Defining Momements – The NFL – August 20th 1920

Normally our defining moments revolves around a person, and we don’t do them very often because we really do research them quite a bit and they take forever to write but the NFL is something a little different it has a fascinating history and very interesting beginning. Its defining moment is literally the day it was founded, August 20th 1920 and when football in America changed forever.

tommyThe NFL is the most lucrative sports league in the world, it has the highest average attendance of any sports league in the world and as America’s game spreads throughout the world its popularity will only grow and grow. As often with so many business and sporting juggernauts such power came from humble beginnings, in this case in a car dealership in Canton Ohio.

ralphWhile professional football had been played around America since the 1890’s it was mostly played in local leagues, there was very few inter league games that meant anything. The strongest of the leagues was based in Ohio and boasted what was largely reagrded as the best team at the time the Canton Bulldog’s. When a couple of New York league teams toured the Ohio league in 1917, the New York League Champions the Rochester Jeffersons challenged the Bulldogs. The challenge was considered audacious and the 41-0 hammering they recieved prooved it, but when Jeff’s owner Leo Lyons met with the hierarchies of the Ohio league on the tour ideas started to be formed. They were a big crowd draw and the Ohio league teams got a look at different ideas, different players and new management ideas.

Competition was fierce financially as well as physically in those early days and teams would often put themselves in severe finanical problems acquiring players from other teams, largely by throwing money at them. Competition for players coming out of college was dog eat dog, and the system for acquiring rookies was chaos and costly too. As more teams fell by the wayside it was becoming clear something had to be done before things got out of hand.

The NFL has a long history with the State of Ohio and Canton in particularly. Its annual hall of fame game is held there, the pro football hall of fame is located there and in a humble Hupmobile dealership owned by Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph Hay on August 20th 1920 five members of the Ohio League Championship met to form the American Professional Football Conference. There were several goals designed “to raise the standard of football in every way”, they were:

  • 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 declaration of an end of season championship.
  • The establishment of a salary cap
  • Agreements not to sign college players under contracts to other teams

Initially only 5 members of the Ohio League joined the APFC, The Canton Bulldogs, Dayton Triangles, Akon Pros, Cleveland Indians and the brilliantly named Rock Island Islanders. Representatives of these 5 teams were then asked to make contact with representatives from professional teams on other neighbouring circuits and invite them to a meeting on 17th September 1920. At that meeting the APFC was renamed the American Professional Footballers Association and 14 teams signed on to play in the league. It was this league that in 1922 changed its name to the National Football League and after a rocky start the rest as they say, is history!

If you’ve ever wondered the why the NFL has done the equivalent of putting the National Football Museum in Tamworth or the National Horse Racing museum in Crewe or why any of the NFL’s historical assets are held in Canton Ohio, now you know. It’s because 14 team owners, met in a car showroom and whether they knew it or not would go on to form one of the largest sporting institutions in the world.

Those 14 teams 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

chicarIt had a difficult birth, particularly for the teams involved. Only two of those survived to the end of the 1920’s some of them never even made it until 1922 when the league changed its name. Those two teams still exist today, the Chicago Cardinals are now the Arizona Cardinals and the Decatur Staleys are now the Chicago Bears. They played each other twice in that first season culminating December 5th 1920 when the Staleys beat the Cardinals 10 – 0 in revenge of their 7-6 defeat only a week earlier. As teamsfell by the wayside new teams were added, such as the Green Bay packers in 1921 and the league never looked back.

Teams werent the juggernaughts they were these days, teams came from more humble origins with a distinctly local feel to them, the Columbus Panhandles were a company team formed by the Panhandle shops of the Pennsylvania railroad company, the panhandle railroad being the source of their labours. The Jeffersons were named for their local playing field on Jefferson avenue when they formed in 1898. The Flyers and the Independents were independent athletic clubs. The Decatur Staleys were the company team for the A.E. Staley food starch company and the Detroit Heralds were set up by their own players to play football games at their university which was struggling financially.

There weren’t that many league games played by teams as they had already committed to fixtures in their local leagues. The Rochester Jefferson’s only AFPA fixture that season was against the Buffalo All Americans which culminated in a 17-6 defeat. The Muncie Flyers only played 4 Games all season with their only AFPA a 45-0 hammering by the Rock Island Independents 6 weeks before their other three fixtures.
Given that there was no post season schedule introduced until 1932 and the number of fixtures played by each team was random and their opponents irrelevant to the newly formed league, the winner was decided by meeting. The teams that met on April 30th 1921 at a Hotel and were each given a vote as to the team which team should win the League.

The Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup was to be awarded to the winners, there is no image or record of this trophy anywhere it is simply described as “a silver loving cup” which was to be passed from winner to winner each year. League by-laws at the time said if you won the trophy 3 times in a row then the team in question gets to keep it, so wherever it is it belongs to the Packers.

fritThe trophy was first awarded to the Akron Pros for 8-0-3 record that season, though there were protests from the Staleys (9-1-1) and the All Americans (10-1-2), both of whom had won more games. While the pros hadn’t beaten either team, each had a loss on their record which affect their winning percentage. 8-0-3 was considered a perfect season in 1920, being undefeated was considered more important than not winning and given that some games could be very low scoring it’s easy to understand why. The Pro’s tied their final two games without scoring a point drawing 0-0 with the All Americans and the Staleys.

Each player from the championship winning team was given a golden fob in the shape of a football with “1920 World Champions” inscribed up it. Despite this early success the Pros folded after the 1926 after dwindling financial support and a poor record. Only 10 players and one owner from the era are enshrined in the Pro-Football Hall of Fame with the first Akron Pro Fritz Pollard being enshrined as late as 2005, 21 years after his death.

We could get into a lot of details here and could go on forever but there are a host of sources better equipped to give the full history of the NFL and with far more time on their hands. But of all the defining moments of the NFL, from Deflategate to the NFL-AFL Merger, we reckon its most defining moment is the day it was literally defined and football was never to be the same.