Category Archives: 1920s

Papa Bear’s sip of coffee in MLB

More than a few players in pro football’s early years dabbled in major-league baseball — including, by my count, seven Hall of Famers. Jim ThorpeGreasy NealePaddy Driscoll, Ernie NeversRed BadgroAce Parker — all made it to the big leagues. Heck, Neale led the Reds with 10 hits in the infamous 1919 World Series.

George Halas was another one. In that same 1919 season, Papa Bear briefly auditioned for the Yankees as a switch-hitting right fielder. He was 24 and had just been discharged from Great Lakes Naval Station, where he’d served during the war. This was the year before Babe Ruth came to New York from the Red Sox in the most regrettable trade (from a Boston standpoint) in sports history. The Yanks had yet to win an American League pennant, but they were good enough to finish third with a veteran core consisting of shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, Hall of Fame third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker, first baseman Wally Pipp, second baseman Del Pratt, outfielders Ping Bodie and Duffy Lewis and 20-game winner Bob Shawkey.

Halas, who played his college ball at Illinois, had flashed at Great Lakes and drawn interest from MLB clubs. During spring training, The New York Times said he looked like “the find of the season as far as the Yanks are concerned” — such an impressive prospect that “he may be chosen to cover right field and have the distinction of being leadoff batsman for the Yanks this season.

An April 1919 headline in the Times.

An April 1919 headline in the Times.

It is an unusual thing for a college player to jump into the big leagues and become a regular the first season, but this is just the thing that Halas threatens to do. He is swift of foot and is a heady and proficient base runner. He covers lots of ground in the outfield and, best of all, he has a world of enthusiasm for the game. As a batsman Halas has his faults, but he can sting the ball hard, and the defects in style which [manager Miller] Huggins has discovered can easily be adjusted, as Halas is a willing worker and by following the advice of Huggins has already improved his stick work.

Halas is young and is an all-around athlete. At the University of Illinois he played baseball and football and was a star in both sports. Early in the war he enlisted at Great Lakes Naval Station and was one of the best athletes in the thousands of promising young men who were developed at the station. It was his great speed and strength which first attracted Huggins’ attention, and if he fails to make good his first year it will only be because he needs a little more experience in major league tactics.

As it turned out, Halas played only 12 games in the bigs and batted just 22 times. But they were an amazingly eventful dozen games, as you will see. A brief summary of his “exploits”:

May 6, Shibe Park (L, 3-2 to Philadelphia Athletics)

Halas batted first, played right field and went 1 for 4 with a single.

May 6 boxThe Times: “With the score tied in the eighth . . ., the New York team fell asleep while opportunity pounded on the door. [Bill] Lamar’s double, putting runners on second and third with one out, was the signal for the recall of [Socks] Seibold, who had succeeded Scott Perry. [Miller] Huggins took out Halas, who was playing in his first major-league game, to let [Sammy] Vick bat against southpaw Walter Kinney. Vick fouled out.”

The A’s won it in the 10th on Red Shannon’s run-scoring single.

May 8, Shibe Park (W, 2-0 over A’s)

Halas, still in the leadoff spot and still in right, had a single in four ups against Bob Geary.

The far bigger story was Shawkey, who after walking the leadoff man proceeded to allow just one other base runner — on a single by Braggo Roth. How close did he come to a no-hitter? “From the stand it seemed that he shot a third strike over on Roth . . . ,” the Times reported, “but Umpire Owens called it a ball. On the next pitch Roth singled to left.”

May 11, Polo Grounds (T, 0-0 with Senators, 12 innings)

Three days after Shawkey’s gem, Halas got to witness an even shinier one — by the legendary Walter Johnson. The Big Train retired George on a fly out in the bottom of the first, gave up a single to Peckinpaugh, then proceeded to retire 28 straight batters and throw 9 2/3 hitless innings. Poor Walter. He didn’t even come away with a win, never mind a perfect game or no-hitter, because the game was halted — erroneously, it turned out — at the end of the 12th and declared a tie.

5-11-19Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, it seems, was mistaken about the Sunday curfew. He reportedly thought it was 6 p.m. — and informed plate umpire Bill Dinneen of this. But “the game could have continued for some time,” the Times said, “and might have ended in a decision. When the game was called the light conditions were just as favorable as when the game started. The new Sunday law provides that baseball games may be played after 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but makes no provision about what time they shall end.”

As for Halas, not only did he make the Yankees’ first out, he also made their last when he grounded to first in the 12th. In between, he fanned twice and popped to third to finish 0 for 5.

Soggy conditions limited the attendance to 3,000. According to the Times, “Even [the crowd-pleasing] Nick Altrock, coaching at first base [for Washington], refused to come out of the melancholy state into which he had been driven by the dreary, bleak weather . . . [which was] more favorable for football than baseball.”

May 12, Polo Grounds (T, 4-4 vs. Senators, 15 innings)

Just think: Halas started a mere four games in the majors, and the last two — on back-to-back days — were extra-inning ties. What are the odds of that? Indeed, how many times has big-league baseball even seen such a freak occurrence? (A foreshadowing, perhaps, of all the deadlocks George would have to deal with in the pre-modern NFL. His 1932 championship team, let’s not forget, posted a 7-1-6 record.)

5-12-19Unfortunately, George’s fourth game was worse than his third — and he didn’t have Walter Johnson to blame it on (only the less remembered Jim Shaw). As the Times put it: “Halas, the gob from Great Lakes, played in right field, and, as he struck out three times, it was taken for granted that his name is pronounced to rhyme with alas.”

He ended up going 0 for 4 — and in the late innings another rookie was sent up to bat for him. The pinch hitter, little known at the time, was none other than Lefty O’Doul, who was making just his second major-league plate appearance. O’Doul’s career got off to a slow start — the Yankees were trying to develop him as a pitcher — but a decade later with the Phillies he would bat .398, rack up 254 hits and come in second in the National League Most Valuable Player voting. So even when George got replaced in the lineup, it wasn’t by some nameless schmo, it was by a guy who almost joined the hallowed .400 Club.

(He also might have learned a few things from his manager that day about How To File A Complaint. In the ninth inning there was a dispute about a call at the plate, and Huggins got tossed when he stormed out of the dugout “and punctuated his oration by pounding his hands on the umpire’s chest protector,” the Times said. That was pretty much how Halas dealt with NFL officials — and I’m exaggerating only slightly.)

At this point Halas was 2 for 17 with six strikeouts, which caused Huggins to bench him. The only action he saw the next seven weeks was as a pinch hitter or late-game fill-in. (Final numbers: 22 at bats, 2 singles, .091 average.) The highlight — historically speaking, that is — was probably when the Yankees were in Chicago, his hometown, and he got to bat against Eddie Cicotte. Cicotte, of course, was one of the eight White Sox banned from baseball for fixing the 1919 World Series. (He whiffed George on three pitches.)

In early July the Yankees sent Halas to the St. Paul Saints, their top farm club. He finished the season with them, batting .274 in 39 games with just three extra-base hits. In the years that followed, a myth took root — one that George seems to have perpetuated — that a hip injury dashed his big-league dreams. When he died in 1983, The Associated Press reported:

In his 12th major-league game, Halas suffered a severe hip injury as he slid into third on a triple. . . .

“It was probably the biggest break in my life,” [Halas] said. “Not too long after that the Yankees acquired a guy named Babe Ruth to play right field.”

The Ruth part is right; the Red Sox sold him to the Yankees at the end of the year. But as the statistics show, Halas never hit any triples in the majors. He did get hurt, though. In his autobiography, Halas, he claims it happened when he tripled against the Dodgers’ Rube Marquard in a spring training game. “I slid in hard,” he writes. “I was safe but when I stood, my hip was painful. I managed to get home on a long drive, but every step hurt. The trainer thought I had a charley horse.”

Halas was still slowed by the injury when the Yankees went to Cleveland in mid-May. So he asked Huggins if it would be OK if he took a quick trip to Youngstown, Ohio, to get checked out by Bonesetter Reese, “a man with no formal training but a genius in treating injuries.” (To read more about this miracle man, click here.) George had gone to Reese a couple of times when he was at the University of Illinois and gotten instant results. More from Halas’ book:

Huggins approved another visit to this marvelous man. I caught the 5:30 a.m. electric train to Youngstown, an hour and a half away. I found a line of people stretching down the block, but Bonesetter had a soft spot in his heart for athletes and took me right in.

I told him my story.

“Get on the table,” he said. “Lie on your face.”

He felt my derrière. “When you slid into third base,” he said, “you twisted your hip bone. It is pressing on a nerve.”

He pushed his steely fingers deep into my hip, clasped the bone and gave it a sharp twist. The pain vanished.

I dashed out of his office, down to the street to the station and, in Cleveland, back to the ballpark. In the afternoon I raced around like a wild horse.

Maybe so, but he didn’t play again for several more games — until the aforementioned cameo appearance in Chicago. Still, the reason he chose football over baseball likely came down to money rather than injury. We’re talking, after all, about a player who returned a fumble 98 yards for a touchdown in 1923, an NFL record that stood for 49 years. His hip couldn’t have been that bad.

Besides, in Halas, he says St. Paul wanted him back the next season, “but at a reduced salary. I objected.” A short time later, A.G. Staley, the starch magnate, made him a much more enticing offer: Come work for my company in Decatur, Ill., and put together a football team that will help promote my product.

You know the rest. The Staleys became the Bears, the Bears became the Monsters of the Midway . . . and over the years, George’s hip injury got progressively worse until it ended his baseball career.

FYI: In case you’re wondering — and it would be perfectly understandable if you were — this isn’t George Halas Month at Pro Football Daly. It’s just that, sometimes, one post leads to another . . . and another.

Added treat: The play-by-play of Johnson’s “perfect game”-within-a-game against Halas’ Yankees (courtesy of the Brooklyn Eagle).Johnson's perfect game

Bonesetter Reese: The first sports doctor?

The summer before the 1921 NFL season, George Halas, the Chicago Staleys’ player-coach, started having trouble with his knee. So off he went to Youngstown, Ohio, to “spend a few days with Bonesetter Reese,” the Decatur Daily Review reported.

Doc Reese was the Dr. James Andrews of his time . . . except for one thing: He didn’t have a medical degree — just the know-how he’d picked up watching lay healers ply their trade in the steel mills of his native Wales. But he was such a miracle worker that the Ohio legislature granted him special permission to do, well, whatever it was he did.

A 1925 newspaper cartoon.

A 1925 newspaper cartoon.

