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Giants, NFL didn’t always have stronghold on sports culture in U.S.

The Chicago Bears vs. New York Giants game

The Chicago Bears vs. New York Giants game at the Polo Grounds on Dec. 6, 1925. Photo Credit: Bettmann Archive/Bettmann

Harry March had been a sportswriter, football coach and medical doctor by the time he met with reporters on Sept. 9, 1925, at the Hotel Alamac in Manhattan, but this was a new challenge.

As secretary of an expansion team called the New York All-Collegians, alternatively known as the “Giants,” he told the lunch crowd he was “confident that after this season professional football will be a permanent institution in this city.”

Skepticism was natural, what with the pro game being far less popular than the college version, most pro teams based in the Midwest and an earlier iteration of the Giants having flopped in 1921 after playing two games, outscored, 72-0.

But history has proven March right, even though it took a shaky inaugural season and more lean years in the 1930s and ’40s before the Giants and the NFL took hold of the nation’s sporting culture starting in the mid-1950s.

The groundwork was laid that first year, especially on Dec. 6, when one of the most important games in league history was played at the Polo Grounds. More about that later.

It began with the fledgling NFL at last landing a stable franchise in New York, five years after its founding.

Boxing manager Billy Gibson, who had lost money on the failed 1921 franchise, March and NFL president Joseph Carr convinced bookmaker Tim Mara to give it a shot in an Aug. 1 meeting in Manhattan, barely two months before the season was to begin, for a franchise fee of $500.

Mara was sold, but selling New York sports fans on the idea would be another matter. Like all teams, the Giants knew the key to promotion was through familiar names from the college game.

Former Navy coach Bob Folwell signed on, and he promised at the Alamac that it was his “plan to organize a football machine in New York on the same basis that I would a college team.”

Among the college stars who came aboard were “Nasty” Bob Nash of Cornell and Rutgers, Lynn Bomar of Vanderbilt, Art Carney of Navy and Century Milstead of Yale.

Joseph Alexander, a lineman out of Syracuse, was the first player to sign, initially asking to be the head coach, a job he eventually assumed in 1926.

In his 1963 book about Giants history, Barry Gottehrer wrote that Alexander at times would miss the late afternoon practices that first year because he was busy with his day job as a physician.

New York being New York, fading stars were attractive to ownership, too. So the Giants added Jim Thorpe, which looked good on paper, except for the fact he was 37, with a bad left knee.

Gottehrer wrote that Hinkey Haines and Milstead were the highest-salaried players at $4,000, while Thorpe had an unusual deal that paid him $200 to play half of each game, with the hope he would round into shape by late season.

Thorpe came through with a short scoring run in the first Giants game, a non-league contest in New Britain, Connecticut, on Oct. 4 in which 10,000 people saw them beat the local team, 26-0.

The first league game and first official game for the franchise was in Providence on Oct. 11, when the Steam Roller steamrolled the visitors, 14-0, at the Cycledrome, on a field with 5-yard deep end zones surrounded by a banked wooden bicycle racing track.

The Giants arrived on a boat that listed badly all night, leaving many players out of sorts.

Despite that, and a 5-3 loss in Philadelphia to the Frankford Yellow Jackets six days later, 27,000 showed up at the Polo Grounds on the 18th — teams often played on back-to-back days in that era — for the home opener against Frankford.

It was a record for a non-college football game in New York, including 1,500 Yellow Jackets fans, most of whom showed up wearing yellow feathers in their hats.

“New York, evidently, is ready to support a professional league football team,” Allison Danzig wrote, somewhat hopefully, in The New York Times.

Still, the Giants lost, 14-0, to fall to 0-3. It would be Thorpe’s final game. The Giants cut him later in the month, “because of his failure to get into proper playing condition.”

The Giants bounced back, going 7-0 in November, winning five games by shutout, while deploying a passing attack advanced for its time, with Haines emerging as an early standout.

Haines, who had been a reserve for the 1923 baseball Yankees, was described by Danzig in Odell Beckham-like terms after a 7-0 victory over Cleveland:

“Every time the dashing Penn State star takes the ball or goes down the field for a pass, the crowd jumps to its feet and looks for something spectacular to happen.”

But even as the Giants were building a modest following and dominating the competition into late November, the game of the season — and maybe the century — loomed.

The NFL had been waiting for University of Illinois star Red Grange to play his last game as a collegian on Nov. 21 so it could shower him with money to play in its league later that fall.

