joe Carr, the Panhandles long-time manager and former NFL President, with forming the football team in 1907. But the team was around several years earlier than that, as early as 1901, and the sources that provide the earliest proof are the Columbus newspapers of the day.
In 1900 the Columbus Press-Post wrote the first ever article on the Panhandles, but no other mention of the Panhandles actually playing a game on the field. In 1901 the Panhandles became an official team and played two games under the guidance of an individual named William Butler. That year the Panhandles played two games against the Columbus Barracks, a team made up of soldiers.
Butler was the key man in getting the Panhandles started. Starting in 1901 the lumps came in bunches as the Panhandles struggled to learn the game on and off the field, as the majority of their players were employees of the Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad – hence the team nickname.
Having five different managers over their first four seasons didn’t help either. To make matters worse the team didn’t even field a squad in 1905 and 1906. But the fortunes of the Panhandles changed in 1907.
Joe Carr Becomes Team Manager
In 1907 a part-time machinist in the Panhandles shops walked in the office of the Panhandle Athletic Club and asked if he could reorganize the company’s football team. That man was Joe Carr.
He was a little guy who looked at first glance like Caspar Milquetoast. He grayed and balded early, and wore rimless spectacles that made him always appear a little surprised. But, behind those glasses, his blue eyes were honest and tough. And his firm chin could jut forward with a determination that belied that first impression. Joseph F. Carr was a gentleman, but nobody ever pushed him around.
He started as a machinist with the Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad but he loved sports. So at the age of twenty, just as the new century began, Carr started a new career as a sportswriter. Despite only a middle school education he rose to assistant sports editor with the Ohio State Journal – one of three major newspapers in Columbus at the time. During the six years he held that post he was best-known for his boxing stories. Reporting events was all right in its way, but Joe wanted to be more at the center. He wanted to make things happen.
He admired the Old Roman, Charles Comiskey, who’d just started the Chicago White Sox in the fledgling American Baseball League. Emulating his idol, Joe went to some of his more athletic buddies back at the railroad and launched the “Famous Panhandle White Sox” in 1901. How a baseball team could become famous in its first year while using another team’s nickname was never made clear but the squad played successfully around Columbus ball yards for many seasons.
Carr used his experience with the baseball club and working at the newspaper to put together a football team that would make him well-known in the sports world and lead him to his destiny of guiding professional football. He started by reorganizing the Columbus Panhandles and using the perks providing by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
One of those perks was the ability to travel free of charge on any train to any destination. Carr saw this as a huge advantage for his team and he used this perk as the backbone for the team’s financial well-being. Over time the Panhandles became pro football’s most famous traveling team and in 1907 the team played half of its games on the road.
Carr scheduled his team to play on the road not only to take advantage of the free travel, but also to eliminate the cost of a stadium rental. Most early pro teams who hosted games had to cover the cost of a stadium rental (as well as advertisement, security, tickets, etc.) and other teams also had to cover travel costs when they played on the road but Carr eliminated these concerns from the equation.
As a result, while most pro teams drowned in a sea of red ink, the Panhandles would be financially sound for the next sixteen years.
Pro Football's First Road Attraction
In 1907 the Panhandles finished the season with a disappointing 2-3-1 record. But Carr knew his team could play better because he had an ace in the hole. Actually, he had six aces.
Boilermakers with the railroad by trade, the Nessers brothers were as rugged as three weeks in the desert. None of them was ever accused of using niceties on the gridiron. Newspaper accounts of Panhandle games teem with reports of rival players sent to the sideline with broken bones and other assorted injuries. At least once a year, a story would commend the team for playing a clean game. It’s easy to read the unprinted footnote: “Unlike their normal style.”
None of the Nesser brothers ever went to college, although they didn’t want for offers even after they were well-established as pros. But, as Jim Durfee, a Columbus newspaperman who refereed more than a hundred Panhandle games, was fond of saying:
“You had to be an All-American to beat the Nessers.” However, though the Nessers played football like the Wild Bunch toured cow towns, they also had very real ability.
Their father, Theodore Nesser, hailed from Alsace-Loraine and was a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War. Having had it with Europe, he took a boat to America and settled in Columbus where he found a job as a boilermaker for the railroad.
A year or so later, Katherine Nesser joined her husband, bringing along their five children – Pete, John, Phil, Minnie, and Anna. In Columbus, six more children, including five boys, were born. All were delivered “within earshot of the Panhandle whistle.”
There’s a famous story that when the boys grew up and the football team was going strong, Theodore served as water “boy” and Katherine washed and ironed the team’s uniforms. The first part is probably an exaggeration, although old Theodore may have gone out on the field a couple of times during time outs to give his boys hell if they were losing.
The second part of the story has to be true to some extent. If Mrs. Nesser cleaned only her own boys’ uniforms, she was practically laundress for the team. And what oversized uniforms they were!
Joe Carr used the six brothers as the backbone of the Columbus Panhandles, and the football playing family remained in that role for nearly twenty years. From 1901 until 1922 (no team fielded in 1905 and 1906) the Panhandles were a major fixture in the sport, with their best years coming in a three-year span between 1914-1916 when the team went a combined 22-10-1.
Over that same twenty-year period, the railroaders were also the best pro team in the city of Columbus. The team would compile an outstanding 33-5 record against opponents from Columbus, including an amazing 32-1 record over their last thirty-three games. The Panhandles were the best pro football team to ever come out of the capital city.
With the combination of the Nesser brothers as an attraction and the free travel by the railroad, the Panhandles became the biggest attraction in the early days of pro football. The majority of the good teams in the Ohio League and around the Midwest were more than willing to schedule Columbus, as they knew it would be easy to advertise a game featuring the Nesser brothers. Fans everywhere came out to watch the railroaders.