John D. Reese functioned much as a chiropractor or physical therapist might today, manipulating bones and muscles until he achieved the desired effect. Countless athletes sought him out to cure what ailed them — nonathletes, too. Indeed, traveling to Youngstown could be like making a pilgrimage to Lourdes. There was something almost mystical about the man with the “million-dollar hands,” as newspapers described them, and his secretiveness about his techniques only added to the mystery.

“Large, sinewy and knotty, [his hands] were the sort you’d expect to see upon a steel worker,” Bill Jones wrote in the Syracuse Herald.

The very sight of them created the impression of power, but gives no hint of the wonderful delicacy of touch that enables him to locate instantly a displaced muscle or a tiny broken bone.

A callus on the knuckle of each middle finger is [indicative] of the great number of cases Reese has treated. These calluses, about the size of a five-cent piece, and as hard as a stone, are the result of his bonesetting practice. It is with the knuckles of his middle finger that Reese forces broken bones together. These calluses, his sensitive fingers and powerful arms and shoulders are his only instruments.

Bonesetter’s backstory goes like this: Orphaned at 11, he came to America in the late 1800s and got a job in a Pittsburgh mill. One day a worker fell from a ladder and lay on the ground, writhing in pain. None of the first responders had a clue what to do. So Reese stepped in, applied his Magic Fingers to the man’s back and had him on his feet in no time, good as new.

Word of the incident traveled far — to the other side of the Atlantic, even. Before long, the Doc “had so much business in alleviating pain and curing cripples that he set up professionally in that line and has been at it ever since,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1922.

Halas went to Bonesetter several times over the years to fix various hurts — of both the football and baseball kind. (George was a good enough outfielder to get a brief trial with the New York Yankees.) The Doc was renowned for his ability to revive pitching arms; Cy Young, Ed Walsh and Smoky Joe Wood all sought out his services, as did boxers, jockeys and circus acrobats.

Once, David Lloyd George, the British prime minister (and a fellow Welshman), showed up at Reese’s door, complaining of strain caused by shaking so many hands on his U.S. tour. Bonesetter cured him with a “gentle handshake and quick wrench,” according to Time magazine. (Another of the Doc’s patients was the daughter of Charles W. Fairbanks, Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president.)

Reese generally avoided publicity, though, despite his occasional mention in Time. In a rare interview in 1913 he said, “I despise notoriety, and I don’t know what I can say that will be of interest. I know very few ballplayers. While it is true enough that I have treated hundreds of them, I rarely ask a player’s name. In fact, I haven’t asked a man his name since 1908.”

But then, there was little about Reese that was orthodox. He didn’t, for instance, charge his patients set fees. “If you feel like giving me something,” he would tell them, “whatever you like will be all right.” Thus payment could range from a 10-cent cigar to a luxury car. No one was ever turned away from 219 Park Avenue. At his peak, he saw 80 patients a day.

Among the healed was a young girl named Elma H. Wilkins, who wrote about the experience years later in the Washington Post. The picture she painted: “My father and I boarded the Youngstown train. We found ourselves members of a little army of cripples. Some hobbled and leaned heavily on canes; others slumped still more heavily between crutches. There seemed to be a sort of ‘misery-loves-company’ spirit among us. Before long we became acquainted, and spent the time telling stories about the different accidents which had brought us together on that particular train.”

Sitting in the waiting room outside Reese’s office gave you the willies, Wilkins reminisced. “Nerve-racking shrieks” were intermittently heard through the door, and patients wondered what the heck was going on in there. But then a girl, on crutches not long before, walked happily out with her mother — the first of a “succession of miracles” performed by the Doc.

Pittsburgh Press headline, 1911.

Pittsburgh Press headline, 1911.

“What Bonesetter’s powers are is a puzzle to scientists who are always bent on determining the wherefore of everything which the ordinary run of man on the street might ascribe to divine power,” E. J. Hamilton, the Chicago newspaperman, wrote. “They’ll tell you that divine power is a lot of hokum. Then, when they come across such a man as Reese, modest, without technical training of any sort, performing miraculous things, they’ll shrug their shoulders as did Gibbon, the great historian, in one of his attempts to explain the working out of a biblical prophecy, and concede that perhaps, after all, there may be something divine in the world guiding the destinies and powers of men.”

In 1921, when Halas paid him a visit, Bonesetter was 66 years old. His hair — what was left of it — had turned white, and his bushy mustache, round features and ruddy complexion gave him an avuncular look. His wife, Sarah, had passed away, but he had five daughters to dote on him. The youngest, Gertrude, was said to have inherited his gift for healing.

Reese never entirely understood athletes. He and his daughter attended to them “night and day, getting the ballplayers’ muscles and bones fixed up,” he said in 1927. “Then we turn them back to the leagues in perfect condition and go off to recuperate from our strenuous efforts while they are getting themselves smashed up again.”

It particularly troubled him that he would prescribe rest for a player and “the next day I would pick up the paper and see his name in the box score.” By the end of his life he had stopped treating athletes, he claimed — though some, no doubt, still sneaked unannounced into his office. His celebrity had raised expectations so high, he said, that players would “feel that I should guarantee a sure cure. I have enough work to keep me busy without treating [them].”

When Bonesetter died in 1931, testimonials poured forth. Nobody “could unkink snarled muscles and joints and break and reset broken fingers” quite like Reese, said syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler. The Doc “contributed to the fame of Youngstown . . . almost as Schlitz contributed to the renown of Milwaukee.”

Revised from my 2012 book, The National Forgotten League (University of Nebraska Press).

Thousands flocked to this house in Youngstown, Ohio, where Bonesetter Reese worked his magic.

Thousands flocked to this house in Youngstown, Ohio, where Bonesetter Reese worked his magic.

George Halas’ premature “death”

A hundred years ago tomorrow, George Halas “died.” The word is in quotes because, well, he didn’t really die. At 20, he still had the Chicago Bears to found, the NFL to establish, the game of football to transform. But he easily could have died if he’d stuck to his original plan on July 24, 1915 to take the SS Eastland across Lake Michigan to the annual Western Electric Co. picnic. Indeed, one Chicago newspaper listed him among the 844 fatalities when the ship, packed with three times that many passengers, flipped over on its side while docked.

It’s one of the great what-ifs in sports history. What if Halas had boarded the Eastland that gloomy day — and suffered the fate so many did? What would pro football in Chicago look like today? Would the NFL still have climbed to the top of the sports mountain? Would teams be running souped-up variants of the single wing instead of Papa Bear’s baby, the T formation? Terrific cocktail-party questions, each and every one.

The Eastland disaster is Chicago’s version of the Titanic — all the more haunting, perhaps, because it happened not in the dark of the distant North Atlantic, where the cries for help couldn’t be heard, but on a Saturday morning in the Chicago River, smack downtown. The tragedy unfolded right before the city’s disbelieving eyes. Photographers shot picture after harrowing picture of passengers clinging to the side of the ship, victims being pulled from the water, bodies lying silently side by side in the 2nd Regiment Armory, where a makeshift morgue was set up.

The next day in the Chicago Tribune, a local theater chain ran an ad that said: “[It] has [been] decided that, “owing to the horror of the Eastland disaster, no motion pictures of the catastrophe will be shown.” (Interestingly, this past winter, the first known footage of the fiasco was discovered in a Dutch newsreel.) Here’s The New York Times’ story about it. And here’s the clip itself:

At first, there was wild speculation about the death toll. The Times reported that 1,800 had drowned.  The Boston Post put the number at 1,500, the Syracuse Herald at 1,300. The high, that I’ve seen, was 2,000 (Salt Lake Tribune, among others), the low 919 (Chicago Tribune). It probably depended on when the paper went to press.

7-25-15 Chi Trib p. 1

7-25-15 NY Times p. 1

Halas, a rising sophomore at the University of Illinois, was working that summer in Western Electric’s payroll department in Cicero. It was invaluable experience for a future NFL owner. As he wrote in his autobiography, Halas, “I learned to be precise and to keep meticulous records.” During the lean early years, especially — when franchises were always failing — his ability to keep the books balanced would serve him well.

The company picnic was held in Michigan City, Ind., on the other side of the lake from Chicago. Five boats, leaving one after another, were to ferry employees, family and friends to the event. Halas was booked on the first to depart, the Eastland, and over the years he offered two explanations for why he wasn’t on board when it capsized.

The first was that he’d been delayed at home by his brother Frank, who’d stopped him as he went out the door and told him to step on a scale. George was trying to put on weight for football — he’d been a wiry 140 as a freshman — and Frank wanted him to add 40 pounds before the next season.

“I never won an argument with Frank,” George wrote, “so off came the clothes.” He weighed in at 163, certainly an improvement.

“Just do everything I tell you and you’ll be OK, kid,” Frank told him. “Now get dressed and catch that boat.”

Anybody buy that story? Me, neither. After all, how long does it take to weigh yourself, even when you have to strip down to the bare essentials? George would have had to be cutting it awfully close to miss his boat.

In a 1967 series for the Tribune, he gave another version of events. He was supposed to play for the company baseball team that day as part of the festivities, he wrote, and “I had my ticket and my name was on the list of Western Electric employees slated for the Eastland. But the ballgame was scheduled for late afternoon, and I decided to take another boat leaving an hour after the Eastland.”

This sounds more plausible. Still, there’s at least one other possible scenario. Ralph Brizzolara, a lifelong buddy of Halas’, also worked at Western Electric that summer and he, too, was booked on the Eastland. (Brizzolara later owned a small piece of the Bears and helped run them when Halas enlisted in the Navy during World War II.) Anyway, after waiting in vain for George at the dock, Brizzolara boarded the ship – and was fortunate to escape with his life.

“My father was pulled through a porthole [to safety],” his son, Charles, says in Jeff Davis’ book, Papa Bear.

Charles, who’s heard all the stories, has his own theory about why Halas wasn’t aboard: “George just overslept.”

Impromptu weigh in, schedule change, inability to rouse himself — take your pick.

The Monday evening after the disaster, a couple of Halas’ fraternity brothers showed up at his house. They had seen Halas’ name in the paper — “a reporter had obtained a list of Western Electric employees assigned to the Eastland and assumed that I was on board,” George wrote in the Tribune series — and came to pay their respects to his family.

“I’ll never forget the shocked look on their faces when I opened the door,” he said. “When I missed connections with the ill-fated Eastland, I realized I was a very lucky man. Nothing which has happened since has given me any reason to think otherwise.”

Amazingly, that might not have been the only time Halas and the Eastland crossed paths. After being raised, the ship was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve, which turned it into a gunboat and renamed it the USS Wilmette. In fact, it was used as a training vessel at Great Lakes Naval Station when Halas served there during World War I. Did George actually ride the waves on the Erstwhile Eastland when he wasn’t playing football for the Great Lakes Bluejackets (who, by the way, won the 1919 Rose Bowl)? There’s a good chance, yeah.

