Tag Archives: Canton Bulldogs

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

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.

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

The lily-white years (1934-45)

After the 1933 season, black players disappeared from the NFL for 12 years — until the Second World War was over. The league’s founding fathers were never very anxious to talk about this shameful episode. When the subject was broached with the Bears’ George Halas in the early ’60s, he replied: “Probably it was due to the fact that no great [black] players were in the colleges then. That could be the reason. But I’ve never given this a thought until you mentioned it. At no time has it ever been brought up. Isn’t that strange?”

In Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, the first book ever written about the pro game, another pioneer, Dr. Harry March, gave two rationales for the ban: (1) “There are so many Southern boys in the league that much feeling is sure to result”; and (2) “Management is frequently embarrassed by the refusal of dining cars and restaurants to serve the colored players and of hotels to give them the desired accommodations which the white players receive.”

(For good measure: March threw this in: “The Indians object more to playing against Negroes than do the Southern men for some reason.”)

At any rate, the issue was seldom raised in the early decades. Major-league baseball didn’t have any blacks then, either, so the NFL hardly felt like it owed anyone an explanation — never mind an apology. That’s why a couple of stories that ran in the Brooklyn Eagle in November 1935 are so remarkable. They discussed, in depth, what was never discussed: Why blacks had been excluded from the league.

“The way of the black man,” Harold Parrott wrote, “is beset with flying tackles and blocks of a more than flesh-and-blood sort in football, be it the college brand or among the paid platoons.

It may be news, for instance, that colored men, no matter if they be as brilliant as some of the dozen Negroes who have starred since the pro league’s beginning in [1920], have now been barred by unwritten law — for their own good.

Bears Hall of Famer Red Grange (77) tries to catch the Cardinals' Joe Lillard (19).

The Bears’ Red Grange (77) tries to catch the Cardinals’ Joe Lillard (19).

Parrott then turned to Brooklyn Dodgers coach Paul Schissler, who had coached black star Joe Lillard when the two were with the Chicago Cardinals. “I feel sorry for Lillard,” Schissler said. “He was a fine fellow, not as rugged as most in the pro game, but very clever. But he was a marked man, and I don’t mean that just the Southern boys took it out on him, either; after a while whole teams, Northern and Southern alike, would give Joe the works, and I’d have to take him out. Somebody started it, it seemed, and everybody would join in.

“But that wasn’t the worst. It got so my Cardinals were a marked team because we had Lillard with us, and how the rest of the league took it out on us! We had to let him go, for our own sake and for his, too! Playing in the line wouldn’t have been so bad, but how Lillard took punishment at halfback!”

Schissler was no bigot. In fact, he was one of the era’s more enlightened coaches. Several years later, when he was running the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast League, he had another black legend, tailback Kenny Washington, on his team. (It was Washington — along with end Woody Strode — who re-integrated the NFL in 1946 with the Los Angeles Rams.)

Parratt’s follow-up to this story is every bit as fascinating. Lillard and Fritz Pollard, yet another black great, were playing at the time for the Harlem Brown Bombers, a barnstorming black team, and “confronted the writer,” Parratt wrote, when they found out about Schissler’s comments. The idea that blacks were being kept out of the NFL for self-preservation’s sake was ludicrous, they told him.

Pollard: “I played for 20 years, with white teams and against ’em, and I was never hurt so bad I had to quit a game. I took Jim Thorpe’s $1,000 dare that I’d never go near Canton, Ohio, in 1920. Not only did the Akron team and myself go there, but we beat ’em 10 to 0. I coached the Gilberton, Pa., team in 1923, on which were [white stars] Walter French, Lou Little, Heinie Miller and Lud Wray, and I played with ’em. I weighed 160 or so, and they never made me or the other colored boys — Paul Robeson, Inky Williams, Duke Slater and the rest — who followed in the pro league quit, either. So they needn’t say that’s the reason they’re keeping us out of the league. Joe, here, is as good as any back in that league right now, and he always took it when he played there.”

Lillard: “The pro league and the way they are supposed to hand out the bumps is a joke. Why, I never got hurt among the pros like I did when I was in college. It’s a business in the [National Football] league, and they let you be. But I can remember when I was playin’ for Doc Spears at the University of Oregon in 1931 – the year we beat Washington . . . with a sophomore team — why, fellows on the other team used to be told to gang [up on] me even when I wasn’t in a play, to try to get me off the field.”

According to Parratt, Art Rooney’s Pittsburgh club “offered $15,000” for Lillard “and was turned down.” After the ’33 season, Joe “was mysteriously released. Every club he contacted told him politely its ‘roster was full.’

“How strange in a league where Pollard, the all-America[n] Robeson, . . . Inky Williams, Sol Butler, John Shelburne of Dartmouth and Duke Slater of Iowa had helped build early foundations! All colored greats!”

That said, the Racial Animosity Thing was overblown, Pollard insisted. He’d “played with and against Alabamans and Georgians,” Parratt wrote, “and some of them are his greatest friends. He played on the borderline of Texas itself once.” As for Thorpe’s $1,000 challenge, it was just a publicity stunt, Fritz said. Jim was “one of the best friends I ever had.

“It’s the odd ideas of a few men who bring about this condition,” Pollard went on. He singled out Halas as one of those men. In 1925, Fritz’s next-to-last NFL season, he played for the Providence Steam Roller against the Bears — or rather, he tried to. “I got $3,000 for that game,” he told Parratt, “but because Halas brought pressure to bear, I was not allowed into the game until the last two minutes. Fifty-eight minutes on the bench for $3,000.”

(Papa Bear was probably worried that Pollard might show up Red Grange, who joined Chicago late in the season after finishing his college career at Illinois.)

Again, you just didn’t see stories like this in the 1930s . . . or the 1940s . . . or even the 1950s. Harold Parratt, wherever you are, we salute you. Had more mainstream sportswriters followed your lead, the NFL’s racial history might read much differently.