Beginnings

19 Jul

The history of the National Football League began in 1920, when representatives of several professional American football leagues and independent teams met in Canton, Ohio. The league The National Football League was the idea of legendary American Indian Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, player-coach of the Canton Bulldogs, and Leo Lyons, owner of the Rochester Jeffersons, a sandlot football team. Both the Jeffersons and the Buffalo All-Stars were barnstorming through Ohio at the time. After Lyons’s Jeffersons played, and lost badly to, Thorpe’s Bulldogs in a 1917 match, Lyons (wanting to build a sport that rivaled Major League Baseball in popularity) suggested to Thorpe that a league be formed. Plans could not be initiated immediately in 1918, due to the Spanish flu quarantines and the loss of players to World War I, which led to the Bulldogs suspending operations and most other teams either suspending operations or reducing their schedules to local teams. The teams in New York remained in operation and picked up whatever players were still available.

The next year, however, Lyons started in his home state of New York, challenging a cluster of professional teams in Buffalo to a championship in 1919; the Buffalo Prospects took the challenge and won. Canton was already a part of the unofficial Ohio League, which included teams such as the Bulldogs, the Massillon Tigers, the Shelby Blues and the Ironton Tanks; Thorpe convinced Bulldogs manager Ralph Hay and other Ohio teams to play under a league-style format for 1919, after which the team barnstormed against the Detroit Heralds of Detroit, Michigan and the Hammond Pros of Chicago, Illinois. Other independent clusters of teams were playing at about the same time across Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana; Pennsylvania and New York City also had teams but did not contribute any to the NFL at the time of its founding. This is especially notable since Pennsylvania is often considered to be the birthplace of professional football; at the time, New York City and Pennsylvania both had blue laws that prevented any of those municipalities’ teams from joining the league until 1924.

Ohio’s teams, usually considered the best in the country at the time, went along with the idea in the face of escalating costs: several bidding wars, both in Pennsylvania and Ohio, in the early 1900s had damaged the sport significantly, and another bidding war was about to erupt if something was not done. By forming a national league, teams reasoned that it would eliminate the practices of looting other teams’ rosters and concentrating top talent in only a few teams, thus distributing talent more evenly and efficiently thereby reducing costs for each individual team while still keeping a top-level product on the field.

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