Monday, September 15, 2008

THE RACINE CARDINALS AND THE EARLY DAYS OF PRO FOOTBALL

The oldest known professional football team is the Arizona Cardinals, or at least its predecessor. The team originated on the South Side of Chicago, back in 1898.  At that time, a local group of young Irishmen played football as the Morgan Athletic Club and challenged young men in other Chicago neighborhoods to games.  Morgan was a street in the Englewood neighborhood.  When the team moved to nearby Normal Field (on Normal Avenue), the team became known as the Normals.  Whether they played normal or barely normal is open to question, but to gain respect, a name change was definitely needed.

Shortly thereafter, the team was acquired by Chris O'Brien, a painting contractor who, in 1901, got a good deal on some used maroon jerseys from the nearby University of Chicago.

The faded maroon uniforms, reddish in color, prompted O'Brien to declare, "that's not maroon, it's Cardinal red," and the team became known as the Cardinals.  The name had nothing to do with the Illinois state bird but rather reflected the Irish Catholic heritage of the players.  All the teams they played were from different neighborhoods in Chicago, so they could not be so presumptuous as to call themselves the "Chicago Cardinals."  Instead, they were the Racine Cardinals, not for any connection with the Wisconsin city, but named after Racine Avenue on the South Side of Chicago.  In any event, by 1917, The Cardinals were a powerhouse team and won the championship of the Chicago Football League.  They were on the way to bigger things.

In 1920, the Racine Cardinals were one of the 11 franchises to ante up $100 to join a new professional league which eventually became the National Football League (NFL). According to the NFL website, "pro football was in a state of confusion due to three major problems:  dramatically rising salaries, players continually jumping from one team to another following the highest offer, and the use of college players still enrolled in school.  A league in which all the members would follow the same rules seemed the answer.  An organizational meeting, at which the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians and Dayton Triangles were represented, was held at the Jordan and Hupmobile auto showroom in Canton, Ohio on August 20th.  This meeting resulted in the formation of the American Professional Football Conference."  The Pro Football Hall of Fame is now located there.  Of course, at the time, the Hupmobile looked like a better long term bet than did the fledgling football conference.

A second meeting occurred on September 17th, at which the 4 Ohio teams were joined by the Hammond Pros and Muncie Flyers from Indiana, the Rochester Jeffersons from New York and the Rock Island Independents, Decatur Staleys and Racine Cardinals from Illinois.  To raise the visibility of the league, they selected former All-American football star and Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe as the President.  The aforementioned $100 was levied on each team to "give an appearance of respectability" but in reality, no team actually paid it.  Moreover, the league was so loosely organized that teams did their own scheduling, and some teams played more games than others, often against non conference teams.  Four additional teams joined the league during the first season--Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles and Detroit Heralds.

The Cardinals' first game was against the Chicago Tigers and it ended in a scoreless tie.  A later opponent was the Decatur Staleys, led by Papa Bear George Halas who had finished the 1919 season playing right field for the New York Yankees.  After the season, the Yankees acquired a new right fielder named Babe Ruth to replace Halas.  Rather than compete for playing time with Mr. Ruth, Halas could read the writing on the wall, and it suggested that he take up a new line of work--football.  Halas had previously lived a charmed life.  He survived the 1915 Eastland disaster in which a cruise ship capsized in the Chicago River, killing 900 people.  Halas, who had purchased a ticket, missed the cruise when he overslept.

The following season, 1921, Halas bought the team from the Staleys and moved the team to Cubs Park (as it was known then) on the North Side of Chicago.  Staley paid Halas $5,000 to keep the name "Staleys" for one additional season, and in 1922, they became the Bears.   

In 1922, The Cardinals moved their home games to Comiskey Park on the South Side and changed their name to the Chicago Cardinals.  Racine, Wisconsin really did form a team and joined the NFL, and the Cardinals had to change their name to avoid confusion.

Many of the early NFL teams were from small cities like Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Curly Lambeau worked for the Indian Packing Company.  His employer kicked in $500 to buy footballs and equipment and allowed the team to practice on its field.  We can all locate Green Bay on a map, but how about the Frankford Yellowjackets, the Pottsville Maroons, or the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans.  Pottsville (Pennsylvania) had been a highly successful independent pro team.  In Canton, the Bulldogs, led by Jim Thorpe, won the Ohio League Championship from 1916 through 1919.  Thorpe, a big star, was making $250 per game.

Frankford, in case you never heard of it, was not the capital of Kentucky, but was a largely industrial neighborhood in Philadelphia.  The Frankford Athletic Club founded a team in 1899.  Their NFL team, which won the championship in 1926, featured players with names like Two-Bits Homan, Bull Behman, Punk Berryman and Jug Earp.  With those monikers, they could have auditioned for the Sopranos.  The team folded in 1931, one day after defeating the Bears 13-12 in Chicago's Wrigley Field.  A Philadelphia team didn't beat the Bears again in an away game until 1999.  For that matter they didn't beat the Green Bay Packers on the road until 1972. 

Lambeau bought back the Green Bay franchise for $50, but went broke anyway in 1922, because of bad weather and poor attendance.  Bad weather in Green Bay?  Well, duh!  In any event, the hardy local merchants arranged a $2,500 loan and set up a local non-profit corporation to own and operate the team.  Lambeau was the head coach and general manager.  Since the fans owned the team, they were understandably reluctant to move it to a larger city.

Another interesting franchise joined the league that year--the Oorang Indians of Marion, Ohio, which was an all-Indian team sponsored by the Oorang Dog Kennels.  That ubiquitous Native American, Jim Thorpe, playing his final season, fumbled against the Chicago Bears; George Halas scooped up the ball and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown, a record which stood until 1972. 

Pottsville lost its franchise in 1925 when it played against the Notre Dame All-Stars led by the legendary Four Horsemen. Pottsville won 9-7.  The game was played in Philadelphia over the heated objections of the Frankford Yellowjackets who were playing a home game at the same time.  In those days the lines between amateur and professional football were fuzzy.

The early NFL was remarkably tolerant of minorities for that era.  The first Black head coach was Fritz Pollard for the 1921 Akron Pros.  Pollard, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, also played running back for the team.  He was described by famed sportswriter Walter Camp as "one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen."  Playing for Brown University, he was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl (in 1916).

From a modest beginning, the NFL became arguably (in terms of TV money) the most popular sports league in American.  Chasing the big bucks, the small town franchises with the exception of Green Bay, eventually moved to the big cities as the league prospered and new stadiums were built.  Hopefully I've explained why the NFL fields a team in Green Bay, but why not in Los Angeles?

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, nice article! One of the best summaries of the beginnings of the NFL! Do you happen to know the name of the Racine, Wisconsin team?

June 30, 2015 at 11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GREAT article!! Thanks!

September 25, 2015 at 7:31 AM  

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