The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire
By John Eisenberg
Basic Books; hardcover, 416 pages; $30
The NFL is America’s most popular sports league, a towering colossus that generates $14 billion in annual revenue. Fans would be hard pressed to imagine how hard the beginnings of professional football were, but the determination of five men kept it alive.
The five men that constituted the NFL’s fundamental core, and are the focus of the new book, The League, by John Eisenberg, are: Tim Mara (New York Giants), George Halas (Chicago Bears), Art Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bert Bell (Philadelphia Eagles), and George Preston Marshall (Washington Redskins).
These owners all came from varied backgrounds and had different talents, but they put that aside and worked together to further the NFL, at a time when American sports fans cared more about college football, horse racing, and boxing.
The story of these five men reflects the larger narrative of twentieth-century America. Most were sons of immigrants, born with little means, and they used sports to assimilate into the broader culture. They were on their own, left to fend for themselves, with no one standing by to step in and save them.
The biggest thing is that they didn’t get into football to get rich. They just had a belief that their idea could work. They did not subscribe to an individualistic, capitalistic ethos, which might seem surprising with how current NFL owners operate and are portrayed.
Eisenberg details the early hardships of the league, where players piled onto buses and stayed at local YMCA’s for road games, packed their own lunches, and were even paid in IOUs one season.
Tim Mara loved horse racing and promoted boxing matches by obtaining licenses to stage matches at Madison Square Garden and the Polo Grounds. One of the leading boxers at that time was Gene Tunney, and his manager, Billy Gibson, provided some of the financial backing for a pro football franchise that flopped in New York in the early 1920s.
When NFL commissioner Joe Carr came to New York in 1925, he tried to convince Gibson to get involved, and Mara was involved in a meeting in which they sold him on the idea of buying the franchise that would become the Giants.
“The Giants debuted on Sunday, October 11, 1925, taking on the Providence Steam Roller in Rhode Island. The setting underscored pro football’s hardscrabble status. The Steam Roller’s home field was the Cycledrome, a 10,000-seat oval stadium built for bicycle racing. The field was surrounded by a banked track that cut 5 yards off the corners of one end zone. There was only one cramped locker room and no public-address system. An announcer walked the sideline shouting the score, substitutions, and down-and-distance details through a megaphone. Some 8.000 fans attended the game and sat in temporary bleachers on the banked track, close to the action. Players frequently tumbled into the crowd, eliciting cheers. The Steam Roller, another new team, whipped the Giants, 14-0, eliciting more cheers. (Jim) Thorpe had a few decent runs, but the Giants never came close to scoring. Mara, traveling with the team, was disappointed.
“The next day, the New York Times published a five-page sports section dominated by extensive coverage of the fourth game of the World Series between the Washington Senators and Pittsburgh Pirates. There was also a lengthy roundup of the college football weekend and articles about horse racing and soccer. The Giants’ game received no coverage.
“To drum up interest for the team’s first home game on October 18 against the Frankford Yellow Jackets at the Polo Grounds, Mara hired a publicist, bought newspaper ads, courted sportswriters, and paid for sound trucks to drive around the city blaring details about the game. He walked around with packs of tickets in his pockets but gave most away, unable to sell them. It was a humbling experience. He was accustomed to his ventures enjoying immediate success.
“A day before the game, the Giants and Yellow Jackets played at Frankford’s tiny home field near Philadelphia. The Giants lost, 5-3, with the decisive points coming on a safety when the Yellow Jackets blocked a New York punt through the back of the end zone in the second quarter. Yet again, the game received no coverage in the New York Times, which devoted its eight-page sports section the next day almost entirely to college football results. Army had defeated Notre Dame, 27-0, before 80,000 fans at Yankee Stadium.
“The Giants took a Saturday evening train back to New York after their game. The next day, Mara and his wife and sons attended morning mass at Our Lady of Esperanza Church on 156th Street, then stood outside the church for a few minutes before heading to the game. ‘Well, I’m going to see if I can put pro football over in New York,’ Mara told a friend before leaving. The game attracted 27,000 fans. Although less than half had paid for their tickets and the crowd was meager compared to the big college game the day before, Mara was encouraged. This was more interest than he had expected. He hoped the Giants would put on a show. Early in the first quarter, Thorpe took a handoff and stumbled a few yards downfield. Mara, sitting on the bench, turned to his publicist and exclaimed, ‘Isn’t that the greatest run you’ve ever seen?’ A football expert he was not.
“Mara’s teenage son, Jack, was on the field with him, working a sideline yard marker. Mara’s wife and younger son, nine-year-old Wellington, were seated in the stands behind New York’s bench. Their side was in the shade, and Wellington came home with a cold, prompting Lizette to suggest moving the Giants’ bench to the other side of the field, where the sun shone. ‘He made the switch and we’ve been on that side ever since,’ John Mara said.
“In the end, the game was a disappointment. The Giants lost, 14-0 and the Thorpe experiment came to an inglorious conclusion. After losing a fumble in the second quarter, the once-great star limped to the sidelines and pitched forward onto a tarpaulin, either exhausted or drunk, possibly both. He would earn $250 for playing in the second half. Mara and (Doc) March had seen enough; the Giants were through with Thorpe.