If so, he survived that encounter with the “death ship” as well. Though the Wilmette managed to stay afloat until it was sold for scrap in 1946, it was hardly a monument to engineering. Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent, had this memory of it from a reserve-duty stint in the ’20s: “It was still in sinking condition, I assure you. It constantly shied to the right, and once in a while felt as though it wanted to lie down in the water.”

Halas Yankees BoxOnce discharged from Great Lakes, Halas briefly played major-league baseball, getting 22 at bats with the 1919 (pre-Babe Ruth) Yankees before settling on pro football as a career. The rest, as they say, is history — volumes of it. It’s reasonable to wonder, though, how differently the NFL might look today if he’d caught the first boat leaving for the picnic.

Would the Decatur Staleys, the first team he ran, even have joined the league — and would they have moved to Chicago when A.E. Staley’s starch company, trimming expenses, stopped sponsoring them? The Windy City, after all, already had an NFL franchise: the Cardinals. Besides, how many towns could adequately support two clubs, particularly during the Depression?

So maybe, under another man’s direction, the Decatur Staleys would have remained an independent team — of which there were many in that era. And maybe, without Halas’ boundless energy and ambition, they would have disbanded when forced to go it alone in 1922. That’s right, the Chicago Bears might never have existed . . . and the Cardinals might be playing at Soldier Field.

Then there’s Halas’ pet project, the T formation. It turned the game on its head with its spread alignments, direct snap to the quarterback and man-in-motion. Nobody in the pro game — absolutely nobody — was tinkering with the T in the early days except George, who had played it in college at Illinois. Every other club was running the single wing and/or double wing. Heck, even the Bears included some single wing in their offensive mix. Without Papa Bear and collaborators Clark Shaughnessy and Ralph Jones, would the T have evolved, taken root the way it has? There are no guarantees.

It was also Halas who brought Hugh “Shorty” Ray into the league as a technical advisor. Ray, a former Big Ten official, had a huge — if below-the-radar — impact on pro football’s development. He tidied up the rulebook, increased the pace of the game and made it much more of an offensive show.

“Shorty Ray was the greatest thing I ever did for the National [Football] League,” Halas once said. “He was the smartest man in rules ever. He was a genius.”

Remove Ray from the equation and there’s no telling what shape pro football would be in today. In the single-platoon era, before he was hired, the games could be ponderous, low scoring and, in many ways, held back by the rules. By the time he was done, pro football was no longer a rattletrap of a Model A. It hummed. (Shorty, for instance, was the guy who told officials to speed things up by throwing the ball back to the line of scrimmage instead of carrying it back, which ate up time and cut down on the number of plays in a game.)

I could go on, but you get the idea. A century ago, five years before the NFL was born — when the pro game was decentralized and teams like the Massillon Tigers and Fort Wayne Friars roamed the earth — George Halas missed the proverbial boat, a boat that, for 844 cursed souls, took them only to The Hereafter. Exactly how and why this happened will never be fully known, which is part of the fascination of it. Something to think about as the league, America’s most successful by several touchdowns, gets ready to kick off its 96th season. What if.

The scene at the 2nd Regiment Armory.

The scene at the 2nd Regiment Armory.

A lost record?

There isn’t much in the NFL record book that dates to the 1920s — as far as individual marks go, especially. Ernie Nevers’ six touchdowns (since tied) and 40 points (still unmatched) in a single game survive, but not a whole lot else. It’s just a long time ago, you know? Besides, the league didn’t start keeping official statistics until 1932. Any record before that got grandfathered into the book, so to speak.

So I was happy to receive an email the other day from Gary Selby, who’s come across a potentially intriguing piece of history. Gary mentioned the item in my book, The National Forgotten League, about the Bears’ Joe Zeller possibly intercepting six passes in a game against the Eagles in the ’30s — two more than the current record. I say “possibly” because it happened before the NFL kept track of individual INTs (and before newspapers made much note of them in their game stories). So I wasn’t able to confirm Zeller’s feat; all I could do was throw it out there as a Great Big Maybe.

My source was the 1935 edition of Who’s Who in Major League Football, a kind of media guide published by the league. Zeller’s entry read like this:

Joe Zeller in Who's Who in Major League Football 1935

Selby, however, had this to add to the discussion: “Last summer, while doing some research for the Pro Football Researcher’s Association, I found an interesting article in the Milwaukee Sentinel. It reported that Milton Romney of the Racine Legion intercepted six passes against the Minneapolis Marines on Dec. 2, 1923. It was the last game of the season for both teams.”

Here’s the first paragraph of the article Selby was talking about:Just opening graf of Romney

The two franchises are long gone, of course, but they were indeed members of the NFL in Year 4. As an added bonus, Milton Romney, otherwise known as Mitt, is related to the Mitt Romney who ran for president in 2008. Cousin Milt broke in with Racine before spending the bulk of his six-year pro career as a quarterback for George Halas’ Bears.

Anyway, in this case — unlike Zeller’s — we have at least a bit of corroborating evidence. The thing is, it’s hard to know how reliable that bit is. After all, there often was confusion in the early days about who did what on the field. Jersey numbers weren’t as visible then as they are now, and dirt and mud could make players even harder to identify. Then, too, there was no television coverage . . . and thus, no instant replay to help a sportswriter confirm what he thought he saw. I’ve researched games in which three different players were given credit for a touchdown, depending on which paper you read.

The Milwaukee Journal’s account of the game notes only one Romney pick — and doesn’t say anything about any others. “On the first play after the kickoff,” it reports, “Romney intercepted a forward [pass] on Minneapolis’ 35-yard line and Rollie Williams got away for a touchdown on the next play.” The score increased the Racine lead to 17-0.

So who knows, really? As Selby pointed out, it was the season finale for the two teams, and some strange things have happened in these games over the decades. In 1937, for instance, the Cardinals’ Gus Tinsley caught a pass in the early December darkness and went 97 yards for a touchdown before the crowd — and many of the Bears — realized he had the ball. (It was, at the time, the longest TD catch in NFL history.)

Still, Romney’s “feat” is fun to think about. And let’s face it, if a player was ever going to rack up six picks in a game, it was in the ’20s, when the ball was fatter and harder to throw and INTs were epidemic. Consider: Six interceptions would have been almost enough to lead the league last season. (Lions safety Glover Quin was tops with seven.)

Sources: Google newspapers, pro-football-reference.com.

Quarterback Milton "Mitt" Romney in his Bears days.

Quarterback Milton “Mitt” Romney in his Bears days.

Players behaving badly

It’s a natural question to ask, given the antics of some NFL players in recent years — Prince Shembo’s drop-kicking of a dog, Ray Rice’s slugging of his Significant Other, etc.: Have players always been this out of control? What kinds of things did they get arrested for in the alleged Good Old Days?

Rest assured footballers have always been footballers, though their crimes of choice decades ago tended to be different from today — more typical than terrible. I’ve gathered a bunch of them so you’ll get a feel for the scope of their misbehavior. Remember: This is just a sampling. There’s plenty more where these came from.

● 1926: Jim Thorpe gets drunk in the midst of Prohibition.

This happened during Red Grange’s postseason barnstorming tour with the Bears. As you may have heard, ol’ Bright Path had a weakness for the bottle. His drinking buddy, according to the story below, was C.C. Wiederquist — a great football name. But I’m pretty sure it’s misspelled and that The Associated Press was referring to Chester Carl “Chet” Widerquist, who played six seasons in the NFL (and didn’t, near as I can tell, attend the University of Minnesota).Jim Thorpe intoxication 1-5-26

● 1938: Shipwreck Kelly breaks up a marriage.

Kelly, the toast (literally) of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a legendary Man About Town. Three years later he married heiress Brenda Frazier, who once graced the cover of Life magazine. What I wouldn’t give to follow Shipwreck around for a night and see where it took him. Nowadays, of course, he’d get killed by the social media. The whole world would take a selfie with him and post it on Facebook. But back then you could disappear in the haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.Shipwreck Kelly 1-18-38 Eagle● 1946: Double disaster.

I’m not sure the you-know-what ever hit the fan in pro football like it did in December 1946. Before the NFL title game, a fix attempt was uncovered that involved two Giants, Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes. Both were banned indefinitely from the league. Before the championship game in the rival All-America Conference, meanwhile, three Browns got a little rowdy and one of them, team captain Jim Daniell, lost his job because of it. How does this compare with, say, the Falcons’ Eugene Robinson getting charged with solicitation the night before the Super Bowl?'46 fix attempt and Danielle head side by side 12-16-46

FYI: Daniell and his two running mates were later acquitted. But then, so were the Black Sox.Daniell and 2 others acquitted 12-23-46● 1959: Another DUI charge for Bobby Layne.

I say “another” because the Hall of Fame quarterback had one two years earlier when he was with the Lions. He managed to escape conviction on both occasions, as I posted about a while back. It’s pretty comical. The first time, his lawyer argued that police had mistaken his Texas drawl for slurred speech, and in this second instance, his lawyer said Bobby’s “extreme hoarseness, which may have led the police to suspect intoxication, was the result of a severe case of laryngitis.” (Then again, maybe he just had a shot glass stuck in his throat.)Layne DUI 8-25-59● 1960: John Henry Johnson falls behind on his child-support payments.

Fortunately for Johnson, who’s also in Canton, the term Deadbeat Dad hadn’t been invented yet. Five kids. Can you imagine how that would play in 2015?JH Johnson alimony 3-10-60● 1972: Karl Sweetan tries to sell his Rams playbook to the Saints, one of his former teams.

Sweetan wasn’t much of a quarterback, but he gained eternal infamy for this pathetic move. Like most of his passes — 54.4 percent, to be exact — it was incomplete.Sweetan 7-8-72

So there you have it, a sampling of off-field trouble from pro football’s first 50-odd years. Moral: These guys have always acted up. In the 2000s, it isn’t necessarily the magnitude of their misconduct that’s bigger; sometimes it’s just the microscope they’re under.

Postscript: NFL players haven’t always been on the wrong side of the law. I leave you with this story about John Kreamcheck, a Bears defensive tackle in the ’50s, who became a detective:Kreamcheck arrests suspect 7-6-67Sources: Google newspapers, Brooklyn Eagle archives, Chicago Tribune archives, pro-football-reference.com.

