What follows is an excerpt from a book I started to write several years ago, a history of the World Football League. I set it aside because I had other things that came up, and I've never gotten back to it.
PRO FOOTBALL - THE EARLY DAYS...
By Hugh Wyatt
Professional football's roots go back to the 1890's, when assorted town teams in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio decided to beef up their rosters by paying "ringers" - hired outsiders, who were usually good college players. The practice grew to the point where it was not unusual for a talented college player to play in his college games on Saturday, then hire himself out the next day, playing for a town team under an assumed name in order to preserve his amateur status and his college eligibility.
College then was for the privileged few, and college football, for all its roughness, was somewhat like English rugby - "a hooligan's game played by gentlemen." Professional football, on the other hand, became a working man's game, played in mining and factory towns. As a small town, blur-collar version of football, pro football was largely ignored by the more sophisticated big-city newspapers, devoted as they and their readers were to the far more popular college game. At a time when the average laborer worked a six-day week, professional football was a game for the day off - from its earliest days, pro football became the Sunday game.
The National Football League, which today is synonymous with Pro Football, dates to 1920, coinciding with the dawn of what has been called the Golden Age of American Sport. But the NFL of 1920, a loosely organized group of midwestern teams, bore little resemblance to today's sports giant. (In fact, it was actually founded in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, and wasn't even given the name National Football League until two years later.)
Over the next few years, the NFL spread eastward, adding the Pottsville (Pa.) Maroons, the Providence Steamrollers, and the Frankford (Pa.) Yellow Jackets.
Frankford is a story in itself. It was not a small town, actually, but rather a bustling, industrial part of Philadelphia. But consistent with pro football's provincial, small-town orientation, the Yellow Jackets chose to identify with Frankford, a tight-knit neighborhood, rather than with the much larger city of which it was a part.
Ultimately, though, the Yellow Jackets were forced out of Frankford, first when fire damaged their stadium, then when the city of Philadelphia revealed plans to extend a major street right through the stadium grounds (knowing Philadelphia, who can say what sort of politics were involved?). Forced to move their 1931 home games into the stadium also used by baseball's Phillies, they had every intention of returning to Frankford in 1932. They never made it.
Instead, they folded after the 1931 season. True, the Frankford section and its textile factories were especially hard-hit by the Depression, but it seems more than a coincidence that the Yellow Jackets' demise followed their move out of the smaller Frankford community and the fierce local base of support it had provided them into a larger city that had little knowledge of them and even less interest in them.
Professional football operations then were haphazard, more on the order of present-day semi-pro leagues. There was no resemblance to today's NFL or, for that matter, the major league baseball of the time. The Yellow Jackets, for example, might play an opponent in Frankford on Saturday, then ride an overnight train to play someplace else the very next day. On at least one occasion, they played the New York Giants in back-to-back Saturday-Sunday games.
Once, they travelled 12 hours by train to Buffalo, only to learn upon arrival that their game had been cancelled because of "wet grounds." But Philadelphia reporters accompanying the club to Buffalo noted that the streets were dry, and speculated that it was not weather or wet grounds that occasioned the mysterious postponement, but an earlier shellacking the Yellow Jackets had given the home team. Perhaps, they surmised, something more important had come up: one reporter heard a rumor that the Buffalo players weren't even in town - they had all gone to see the World Series.
The NFL at that time gave the local club such powers of cancellation, requiring only that the home team reimburse the visiting team for its travel expenses. It was not, however, required to pay the entire visitor's guarantee, which the visiting team would be depending on to meet its payroll, so in such cases the players went unpaid.
PRO FOOTBALL "ARRIVES"
Pro football didn't begin to make an impact on the big cities of the East - and capture the attention of its newspapers - until late 1925, when the most famous, most exciting college football player ever to play the game up to that point was enticed to turn pro.
His name was Harold "Red" Grange, and the number he wore - 77 - was almost as famous as he was. His remarkable feats as a running back at the University of Illinois had earned him the nickname, "Galloping Ghost." In 1924, his junior year, 67,000 people - then the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event in the Midwest - celebrated the dedication of Illinois' new stadium, then watched in awe as Grange scored four touchdowns against Michigan on runs of 96, 65, 54 and 48 yards - in the first quarter alone!
Until his senior season, though, the speedy and elusive Grange had never been seen outside the Midwest. In those days before jet planes, colleges rarely played outside their region, so most fans knew of Grange only through the newspapers and the short, jerky black-and-white "newsreel" shorts shown in movie theatres.
But in 1925 the Fighting Illini travelled to Philadelphia to play Penn, a major eastern power (modern-day power Penn State was then considered by elitists as the state's Cow College, playing in the shadow of its big city cousin). Provincial eastern writers played up the game as Grange's first real test, implying that against the likes fo Michigan and Ohio State he hadn't yet faced real opposition. Seeing was believing, they wrote: now, we would finally get to see how good this guy really was.
Grange wasted no time showing them, dashing 55 yards for a touchdown on the opening play from scrimmage. Rushing for 363 yards overall, he made believers of the eastern skeptics. No longer was there any doubt - anywhere - about Grange's greatness.