Panhandle's Rough and Tough Playing Style
The Nesser’s sandlot mentality was developed in a unique way. Because of the limited time to practice and prepare for games, the Panhandles did the majority of their preparation during lunch.
Workers had a one-hour break during a normal workday, and the players usually took the first fifteen minutes to eat lunch and used the remaining forty-five minutes to practice football. The athletic field behind the railroad shops in Columbus became a popular spot to learn and watch the game of football.
It must’ve been a funny scene – boilermakers and machinists out on a dirty, gravel field in blue jeans and work boots trying to run plays or kick a football. “There was an athletic field just outside the gates,” Al Nesser recalled of his days with the railroad. “We toiled for five hours, ate lunch and then practiced on full stomachs before going back to work.”
Over the years the Panhandles’ rosters didn’t include many former college players or All-Americans, so the athletic field in the railroad yards became the place where the team would find out who could play. The team’s reputation for “dirty” play was learned and developed right on the railroad yards not college gridirons. The press sometime criticized the railroaders for their rough tactics, but fans loved them.
1922 was the last season for the Columbus Panhandles. They went winless in the NFL at 0-8-0.
From 1923 to 1926 President Carr placed an NFL team in his hometown of Columbus as he replaced the Panhandles with the Columbus Tigers. After winning nine games in their first two seasons the Tigers plummeted the next two years compiling a 1-15 record in league play.
Carr soon realized that the city was in love with Ohio State football and citizens of the capital city could only afford to purchase one football ticket a week so he folded the franchise after the 1926 season.
Plus, Carr was moving the NFL to the big city and Columbus (with only 290,000 citizens in 1930), despite being Carr’s hometown and where the NFL’s headquarters was stationed, wasn’t going to make the cut.
Dayton Triangles: By Steve Presar
Dayton Triangle Football Origins
The football team won the Dayton city championships in 1913, 1914, and 1915. Under the names: Cadets (1913 and 1914) and Gym-Cadets (1915). The name was permanently changed to the Triangles in 1916.
In 1916, F. B. MacNab, a patent attorney for the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO), started organizing a recreational football team from among the employees of three downtown Dayton factories. The factories were DELCO, Dayton Metal Products Company (D.M.P. Co.), and Domestic Engineering Company (DECO, later called Delco-Light).
These three factories were all founded by Dayton industrialist Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering and formed an industrial triangle of plants in downtown Dayton.
Rather than recruit a complete team from the factories, MacNab got together with Carl Storck to sponsor the Dayton Cadets football team and used players recruited from the three factories to fill out the team roster.
Thus, DELCO, D.M.P. Co., and DECO provided players as well as corporate sponsors. The Dayton Cadets became the Dayton Triangles that year. Later the Dayton Wright Airplane Company, another Deeds and Kettering venture became a fourth corporate sponsor.
The Dayton Cadets football team was a mix of St. Mary’s Institute (now the University of Dayton) alumni and other local athletes. The Dayton Triangles were the only undefeated professional football team in America in 1918 and may claim an unofficial professional football championship. In the era before the formation of the APFA league in 1920.
The team went 41 wins, 4 losses, and 4 ties, dominating southwestern Ohio professional football. In 1918 they compiled a record of 8-0-0, scoring 188 points to their opponents’ 9, and were the only undefeated professional football team in America. Under their coach and star runner Earle “Greasy” Neale, the Triangles defeated the top professional teams from Detroit (twice), Columbus, and Toledo in that season.
Formation of the League
The Dayton Triangles professional football team was one of the four charter member teams of the professional football league that was to become the National Football League (NFL).
The Dayton Triangles representative, their manager Carl “Scummy” Storck was at the first professional football meeting in Canton, Ohio August 20, 1920. It was held at Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile auto dealership on Tuscarawas Street in Canton, Ohio. Teams represented were, the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, and Dayton Triangles.
Scummy Storck was at the second organizational meeting held in Canton, Ohio, September 17, 1920. Teams represented were from four states: the Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Dayton from Ohio, Hammond Pros and Muncie Flyers from Indiana, Rochester Jeffersons from New York, and Rock Island Independents, Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears), and Racine Cardinals (named after the Racine Street neighborhood in Chicago, now the Arizona Cardinals) from Illinois.
The name selected for the league was, “American Professional Football Association” (APFA). The APFA changed its name to the National Football League (NFL) on June 24, 1922.
After the second meeting four more teams joined the league: the Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles, and Detroit Heralds.
First-Ever NFL Game
On October 3, 1920 the first game matching two APFA teams was held in Dayton, Ohio, at Triangle Park. The APFA changed its name to the National Football League (NFL) on June 24, 1922. Thus, this was the first game between two original NFL teams.
In this first game the Dayton (Ohio) Triangles defeated the Columbus (Ohio) Panhandles 14-0.
The second touchdown was scored by the Triangles’ Francis Bacon. “Hobby” Kinderdine kicked the second extra point.
High Point of 1920 Season
The high point of the Triangles’ 1920 season was a 20-20 tie at Triangle Park with the Canton Bulldogs. No other team had been able to score three touchdowns on the Bulldogs since 1915.
In the third quarter, Jim Thorpe narrowed the score to 20-17 with a 45-yard dropkick. Then, in the final minutes, he zeroed in on a 35-yard place-kick that tied the score.
First NFL Halftime Show
On October 1, 1922, the Oorang Indians, an all native-America team with Jim Thorpe, played in their first game at Triangle Park. More than 5,000 people paid $1.75 a ticket to see the Dayton Triangles defeat the Oorang Indians 36-0.