After the Giants hammered Dayton, 23-0, for their seventh win in a row, Danzig wrote, “The Giants played as though they were on trial. This was their last opportunity to prepare themselves for the Illinois thunderbolt.”

Grange played for the Bears, but also for himself, raking in huge fees as he played a brutal schedule of both league and non-league games, then barnstormed across the country in winter. No appearance mattered more than the one in New York, where pro football still was a fragile enterprise.

Mara had been wondering whether the Giants were worth the money and hassle, and figured that Grange — whom he had tried to sign himself — would make or break the venture.

Many of the respectable attendance figures from the regular season were inflated by fans who got in for free, and by late November Mara was $45,000 in the red.

Grange attracted more than 70,000 fans (including a few thousand gate-crashers), plus 100 newspaper reporters, and needed 50 policemen to escort him to the visiting locker room.

A group of eager boys were among the first to arrive.

“Red Grange to most of them meant more than President Coolidge,” the Times wrote. “Perhaps Babe Ruth was better known, but even that is questionable.”

Having appeared the day before against Frankford, Grange played sparingly. But he still totaled 128 yards passing, rushing, receiving and returning in the Bears’ 19-7 victory, capped by a 35-yard interception return of a Phil White pass for a touchdown.

Grange earned about $30,000 from his share of the gate receipts, plus 10 times that from a movie deal he secured while in town, along with thousands more from endorsement contracts.

The Giants finished 8-4 after a 9-0 victory over the Bears in Chicago the following Sunday, but that was an anti-climax. Grange did not play, and nearly as many fans showed up to collect ticket refunds as to attend the game.

But the NFL at last had the glimmer of a future, as did the Giants, who after the season left for Florida to play non-league games in January. They would go 8-4-1 in 1926, then win their first NFL title with an 11-1-1 season in 1927.

In February, Grange and his agent, C.C. Pyle, arranged to lease Yankee Stadium to start a franchise of their own. Most of the NFL owners were in favor of the idea, anticipating Grange’s box-office appeal.

Mara was not, and blocked the move, prompting Grange and Pyle to launch the rival American Football League, featuring the New York Yankees. The league lasted one season; the Yankees, after moving to the NFL in ’27, lasted for four.

The Giants, now run day to day by Tim Mara’s grandson John, endure.

1925 GIANTS PLAYBOOK

Home field: Polo Grounds

Owner: Tim Mara

Coach: Bob Folwell

Final record: 8-4

Notable players: Jim Thorpe, Century Milstead, Lynn Bomar, Hinkey Haines, Joseph Alexander

Leading scorers: Jack McBride (25 points), Dutch Henderson (22), Phil White (18), Lynn Bomar (18), Hinkey Haines (18)

Key stat: After starting 0-3, the Giants won eight of their last nine, six by shutout, including four in a row by shutout

Schedule quirk: After starting with road games in Providence and Philadelphia, the Giants played nine in a row at home before finishing against the Bears at Wrigley Field

Throwing shade: Owner Tim Mara’s son, Wellington, age 9, caught a cold standing in the shadows near the Giants bench for their first home game on Oct. 18. The next time they played at the Polo Grounds, the home bench was on the sunny side, under orders from his mother. They remain there today.

Memorable moment: Red Grange and the Bears attract a crowd of more than 70,000 to the Polo Grounds on Dec. 6 to watch the Giants lose, 19-7

Memorable quote: “Out of a little Middle Western town came a fiery-haired youth who took the big city by storm.” – New York Times’ Richard Vidmer on Red Grange

RESULTS

Oct. 4 at Providence, L 14-0

Oct. 17 at Frankford, L 5-3

Oct. 18 Frankford, L 14-0

Nov. 1 Cleveland, W 19–0

Nov. 3 Buffalo, W 7-0

Nov. 8 Columbus, 19-0

Nov. 11 Rochester, W 13-0

Nov. 15 Providence, W 13-12

Nov. 22 Kansas City, W 9-3

*Nov. 26 Staten Island, W 7-0

Nov. 29 Dayton, W 23-0

Dec. 6 Chicago, L 19-7

Dec. 13 at Chicago, W 9-0

*Jan. 1, 1926 at Coral Gables Collegians, L 13-3;

*Jan. 6, 1926 at Coral Gables Collegians, L 14-13

*-Exhibition game

New York Sports