In his final college game, 85,200 people - the largest crowd up to that point ever to see any American sporting event - turned out in Columbus to see him play against Ohio State.
In that pre-television era, in an age that worshipped its sports heroes, the only way to see a sports hero - other than in the newsreels - was in person. In the case of Grange, a star of the same magnitude as contemporaries such as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, it was obvious that even though his college career was now at an end, countless people still wanted to see him play - and would pay to do so.
That fact hadn't escaped the notice of an Illinois promoter named C.C. Pyle. (The C.C. would later only half jokingly be said to stand for "Cash and Carry") As Grange's college career drew to a close, Pyle, the owner of a chain of movie theatres, persuaded Grange to allow him to act as his "personal manager." (Call it whatever you wish, long before the invention of the modern-day sports agent, Red Grange had acquired an agent. Furthermore, the great Red Grange seems to have committed what is today considered a cardinal sin, signing with the agent before his college eligibility had ended.)
With Grange under contract, Pyle then secretly negotiated a deal with the Chicago Bears. The plan called for Grange to join the Bears immediately following his final college game, instead of waiting for his class to graduate and joining them the following year, as was then the accepted practice. This way, Grange would be able to play in the Bears' remaining 1925 regular season games, and then accompany the team on a hastily-arranged post-season barnstorming tour, designed specifically to capitalize on his drawing power. In return, the Bears would guarantee Grange $3,000 a game plus a percentage of the gate.
It seemed like a great deal all around. Fans couldn't get enough of Grange, the Bears needed help at the gate, and Grange had an opportunity to cash in on his fame. "I see nothing wrong in playing pro football," he said. "It's the same as playing professional baseball, it seems to me."
Well, not exactly. Because in those days, when pro football's reputation among the sporting public was only slightly better than boxing's is today, it was by no means a given that even a renowned college player would turn professional.
Should Grange wait until next football season? Should he turn pro at all? Modern-day sports-talk shows would have feasted on the controversy. The battle raged in the sports pages and even spilled onto the editorial pages. Large numbers of fans deplored Grange's immediately turning pro as crass commercialism, but Grange had the last word, expressing an opportunism - and wisdom - that any present-day athlete would be proud of. "I have to get the money now," he said, "because people will forget all about me in a few years."
So Grange joined the Bears following his last college game, and after a pair of NFL games - and big gates - in Chicago, the Bears hit the road. Their itinerary called for them to play eight games - five of them league games and three of them exhibitions scheduled on short notice - in a twelve-day period. On a rainy Saturday in Philadelphia, they played the Frankford Yellow Jackets before 35,000 people, and the next day, their uniforms still wet and muddy, they faced the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds. The game would prove to be a watershed in pro football history.
Nearing the end of their first season, the Giants had gone largely unnoticed by New York fans and newspapers, and Giants' owner Tim Mara was deeply in the red. But Grange's appearance drew 73,000 people to the Polo Grounds; in one afternoon Mara was out of the hole financially, and professional football had gained new respect among New York's influential sportswriters.
The Bears won the first four games on the tour and attracted large crowds, and Grange, with a contract calling for him to get a percentage of the gate, was on his way to becoming a wealthy man. But on the field, he was paying a price. Opposing players could not be expected to be aware or appreciative of what Grange's presence might mean for the future of professional football; playing for pittances themselves, they saw Grange's lucrative contact as a professional affront, and took stopping him as a their great challenge. (Never mind that they might end up killing the goose that laid the golden egg.) To add to Grange's problems, hometown referees seemed willing all too often to overlook the cheap shots that welcomed him to professional football.
Although in considerable pain, his contract stipulated that for him to earn his share of the gate, he had to play at least 25 minutes of every game, so in the best tradition of show business, he played on.
Finally, though, against the Detroit Panthers, he was unable to go, and Detroit management had to refund 9,000 of the 15,000 advance tickets sold. The Bears limped home, winners of the first four games of their tour, but losers of the last four.
They weren't given long to lick their wounds, though, because after only a brief rest, the Bears and Grange headed west on a ten-game swing. This tour, against a succession of hurriedly-thrown-together "all-star" teams, was a huge success both on the field and at the gate. The highlight was a game in Los Angeles that drew 75,000 people.
In less than three months, Grange had played 18 games - and earned more than $125,000, a fortune at the time. More importantly, though, pro football had begun to earn a place as a legitimate sport.
But in the process, the Bears had created a problem that the NFL has yet to find a satisfactory answer to. America's colleges, and many prominent sports writers along with them, had decried the Bears' signing of Grange before his graduation. Other college players had followed Grange's lead, and the college football people were upset.
Despite the smashing success of Grange's tour, pro football was by no means in a position to take on the colleges, whose following was far stronger and more influential. The pros realized that continued early signings, left unchecked, might be seen as threatening the college game, and the resulting hard feelings could harm the professional game, just when it was beginning to be accepted.
The Bears appeared clearly to have violated League rules, which stated "No man is eligible as a member of a League team while a student in any academic institution in which he holds amateur standing."