The Oorang Indians’ owner Walter Lingo purchased the NFL franchise to publicize his Oorang breed of Airedale dogs and his Oorang Dog Kennels in LaRue, Ohio.
To Walter Lingo, the Oorang Indians team was there to play football and to help him sell his Oorang Airedales dogs. Thus, rather than rest or plan for the second half, the Oorang Indians football players were running Walter Lingo’s Oorang Airedales dogs through tricks for the halftime crowd.
Thanks to Walter Lingo, his Oorang Airedales dogs and the Oorang Indians football team – NFL’s first halftime show was in Triangle Park Dayton, Ohio.
For more on the Oorang Indians football team;
The Oorang Indians (Legendary Team Called LaRue (Ohio) Home)
In addition to Pro Football Hall of Famer, Jim Thorpe (Canton Bulldogs 1920 & coach Oorang Indians 1922), playing at Triangle Park. On October 2, 1927, Harold “Red” Grange (formerly with the Chicago Bears) played the Triangles at Triangle Park as a player with the New York Yankees.
Dayton provided one the league’s organizational founding fathers, the manager of the Triangles, Carl Storck. He participated in all of the league’s first organizational meetings and served the NFL for the first 21 years of its existence. He was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the league on April 30, 1921.
Storck was the NFL president from 1939 to 1941. He conducted his league business from his office in the Winters Building in downtown Dayton, Ohio.
Decatur Staleys: By Joe Ziemba
Joe Ziemba is the host of a podcast on the network, 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.
I also had Joe in multiple episodes on the podcast. The best way to learn more about Joe is to head to his page on the website.
Or catch up with Joe on his Facebook Page.
Joe Ziemba Books
Decatur Staleys Origins
He was too small for high school football and too often injured to enjoy a successful collegiate career, but George Halas ultimately found his niche in the new-born professional ranks. After a solid debut with the Hammond Pros in 1919, Halas was recruited to manage the football team, and play on the baseball team, at the A.E. Staley Company in Decatur, IL in March of 1920.
Halas did not start the Staley football program. It played a full schedule against local teams in 1919, finishing with a 6-1 record against opponents such as the Rantoul Aviators and the Arcola Independents. If anything, Halas was a visionary and after accumulating personal contacts through his collegiate years at Illinois, a successful season with the Great Lakes Training team, and the Hammond Pros, Halas received permission from the Staley Company owner to develop a more competitive club.
The players Halas brought in would work at the Staley plant and also practice daily on company time, a distinct advantage in those days. In his autobiography, Halas explained that the objectives of the football team were “to stimulate employee morale and fitness and spread the Staley name throughout the nation.” In order to do so, Halas would need to elevate the status of his grid team from a local powerhouse to a competitive player on the national stage.
Halas explained in his book that “I wrote to Ralph Hay, the manager of the Canton Bulldogs, one of the best run and most prominent teams. I mentioned our need for a league…He called a meeting on September 17, 1920.”
Representing the Staleys at the meeting would be Halas and Staley engineer Morgan O’Brien, according to the Decatur Herald: “George Halas, who will have charge of the Staley football team this fall, and Morgan O’Brien, secretary, left for Canton, Ohio where a meeting of coaches and managers of the leading professional football teams of the country will be held. The object of the meeting is to organize a professional football league.”
Founding Members of a New League
The Staleys fully supported the creation of the American Professional Football Association, especially if it would help improve the scheduling process for the Staleys. After kicking off the season with easy wins over nearby adversaries such as the Moline Universal Tractors and the Kewanee Walworths, the Staleys stepped up and scheduled contests with the Minneapolis Marines, the Hammond Pros, and the Racine Cardinals. The Pros and Cardinals were 2 of the 14 original NFL teams.
Despite the competitive nature of the campaign, the Staleys finished with a sparkling 10-1-2 record in 1920 with the lone loss coming against the Racine Cardinals. That mark was good enough for second place in the new league, although Halas presumed that his club had captured the title. At the owners’ meeting in the spring of 1921, the championship was awarded to undefeated (8-0-3) Akron.
With no formal scheduling process and without a playoff system, there were still several items that the new league would need to address in the future, and Halas would ensure that he was prominent in any of those discussions for the next several decades.
During the season, Halas switched some games to Chicago to take advantage of larger seating capacities. Only three games were actually played in Decatur (grossing a total of $1,982.49 per Halas) while five contests were staged in Chicago (bringing in $20,162.06).
The economic writing was on the wall for the Staleys who would become known forever as the Chicago Bears in the near future. As for that first APFA year, Halas was pleased: “The 1920 season confirmed my belief that professional football had a great future.”
Detroit Heralds: By The Football History Dude
The Detroit Heralds were an original NFL team derived from a group of University of Detroit players. It really came about after the university decided to eliminate the football program. Led by Bill Marshall, the Detroit Heralds were formed in 1905. This was a big year for sports in the city of Detroit. It was the same year legendary Ty Cobb started his career with the Detroit Tigers.
By all accounts, it appears the Detroit Heralds dropped their amateur status in 1911 and became a local semi-pro football team. Things were picking up for pro football in the city of Detroit. The events of World War 1 and the 1918 Flu closed the doors for many football teams in the area, but the Heralds kept on truckin’. The team became well known in Detroit by this time, winning city and even state championships.
According to Vintage Detroit’s site, the team drew 16,000 fans for a game against the Fort Custer All-Stars, also hosting Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs that year. We discussed in an episode a while back with Chris Serb how many military teams played football as a way to earn money for the war efforts.
Flashing forward, the league meeting of September 17th occurred in 1920. The Detroit Heralds did not have representation at this meeting, but they did join the league, considering they were a good fit for one of the nation’s largest cities at the time. Detroit’s first game was October 17th in Chicago against the Chicago Tigers. Detroit lost this game, but according to NFL.com, the team ended up with a 2-3-3 record for the season.