“The good news for Mara was the New York Times finally paid attention to his team, sending a sportswriter, Alison Danzig, to cover the game. ‘Pro Elevens Clash Before 27,000 Here,’ read the headline in the next day’s paper. Danzig was reasonably impressed, it seemed, writing that the game was ‘a far cry’ from the lamentable pro contests staged by Brickley’s Giants a few years earlier. Given the size of the crowd, Danzig wrote, ‘New York evidently is ready to support a professional league team.’
“The game was the first of nine in a row at home for the Giants; they would spend all fall at the Polo Grounds, trying to develop a following. They delivered a victory in their next game, surprisingly routing the Cleveland Bulldogs, the defending league champions, 19-0. But without Thorpe, the game drew fewer than 10,000 paying customers. However, the victory marked the start of an encouraging turnaround on the field. The Giants’ defense stiffened, and Folwell’s single-wing offense flourished, with Hinky Haines breaking so many runs from his halfback slot that Mara built an advertising campaign around him: ‘Come see Hinky Haines and His New York Giants!’ The Giants proceeded to win seven games in a row.”
“Their prospects were less bright off the field. Their uniforms were stolen out of their locker rooms before one game (seized and returned an hour before kickoff), and March and the quarterback were arrested after another game when a minister convinced a policeman that it was illegal to play football on the Sabbath. (It was indeed illegal in Pennsylvania, but not in New York, and a judge quickly dismissed the charges.) Most discouragingly, New Yorkers showed little interest even though the team continued to win. One game drew just 1,200 paying customers. Mara’s financial losses piled up. He was paying $4,000 a week in expenses and at least $2,500 a week in gate guarantees to his opponents. By late in the season, he had lost $40,000, a large sum for anyone, including him.”
In 1934, fifteen years after the National Football League was founded, they staged their second championship game at the Polo Grounds between the Giants and Chicago Bears. Most seasons, the champion was determined based on their win-loss record.
The Giants won the game on an icy day in New York after they switched from cleats to sneakers at halftime, and they reeled off four touchdowns in the second half to win by a big margin.
The following day, the NFL owners held a meeting at the Victoria Hotel in midtown Manhattan with the league’s future still in question, as turnout at games was low, and the majority of teams were losing money.
“When the meeting began, the men gathered around Carr and the Maras,” writes Eisenberg. “Carr uttered ‘words of congratulation to the elder Mara and presented his son with the Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy, a silver-plated cup named for a well-known referee, rules aficionado, and equipment supplier who had died earlier that year. The lone photographer on hand, representing a wire service, snapped a photo that would run in the New York Times and other newspapers around the country the next day, giving the NFL a rare moment of widespread publicity.
“The photographer quickly departed after that, as the owners returned to their seats. They had much to discuss. Although their just-concluded season had produced several positives, it was not clear the NFL was headed in the right direction. Its average per-game crowd of 13.247 in 1934 set a record, but larger crowds in Chicago and New York had pulled that figure up; other than the Bears and Giants, most teams drew poorly and lost money. The pitiful Cincinnati Reds had suspended operations after scoring 10 points and allowing 243 in eight games, forcing Carr to take on a semipro squad, the St. Louis Gunners, as a late-season replacement. The Gunners then beat Rooney’s Pirates in their first game, making quite a statement about the modest caliber of the league’s lower echelon.
“The NFL had formally organized in 1920 out of a loose coalition of semipro squads, mostly located in small and midsize towns in America’s industrial belt. By 1926, twenty-two teams were competing for the league title. But most had since folded, unable to draw crowds or break even financially. Long gone were such squads as the Rock Island Independents, Pottsville Maroons, and Dayton Triangles. The Packers, in tiny Green Bay, Wisconsin, were the least surviving remnant of the NFL’s industrial-town origins.
“Carr had led a drive to make the league more of a big-city venture. The Frankford (Pennsylvania) Yellow Jackets had become the Philadelphia Eagles. The Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans had become the Detroit Lions. The owners of those and the other surviving teams believed this was necessary; if pro football was ever going to compete with baseball, it needed to succeed in the nation’s largest cities. But even after breaking into major markets, the NFL still had fundamental problems. With the country in an economic depression, Halas and several other owners continually borrowed money to keep their teams afloat. On the field, there was a dangerous competitive imbalance – the Bears and Giants dominated, along with the Packers, who had recently won three straight titles – and a general lack of action. In more than half of the games in 1934, the losing team had failed to score. No wonder attendance in most stadiums was low.”
The owners voted on numerous rules changes to help improve offenses, which was very important, but Eisenberg say it as historic because “it marked the first time Marshall, Halas, Bell, Rooney, and Tim Mara were together in the same room discussing league affairs. These five men would keep the league afloat during its difficult early decades through their innovations, resourcefulness, and resolve, laying the foundation for the NFL to emerge as a sports superpower in the 1960s.”
The League is one of the most impressive, comprehensive works you will ever read on the beginning of professional football, and no better time than now with the NFL Playoffs upon us starting this weekend.