March 28, 2008

Small-Town Pro Football

Stupid Question ™
Aug. 1, 2002
By John Ruch
© 2002

Q: How did a small town like La Rue, Ohio get a pro football team back in the old days?
—Oorang Bang

A: “Professional football” today means top-notch players and a powerful league that essentially creates teams almost exclusively in large metropolitan areas.

But technically, all “professional” really means is that the players get paid a salary for competing. And pro football of a century ago was mostly an unskilled, small-town phenomenon bearing little resemblance to the giant industry it spawned.

Football was basically invented by the Ivy League colleges between 1820 and 1880, and college football became a very popular national sport.

This inspired “independent football”—amateur teams made up of average Joes, typically organized in small- or medium-sized industrial towns, particularly in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. They played on Sundays because most of them had to work in the factories on Saturdays.

Teams were often organized by local athletic clubs, businesses or politicians. The Columbus [Ohio] Panhandles consisted mostly of workers in the Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Akron [Ohio] Burkhardts were named after the brewery that sponsored them.
The local Catholic parish started Youngstown, Ohio’s team. A Racine, Wisconsin team was the local Army reserve unit.

Football didn’t remain a purely local sport for long. Teams rapidly moved to hiring ex-college players as mercenaries to help win big games. The first known case of this “semi-professional” style was in 1892, when the Pittsburgh Allegheny Athletic Association hired ex-Yale All-American William Heffelfinger and paid him under the table. (Playing for pay was considered extremely sleazy.)

The inevitable next step was to pack the team with mercenary outsiders and hire them on for the whole season, thus creating true professional sports teams.

This was only feasible in teams with rivalries that drew huge numbers of fans. Surprisingly, big cities like Chicago and Detroit did not spawn these great rivalries. Instead, it was nearby small towns that loved to hate each other.

The most famous rivalry that led directly to all-pro teams was the Ohio hatefest between the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers. By 1915, Massillon had hired Knute Rockne; Canton responded by signing former Olympian Jim Thorpe for a then-incredible $250 per game. Both teams filled their rosters with ex-collegiate players.

When the American Professional Football Association (later the National Football League) formed in 1920, it consisted mostly of such small-town teams. (Indeed, founder George Halas was managing and playing on the Decatur Staleys, a starch company’s team.)

In all of this, the La Rue-based Oorang Indians were a special case, a novelty act formed after the NFL’s establishment, but one that operated in the typical independent-football mold.

The Indians really were Indians—an all-Native American team headed by Thorpe and sponsored by a company that sold puppies through the mail. It lasted only one year (1922-23) and played only one “home” game (in Marion).

It took the Depression to kill small-town teams; ever since, pro football has been almost exclusively the province of deep-pocketed big cities.

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