The team was rebranded as the Detroit Tigers for the 1921 season, but they disbanded in this same season. A short-lived ride in the NFL for the first team in the city of Detroit. The city saw another professional team join the NFL in 1925, under the name of the Detroit Panthers. This team was pretty good, amassing an 8-2-2 record but only lasted a couple of seasons. Then back in 1928, the Detroit Wolverines had a 7-2-1 record, but only lasted one season.
Finally in 1934, George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans and brought them to Detroit, ultimately becoming the team there today, my Detroit Lions.
A quick note about the Detroit Heralds, though. They are recognized as the first independent team in America to wear numbers on their jerseys, publicizing their players to make the game more fan-friendly.
Hammond Pros: By Roy Sye
Who were the Hammond Pros?
The Hammond Pros were one of the original 14 teams that played in the inaugural season of 1920 for what is now known as the National Football League. The league at that time was officially known as the American Professional Football Association, or APFA for short.
The Pros played a total of 7 games in 1920, 3 were against other league opponents, while 4 were against non-league opponents. The Pros lost all their league games, all by a wide margin. They did, however, fare a little better against non-league teams, winning 2 and losing 2. They won against two strong Chicago independent teams and lost to another Chicago independent team and another loss to their local rivals, the Gary Elks. More on these games later…
Hammond is located on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, in the northwest corner of Indiana, just 20 miles from downtown Chicago. The Pros, like many other teams of that era, can trace their roots back to around 1910.
In the early years of the 20th Century, Hammond, a hard-working steel town, routinely fielded strong teams that battled for a county title or a state title. From 1912 to 1917, the Hammond Clabby Athletic Club was one of the strongest teams in the area. The athletic club takes its name from the middleweight boxer, Jimmy Clabby, a popular boxer from the Hammond area. “Doc” Young, who would go on to become the owner of the Pros, served as the trainer and doctor for the Clabby football team.
Doc Young and the Hammond Pros
In 1919, local promoter, Paul Parduhn, formed a team called the Hammond All-Stars; some papers in the area referred to the team as the Bobcats. Parduhn formed this team to compete with the famous Canton Bulldogs, who were one of the strongest teams of the era.
Parduhn went all out and stocked his team with former college stars, like Paddy Driscoll from Northwestern, George Halas from Illinois, Milt Ghee from Dartmouth, Johnny Barrett from Washington and Lee, and Emmette Keefe from Notre Dame. The All-Stars played a strong schedule and went 4-2-3, beating Rock Island, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Toledo, and tying the Canton Bulldogs 3-3, then losing a late-season game by a close score of 7-0.
“Doc” Young traveled to Canton in mid-September 1920 to represent Hammond, hoping to get a team in the newly formed American Professional Football Association.
The Indiana and Illinois states were well represented, with George Halas now representing the Decatur Staleys, Chris O’Brien representing the Chicago Cardinals, Walter Flanagan representing the Rock Island Independents, and Guil Falcon, representing the newly formed Chicago Tigers. Falcon, a star player for the 1919 Hammond All-Stars, took many of the key players from that team and formed a new team, that would use Wrigley Field as their home park.
With many of the key players from the 1919 All-Stars team moving to other teams, Halas moving to the Staleys, Driscoll to the Cardinals, Ghee, Barrett, and Keefe moving to the Tigers, Young struggled to put together a strong team, having to fill his roster with local talent, and calling back some of the former Clabby stars.
Scheduling was tough in the inaugural season, as teams played a mixture of games against league opponents and non-league opponents. The Pros, with no local field to call their home base, played all of their games on the road. In fact, of the 35 games the Pros played in their 7-year existence, only 2 games were played at “home”, with the home field being in nearby Gary, Indiana.
The Pros first game was against the strong Rock Island Independents on October 10th in Rock Island. The Independents, coming off 2 lopsided victories, 48-0 against the St. Paul Ideals, and 45-0 against the Muncie Flyers, had no difficulty with the Pros, shutting them out 26-0.
The next week, the Pros traveled to Dayton, Ohio to meet the Triangles. Again, the Pros could not muster any offense and were soundly defeated 44-0. With no game scheduled the next week, the Pros regrouped and played the next 3 games against local independent teams.
The Pros fared well, scoring their first points of the season in their 14-9 win against the Chicago Logan Square Athletic Club. No record was found as to who scored those points, and will likely remain a mystery, even 100 years later.
Gaining momentum, the Pros traveled to the Pullman section of Chicago and defeated the Pullman Thorns in a close game 14-13. Hank Gillo scoring the first documented points for the Pros, followed by another touchdown by Mace Roberts.
Traveling next to neighboring Gary, Indiana, the Pros lost a close game to the Elks by a score of 7-6. The Pros scored a touchdown in the first quarter but missed the extra point, and that would ultimately decide the game, as the Elks scored a touchdown in the 4th quarter and were successful with the extra point.
The Pros, now with a 2-3 record, next traveled to Decatur to meet the Staleys, but the George Halas-led team defeated the Pros by a score of 28-7 in front of 3000 fans at Staley Field. Playing their last game on Thanksgiving Day, the strong Chicago Booster Athletic Club, playing at DePaul Field, soundly defeated the Pros, 27-0.
So, the 1920 season looked like this for the Pros: 0-3 in league play, but 2-2 in non-league play. The Pros were outscored 154-41; being shut out 3 times. By not having a local field to play on, the Pros were forced to play all their games on the road.
With playing all road games, there was very little support, as the local newspapers only had brief articles leading up to the game and usually a small recap of the game the following Monday.