Through a technicality, though, the Bears claimed to have violated nothing. Grange was not "a student in any academic institution" when he signed with the Bears - he had dropped out first. So at the league meeting in Detroit that February, in an attempt to pacify the colleges, the NFL clarified its position
"It is the unanimous decision of this meeting," the League announced, "that every member of the National Football League be positively prohibited from inducing or attempting to induce any college player to engage in professional football until his class at college shall have graduated..." The penalty for any transgressor, it said, would be a fine of "not less than One Thousand Dollars, or loss of its franchise or both."
And for nearly 60 years, the NFL would abide by that policy, and that policy would be an effective barrier to any player's leaving college early to play in the NFL.
That issue settled, and with Grange on board and the colleges mollified, the NFL's members looked forward to prosperity at last.
PYLE CHALLENGES THE NFL
But C.C. Pyle had a surprise for the NFL. It turned out that he, and not the Chicago Bears, actually owned Grange's contract. And when he approached Bears' owner George Halas, demanding for Grange a generous salary - and one-third ownership of the Bears - Halas, who had managed to keep his franchise alive by practicing a thrift that some called stinginess, refused.
Rebuffed by Halas, Pyle next took his quest for ownership to the league, informing the other owners at the NFL's 1926 winter meeting that, having shown them that he had the rights to the greatest attraction in the history of the game, he wanted an NFL franchise of his own. Oh -and he wanted it in New York. In Yankee Stadium. Anything less, he threatened, and he'd start a league of his own.
But New York wasn't available. The Giants' Mara held exclusive NFL rights to New York. (A bookie by trade, he had paid $500 for his franchise, telling those who scoffed at his expenditure that the exclusive right to do anything in a city the size of New York was worth $500.) Mara had just struggled through his first year as an owner, saved from financial disaster only by Grange's exhibition appearance. And now, having experienced Grange's drawing power first-hand, he had no desire to compete head-to-head with him in his own city.
The other owners backed Mara - but only up to a point. They didn't want to lose Grange and his drawing power. They were well aware of what Grange could mean to their financial health, and they were also aware that Pyle might actually carry out a threat to start a new league should they refuse his request, so they proposed a compromise: Pyle could have his "New York" franchise - sort of. In the sense that Brooklyn was a part of New York City. Brooklyn, the NFL informed Pyle, was where he would have to play his homes games. Pyle, with the optimism of the true promoter, had already gone ahead and rented Yankee Stadium, and that was where he intended to play. Rejecting the NFL's offer, he set out to make good on his threat.
And make good he did. With New York as its flagship franchise, Pyle put together a league called the American Football League, which besides his team - the New York Yankees - consisted of the Boston Bulldogs, Brooklyn Horsemen, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Panthers, Newark Bears, Philadelphia Quakers and Rock Island Independents.
A ninth team, the Los Angeles Wildcats, was designated to be a "road team," and represented Los Angeles in name only. In those days, before coast-to-coast travel was feasible for sports teams, it remained on the road and played only away games. (The NFL itself actually fielded two such road teams that year also, nominally representing Los Angeles and Louisville.)
Once the league was under way, Grange lived up to his reputation and drew well wherever he played. In Philadelphia, 22,000 turned out to watch the Yankees play the Quakers. Only week later an NFL game in the same stadium between the Frankford Yellow Jackets and the New York Giants drew only 10,000.
But not even the magic of Grange's name could keep the American Football League alive. By the end of its first season, only four teams remained - the Yankees, the Quakers, the Bulls and the itinerant Los Angeles Wildcats. The Quakers, with a pair of wins over Pyle's Yankees, won the first and only American Football League championship, then played a post-season exhibition against the NFL New York Giants.
Predating today's Super Bowl by decades, the first inter-league game on record revealed a lot about the relative strengths of the two leagues. The Quakers, champions of the American Football League, lost to the Giants, the NFL's seventh-place team, 31-0. (The 1926 NFL title had been won by the Frankford Yellow Jackets, which, since they were the predecessors of today's Eagles, technically marks the only time in pro football history that the champions of rival leagues were both based in the same city.)
When Pyle's American Football League closed up shop after that disastrous first year, his Yankees were given the NFL franchise that Pyle had asked for in the first place. The NFL owners might have saved themselves a lot of trouble by giving in to Pyle's demands initially, but in supporting Mara, they had struck an important blow for the integrity and value of an NFL franchise. But they had paid a high price for their moral stand.
The short-lived war was fatal to the American Football League, but no NFL club escaped a financial bath, either. In Chicago, where two NFL teams - the Bears and the Cardinals - had already been locked in a struggle, the American Football League Bulls had further complicated matters by renting Comiskey Park and evicting the Cardinals.
Reeling from the effects of the war, the NFL attempted to deal with its economic problems by downsizing, long before American industry ever coined the word. Where there had been 31 pro teams in two leagues at the start of 1926, that number had been pruned down to just 12 teams in one league to open the 1927 NFL season.
Over the next five years teams came and went, until by 1931 the league was down to 10 teams. The number would dip as low as eight during World War II - when able-bodied players were scarce and some teams were forced to merge temporarily - and it would be almost 20 years before the NFL again had more than 10 teams.
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