The NFL’s not-so-benevolent despots

NFL commissioners have acted like dictators — sometimes of the Chaplin variety — pretty much from the beginning. Roger Goodell is merely following established precedent: The Despot’s Playbook. Nobody much remembers today, but the Packers had their franchise taken away after the 1921 season for using three college players in a game. As Chuck Johnson wrote in The Green Bay Packers:

Every team in the league was employing college or high school players under assumed names. Many of the top college stars of the day would play on Saturday under their own names, then play again with the pros on Sunday, using another name.

Joe Carr, first [commissioner] of the league, wanted the practice stopped, not only because he thought it reprehensible to have players using aliases, but because it was hardly endearing the fledgling professionals to the colleges, which Carr foresaw as the league’s source of talent in years to come. So Carr made an example of the Packers.

Who just happened to play in the NFL’s smallest city (and were in their first season in the league). Four years later, Red Grange would gallop hither and yon for the Bears before his college class had graduated — indeed, just five days after his last game for Illinois — but nobody tried to kick George Halas out of the league. And five years after that, Halas did the same thing with Notre Dame fullback Joe Savoldi . . . and lived to tell about it.

But the Packers were almost strangled in the cradle, thanks to the NFL’s questionable concept of justice. (Fortunately, Curly Lambeau applied for a new franchise the following summer — after the original owner bowed out — and Green Bay got a second chance to write its remarkable story.)

The only thing that’s really changed over the decades is that, occasionally, owners fight back now. Al Davis took the league to court — and won — when it sought to prevent him from moving the Raiders to Los Angeles (and back). Jerry Jones exchanged lawsuits with his lodge brothers after having the audacity to sign separate sponsorship deals for the Cowboys’ stadium.

And now we have the Patriots’ Bob Kraft and his quarterback, Tom Brady, ready to go to the mattresses over Deflategate — and the hole-ridden report used as the basis for the team’s whopping penalties. No, it ain’t 1921 anymore.

Frank Filchock

Frank Filchock

And that’s a good thing. In the old days, the commissioner would rule and his “subjects” would simply bow their heads and accept their fate. There wasn’t much recourse. When the Giants’ Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes were banned indefinitely for failing to report a bribe offer before the 1946 title game, their collective goose was cooked. They were free to play in Canada, which they did, but they were persona non grata in the NFL until the commissioner said otherwise. For Hapes, that was essentially forever. Filchock, meanwhile, was out of the league for three years (and played, ever so briefly, in just one game when he returned with the 1950 Baltimore Colts).

“They needed a scapegoat in the whole business and I was it,” he said later. “They dealt me one off the bottom of the deck. They took the easy way out.

“Twice since my suspension I wrote to [Bert] Bell and asked him for the chance to talk this over. He answered me, all right, but just wrote that if I had any new evidence to put it into writing. . . . He’s just got me hanging. [The gambler behind the fix attempt] is out [of prison], isn’t he? What about me?”

Nobody had a bigger gripe than the Pottsville Maroons. In 1925 the Maroons were the best team in the NFL. They proved this by winning 10 of their 12 games, racking up seven shutouts and beating the next-best team, the Chicago Cardinals, 21-7, on the Cards’ turf. (And believe me, a 21-7 road win the ’20s was a Serious Skunking.) But you won’t see them on the list of league champions because they made the mistake of playing an exhibition game late in the season in Philadelphia, the Frankford Yellow Jackets’ territory.

The Yellow Jackets complained, Carr suspended the Pottsville franchise — denying it the championship — and, well, it’s one of the low points in league history, if you ask me. Joe, who’s in the Hall of Fame, has a lot of defenders, but I can’t see any reasonable rationale for such a harsh penalty.

I wrote about the whole sorry episode back in 2003 for The Washington Times. Give it a look, if you’re interested, and see what you think. Maybe it’ll help answer the question: Where does Goodell get his chutzpah?

Here it is:

The NFL title that wasn’t

The Pottsville Maroons were in the news recently. That alone is news. The Maroons, northeastern Pennsylvania’s contribution to NFL history, haven’t belonged to the league since 1928, since the days of dropkicks and leather helmets. They’re less a team than a trivia question, a $1 million answer. Name the first coach of the Pottsville Maroons. Name the last. Name anybody who ever had anything to do with the Pottsville Maroons.

The Maroons did have one brief, shining moment, though. In 1925, they won the NFL championship. At least, they thought they did. But then they played an exhibition game in Philadelphia, home territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and got bounced from the league before they could collect their trophy. The title ended up going to the Chicago Cardinals, who Pottsville had beaten by two touchdowns just a week before at Comiskey Park — and who had considerable baggage of their own (as we shall see).

It’s easily the most controversial ending to any NFL season, and Pottsvillians have stewed about it ever since. In 1963 they got the league to reconsider the matter, but the owners decided to let sleeping Maroons lie. At last week’s NFL meetings in Philadelphia, however, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell pleaded Pottsville’s case and convinced the league to take another look at it. The town isn’t asking that the Maroons be declared champions this time, only that they be allowed to split the title with the Cardinals.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the former lawyer, seems to share the sentiment in Pottsville that the punishment exceeded the crime. “People recognize that the passion of fans, not only in Pottsville but throughout Pennsylvania, should lead us to try to do something that’s positive recognition of those fans and the accomplishments of that Pottsville team,” he said. Would that the league had been so judicious 78 years ago.

In 1925, alas, the NFL operated much differently. Its presidency — the commissionership didn’t come until later — wasn’t even a full-time position, and scheduling was left up to the teams themselves. The Duluth Kelleys played three games that year; Frankford played 20. Some clubs, such as the Dayton Triangles, never had a home game; others, the ones that could draw a decent crowd, rarely had a road game. Everybody was scrambling to make a buck, from the Chicago Bears on down.

Late that season, the Bears caused a sensation by signing Red Grange, the celebrated “Galloping Ghost,” after his last game for the University of Illinois. They proceeded to parade him around the country, filling stadiums in Philly and New York (where a record 65,000 watched). Never before had pro football gotten so much attention.

Around the same time, Pottsville contracted to play an exhibition against a team of Notre Dame all-stars featuring the Four Horsemen. This, too, figured to be great for the pro game. Problem was, the Maroons’ field, Minersville Park, seated only about 9,000. If they were going to cash in, they needed a bigger place. So they moved the game to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, home of the baseball A’s.

Joe Carr

Joe Carr

This didn’t sit well with the Frankford club. The Yellow Jackets protested to NFL president Joe Carr, and Carr agreed that the Pottsville game violated their territorial rights. He advised the Maroons not to play the Four Horsemen in Philly — and that there would be dire consequences if they did.

But Pottsville was a tough mining town that tended to play by its own rules. (Six of the infamous Molly Maguires, a group that wreaked vengeance against abusive mine owners, were hanged there in 1877.) There was a state law back then that prohibited sporting events on Sundays; Pottsville, typically, ignored it. As a local historian once put it, “Who was going to tell anthracite miners that they can’t have football on their one day off?”

On game days, the Maroons dressed in the fire station, then ran the two blocks to the stadium. Their field, opponents complained, was covered with more coal slag than grass. “After a rain,” Dr. Harry March wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, “the minerals from the soil were so toxic that little wounds became infected and were dangerous.”

So, no, Pottsville wasn’t going to be dictated to by any part-time NFL president. And really, how much harm did their game figure to do to Frankford, especially if it was a one-shot deal? It’s not like the Maroons were thinking of moving to Philly. They were merely following George Halas’ lead in his handling of the Grange tour. The Bears had switched their game against Providence to Boston (which didn’t have an NFL team) and the one against the Yellow Jackets from Frankford Stadium to Shibe Park — all for the purpose of selling more tickets.

Indeed, in later years, the league would allow the Redskins to shift the championship game from Boston to New York in 1936 and the Cardinals to play the Lions in Milwaukee in ’45. Why? Because the Redskins couldn’t get anybody to come to their games in Beantown, and the Cards couldn’t find an available stadium in Chicago. So for the good of the league, exceptions were made.

Why Carr didn’t see the Pottsville-Four Horsemen game as an exception remains unclear. He was still recovering from an appendectomy when the controversy arose; maybe that had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was just the way the NFL worked in those days. Pottsville was in its first season in the league — the first of just four, as it turned out. It was probably viewed as a junior member, if not an intern.

Four Horseman game headlineConsider: Only one Pottsville player, end Charlie Berry, made the 11-man all-pro team that year, even though the Maroons were the best club in the league. (The Bears, who finished with seventh-best record, placed three on the squad, and the Cardinals and Giants two each.) Also, more than a few people think Pottsville back Tony Latone belongs in the Hall of Fame. After the Four Horsemen game, Ed Pollack of the Philadelphia Public Ledger gushed, “[Latone] hit the line like a locomotive plowing into an automobile at a grade crossing — and with the same result.” But Latone, of course, isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, were charter members of the NFL — and are still with us today. That might explain why Carr didn’t revoke their franchise when they ran afoul of league rules late in the season. The stunt the Cardinals pulled, after all, was infinitely more scandalous than what the Maroons did. In their next-to-last game, they annihilated (59-0) an undermanned Milwaukee Badgers club that was supplemented by four players from a Chicago high school. (The kids, one of them just 16 years old, had been recruited by the Cards’ Art Folz, an alumnus of the school.)

Folz was banned from the NFL for life, and the Milwaukee owner was ordered to sell his team. Cardinals’ owner Chris O’Brien, however, got off with a one-year probation and a $1,000 fine, even though he admitted in a statement, “Just before [the game started], I learned that there were high school amateurs on the Milwaukee team. Now I know the mistake I made was in not canceling the game right then. But there were several hundred people out there to see the game. Things were moving fast. I didn’t sit down and think it out carefully.”

That win — plus another over the Hammond Pros, who hadn’t played a league game in more than a month — left the Cardinals with an 11-2-1 mark to Pottsville’s 10-2. A more suspect 11-2-1 team the NFL has never seen. No fewer than eight of the Cards’ games were against clubs that finished with one or no wins. Their opponents had a combined record of 46-70-13. Oh, and did I mention they had only one road game — against the cross-town Bears?

Granted, the Maroons enjoyed some scheduling advantages, too. Six of their wins were over teams that had played the day before (and presumably had been softened up). Their opponents, though, had a combined record of 71-66-9 — and they did crush the Cardinals 21-7 in Chicago.

O’Brien, to his credit, refused the championship when the league tried to award it to him, but it was a moot point. Pottsville had been banished — it was reinstated the following year — and the Cardinals had the best record of the remaining teams. Amazingly, the Cards’ victory over Milwaukee, the club with the four high schoolers, remains on the books, even though Carr said it would be stricken. Without that win, their record would be the same as the Maroons’, 10-2 (ties didn’t count).

