New-York Historical Society

“An abomination in the eyes of sportsmen”: The early days of professional football

Detail of James F. Maury's entry for April 4, 1865. MS 1800, BV Maury, James F.

Detail of James F. Maury’s entry for April 4, 1865. MS 1800, BV Maury, James F.

On April 4, 1865, New Yorker James F. Maury wrote in his diary “Very fine day. I celebrated the capture of Richmond by breaking my leg while playing football.” Although the injury will not be new to today’s football fan, the game played that day might not have been quite as familiar. In 1865, football as we know it was yet a hybrid of existing sports like rugby and soccer; however, the game would continue to evolve and by the close of the century had become a popular intercollegiate sport.

With Super Bowl LXVIII descending upon New York and New Jersey this week, it seemed appropriate to take a quick look at professional football’s legacy. We found a small selection of photographs of football at the Polo Grounds thought that they might be early images of the Giants. Sadly, despite many hours of searching, we could not identify the team. A small consolation was the discovery that the advertising  matched a 1931 photograph, providing an approximate date range.

Unidentified football games at the Polo Grounds, circa 1931. PR 68, E.B. Child Photograph Collection

Unidentified football game at the Polo Grounds, circa 1931. PR 68, Subject File

Still, the effort served as a reminder of the humble beginnings of professional football. Despite its big money, big city status today, the game lagged behind amateur football for decades. One of many reasons for this is documented in the November 28, 1896  issue of Harper’s Weekly:

As for the individuals who, through hiring out at so much a game, lend themselves to the pollution of amateur sport, I hardly know what to say. In civil life a man who obtains goods under false pretences receives his deserts in court. In amateur sport men violate the same principle and suffer no punishment other than loss of the respect of their friends, which, in my estimation, is the severer sentence. But many of these football professionals who masquerade as amateurs are of too coarse fibre to shrink under the loss of friends’ respect. Perhaps they have never had it; perhaps they have become callous to the shame of it all. At all events, whatever their individual sensations, the influence of their example is demoralizing to the game, and to many young boys who in ethical ignorance glorify some brilliant ground-gainer as a foot-ball hero, and accept whatever he does as the law and gospel of the game.

An illustration of Pudge Heffelfinger, the first professional football player. Harper's Weekly, November 28, 1896

An illustration showing Pudge Heffelfinger of the Allegheny Athletic Association, regarded as the first professional football player. Harper’s Weekly, November 28, 1896

The article itself is a panegyric for the Chicago Athletic Association’s attempts to restore the amateur status of their teams, praising that effort as a “stalwart stand for honest sport.”

Detail showing a billboard for a game between the Orange Athletic Club and Princeton University, 1894. PR 82, Charles Gilbert Hine Photograph Collection

Detail showing a billboard for a game between the Orange Athletic Club and Princeton University, 1894. PR 82, Charles Gilbert Hine Photograph Collection

This he contrasts with the creeping professionalism on display at the Allegheny Athletic Association and Pittsburg Athletic Club. About the latter, the author sneers “Pittsburg’s football teams have always been an abomination in the eyes of sportsmen.” He certainly leaves no doubt as to his derision for professional sport, but he also establishes a precedent for many of the debates about compensating athletes that still rage in collegiate sports today. Less controversially, he demonstrates western Pennsylvania’s role as the cradle of American professional football, which would later spread to Ohio and then across the Midwest.

Even the briefest glance at a list of early professional teams shows that the sport was not confined to bustling Midwestern metropolises. In the 1920s, as the American Professional Football Association became the National Football League, teams hailed from locales such as Muncie, Dayton,  Hammond, Pottsville, Rock Island, Louisville, Canton, Evansville, Duluth, Minneapolis, Oorang, Racine and Akron.  Professional football made its way eastward too, and in addition to New York and Boston, teams sprung up in Providence, Hartford, Brooklyn and yes, Staten Island. In the 1890s, an early semi-professional team emerged from the Orange Athletic Club in Orange, NJ as well. Thirty or so years on, that club would become the Orange (later Newark) Tornadoes, and spend the 1929 and 1930 seasons as a bona fide member of the NFL.

