By the late summer 1920, professional baseball was entrenched at the heart of American sports, a big business with big stars and big headlines in the daily newspapers.
The National League was 44 years old. Babe Ruth was en route to 54 home runs in his first season as a Yankee. Even the unfolding stain of the previous year’s Black Sox scandal illustrated the big stakes in the big leagues.
Meanwhile, a group of men at a Hupmobile auto showroom in Canton, Ohio, were meeting to discuss bringing competitive and financial order to the chaotic world of pro football.
It worked, eventually, and now the NFL is celebrating its 100th season, long since having surpassed baseball as Americans’ favorite spectator sport.
But to understand what those men in Canton were up against, one must turn back the clock to the decades that led to it. Pro baseball had had about a generation’s head start on its football counterpart, and it showed.
It was not until the early 1970s that historians could even agree on the identity of the first football professional, and that distinction could well change if a pay stub from before 1892 surfaces in a dusty attic somewhere.
For now, though, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger it is, and why not? He comes complete with a catchy nickname, a pedigree that includes having played for football pioneer Walter Camp at Yale and a patriotic back story.
His father, Christopher, was wounded at Gettysburg four years before Pudge was born, part of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which suffered an 82 percent casualty rate. (The elder Heffelfinger was said to have been saved by a book in his pocket when struck by a bullet to the chest.)
Pudge’s historic moment came on Nov. 12, 1892, when he was paid $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association against its rival, the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, in a rematch of an Oct. 21 game that ended in a 6-6 tie. That is equivalent to about $14,000 today – not exactly Eli Manning money, but still a nice 19th century payday.
AAA won, 4-0, on a forced fumble by Heffelfinger, who returned the ball 35 yards for a touchdown, worth four points at the time.
PAC was unamused, what with Heffelfinger recently having played the Chicago Athletic Association, as had two other AAA ringers, Ed Malley and Ben “Sport” Donnelly.
According to a history of the early pro game by Beau Riffenburgh in the NFL-sanctioned 1999 book “Total Football II,” PAC’s regulars walked off the field in protest, and the game began with substitutes before PAC agreed to play.
Other accounts say the argument centered on the fact that both teams had betting money riding on the game, and the addition of ringers had altered the odds. Eventually it was decided that all bets would be off.
By then, talented jocks for years had been getting paid “expenses” and often “double expenses” by athletic clubs, among an assortment of elaborate pay schemes to maintain an aura of amateurism.
It is likely Heffelfinger and others had been receiving outright cash, too, before that 1892 game. (Not to mention active college players going by assumed names, a practice that continued for decades.)
But Heffelfinger’s status was secured when a AAA ledger for the 1892 game surfaced, listing him as having been paid $500 in cash – after the PAC reportedly had offered him $250 first.
Paying players openly became commonplace as the decade wore on, with the AAA fielding the first entirely pro team for two games in 1896 and the Latrobe Athletic Association doing so for an entire season in 1897.
The practice grew in Western Pennsylvania through the end of the century. Still, the college game was far more popular and accomplished, and more organized.
(In 1898, the Morgan Athletic Club began as an amateur team in Chicago and 22 years later became a charter member of the NFL. As the Arizona Cardinals, it is the oldest continuously operated pro football team in the U.S.)
The first pro “league” was a venture in 1902 called the National Football League that included three teams – two backed by the owners of baseball’s Philadelphia-based major league baseball teams and another from Pittsburgh.
According to Riffenburgh’s history, Christy Mathewson, an accomplished punter, played the first half of the ’02 season for Pittsburgh before the Giants stepped in and told their young pitcher to stick to baseball.
Another star pitcher, the Athletics’ Rube Waddell, was on the A’s football roster, but baseball manager Connie Mack decided during practice the sport was too dangerous to risk Waddell’s arm, and he never played.