Was Carr within his rights to kick Pottsville out of the NFL (temporarily)? Absolutely. But was his action just? That’s a question the league must wrestle with. And it doesn’t make it any easier that Carr is a beloved figure in pro football history, renowned for his fairness and leadership. “Many times at league meetings, we would recess late Saturday night in turmoil and on the verge of permanent dissolution,” March wrote in Pro Football. “The next morning, he would lead the boys of his religion to Mass, and they would return in perfect harmony.”

In this case, however, the case of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, ol’ Joe might have blown one.

From The Washington Times, May 29, 2003

Sources: The Pro Football Chronicle, pro-football-reference.com.1925 Maroons

The Deflategate disaster

Is it possible to talk about Deflategate and leave emotion — which runs high on both sides — on the inactive list? Let’s try.

As you may have noticed, a large faction of NFL Nation has been doing backflips since the league announced its ruling, which suspends Tom Brady for four games, fines the Patriots $1 million and strips them of first- and fourth-round draft picks next year. What Roger Goodell did is kind of like what Sheriff Bullock did to George Hearst, the mining mogul, in Deadwood. The commissioner didn’t just throw Brady in jail, he took him there by the ear.

Sheriff Bullock escorts George Hearst to the hoosegow in "Deadwood."

Sheriff Bullock escorts George Hearst to the hoosegow in “Deadwood.”

It isn’t hard to understand the lust for Patriots blood that rages in the other 31 NFL cities. New England hasn’t just owned the league the last 14 seasons, winning four Super Bowls, it’s done it, at times, very annoyingly. Pro football has always been a few-holds-barred enterprise, but the Pats seem to glory in testing boundaries and flouting rules — whether it’s videotaping defensive signals, fooling with the air pressure in balls or some other bit of only-whispered-about subterfuge.

I mean, we get it, fellas, we really do. For Bill Belichick, son of a longtime Navy coach, football is Total War (minus the bullets, the drones, the IEDs, the fatalities . . . did I leave anything out?). Or to put it another way: Nobody worried about whether Grant had too many men on the field at Vicksburg.

The lengths the Patriots have gone to in their pursuit of victory have diminished their considerable accomplishments. They’re on one of the great runs in NFL history, but they’ve left fans wondering — with some justification — how much of their success is due to their willingness to step over the line, to operate in the Gray Area.

Of course, pro football has always had its villains. In the early years, no one had anything on the Bears’ George Halas in the ruthlessness department. Later on, Al Davis’ Raiders were the team people loved to hate. Belichick’s Patriots are merely the latest in the line, and probably not the worst. You could get away with so much more in the days before saturation media coverage and omnipresent security cameras. Heck, the home team used to pay the officials, and some clubs played a lot more home games than others.

Nevertheless, this latest Patriots scandal seems far more overinflated than the balls were underinflated. It broke at the most visible time of the season, in the run-up to the Super Bowl, and it raged pretty much out of control until Tuesday, when Goodell meted out his punishment. The NFL tried, feebly, to contain it, but the rumors, leaks and innuendo flew — and kept on flying — until the Wells Report was finally released 108 days later. It was yet another reminder that the most powerful league on the planet seems to have forgotten how to manage crises.

But let’s move on. One of the problems with this scandal is that folks can’t agree on whether Brady was guilty of a felony, a misdemeanor or an even lesser offense — like jaywalking — for his assumed role in this circus. Maybe the gravity (or lack thereof) of the situation will become clearer if we take a trip back in time. For starters, underinflated footballs have never been much of an issue in the NFL before now. Fascinating, don’t you think? A search of various newspaper archives the other day turned up almost nothing — since 1960, at least.

There was one story, in 1973, about the Steelers accusing the Raiders of “dirty tricks.” (And this was after a 17-9 win!) They “complained that the Raiders had smeared their uniforms with a greasy substance, had underinflated the footballs and had written obscenities on one of them,” The Associated Press reported. “There were also complaints that the Oakland Coliseum clock was not operated properly.”

Several days later — days, mind you, not months — the NFL handed down its verdict: not guilty.

“As for the deflated ball,” league publicist Don Weiss said, “all were checked, as prescribed by rule, by the officials prior to the game” and had the required 12 ½-to-13 ½ pounds of pressure. “Balls were changed frequently because of the rainy, wet weather,” he added. “When [Pittsburgh center] Ray Mansfield told the umpire, Tom Hensley, he felt one ball was under-inflated, Hensley honored his request automatically, just as he’d honor any other request, and replaced the ball.

“No official saw any ball with anything written on it, nor was it brought to their attention.”

And that was that. You get the impression the NFL — in those days, at least — just refused to deal with such Mickey Mouse accusations. There was no grand inquisition, no 243-page, multimillion-dollar report. A few phone calls were made, and the matter was dispensed with. The last thing the league wanted was to have a charge like that hanging in the air for the rest of the season. It simply wasn’t important enough. Football air pressure? Good lord.

If the Colts had bitched about the Patriots to Bert Bell, the commissioner in the ’40s and ’50s, my guess is that he would have rolled his eyes and said, “Do you guys really want to go down this road? First of all, you just got beat 45-7. Whatever happened with those footballs, it’s not the reason you lost the game. But beyond that, we’re talking about the air in the balls. How many things are less significant, in the grand scheme of things, than the air in the balls?

“Why do you think the rule reads ‘12 ½ to 13 ½ pounds’? Because there’s no magic number. There’s just a range we’d like to see teams adhere to, more or less. The rulebook, you’ll notice, doesn’t say you need to gain 8 to 10 yards for a first down. It doesn’t say you should kick off from the 40- to 42-yard line. But it does say the ball should be inflated to 12 ½ to 13 ½ pounds, because there’s some flexibility there. Let’s not get all bent of shape because the pressure might be a touch low or a touch high. We’ve got so many bigger fish to fry than that.

“Besides, this is football. If you piss and moan about something trivial like this, you may live to regret it. I think back to my own days as a coach and owner. If another team had raised a fuss about my quarterback throwing deflated footballs, I would have found a way to get even, and it might not have been pretty.”

In late January, when Deflategate became a cause célèbre, I wrote a post about Redskins legend Sammy Baugh telling the clubhouse man to underinflate balls — to 11 ½ pounds — because they “felt better to me.” Nobody, apparently, noticed or gave it a second thought. It’s interesting, too, that these slightly deflated balls didn’t hurt Baugh’s punting any. For a long time, in fact, he had the highest career average in history: 45.1 yards.

“Bootleg footballs” they were called. In the first few decades, especially — when the ball was fatter and harder to pass — clubs were known to Get Creative with the “wind-jammed pig rind” (Paul Gallico’s classic term). In a pro game between Canton and Massillon in 1905, 15 years before the NFL was born, the Tigers supplied a ball that was “the kind you would use in high school,” Dr. Harry March, the Giants’ first general manger, wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs. “It weighed about 10 ounces instead of the 16 ounces now required in all regular games, either amateur or professional. It was the kind of ball one could use in a kindergarten, as it would not hurt a male infant if kicked in his face. . . .

“[Canton Coach Blondy] Wallace protested . . . but was told that the contract put the selection of the ball up to the home team, and the one on hand was the one which would be played with that day. If he did not want to accept it, he could take his marbles and minions and go back to Canton. Naturally, that was the ball played with that afternoon. The game was a Massillon victory. They had been practicing weeks before with this featherweight ovoid and could handle it like magicians. The superiority of the Canton kickers was wiped out by this one bit of strategy.”

Bootleg footballs graphicThis sort of behavior was finally addressed by the college football Rules Committee – whose lead the NFL usually followed – in 1929. The year before, according to The New York Times, “reports began to come in that strangely shaped balls had been observed in play – balls with ‘snouts ideally adapted to gripping for forward passing’ – and that dealers were selling ‘either passing balls or kicking balls’ at the option of the buyer.

Reports also were received of overinflation of the football, the oval in some instances being blown up to 50 pounds of pressure, or more than three times the correct poundage, with a consequence that booting the ball felt like kicking a radiator or a hat with a brick in it. A punter capable of getting 40 yards with the genuine article thus could get no more than 27 or 28 yards with the rock-like counterfeit.

Blowing up the ball by guesswork at the corner garage, [committee chairman Edward K. Hall] said, naturally caused wide variation in the amount of inflation, and this, as well as the strange case of the snouted ball, his committee has already undertaken to remedy.

Under the rules for 1929 the use of a new apparatus designed to measure a football in length and width, after the manner of the foot-size gauge in shoe stores, will become compulsory. The referee before the game will slip the ball into this box-like contrivance and determine in an instant when a football is not a football within the meaning of the committee.

After that, you heard hardly a peep about footballs not meeting specifications. As long as the balls were, well, in the ballpark size-wise, everything was copacetic. And remember, for decades the home team furnished the balls — and inflated them to suit their own quarterback, not the visitors’. Baugh told me the Steelers liked to use a ball made by Goldsmith that had “10 laces instead of eight, and it was just fatter than everything. . . . You could throw it, but it was a different kind of ball.”

And now, all these years later, we have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time getting suspended for a quarter of the season for the Deflategate fiasco. It just doesn’t seem possible. For this, Tom Brady is going to be branded with a scarlet D?

But then, these are different times from the ’20s and ’70s, more judgmental in some respects. (Or maybe it’s just that social media can turn any molehill into a mountain in the space of 140 characters.) We also, let’s not forget, have a commissioner who’d been under fire for his laxness in dealing with disciplinary cases — and who may very well have overreacted to Deflategate to make up for his initial underreaction to Ray Rice’s Frazieresque left hook.

Those who rooted for Goodell to make an example of Brady and his “outlaw” team love to talk about The Integrity of the Game. Sorry, everybody, but that horse left the barn long ago — if, indeed, it was ever in the barn. Respect for the rules in the NFL has always been grudging. Coaches and players are forever trying to bend them, twist them and circumvent them in ways totally contrary to the spirit of said rules.

That’s sports for you. Find a loophole, create a (temporary) edge. Some call it cheating, others gamesmanship. In truth, it’s probably a little of both, but the point is: It’s engrained — and you’re dreaming if you think much can be done about it.

The question then becomes: What “crimes” are you going to punish? Or, more to the point, are you going to punish a quarterback for conspiring to shrink the size of the ball, almost imperceptibly, so he feels more confident throwing it? I say “feels more confident throwing it” because it’s not certain Brady enjoyed any real competitive advantage. As Peter King pointed out the other day, there’s little difference in the last nine seasons between Tom’s passer rating in home games (100.2) vs. road games (99.7). And in road games, obviously, he doesn’t have the Patriots’ ballboys with him.