The Final Years of the Pros
“Doc” Young and the Pros returned in 1921 and continued to play in the NFL thru the 1926 season. With all the league game being played on the road, the Pros could only win 5 games, while losing 26 games, and tying 4 more. During the 1921 thru 1926 seasons, the Pros compiled a mediocre 4-5-1 record against non-league opponents.
The Pros did play a “home” game in 1923 against the Dayton Triangles, winning 7-0, while their other “home” game was in 1926 against the Duluth Eskimos, losing 26-0. Both “home” games were played in nearby Gary, Indiana, at Gleason Field.
With the NFL getting stronger, the decision was made to pare down the number of teams, eliminating all the “road-only” teams, and many of the small-market and under-performing teams. Gone were the road-only teams representing Los Angeles, Kansas City, Louisville, and Hammond. Small-market teams in Hartford, Akron, Racine, and Canton, and under-performing teams in Detroit and Columbus were dropped from the league.
The Hammond Pros struggled in the early years of the NFL but continued to play 7 years. “Doc” Young will always be credited as one of the founding fathers of the NFL, and the Pros as one of the original 14 teams.
Muncie Flyers: By Roy Sye
Who Were the Muncie Flyers?
The Muncie Flyers were one of the original 14 teams that played in the inaugural season of 1920 for what is now known as the National Football League. The league at that time was officially known as the American Professional Football Association, or APFA for short.
The Flyers only played 1 official league game in 1920, and it was a lopsided loss for the Flyers, as they traveled to Rock Island, Illinois, and lost to the Independents, 45-0. More on that game later….
Muncie is located in east-central Indiana, about 65 miles northeast of Indianapolis. The Flyers can trace their roots back to 1905 when a group of neighborhood kids got together and formed a team to play other neighborhood teams. Muncie, at that time, was made up of several communities. Avondale, Congerville, Heekin Park, and Muncie proper.
In 1910 the Congerville Athletic Club formed a football team called the Congerville AC. The 1920 Flyers team was based in the Congerville section of Muncie. The Congerville AC was one of the strongest teams in the area, playing well against teams from Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Wabash, Cincinnati (OH), Dayton (OH), and Evanston (IL). The Athletic Club was managed by Earl Ball. He started out managing the team, then eventually owned the team, and remained associated with the Flyers until the early 1920s.
In 1913, Congerville formed a team called the Flyers. The Flyers played mostly local Muncie teams and did well against those other teams.
Before the 1916 season, the Congerville AC and the Congerville Flyers joined forces and built a strong team that played against other teams in the area. With America involved in World War I, the Flyers disbanded for the 1917 and 1918 seasons. In 1919, with the war now over, many teams dusted off their old uniforms and put together strong teams. Led by quarterback Coonie Checkeye, the Flyers finished 4-1-1 in 1919, with their only loss to the Fort Wayne War Vets.
In 1919, there were many strong teams in the Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and New York areas. When word got out that there was a meeting to discuss establishing a formal league, the leaders of the Congerville team wanted to be part of it.
In mid-September 1920, Earl Ball and Coonie Checkeye traveled to Canton, Ohio, and represented the Flyers team. This legendary meeting had in attendance George Halas representing the Decatur Staleys, Chris O’Brien representing the Chicago Cardinals, Ralph Hay representing the Canton Bulldogs, Carl Storck representing the Dayton Triangles, and Doc Young representing of the Hammond Pros. Cleveland, Akron, Buffalo, Rochester, and Detroit were also represented at this meeting. To help with the newly formed league’s image, America’s most popular athlete, Jim Thorpe, was elected President.
Flyers in the First Season
The Flyers came to the meeting hoping to get the Congerville Flyers into the league. Nobody ever heard of the small village of Congerville, so Ball and Checkeye pitched their team as the “Muncie Flyers”.
With 14 teams in the fold, the next task was to develop a schedule. The inaugural season had a very loose schedule, with some teams playing most of their game against non-league opponents, others playing against mostly league opponents, and others playing a mix of games against league opponents and non-league opponents.
There was no fixed schedule, as teams scrambled each week to schedule a game for the following week, hoping for an opponent that was strong enough to bring in a good gate, and also strong enough to provide a good game for their fans.
With Ball and Checkeye traveling back to Muncie, they recruited players from many of the top Indiana colleges, like Purdue, Indiana University, Notre Dame, and Rose-Hulman. A quick practice game was played on September 26th against the local Muncie Tigers team.
First on the league schedule was a trip to Rock Island to play the Independents on October 3rd. This game, along with a game in Dayton, where the Triangles played the Columbus Panhandles, is credited as the first game where two APFA teams played each other.
Playing at historic Douglas Park, the Independents out-classed the Flyers by scoring 2 touchdowns in the first quarter, another 2 touchdowns in the 2nd quarter, 2 more in the 3rd quarter, and then only 1 in the last quarter, to roll to a 45-0 white-wash of the Flyers. Interesting note, Douglas Park is still in existence today, as the last remaining park from the 1920 season.
On October 10th, the Flyers had a game scheduled against the Decatur Staleys. Upon hearing of the results of the Flyers-Independents game, owner/coach of the Staleys, George Halas, quickly canceled the game against the Flyers, as he feared that such a poor team would be a bad draw.
The Flyers were idle the next 2 weeks, while some of their players jumped to other teams to get a quick payday. The Flyers were negotiating a game on October 31st against the Cleveland Tigers, but the details of that game could not get worked out. Finally getting a game on the schedule, the Flyers traveled to Dayton on November 7th to play the Triangles, but the day of the game brought a driving rain, and the game was canceled.
With many players moving on to other teams, the season looked over for the Flyers. With independent football still strong in the area, the Flyers were challenged by the Gas City (IN) Tigers for a Thanksgiving game. Ball and Checkeye quickly contacted their players, and the game was set for Thanksgiving afternoon.
