A New League is Born

19 Jul

In August 1920, at a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio, the league was formalized, originally as the American Professional Football Conference, initially consisting only of the Ohio League teams, although some of the teams declined participation. One month later, the league was renamed the American Professional Football Association, adding Buffalo and Rochester from the New York league, Detroit, Hammond, and several other teams from nearby circuits. The eleven founding teams initially struck an agreement over player poaching and the declaration of an end-of-season champion. Thorpe, while still playing for the Bulldogs, was elected president. Only four of the founding teams finished the 1920 schedule and the undefeated Akron Pros claimed the first championship. Membership of the league increased to 22 teams – including more of the New York teams – in 1921, but throughout the 1920s the membership was unstable and the league was not a major national sport. On June 24, 1922, the organization changed its title a final time to the National Football League.

Two charter members, the Chicago Cardinals, now the Arizona Cardinals, and the Decatur Staleys, now the Chicago Bears, are still in existence. The Green Bay Packers franchise, founded in 1919, is the oldest team not to change locations, but did not begin league play until 1921. The Indianapolis Colts franchise traces its history through several predecessors, including one of the league’s founding teams – the Dayton Triangles – but is considered a separate franchise from those teams and was founded as the Baltimore Colts in 1953. Although the original NFL teams representing Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit no longer exist, replacement franchises have since been established for those cities.

Early championships were awarded to the team with the best won-lost record, initially rather haphazardly, as some teams played more or fewer games than others, or scheduled games against non-league, amateur or collegiate teams; this led to the title being decided on a tiebreaker in 1921, a disputed title in 1925, and the scheduling of an impromptu indoor playoff game in 1932. It was not until 1933 that an annual championship game was instituted. By 1934, all of the small-town teams, with the exception of the Green Bay Packers, had moved to or been replaced by teams in big cities, and even Green Bay established a relationship with much larger Milwaukee for support. An annual draft of college players was first held in 1936. It was during this era, however, that the NFL became segregated: there were no black players in professional football in the United States between 1933 and 1945, mainly due to the influence of self-admitted bigot George Preston Marshall, who entered the league in 1932 as the owner of the Boston Braves. Other NFL owners emulated Marshall’s tactics to mollify southern fans, and even after the NFL’s color barrier had been broken in the 1950s, Marshall’s Washington Redskins remained all-white until forced to integrate by the Kennedy administration in 1962. Despite his bigotry, Marshall was selected as a charter member of the NFL-inspired Pro Football Hall of Fame.

College football was the bigger attraction, but by the end of World War II, pro football began to rival the college game for fans’ attention. Rule changes and innovations such as the T formation led to a faster-paced, higher-scoring game. The league also expanded out of its eastern and midwestern cradle; in 1945, the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, becoming the first big-league sports franchise on the West Coast. In 1950, the NFL accepted three teams – the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts – from the defunct All-America Football Conference, expanding to thirteen clubs. In the 1950s, with league games being broadcast on national television, pro football finally earned its place as a major sport.

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