Are deflated footballs Tom Brady's garter belt?

Are Tom Brady’s deflated footballs like Nuke LaLoosh’s garter belt?

It may well be that Brady prefers a softer ball because he’s always thrown a softer ball, all the way back to his days at Michigan. In other words, the effect might be more psychological than measurable — like Nuke LaLoosh pitching better in Bull Durham when he wears a garter belt. Fully inflated balls certainly didn’t take away from Tom’s performance in the second half of the AFC championship game (12 of 14 for 131 yards and two touchdowns) . . . or in the Super Bowl (37 of 50 for 328 and four scores). In those six quarters he had a rating of 114.

Here’s what defies logic: The NFL has spent the last 80-odd years catering to quarterbacks by (a.) slimming down the ball (most recently in 1988), (b.) adjusting the rules to open up the passing game and (c.) making it easier, generally, to play the position (see: intentional grounding). It’s also getting harder and harder to hit the passer without drawing a flag. He’s got a “strike zone” these days the size of Eddie Gaedel’s.

In 2006 Brady and Peyton Manning mobilized quarterbacks and convinced the league to let them decide which balls would be used in games. This enabled them to practice with the balls during the week and have them prepared to their individual liking — rougher, smoother, more inflated, less inflated, etc. As a result, passing stats have exploded, scoring is at record highs and profits, naturally, keep going up and up.

After all this coddling of quarterbacks, the NFL is putting its foot down nowNow it’s saying, “This is going too far. Ball pressure can’t fall below 12 ½ pounds”?

Why on earth not? Does football cease being football under those conditions? Does the ball become so squeezable that fumbles, an increasingly endangered species, become extinct? (By the way, it’s not like any of this impacts the kicking game, because kickers are now required to use straight-from-the-factory K balls — a move brought about by widespread doctoring of the ball.

Which reminds me: Does anybody recall a kicker being suspended for four games, or any games, for sticking a ball in a microwave to “get it ready”? No? Wanna know why? Because once upon a time, the NFL had a sense of proportion. When an issue like this came up, it didn’t launch a four-month, multimillion-dollar investigation. It merely said, “We have to provide more supervision. Clearly, teams can’t be left to their own devices.” And the issue went away.

This whole Brady business is the silliest of stands for the league to take. It shouldn’t matter if the Patriots quarterback is partial to a slightly underinflated ball, just as it shouldn’t matter if Aaron Rodgers likes ’em overinflated. If it doesn’t change the game in some undesirable way, why would anyone make a big deal of it.

Unless, that is, he had an agenda, one that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with “protecting The Shield” . . . or whatever Goodell’s objective is.Deflated football

The Native American chief who played for the early Redskins

While sports fans continue to debate, with no little fervor, whether the Redskins should change their name, I thought I’d post this piece about the Native American chief who played for them in the early years — and holds an interesting place in football history. There’s a tendency to lump the Redskins’ refusal to integrate until the ’60s with the whole Name Thing and say, “It’s all of a piece. From the very beginning, this has been a racist organization.” But it’s not that neat and tidy, as you shall see.

 ●   ●   ●

In the NFL’s early decades, there were two main sources of Native American football talent: Carlisle (in the Pennsylvania town of the same name) and Haskell (in Lawrence, Kan.). They weren’t really colleges, though they played many of their games against college teams. They were more like vocational high schools, the U.S. government’s attempt to assimilate the young tribal population into the American mainstream.

Along with farmers, carpenters and mechanics, the schools turned out some really good football players. Carlisle is more famous, thanks to the exploits of Jim Thorpe, one of the country’s greatest athletes, and Joe Guyon, both of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But according to the database at pro-football-reference.com, Haskell sent as many players to the NFL as Carlisle did (19 each, with some attending both schools).

One of the Haskell alums was Larry Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 223-pound rock of a center. (Sportswriters often called him “Chief Johnson” because he was a leader of the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin.) Johnson was the last player from either school to play in the NFL; in fact, he was the last player by a mile. The next to last, Haskell teammate Orien Crow, suited up for the final time in 1934. Larry’s farewell came a decade later, when he returned to the league after a four-year absence — along with a number of other retirees (e.g. the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski) — because of the manpower shortage during World War II.

The club that brought him back for five games at the age of 35? The Redskins.

Not that this surprised anybody. Johnson, after all, had begun his pro career with them in 1933, when they were still in Boston. That was the year the team changed its name from the Braves to the Redskins. It also happened to be the year Larry’s coach at Haskell, Lone Star Dietz, left the school to take the Redskins job. Dietz brought four players with him (the others being Crow, end David Ward and wingback Rabbit Weller).

A headline in the Oct. 12, 1936 Boston Globe.

A headline in the Oct. 12, 1936 Boston Globe.

The Redskins weren’t any better than average those first few seasons. It wasn’t until Ray Flaherty became the coach (1936) and Sammy Baugh the quarterback (’37) that they began going to title games. But owner George Preston Marshall had a flair for promotion — and was always coming up with some kind of stunt to draw attention to his team. When Johnson was a rookie, Marshall had the players put on war paint for a game against the Bears so they’d look like “ferocious Indians,” end Steve Hokuf once recalled. There was only one problem. On the train afterward, “we found out that 10 of our players weren’t able to remove their war paint and had to leave it on until the next morning. That was the last time the Redskins used war paint.”

There was much fascination in that era about Native Americans. Thorpe’s feats as a football star, decathlete and major-league baseball player were part of it, of course. But another part was the culture he sprang from. To whites, it was just so was darn mysterious.

In 1922, the season Thorpe organized the NFL’s Oorang Indians — an all-Native American team sponsored by a Marion, Ohio, dog kennel — newspapers ran a story about the death, at 130, of a Chippewa named Wrinkle Meat. It contained this passage:

Several years ago, when he was struck by a railroad engine, he was taken to a hospital but refused a bed, seeking instead a “comfortable place” on the floor. He rolled into a blanket and remained on the floor for three weeks until he recovered. . . . For 109 years of his life he had been married, having had eight wives.

Indian customs, closely followed, he considered the big factor in extending his life so long. His oldest acquaintances never recall having seen him sit in a chair or lie in a bed. He was just as much opposed to many other customs of whites, for he contended they were contrary to the laws of nature.

This is the world Larry Johnson grew up in. Native American athletes simply weren’t like other athletes, newspapers were always reminding their readers. In September 1922 the Chicago Tribune reported: “The [Oorang] Indians begin training today, and besides their daily football practice will take long runs nightly behind packs of hounds.”

How long, you ask? Well, another source tells us, “It means nothing to the Indians to make a jaunt on foot into Marion [from their clubhouse at the kennel], a distance of 28 miles. The warriors eat but twice a day. Practice begins at noon and continues until evening, and it’s then that the redskins have their second meal.”

(Note: These “packs of hounds” aren’t to be confused with the Indians’ mascot – a pet coyote that belonged lineman Nick Lassa, otherwise known as Long Time Sleep.)

Pop Warner, the coach who put Carlisle on the map, was convinced Native American players were easily discouraged. That’s why, it’s said, he tried to score first in every game (not that this isn’t advisable under any circumstances).

“As long as an Indian is winning,” he told Dr. Harry March, the Giants’ first general manager, “he is the greatest player on earth. When he begins to lose, he is among the worst. It is this trait which let the whites win all of the territory of the Western Continent.”

Thorpe, Warner found, was “sulky and hard to handle, and that may ruin him.” Whether Jim was any sulkier or harder to handle than other superstars is an open question, but this was sometimes how Native American players were portrayed — and perceived.

(Decades later, there was a quarterback for the Packers, a Creek nicknamed “Indian Jack” Jacobs, who routinely ignored plays sent in from the sideline. Jacobs was such a freelancer, the tale goes, that he wound up in the CFL, where he twice led Winnipeg to the Grey Cup game. But he doesn’t appear to have gotten any better at following instructions. One day his Canadian coach got so frustrated that he put in two QBs, one to call the desired play and the other — Jacobs — to execute it.)

But let’s get back to Larry Johnson, the last product of The Two Big Native American Schools to play in the NFL. From all accounts, the guy was a physical specimen. One sportswriter wrote that Johnson had “the physique of a heavyweight boxing champion. [But] . . . his early ambitions in fistic work were halted at Haskell when he was flattened by another Indian.”

Still, Larry could take care of himself. In 1938, when he was with the Giants, he “got in a fistfight” with Pittsburgh tackle Armand Niccolai, according to The New York Times. “Unlike most gridiron battles,” the paper said, “this one produced some punching. Niccolai was knocked colder than the weather — which was pretty cold itself. So the Indian was chased from the game and the Giants penalized half the distance to the goal line [the punishment for slugging in those days], some 20 yards.”

The Giants won the title that year (which also makes Johnson the last product of the Two Big Native American schools to win the championship). He’d joined the team in 1936 after three seasons with the Redskins and a stint with the minor-league New York Yankees. Injuries had left New York thin at center, and coach Steve Owen signed him as a backup for Hall of Famer Mel Hein.

“If the experiment of bringing in an Indian turns out to be . . . successful,” Times columnist John Kieran wrote, “Owen may come up with a Chinaman or an Eskimo the next time danger threatens.”

Johnson wasn’t a great player by any means. Indeed, he was a second-stringer for most of his NFL career. But he did have one special skill: He was the best snapper for field goals and extra points Owen had ever seen. As the Hall of Fame coach put it in 1947 piece for Football Digest:

Our captain, Mel Hein, was an artist at it. But once we had a center even better than Mel for the placement try. I know some of you won’t believe this, but I vouch for it on my word of honor. When Chief Johnson, a big Indian from Haskell, was our reserve snapper-back, he had the pass for placements down to such an art that the ball always came back to the holder so that it was caught with the laces uppermost.

(Coming from Owen, who placed a huge importance on the kicking game, this was high praise. The Giants in those days spent most of the first hour of practice on special teams stuff, primarily field goals and PATs.)

Larry Johnson photoAfter winning the ’38 title, Johnson spent some time in his native Wisconsin — and was a big enough deal to have his visit noted by the Shawano County Journal. He was in town, the paper said, to attend “the tribal council of the Menominees held in Keshena on Monday” and planned to “vacation in and around this section until August 10, when he will report [to] Superior [Wis.] for practice with the Giants until the [College] All-Star Game on September 1. Johnson is an enrolled member of the tribe and came down from Powell, where his mother lives, to attend the council with his brother, Joe Walkechon, of Keshena.”