The Flyers defeated the Tigers 19-7, to claim the local championship. The Flyers were then challenged by the Muncie Offers More Athletic Club for a game to claim the city championship. The Flyers overwhelmed the Offers More team, 24-0, to claim the city championship. The Gas City team, still upset by their loss to the Flyers, challenged them to another game on December 5th. The Flyers again won the game, this time by a score of 13-7.
So, the 1920 season looked like this for the Flyers: 0-1 in league play, but 3-0 in non-league games. Many record books do not recognize the last 3 games as ‘official’ games, as independent research only discovered these games in the last 20 years.
After the First APFA Season
The Flyers came back in 1921, with Ball and Checkeye leading the way. The team was formed with many of the same players the previous year. A 74-0 non-league win over the local Elwood Legion gave high hopes to the Flyers for the season.
The next week, the Flyers traveled to Evansville, Indiana to play the Crimson Giants, but lost 14-0. The following week, the Flyers hosted the Cincinnati Celts at Walnut Park but lost by the same 14-0 score. In that game, Checkeye broke his leg and was done for the season.
With their star player injured, the Flyers closed up shop for the 1921 season. A late November game against the Green Bay Packers was canceled, as the Flyers could not field a team.
For the 1922 season, the APFA changed its name to the National Football League. The Flyers, with their poor track record, dropped out of the league. The Flyers continued to play from 1922 to 1926, reverting their name back to the Congerville Flyers.
They played local Indiana and Ohio teams, and won most of their games, but never played against the really strong teams. In 1925, with no home field to play at, the Flyers setup up operations in nearby Jonesboro, and played as the “Jonesboro Flyers”. Returning back to Muncie for the 1926 season, they played one last season under the name of the Flyers, then disbanded forever at the end of the season.
The Muncie Flyers can still hold their heads high, as Earl Ball will always be credited as one of the founding fathers of the NFL, and the Flyers as one of the original 14 teams.
Racine Cardinals: By Joe Ziemba
Joe Ziemba is the host of a podcast on the network, 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.
I also had Joe in multiple episodes on the podcast. The best way to learn more about Joe is to head to his page on the website.
Or catch up with Joe on his Facebook Page.
Joe Ziemba Books
Oldest Franchise in the NFL
While the Arizona Cardinals can claim to be one of only two original NFL franchises still in existence, the team can also take credit for being the oldest professional club. The lineage of the Cardinals can be traced back to 1899 in the person of Chris O’Brien.
In that year, 18-year-old Chris O’Brien, along with his brother Pat and neighbor Tom Clancy, formed a neighborhood football team called the Morgan Athletic Association. It was simply a group of local kids who loved the budding game of football.
After some success in 1899, the members of the team joined the more formal Morgan Athletic Club in 1900, a social entity that offered a variety of sporting opportunities for its members. Although still a teenager, Chris O’Brien was responsible for organizing the football team while Clancy took care of the scheduling and advertising.
Then in 1901, the team name that still exists today was first utilized when the O’Brien brothers became part of the Cardinals Social and Athletic Club. Although the names of his teams changed over those first few years, O’Brien continued to play the game he loved. That would include the Racine Cardinals squad in 1916 which was part of the Racine Cardinal Pleasure Club…and we can’t make that name up!
Chris O'Brien and the Cardinals
O’Brien was never an owner of any of these teams, but he was clearly the force behind the Racine Cardinals football team from 1916 through 1920 when he received notice of a special meeting in Canton, OH to discuss the formation of a new professional football league.
O’Brien attended that inaugural session on September 17, 1920, and the Racine Cardinals became part of the new American Professional Football Association. Ironically, the official “minutes” from that initial meeting mistakenly identified the Racine Cardinals as being from Racine, WI. This eventually nudged O’Brien to change the name of his team to the Chicago Cardinals on October 20, 1920. That name remained for forty seasons until the Chicago Cardinals moved to St. Louis in March of 1960.
Chris O’Brien finally secured ownership of his team in the 1920s until selling the team to Dr. David Jones in 1929, who then sold the club to Charles Bidwill in 1933. The team remains with the Bidwill family to this day, but with so few owners in over a century, the link back to Chris O’Brien can easily be determined.
Forming A New League
During the first season of the APFA in 1920, O’Brien craftily secured the services of talented back and kicker Paddy Driscoll. O’Brien paid the speedy Driscoll $300 per game, which was considered a remarkable compensation for the time. Driscoll paced the Cardinals to a 6-2-2 record (3-2-1 in league play) in 1920 and became an instant favorite of the fans due to both his abilities on the field, as well as his smallish stature of just 5’-7”.
On November 28, 1920, the Cardinals defeated the Decatur Staleys 7-6 in the first game of the NFL’s oldest rivalry, which was honestly reported by the Decatur Herald:
“The Staleys, on the strength of their record, claimed the professional football championship of the country, having won every game played so far by easy margins. The Cardinals not only outscored them but also outplayed them every inch of the way, gaining almost twice as much and breaking up almost every play that was attempted.”
In Chicago, the gritty battle attracted a nice crowd as well as some positive media coverage from the Chicago Herald-American: “Chris O’Brien’s Chicago Cardinals sprang the biggest surprise of the local football season when they walloped the hitherto undefeated Staleys of Decatur in a thrilling 7-6 contest at Normal Park. More than 5,000 fans saw the pastime, which was as full of football energy and skill as three ordinary contests.”
