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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.