At year’s end, pro football arrived in New York City in the form of an indoor, five-team tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The Syracuse Athletic Club, featuring Glenn “Pop” Warner, won the title over a New York team before 3,500 or so fans on Dec. 29. The Times reported the field was 70 yards long and 35 yards wide, and that uncertain footing on the makeshift field precluded fast cuts.
Pittsburgh’s early status as the capital of pro football soon gave way to Ohio, where the “Ohio League” would rule the sport and become the direct ancestor of the NFL.
The rivalry between Massillon and Canton in particular drove the league in its early years.
Massillon’s coach and quarterback was Ed Stewart, who also was editor of the “Massillon Evening Independent.” The conflict of interest gave him a visible platform during a game-fixing scandal involving Canton in 1906.
Other nearby cities fielded teams, too, including the Shelby Athletic Club, which in 1904 signed Charles Follis, the first known black pro player on an integrated team.
The game grew in popularity after rules changes in 1906 initiated by the college game legalized the forward pass, among other reforms, several to make the game safer.
The Ohio League stabilized through the 1910s, highlighted by Canton’s signing of Jim Thorpe in 1915 for $250 a game. (Thorpe was a decade older and far less effective by 1925, when the Giants cut him after three games.)
But the end of the decade brought a reckoning for the league, which was having money problems caused in part by raids from teams outside the state and players jumping from team to team within the league.
Organizers needed a plan to normalize and nationalize, and it began in Ralph Hay’s auto agency on Aug. 20, 1920, with a meeting that included Thorpe but represented only four Ohio cities. The men agreed to ask Hay to contact other pro teams from around the country for another gathering that would set the parameters of a new league.
The second meeting was on Sept. 17 and included George Halas representing the Decatur Staleys, who later became the Chicago Bears. (They and the Cardinals are the only remaining original members of the league.)
According to a history by Jack Clary in “Total Football II,” it was a hot day, and the room was crowded, forcing Halas and others to sit on fenders and running boards while talking and drinking beer from buckets.
The league established a salary cap and a $100 entry fee, which according to Halas no one actually paid.
Thorpe was named president, largely for publicity purposes, after Hay, owner of the Canton Bulldogs. declined. By most accounts Thorpe spent the majority of his attention in his one year in office on his duties as a player for Canton, not on league business.
The league, called the American Professional Football Association for its first two seasons, mostly succeeded in bringing contractual and roster order.
Mostly. The Staleys signed Paddy Driscoll, the Cardinals’ star, for a big late-season game against Akron, violating league rules against jumping teams.
But there was much disorder beyond that. Fourteen teams participated, but their schedules were haphazard and included many games against non-league teams. It was not until the following April that a champion was named, when the owners selected Akron and its 8-0-3 record.
Attendance records are haphazard, and where available they range from 800 to 17,000.
On Dec. 4, Thorpe and the Bulldogs faced the Buffalo All-Americans before 12,000 at the Polo Grounds, the new league’s attempt to showcase itself in the biggest city in hopes of evolving beyond its small-city roots.
The well-received game in upper Manhattan was a promising end to a season of fits and starts that followed decades of growth pains.
It was only nine days after the second meeting in Canton that the first game involving an APFA team was played, in Rock Island, Illinois, with the Independents defeating the non-league St. Paul Ideals, 48-0.
On Oct. 3, the Dayton Triangles defeated the visiting Columbus Panhandles, 14-0, in the first game between APFA teams. Lou Partlow, born a month before Heffelfinger’s well-compensated fumble return in 1892, scored the first touchdown.
The Panhandles’ owner was Joseph Carr, a former sportswriter who in 1921 succeeded Thorpe as president of the APFA – a job he held until his death in 1939, shortly after he had been elected to a new 10-year term.
He also was an influential basketball and baseball administrator.
Carr made many contributions to the early NFL, but one of his most enduring came in 1925, when he persuaded a popular New York bookmaker named Tim Mara to buy a franchise in the still-young NFL.
But that’s another story.