A week later on December 5 at Cubs Park in Chicago, the Staleys (soon to become the Chicago Bears) returned the favor by edging the Cardinals 10-0. The Cardinals played one more game on December 19 that resulted in a 14-14 deadlock with the local Stayms. But taking a peek under the covers revealed that the Stayms had loaded up with players from the Staleys and the Chicago Tigers for this exhibition dual to conclude the Cardinals’ season.
Since it was a non-league game, no one probably paid attention to the roster jumping that was so evident. Prohibiting players from bouncing from one team to another was one of the primary goals of the APFA and demonstrated why a formal professional league was so essential to the future success of post-graduate football.
Rochester Jeffersons: By John Steffenhagen
John is the great-grandson of Leo Lyons, the man who built the Rochester Jeffersons, taking the team from the sandlots to playing in the big leagues as a charter member of the NFL.
He has dedicated a large portion of his life to researching and retelling the incredible stories about the history of the Rochester Jeffersons and his great grandfather. John is a member of the Pro Football Researcher’s Association (PFRA) and actively promotes the history of the NFL through many media outlets. Visit his site dedicated to the Rochester Jeffersons to learn more.
The Team's Origins
The Rochester Jeffersons began to play in the fall of 1898 in downtown Rochester, New York along Jefferson Avenue, thus the team name. It was a sandlot football squad originally comprised of expelled University of Rochester students, players who spent too much time betting and playing football on campus and not studying enough.
After being thrown off the team, the players and their parents turned to the enormously powerful and influential Jefferson Club. The Jefferson Club was a political entity that had power over candidates and elections in the early 1900s, not just in Rochester but throughout the country.
It had branches in many major cities and wielded its influence in support of the “Democratic-Republican Party agenda”, founded by Thomas Jefferson himself. The exclusive club supported the expelled students and paid for cleats and smocks and created a new sandlot team for them. The players were also allowed back into college after negotiations took place between the Jefferson Club and the University of Rochester.
The first newspaper article mentioning the Jeffersons team appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 1908, with William Glavin serving as their manager. 1908 was also the first year Leo Lyons joined the team, and two years later, the 18-year-old took over as player, manager, coach, and owner, steering them from a ragtag bunch of sand letters to state champions.
They were often referred to as the “Jeffs”. By 1910, the team wore bright red uniforms with two white stripes on the sleeves and the “Jeffs” logo on the front. Leo went with the bright colors to stand out from the other teams from the advice of childhood friend Walter Hagan, who would go on to become a golfing legend known for his flamboyant style.
Leading Up to the Meeting in Canton
In the summer of 1910, the team had no manager, no owner, and no future. That is when Leo Lyons pursued his dream of professional football in Rochester and took over as player, manager, coach, and owner of the team. Along the way, he would recruit one of pro football’s first African American players that year, Henry McDonald who would don the red and white uniforms of the Jeffs.
By filling the “Jeffs” roster with the best talent in Rochester, the team quickly became a dominant force in the city by 1915. The team players were now paid, no longer amateurs but semi-pros. The team challenged other state teams from places like Buffalo and Syracuse and vie for the state championship, usually against teams from Buffalo.
By 1916, the Jeffs would be the New York State Champions. With their owner still obsessed with making the Jeffersons a professional team, Leo Lyons contacted the only hotbed of football in the country, the Ohio League and Jim Thorpe.
Lyons had heard that forming a pro football league was on the minds of those out west, so he booked a game against the vaunted Canton Bulldogs in 1917. It was the only way he saw to put the Jeffs on the map and make those aware in the Ohio League he wanted to be part of a new and exciting professional football league.
After their game, Leo stepped aside Canton player Jim Thorpe and Canton owner Jack Cusack and said he wanted in if a new league formed. Thorpe and Lyons exchanged phone numbers and Thorpe said he would let him know when things developed. In the next few years, after dealing with World War 1 and the influenza epidemic, the Jeffs were still one of the best squads in New York.
The Meeting (September 17, 1920)
Leo was the only team manager and owner from New York invited to both organizational meetings in August and September. Unable to make the first meeting in Canton in August, Leo was “present by letter”.
However, on September 17, 1920, Leo was present at Ralph Hay’s small Hupmobile showroom for what the NFL recognizes as the founding of the NFL. Leo had only known one man from the meeting, Jim Thorpe, though Leo did strike up a conversation with George Halas, who would become a lifelong friend. All the other men assembled there knew one another from playing against each other in the Ohio League, thus making Leo Lyons an “outsider”.
The 1920 Season
During this time, the league teams played both league and non-league outfits, something that would have to change later years. For the inaugural season, Leo Lyons bolstered his roster with college standouts like Bart Carroll and Jim Laird from Colgate, Joe Dumoe, Frank Whitcomb, Ray Witter, Lou Usher, and Johnny Barsha from Syracuse. Jack Forsythe, a Rochester football legend, coached the team.
The Jeffs won their first four games, but none were league teams. Their fifth game resulted in a 17-6 loss to the Buffalo All-Americans, who was a strong league team. Rochester finished the season 6-3-2, though only played one league team. Unfortunately, fans in Rochester began revolting against the idea of a local team comprised of non-local players. Leo would explain, in nauseum in the newspapers, why local talent could not “cut it” in a professional football league and that football would become as big as major league baseball.
Lyons was often referred to as a “dreamer” and “quack” for that reasoning. It was not just a struggle for the Jeffersons, all the new pro teams had it tough. The idea of a successful football league was not a popular one, especially outside of Ohio.
Rock Island Independents: By Simon Herrera
Origins of the Independents
Rock Island Illinois was one of the 3 cities (Rock Island, Davenport, and Moline) that made up what was called then the Tri-Cities. The high school teams formed in 1899 and battled it out each fall. The area was rich with farm manufacturing and was located along the Mississippi River with train access to Chicago and thus all cities in the middle west.