The Giants went back to the title game in ’39, facing Green Bay for the second straight year. As the club prepared to leave for Milwaukee — where the game was held because the city had a bigger stadium — Johnson was filled with “fear and trepidation,” the Times reported. It wasn’t the Packers he was worried about, though. What concerned him was that “‘Every Indian in Wisconsin will be after me to get him tickets,’ he declared with a wry grin.”

It might have been the last time he smiled for a while. The Giants got crushed, 27-0.

Other than that, details of Johnson’s life are sketchy. In January 1939 the Nevada State Journal said he was living in Fallon Nev., and had returned home briefly to see his wife and children “at the Indian sub-agency” before heading to Los Angeles to play in the Pro Bowl (a game that pitted the champion Giants against the league all-stars). “Mrs. Johnson is the teacher at the Fallon Indian day school near Stillwater.”

The following year found him in Ogden, Utah, working for the U.S. Postal Service. And in 1944, according to the State Journal, he was “in the market for a western Nevada high school [coaching] job — football, basketball or baseball. Two seasons ago he turned out a championship grid club [in] Ogden . . . and has since moved to Reno.”

But then the Redskins, desperate for players in the late stages of the war, came calling, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to play the last half of the ’44 season for them. The NFL wasn’t much to look at that year. The talent level was almost semipro quality, and a few recent high school graduates even got into games. Washington was in contention, though, until the final two weeks, when the Giants beat them back-to-back.

After that, Johnson fell off the grid — so completely that none of the football encyclopedias list a death date for him. (Good luck finding an obituary. Lord knows I’ve tried.) That’s pretty much the end of the story except for one last nugget: It seems Larry had a sense of humor.

We know this because of something Owen said years later, at the weekly Football Writers’ brunch in New York. The conversation had turned, as it often did, to officials — in this case, an official who’d thrown his hat to the ground to mark where a Steelers receiver had gone out of bounds . . . and hadn’t bothered to notice the player had dropped the pass.

“Don’t get me started on officials,” said Owen, whose Giants were on the wrong end of the call — initially, at least. “When the other official straightened him out, I hollered, ‘And don’t forget your hat!’”

That sparked a memory in Stout Steve’s mind. “Remember Larry (Chief) Johnson, our Indian center?” he said. “He used to take great delight in moving an official’s hat a couple of yards.”

Johnson's bio in the Giants' 1939 media guide.

Johnson’s bio in the Giants’ 1939 media guide.

L.A.’s first NFL team . . . in 1926

A year from now Los Angeles, bereft of an NFL franchise for nearly two decades, might finally have a team again . . . or a couple of them. There are so many scenarios, so many clubs (Rams, Chargers, Raiders) and stadium sites (Inglewood, Carson) in the mix, it’s enough to make you feel concussed.

If the Rams do return to L.A., where they played in four title games and won it all in 1951, there’d be a very Prodigal Son aspect to it. It tends to be forgotten, though, that they weren’t the city’s first NFL team. No, the city’s first NFL team preceded the Rams by 20 years. I’m talking about the 1926 Los Angeles Buccaneers.

Some explanation is in order. After all, putting a franchise on the West Coast in the ’20s was an utterly insane idea. It would have posed travel problems — in terms of both time and expense — for everybody. (This was when the train was king, remember.) So the league made the Buccaneers a “road team.” That is, they carried Los Angeles’ banner, but they never played any games in L.A. They were always the “Visitors” on the scoreboard.

They weren’t the only road team that season, either. The Duluth Eskimos, Kansas City Cowboys, Akron Indians, Dayton Triangles and Columbus Tigers all fell in the same category. Usually a club was designated a Traveling Show because it didn’t draw well at home, but the Buccaneers’ case was different: Los Angeles was just too many time zones away.

Pro football was gaining traction then, though, and plenty of cities wanted in on it. This was the year after Red Grange had joined the Chicago Bears in late November, within days of his final game at Illinois, and drawn record crowds wherever he played. As it turned out, the growth wasn’t sustainable. It was more of a bubble. But no one knew that in 1926. So a second league, the nine-team American Football League, was formed (with Grange as the main attraction), and the NFL branched out to the Pacific Coast.

The Buccaneers, whose colors were orange and black (like the Bengals), weren’t always called by their given name. As often as not, newspapers referred to them as “Brick Muller’s Californians of Los Angeles” — or some variation. Muller, a fabulous two-way end, was the name above the title, a former All-American whose University of California teams (1920-22) never lost a game.

1920 Olympic high jump results.

1920 Olympic high jump results.

Brick — so dubbed because of his red hair — was famous before he even played a snap for the Cal varsity. After his freshman year, at the age of 19, he won a silver medal in the high jump at the Olympics. (That might explain the following description of him in The Brooklyn Eagle during the ’26 season: “How he does catch ’em! There can be three or four of the opposition awaiting his arrival at a given spot, but more often than not at the mentioned meeting place the pair of arms that grab the ball from the air are Muller’s.”)

There was nothing, it seemed, Muller couldn’t do. The Buccaneers would even use him to throw passes, especially long ones. He had huge hands — a big help in the days of the fat football — and a strong arm. In the Rose Bowl against Ohio State after the 1920 season, he heaved a touchdown pass that was originally said to have traveled 70 yards in the air (though a revisionist sportswriter later put the distance at 53).

Westerners talked about Brick the way folks in the Heartland would talk about Bronko Nagurski — as a force of nature. Here’s a photo of him on an exercise bike during the ’26 season:Brick on exercise bike

The cutline reads: “Yes, it is the same Harold (Brick) Muller who used to star in football, track and baseball for the University of California. He was recently acclaimed the most perfect physical specimen of manhood in the world by European doctors and athletic directors. Muller is now running the Los Angeles professional football team in the East. The picture shows Muller training on a bike in Rolley’s gym in New York.”

Oops, almost forgot. Brick also co-coached the Buccaneers with tailback Tut Imlay, a former college teammate. Indeed, of the 18 players who suited up for the club at one time or another, seven had played at Cal. The roster had such a Berkeley flavor that the Syracuse Herald referred to the team as the “California Bears.”

Five other players, meanwhile, had gone to schools elsewhere in the state and three more were from the West. It made for a great marketing tool, because there was much curiosity back East about Left Coast Football, due largely to the exploits of Muller’s California “Wonder Teams.” Buccaneers games were billed as East-vs-(Wild) West battles, and the team represented Left Coast Ball well.

After the Buccaneers went into Canton and beat the Bulldogs, featuring Hall of Famers Jim Thorpe and Fats Henry, the Canton Daily News reported: “Football, as played on the Pacific Coast, has not been overrated, judging from the form the Los Angeles Californians displayed Sunday at Lakeside Stadium while scoring a 16-13 victory over the Bulldogs in a National [Football] League engagement. It was the most sensational game seen here in a long time, being filled with thrilling forward passes, return of punts, end runs and good defensive football.”

Imlay, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound dynamo, came in for particular praise for his punt returning. Quick kicks, you see, were popular in that era, and any safety who could hustle back and grab them before they hit the round was a valuable man. One paper noted that he “caught punts over his head, like a ballplayer catches flies.”

The Buccaneers (fuzzily) in action against the Canton Bulldogs.

The Buccaneers (fuzzily) in action against the Canton Bulldogs. That’s Muller carrying the ball.

“The Los Angeles Californians,” in other words, were hardly a one-man team. Tuffy Maul, from St. Mary’s, was a rugged fullback who also could kick. And lineman Don Thompson, from Redlands, scored two defensive touchdowns (when TDs really meant something). Most of the players, moreover — but not Muller, from what I can tell — played the full 60 minutes. (My guess: Brick carried so much of the load on both sides of the ball — and had such a target on his back, being a superstar and all — that it was hard for him to play the whole game. At some point, he’d need a few minutes to gather himself.)

The adventures of the Buccaneers open a window to The Way It Was in those early years. They lost their opener in Chicago, for instance, 15-0, when the Cardinals returned a fumble for one TD and blocked a punt for another. (Translation: The game was as tilted toward the defense then as it is geared toward the offense today.)

In Buffalo, they slogged to a 0-0 tie against the Rangers in a heavy rain, one that limited the crowd to 3,000. (Before season tickets became the norm, pro football was dependent on the weather to an unhealthy degree. As a result, attendance could fluctuate wildly from week to week.)

In Providence — where they nipped the Steam Roller, 7-6, on a missed PAT — they got to experience the most unique stadium in the league: the Cycledrome, a bicycle track with a football field laid out inside it. (Well, most of a football field. The corners of the end zones were cut off because of the curve of the track, which was sharply banked.)

And in Pottsville, deep in Pennsylvania coal country, they likely fell victim to one of the biggest home-field advantages in NFL history. The fans at Minersville Field were brutally partisan — it was like one big Dawg Pound — and the officiating was sometimes suspect, too.

“I guess our toughest defeat was there,” Thompson told the Los Angeles Times in the ’50s. “There was a quarter of an inch of ice on the puddles in the playing field that had to be broken before the game. The spectators stood on the sidelines and threw chunks of coal at us through the entire contest. We scored four touchdowns that were not allowed.”

Yup, sure sounds like Pottsville (though the Maroons, in their defense, finished third in the league and blanked 11 of their 14 opponents).

After spending six weeks off Broadway, the Buccaneers Across America tour hit New York. How a team played on the big stage, in front of discerning Big Apple sportswriters, always mattered, and Muller and Co. didn’t disappoint. They had back-to-back games there — against the Giants at the Polo Grounds the first Sunday and the Brooklyn Lions at Ebbets Field the next — and posted a pair of shutouts: 6-0 and 20-0.

The way the Giants promoted the game was almost as entertaining as the game itself. Two days before, they dispatched end Lynn Bomar to the top of the American Radiator Building — not far from Times Square — and had halfback Hinkey Haines stand 324 feet below in Bryant Park. The players’ goal, aside from making a spectacle of themselves, was to complete “the longest ‘forward pass’ on record,” The New York Times said.

Believe It or Not!

Believe It or Not!

They were just poking a little fun at Muller, who once, to advertise the East-West Shrine Game, had caught a 320-foot pass thrown from the roof of the Telephone Building in San Francisco (a feat that so impressed Robert Ripley that he paid homage to it in one of his Believe It or Not! newspaper cartoons).

It took several tries for Bomar to connect with his receiver. His first pass “hit the sidewalk and burst,” according to the Times, and another struck Haines with such force that it knocked him down. At this point Hinkey removed his coat, got down to business and, on the fifth attempt, hung onto the ball — bringing applause from several-hundred onlookers.

