Monday, September 12, 2011

Hows the NFL Began: September 17, 1920

Firsts are often hard to trace. Professional football teams, if defined as organizations that paid their players, were around for some time before the most organized and ambitious owners created a professional football league. An early professional contract can be traced back to as early as 1892, but historians have set the origins of the first professional football league to a meeting in Canton, Ohio on September 17, 1920. The 91st anniversary is just a few days away.

Ohio had a strong history of football from the earliest of days. A number of teams in Ohio were competing with each other on the field and for fans. Some attempt to reign in the chaos that was created by poor scheduling and unbridled player recruiting, inconsistent player salaries and various disputes had been made within Ohio itself without much success. An Ohio conference was created that included the Canton Bulldogs, Akron Pros, Cleveland Tigers, and Dayton Triangles in August, 1920.

A formal meeting of teams on a larger geographical scale was scheduled for September 17, 1920 at the request of automobile dealer Ralph Hay who owned the Canton Bulldogs. The Bulldogs featured the famous Jim Thorpe. Patrick McCaskey, grandson of George Halas, has stated that it was Halas who wrote Hay suggesting a national league be formed. We do know that it was Hay who wrote and invited the others. It's been said that Hay and others knew that their teams could draw fans outside of Ohio in other Midwest states where they were also known. Fourteen men showed up at the meeting representing 10 organizations. Seating was scarce and the men ended up out in the showroom where George Halas found a running board to sit on. The American Professional Football Association was formed and minutes were taken to memorialize the groups decisions.

Teams represented at the September 17th meeting included Canton, Akron, Cleveland, Dayton, Rochester, Hammond, Rock Island, Muncie, Decatur and Chicago.

Of those original teams, only Decatur and Chicago survived. The Decatur team was called the Staleys owned originally by the A.E. Staley Starch Company and organized by Staley employee George Halas whose college experience at the University of Illinois and his coaching and managing skills gained by running teams at the Great Lakes Training School would pay dividends. The Halas family (Halas-McCaskeys) still own the Bears.

The Chicago Team was called the Racine Cardinals. It was organized on the south side of Chicago with players and fans living adjacent to Racine Avenue. From its earliest days, people have confused the origins of the team thinking that it had come from Racine Wisconsin. The Racine Cardinals would become the Chicago Cardinals and exist today as the Arizona Cardinals.

The Staleys with Halas as it's owner would move to Chicago after the Staley Starch Company could no longer afford to field it. With financial help from Staley, the team would become the Chicago Staleys for one year and then the Chicago Bears.

The original teams would play outside the listed teams in their first year and so some suggest that other teams that were active in the first season should also be considered charter members of the league. In June of 1922, the league's name would be changed to the National Football League.

See the images of the original September 17, 1920 Meeting Minutes here from the National Hall of Fame website.

Compiled by Sporting Chance Press. Photo of Odd Fellows Building, Canton OH home of the Ralph Hay's Dealership.

Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of Patrick McCaskey's new book, Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout.

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