Professional football struggled to gain an advantage over its collegiate counterpart, a reality that saw smaller NFL clubs, unable to sustain themselves financially, fall by the wayside; the survival of the Green Bay Packers is a noteworthy exception.  Ultimately, the arrival of television in the 1950s offered a means of  increasing revenue, paving the way for the NFL’s present stature.

Ticket stub for the New York Yankees game, November 16, 1947. PR 31, Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera

Ticket stub for the New York Yankees game, November 16, 1947. PR 31, Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera

One of the minor, but regrettable, aspects of declining smaller market teams was the loss of many unique nicknames. While many catchy ones can still be found in the NFL, in the college ranks and in other sports, many are not. Among these are the Triangles, Pros, Steam Roller, Eskimos, Celts, Red Jackets, Panhandles, Maroons, and Jeffersons.

Yet another curious side story is the intersection of baseball and professional football, particularly in the early decades when many stadiums hosted both sports (e.g., the Polo Grounds, Wrigley Field, Tiger Stadium, Comiskey Park and Yankee Stadium). Yankee Stadium, in fact, played home to the New York Yankees. The football team that is. As incongruous as it sounds, the Yankees existed as an NFL team from 1926-1928 and in a second iteration played from 1946-1949 in the All America Football Conference, a competitor with the NFL.

So, with quite a varied and interesting history, the NFL marches on, and this Sunday thousands of fans will head to MetLife Stadium for the ironic privilege of placing themselves at the mercy of Mother Nature. That fact is perhaps the simplest indication of how far professional football has really come.

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2 Comments to “An abomination in the eyes of sportsmen”: The early days of professional football

  1. January 30, 2014 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    The late Bob Carroll, co-author of “The Hidden Game of Football” and former executive director of the Pro Football Researchers’ Association (I judged the association’s annual writing contest for several years running while Carroll was still alive and am now author of the upcoming book “In The Jungles of Vietnam,” to be released this year by Osprey Publishing) said many Pittsburgh (then Pittsburg)-area teams dodged amateur rules through imaginative ways like giving players watches for gifts.

    The player would take his watch to a cooperating pawn broker, and get his money while returning the pawn ticket to the team manager. After the next game, the player would get the very same watch. It’s doubtful that Heffelfinger was the first pro football player – he was merely the first DOCUMENTED pro football player.

    College football was, by far the more popular version of the sport into the 1950s (the Baltimore Colts’ 1958 NFL Championship overtime game victory over the New York Giants is generally regarded by most football historians as being the moment that pro football began to overtake college football in the hearts of American sports fans.

    However, most knowledgeable observers had already accepted years earlier that the pros played a better quality of football. An early 1930s game in which the Giants, led by Benny Friedman – probably the NFL’s first great quarterback – hammered a Knute Rockne-coached Notre Dame squad drove that point home.

  2. February 4, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    My father, Hap Moran, played on the Giants in 1931 and I have a number of photos from the Polo Grounds in the 1930s on my website http://www.hapmoran.org

    On Dec 4, 1921 Jim Thorpe’s Cleveland Tiger’s played Charlie Brickley’s Giants (a team which folded after one year – not related to the Maras NY Giants) at the Polo Grounds. The NY Times reported a small crowd. There is a famous photo of Thorpe and Brickley having a kicking contest at half time.

    The lack of people in the stands in your 1931 photo looks more like a pro game of that era than a college game. One of the way the pro game tried to prove itself against the college game was in December 1930 when the Giants played a team of Notre Dame All Stars at the Polo Grounds – the story with photos is also on my website. Thanks for a great post – Mike Moran

  1. By on January 30, 2014 at 8:43 am
  2. By on January 30, 2014 at 9:51 am
  3. By on January 30, 2014 at 11:19 am

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