There was no live sports broadcasting when the NFL was founded – not even on radio. But from the start, the men behind the business of pro football understood the importance of being in the biggest media market.
In 1920, the inaugural season for the American Professional Football Association, Jim Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs visited the Polo Grounds to face the Buffalo All-Americans to show off to the big city – and its newspapermen.
In 1921, Charles Brickley, a former Harvard star, brought a team he had formed in 1919 called the “Giants” into the fledgling APFA. The team played only two league games, losing to Buffalo, 55-0, and Cleveland, 17-0.
So much for that idea.
But one of the backers of the team known as “Brickley’s Giants” was boxing promoter Billy Gibson, so it was to him that NFL president Joseph Carr turned in 1925 in an attempt to get his league back into Gotham.
Carr visited Gibson’s New York office on Aug. 1, two months before the start of the season, and brought along Harry “Doc” March, an old sportswriter and physician from Canton who had been the doctor for the Bulldogs.
Gibson, still scarred from the Brickley’s debacle, was not interested. But he figured his friend Tim Mara, a popular local bookmaker and businessman with a knack for promotion, might want a crack at it.
Mara was a horse racing and boxing aficionado and did not know or care much about football – certainly not the largely irrelevant pro game.
But eventually he came around, for a price of $500 or $2,500, depending on the account. Carr and March had their New York money, and New York franchise.
“Doc March was looking for an angel, and I was it,” John Eisenberg quoted Mara saying in his history of the NFL’s early years, “The League.”
Gibson was named team president while March assembled a solid roster of familiar recent college stars.
But Mara – foreshadowing the behavior of many New York sports owners to come – went for a bigger, way-past-his-prime name and signed 38-year-old Jim Thorpe.
On Sept. 9, March met with reporters at the Hotel Alamac in Manhattan to talk about the new “All-Collegians,” alternatively known as the “Giants,” and said he was “confident that after this season professional football will be a permanent institution in this city.”
Former Navy coach Bob Folwell said 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.”
In his 1963 book on Giants history, Barry Gotthrer wrote that Hinkey Haines and Century Milstead were the highest-salaried players at $4,000, but Thorpe initially got only $200 to play half of each game, in hopes he would get in shape later in the season.
He wound up getting cut after three games.
Such was the chaotic, make-it-up-as-you-go-along nature of the early NFL, which that first season of Giants football illustrated well.
Take their first official league game: On Oct. 11, the Steam Roller beat them, 14-0, at the Providence Cycledrome on a field with end zones five yards deep and surrounded by a banked wooden cycling track.
When 27,000 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds for the home opener, Allison Danzig of The New York Times – a longtime Roslyn resident – wrote “New York, evidently, is ready to support a professional league football team.”
But the biggest game of the season, and one of the biggest in NFL history, was the Dec. 6 visit to the Polo Grounds by former Illinois star Red Grange and the Bears.
More than 70,000 fans and 100 newspaper reporters showed up to see the Bears win, 19-7. Grange earned about $30,000 from his share of the gate receipts, and about 10 times that from a movie contract he secured while in New York.
There would be many ups and downs for the Giants and the NFL over the coming three decades before the game took hold of the American public starting in the mid-to-late 1950s, and the Giants thrived under two more generations of Mara leadership. But that December day in 1925 hinted at what was possible.
THE FIRST GIANTS
First season: 1925
Home field: Polo Grounds
Owner: Tim Mara
Head coach: Bob Folwell
First game: Oct 4, 1925 -- lost at Providence Steam Roller, 14-0.
Memorable: Red Grange and the Bears attract a crowd of more than 70,000 to the Polo Grounds on Dec. 6. The Giants lose, 19-7, but the huge gate breathes life into the team's finances, ensuring that would be able to compete in 1926.