This would play a part in the steady growth of the team and help get them to Ohio and into the league that became the NFL.
The Independents are first mentioned in the Rock Island Argus on November 11th, 1901. Few details are found about the team that year. In 1902 besides the high school teams, several other neighborhood teams had formed and even a lightweight class of football was found within the Tri-Cities, its possible the Independents were one of them.
Oscar Oberg is listed as the Independent’s manager but again there are few details about the team. This neighborhood version of the team existed again in 1903 and 1904 but there is no mention of them again until 1907.
That year Tom Kennedy (a local baseball man) decided it was time to form a football club. Since they had no business backings or athletic club affiliations they were called the Independents. Kennedy called a meeting to take up a vote to see if the community had the enthusiasm to support an amateur football team.
This is a tradition that would be carried out each fall over the next 10 years by the men trying to organize the team. The meeting was usually held in the bar of one of the upscale hotels in downtown Rock Island.
The 1907 team included a couple of players that were holdovers from the earlier version of the team, others were former Rock Island High football players. From 1907 – 1909 the team played some of the more established teams from the Tri-Cities as well as a few teams from outside the city limits.
The team had a bad showing in 1909 and must not have had the support to form in 1910 and 1911, there is no record of them playing.
The Years Leading Up To 1920
In 1912 Joe Smith formed the team. The main thing of note that Smith did was the name John Roche team Captain, Roche was a former Rock Island High player. Roche assembled a mix of former Rock Island High players and a few of the better players from other local amateur teams.
Roche led the team to an 8 – 0 record that season as they defeated the best local teams from Davenport and Moline as well as 3 teams from outside of town. From 1912 – 1914 the team had 19 wins – 2 losses and 1 tie.
In 1915 Roche handed the team over to Walter Flannigan who had been his assistant for 2 years. Flannigan and his determination to build the best team in the Tri-Cities is what led the team on a collision course with the league that formed in 1920.
From 1915 to 1917 Flannigan built the team up using the best local players. He even signed a couple of players who had played at local colleges. After a great start in 1917 Flannigan scheduled the Minneapolis Marines who were the most famous team west of the Mississippi.
The Independents lost the game 7 to 3 but the game drew over 6,000 fans to Douglas Park. Two weeks later they played again and lost by a bigger margin but the game drew over 4,000 fans. Walter Flannigan had an Idea, following a loss to his rivals from Davenport he invited 5 of the Marine players to play with Rock Island in the rematch against Davenport. The Independents won the game 23 to 7 and Flannigan now had a core group of guys that could compete with any team in the country.
As we all know, in 1918 World War I and the Spanish Flu Pandemic put a halt to the momentum that pro football had gained. After the War Flannigan invited 6 of the Marine players back to the team. He mixed them in with the best local players and one or 2 college men. Flannigan now felt he had one of the best teams in the country.
Flannigan set his sights on playing teams from Ohio who were considered the best in the country. Flannigan’s hope was to play Jim Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs. The team started off 2 and 0 but lost 7 to 12 to the famous 20 thousand dollar-Hammond All-Stars. There may have been an agreement by Thorpe to bring his team to Rock Island had the Independents beaten Hammond, all seemed lost.
The team beat their local rivals and then a team from Cincinnati. Next, they played the famous Pine Village team to a tie. To finish out the schedule they beat another team from Hammond, the Columbus Panhandles, and the Akron Indians.
The Independents for the season other than the game vs Hammond had gone unscored upon and unbeaten. Flannigan challenged Thorpe to a game, he guaranteed Canton $5000 as their share of the gate if they showed. Thorpe thought on this, Flannigan even traveled to Canton to try to talk Thorpe into playing. Thorpe told him that his team had disbanded and he claimed the championship with a 10-0 record to Rock Islands 9 – 1 – 1 record.
The Canton Meeting
At the time not being able to convince Canton to come to Rock Island seemed like a big loss for the team. Instead, it got Walter Flannigan invited to the famous meeting in Canton Ohio where the league formed.
There is nothing of note that stands out about Flannigan’s presence at the meeting, he is listed as the representative from Rock Island. He did take the title as League Secretary that first year.
The First Season
The Independents played the Staleys/Bears 14 times in the 6 seasons that they were in the league. I like to say that the Independents were the Bears’ first rivals. The Independents won 2 games while the Bears won 8, there were 4 that ended in a tie.
In 1920 the 2 games were very physical and in the 2nd one Bears center George Trafton took out 4 Independents after hearing that there were bets on how long Trafton himself would stay in the game. The game ended with Trafton leaving Douglas Park on foot running with the Bears share of the gate, Halas would later say that he gave the money to Trafton because he knew it would be safer with him, Halas would be running for the Money while Trafton was running for his life.
Glass bottles were hurled at Trafton as he caught a cab outside of the park to escape. The score of the game was 0 to 0 but the argus claimed that the Bears had won the Worlds Dirt Title for how dirty they had played on the field. There is much more to this story and to the two teams rivalry, but this is one that has been talked about to this day.
Rock Island Facts and Interesting Nuggets
Independents were in the first game that featured a team from the NFL. The game took place on September 26th, 1920 (9 days after the league formed).
They also were one of 2 teams to host a game on opening weekend. The game was played on October 3rd at Douglas Park in Rock Island. The game kicked off at 3.04 PM local time. It has always been assumed that the game between the Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles was the first game played, but these 2 games were going on at the same time. Due to Dayton being farther East it can be assumed that their game started earlier.
Since no score happened in Dayton until the 2nd half it’s quite possible that the Independents scored the first-ever league touchdown. On the first series of the game Rock Island’s Ed Show broke through the line and blocked a punt, Arnie Wyman scooped it up and ran it in for a touchdown.