A few more several hundred showed up for the game — 20,000 did, in fact — so the stunt served its purpose. It was the Buccaneers’ biggest gate of the season by far, and Muller was at his very best. He “was easily worth the price of admission,” the Bridgeport Telegram said. “In practice he tossed half-a-dozen 50-yard forward passes, and in the game he tossed three fairly long ones for good gains. He also caught a forward pass, made a 23-yard end run and generally made things tough for the New York side of the argument. His snub nose was in the thick of the fight all afternoon.”

After laying waste to New York, the Buccaneers headed west for their final two games. On Thanksgiving in Detroit, they edged the Panthers, 9-6, with the aid of a fluke play — so fluky that Muller was still trying to make sense of it decades later. At football dinner in 1960 he bumped into Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman, the player-coach of that Detroit club, and it wasn’t long before Brick was reminding him of “the screwiest play I ever saw.”

Jimmy remembered it well. “I never saw one like it before or since,” he said.

Brick: “Here’s what happened. Jimmy’s team had to punt from the end zone in snow, rain and mud. The ball skidded off the side of the kicker’s foot and shot out of bounds before it crossed the goal line. How do you score it? I argued with the referee that it was our ball once it left the kicker’s foot and had to be a touchdown. He ruled it a safety. I guess he was right.”

The Buccaneers wrapped up the season in Kansas City against the (original) Cowboys. I’ll get to the details in a moment, but first check out this ad that ran in the K.C. Journal the week of the game. Note, in particular, the last line — and the soccer game that was to precede the football game. “As a preliminary . . .,” the Journal reported, “the Hutchison Electric Company’s soccer team, a member of the Kansas City soccer league, will play the Chicopee, Kan., soccer team. The soccer game . . . is expected to draw many fans to the park.”LA Bucs vs. KC Cowboys ad

Muehlebach Field, home of Cowboys, was a hopping place on Sunday. “The game,” The Associated Press said, “was given a college atmosphere when two cheerleaders, formerly of the University of Missouri, tainted their amateur standing by leading 3,000 frenzied fans in organized cheering, believed to be an innovation in ‘pro’ football games. The crowd yelled their cheers from printed formulae on the programs, and by the second half gave a good imitation of a college bleacher in action.”

Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, Muller, who was voted all-pro that year, was sidelined in the second quarter by a knee injury, and they went down to a 7-3 defeat. That left them with a 6-3-1 record, good for sixth out of 22 teams (though they didn’t play the league’s two best clubs, the Bears or the Frankford Yellow Jackets).

The season wasn’t quite over, though. After getting back to Los Angeles, the Buccaneers staged some exhibition games to make a few extra bucks, two of them at L.A.’s Wrigley Field against Grange’s New York Yankees, an AFL team. These were their only “home games,” even if they didn’t count in the standings. The Buccaneers took the first (30-6) but dropped rematch (14-0) — a loss made worse when Maul suffered a broken leg.

In the offseason, pro football contracted dramatically. Eleven NFL franchises — the Buccaneers among them — disappeared, and the struggling AFL closed up shop. It was simply too much, too soon. Only three L.A. players ever played in the NFL again, and just one had much of a career (center Jack McArthur, who played five more years for six different teams).

As for Muller, he turned his attention to medicine and eventually became an orthopedic surgeon. But then, pro football in those early decades was a short-lived thing for most guys. The pay wasn’t great, there was little security, and you were wise to get out before you broke something that couldn’t be fixed.

After the war the Rams arrived and gave Los Angeles its first real NFL team, one that actually played games in L.A. But the Buccaneers weren’t totally forgotten. In 1959 the Rams honored them between halves of their opener against the Giants — one of the clubs, you may recall, the Buccaneers beat in their only year in the league.

Reunited for the first time in years, the Buccaneers swapped stories about their season-long travels. Walter Beach, their business manager, told the Times, “We were down to a dozen men at Brooklyn . . . because of injuries. So we picked up some boys off the street and suited them up so our opponents wouldn’t know our plight.

“The team went broke in New York but we managed to scrape enough money together to keep going. From that time on we rode the chair cars on the train [instead of Pullman sleepers].”

Thompson had another memory: “We were almost overcome with fumes from an unvented gas heater in Kansas City, and how we ever played at all that day I don’t know.”

And now, if all the i’s get dotted and all the t’s crossed, Los Angeles might soon be graced by the NFL’s presence again. But the Buccaneers — Brick Muller’s Buccaneers — were there first . . . and did the city proud. All 18 of them.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Chris Borland and the future of the NFL

Dan Pompei wrote a piece for Bleacher Report not long ago that began like this:

There are not many footprints on the path Chris Borland has chosen to walk. His approach to the NFL, and life after it, represents a way of thinking that is very different from the thinking of most of his football forefathers.

Fifty years ago, or even 10 years ago, promising players considered the NFL a destination — not a rest stop on life’s highway. They did all they could to extend their shelf life. They didn’t consider shortening it, as Borland has, retiring after a standout rookie season with the 49ers.

But as time — and eras — have passed, so too have perspectives on the role football should play in a player’s life.

Actually, in the league’s first 40 years, many of Borland’s “football forefathers” thought like he did, considered the NFL a short-term gig. Unlike today, the game didn’t lend itself to a long, lucrative career. In the single-platoon era (1920-49), players often played the entire game, or close to it. The travel, too — on trains, buses and even in private cars — was more onerous. Some teams would be on the road for a month or more.

You also could make the case that competition for jobs was greater because there were fewer of them. In 1941, the last season before the war, there were 330 roster spots in the league and just 11 players who were 30 or older (oldest: 33). Last year there were 1,696 roster spots and 331 thirtysomethings (oldest: 42). Nobody ever talks about that when they talk about the early days: that it was harder to break into the league and harder to stay there — which, naturally, led to shorter careers.

Let me throw a few more numbers at you so you’ll get the complete picture. This is how many players in each decade played in all 10 seasons of that decade:

1920s: 3

1930s: 2

1940s: 5

1950s: 18

1960s: 74

1970s: 109

1980s: 92

1990s: 158

2000s: 163

2010s: TBD (but likely more than 163, Chris Borland or no Chris Borland)

From the ’20s through the ’50s, the prevailing philosophy seemed to be: play four or five years if you can, burn off any testosterone left over from college, sock away some dough (provided there’s some dough to sock away) and, in the offseasons — which were quite a bit longer then — try to prepare for your Next Life (in coaching, business, teaching, whatever).

George Halas’ Bears teams weren’t just successful on the field, they were successful off it. Several players, for instance, found the time during the season to go to medical and dental school. According to a 2011 story about John Siegal, an end in the ’30s and ’40s, his “typical day would spin the heads of today’s multimillionaire athletes. He attended Bears practice from 9 a.m. to noon, then headed to Northwestern University for dentistry classes from 1 p.m. until 5. One teammate, fullback Bill Osmanski, attended school with him; Halas had agreed to pay the pair’s tuition in addition to their salary.”

(Of course, clubs were more concerned for the players’ welfare in those days. As the Bears’ 1937 media guide noted: “A form of cod-liver oil is taken daily by the players when cold weather sets in.”)

Time and again, Halas would tell his team, “Football is a means to an end.” And in those leaner times, it was the soundest of advice. No player was so well paid that he could retire on his NFL earnings; he’d better have a Plan B (if not a Plan C).

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

But beyond that, there was more of an understanding that the human body wasn’t built for such punishment — not over the long haul, at least. Doak Walker, the Lions’ Hall of Fame back, quit in 1955 after just six seasons. Tom Harmon, the first pick in the ’41 draft, played a mere two years (after a lengthy stint in the military) before going into sportscasting. The “indestructible” Bronko Nagurski took the knocks for eight seasons, then decided professional wrestling was a safer — and better-paying — alternative (though he came out of retirement in ’43 when the Bears were shorthanded). None of this was unusual.

But as you can see in the decade-by-decade figures, things began to change in the ’60s. The money got better, the medicine improved, the jobs multiplied — and suddenly you had players staying in the game until they were literally wheeled out on a gurney.

It also could be argued that modern players are more dependent on the game than they used to be — because the job has become so time-consuming, in-season and out. Who today could squeeze in med school classes around all the practices, meetings, weight-room sessions, public-relations appearances and everything else on the football calendar? It’s increasingly hard to lay almost any kind of groundwork for Life After Football. (We won’t even get into the dubious college “education” some of these guys receive, “learning” that sometimes doesn’t equip you to do much more than retain your eligibility.)

In recent years, a time bomb has gone off — the Concussion Issue — and people have begun to wonder whether the game has gotten too hazardous to the players’ health, whether this is the beginning of the end for Pro Football As We Know It. First of all, the game has always been too hazardous to the players’ health. No league has left a longer trail of broken bodies than NFL. It’s more a question of: How much are the players — and the fans who cheer them — willing to put up with? Will the risk of CTE cause young athletes to turn to other sports, or will the fame and fortune of football be too much of a lure? And even if a kid does opt to play the game, will he, as he grows older, try to limit the damage, as Borland did (and as players in the early decades did, though their retirements weren’t always of their own volition).

Then there’s the matter of whether the NFL will continue to be as popular if it takes such a toll on its participants — or whether it will remain as profitable if concussion settlements spiral out of control. You even have folks like Malcolm Gladwell suggesting football will become “a ghettoized sport, not a mainstream American sport” — that it will draw most of its players from the lower economic classes, those who have fewer “options” and “for whom the risks are acceptable. . . . It’s going to become the Army.” (Except, perhaps, in such places as Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where it’s engrained in the culture.)

Here’s the thing, though: David Robinson made over $116 million in his 14 seasons in the NBA – and that doesn’t include endorsements. Yet his son, Corey, is a wide receiver at Notre Dame and may well be headed for an NFL career. In this instance, in other words, you have an extremely wealthy family — and a very intelligent dad, from my experience — who have spawned, of all things, a football player.

I could make the same point about Denzel Washington’s son, J.D., who was a running back at Morehouse College and spent a year on the St. Louis Rams’ practice squad. I ask you: How many NFL players come from more well-to-do backgrounds than Corey Robinson or J.D. Washington?

As long as a sport offers the chance for glory — never mind an eye-popping paycheck — it will attract players across the economic spectrum, I’m convinced. These players might, in the years to come, spend more time weighing the risk vs. the reward, and that’s a healthy thing. But the idea that vast numbers of them will simply stop playing, like Borland, is a bit farfetched. What it figures to come down to, ultimately, is the fans — and whether they, knowing the game’s consequences (loss of motor and cognitive function, etc.), stop watching. That’s when the league will really be in trouble.

But that, too, seems a bit of a stretch. This, after all, is America, the world’s biggest reality show. Pro football can almost be thought of as a spinoff of Fear Factor. Or is it the other way around?

Source: pro-football-reference.com, basketball-reference.com

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.