Tag Archives: Chicago Cardinals

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

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

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