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One car showroom, two pages, 15 men and the birth of the NFL a hundred years ago

Ralph E. Hay, owner of the Canton Bulldogs

Ralph E. Hay, owner of the Canton Bulldogs from 1918 to 1923.. Hay organized the first meeting of American professional football teams in 1920 with the American Professional Football Conference which became the NFL in 1922. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/AP

There wasn’t enough room to fit everyone in Ralph E. Hay’s tiny office. The 15 men gathering on a hot and sticky night had to find somewhere else to conduct their business. So Hay, who owned a car dealership, moved the meeting to his showroom.

It was hardly much better. The space was big enough for about four cars and the participants grabbed what few chairs were available. The rest of them leaned on the bumpers or sat on the running boards of the vehicles that were for sale. Beer was served. Cigars were smoked. They began their discussions at around 8:15 p.m.

After two hours or so, the National Football League was born.

At the time of the meeting – Sept. 17, 1920, 100 years ago on Thursday – it was called something else. The league went by the name of the American Professional Football Conference, a conglomerate of owners from the Midwest who recognized that the ragtag, lawless, motley state of the professional game was unsustainable. There were too many variables in rules and eligibilities, not enough structure to schedules and standings, and so much shenanigans that players and coaches would often play under assumed names for several teams at a time just to collect extra paychecks.

The meeting called by Hay, who besides the car dealership in Canton, Ohio, also owned the Canton Bulldogs, was meant to put an end to all of that. A month earlier, Hay and three other pro football owners in Ohio had met to discuss and resolve those same issues, but four tiny teams in the Midwest could hardly make a dent in the culture of the sport. So Hay spent the next few weeks luring other owners to his office and showroom on the corner of Cleveland Avenue and Second Street. He enticed them with a pitch that might still resonate with owners today: the promise of controlling the skyrocketing salaries of the players.

Besides the Bulldogs there were 10 other teams at the Sept.17 meeting: the Decatur Staleys, Chicago Cardinals, Akron Pros, Dayton Triangles, Massillon Tigers, Hammond Pros, Muncie Flyers, Rock Island Independents, Rochester Jeffersons and Cleveland. Minutes were taken by Frank Nied, who represented the Akron Pros, and they were later typed on his team’s letterhead. Those two pages, often referred to as the birth certificate of the NFL, are on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, a few blocks away from the site of that initial meeting.

By the start of the first APFA season in 1920 a few weeks later, the Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles and Detroit Heralds had joined.

None of that would have been very newsworthy had the owners selected Hay as the president of the league. Hay, however, had the foresight to recognize that he would hardly create the stir that the new organization needed. He declined the position and suggested giving it to someone who would spark more interest.

Jim Thorpe, then 33, was the most recognizable athlete in the country. He had led the Bulldogs to four championships as a player and coach. Hay had a new offer for him and Thorpe became the first president of the league. He lasted one year on the job, but helped the APFA reach the consciousness of the country. Two years later, the league changed its name to the National Football League.

The original building and car dealership where the league began was demolished and replaced by the Frank T. Bow Federal Building, but a plaque stands there to commemorate the meeting. And there are only two teams from the original 15 that remain in the NFL: the Cardinals, who are now in Arizona, and the Staleys who moved to Chicago two years later and were renamed the Bears.

Hay, unable to turn a profit with the Bulldogs, sold the team in 1923 and the franchise folded after the 1926 season. He died in 1944. The last surviving attendees to the Sept. 17 meeting died in 1983: Lester Higgins, who was the secretary-treasurer of the Bulldogs, and George Halas, who owned the Staleys.

But 100 years later, from those humble beginnings leaning on bumpers, something far more impressive survives.

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