NFL 1 – The American Pro Football Association – 1920. Introduction.
In honour of the upcoming NFL 100, and being a bit of a driver into the NFL’s history it occurred to me to come up with my own tribute. So in my own inimitable style may I present NFL 1. A team by team breakdown of the NFL’s first season.
You may have never heard of Hupmobile before, they’re an American car manufacturer that operated from 1909 to 1940. You may not know why Canton, Ohio is the home of the NFL Hall of Fame. I’d be willing to bet good money that unless you’re an avid reader of this blog that you have no idea who Fritz Pollard is and who he played for, well over the coming weeks that will start to change. The NFL is such a large and storied beast and with constant talk of market expansion, improvements to the game, delving ever deeper in to facts and statistics constantly with all this driving forwards it can be very easy to forget to look back.
As a fan of the NFL you may well know a little bit about the history of your team, and one or two of the teams in your division but with 32 teams it’s a lot of information to cover and frankly, who has the time when there’s so much going on. You may well know of some of the NFLs long lost teams, the Houston Oilers or if you listen to the Gridiron Gents podcast, which if you’re reading this I assume you do but if you don’t you should, then you may have heard them answer some of my odd questions about old world team names. All of this is going somewhere I promise.
Professional football has been played around America since the 1890’s and plenty of professional teams pre-date the NFL, the Green Bay Packers being one such example, it was however played at a strictly local level, state level leagues mostly such as the New York league or the Ohio league but the competition was fierce and the administrative side of the game was all over the shop to say the least. Teams would compete for the salaries of the best college graduates, they’d take greater risks bidding for players and coaches on other teams and could spend what they like on wages. Sound familiar? I’m looking at you Premier League. Schedules were all over the show too and generally the whole thing was a mess, teams would over spend and put themselves in significant financial troubles and the lifespan of a Professional Football team of the time was generally a pretty short, less than a decade short.
Of all the local leagues the Ohio league was considered by far the strongest. This theory was born out for the most part when in 1917 the Rochester Jeffersons who were New York league champions toured the Ohio league with the Buffalo All Stars. To finish the tour the Jeffs managed to secure an exhibition against the Canton Bulldogs who were widely considered the best team in the Ohio League and by extension the country. The Bulldogs roundly proved their superiority by demolishing the Jeffs 41-0 but this tour and the subsequent exhibition gained the Jeffs and their owner Leo Lyons a bit of fame. A conversation between Leo Lyons and Bulldogs Player/Coach Jim Thorpe was overheard by Bulldogs owner Ralph Hay and the seeds of an idea were planted.
The Bulldog’s strength was causing other teams to go over the top in trying to compete and they won the 1917, 18 and 19 Ohio Leagues which included a 25-game winning streak, on top of this the Bulldogs themselves were losing money. Owner Ralph Hay saw which way the wind was blowing and on August 20th 1920 in a Hupmobile Dealership owned by Hay in Canton, Ohio members of the Ohio league gathered to discuss what to do moving forwards. At that meeting the American Pro Football Conference (AFPC) was formed by 5 members of the Ohio league. The goal of the league was simple. “To Raise the standard of professional football in every way”
There were 5 main impacts of this first meeting:
- The declaration of an end of season championship.
- Agreements not to sign college players under contracts to other teams
- Eliminate the bidding and poaching of players which was driving costs through the roof and causing many teams to fail
- Cooperation in the formation of schedules
- The establishment of a salary cap
If this is starting to look familiar it should but 5 teams are not enough to start a league so the 5 team owners who attended that meeting on August 20th agreed to make contact with teams from other leagues and invite them to a further meeting on September 17th. Fourteen teams joined the league at that meeting. The league was renamed the American Pro Football Association (APFA), they were:
- Akron Pros
- Decatur Staleys
- Buffalo All-Americans
- Chicago Cardinals
- Rock Island Independents
- Dayton Triangles
- Rochester Jeffersons
- Canton Bulldogs
- Detroit Heralds
- Cleveland Tigers
- Chicago Tigers
- Hammond Pros
- Columbus Panhandles
- Muncie Flyers
These teams had more humble beginnings, company teams, local teams and athletic clubs. They were far from the modern-day juggernauts of sport and finance they are these days. The league had a difficult birth, schedules for were a nightmare for its first seasons, some teams played very few games against AFPA opponents in their early days. Schedules were dynamic and arranged by the teams between themselves. There was a lot of financial turmoil in the trams still, some of the teams struggled to keep with the bigger teams. Only 2 teams survived to the end of the 1920s, those two teams still exist today, however.
The winners of the first season were awarded The Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup, there is no image or record of this trophy anywhere it is simply described as “a silver loving cup” This trophy was handed to the league winner every year and passed from champion to champion, but rumours report it was never passed on by the inaugural champions. This trophy has long since been lost but by-laws at the time stated that if you won the trophy 3 times then you got to keep it, so if anyone ever finds this trophy it belongs to the Green Bay Packers.
This article will hopefully, barring illness or Injury serve as a front page as a loving tribute to these 14 teams that took part in the 1920 AFPA season. Over the coming weeks, we will breakdown the 1920 season of the AFPA for each of its teams and provide a little bit of History and background into this seminal season, shedding some light on its early struggles, local legends and stories long confined to history.
Why does this even matter I hear you cry? It was this league (AFPA) that began to grow from the vision of those 14 teams and in 1922 the AFPA was given a rebrand to reflect its growing status it became the National Football League. The rest, as they say, is history.
All from a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio. Told you it was important!