The earliest known reference to the game of baseball comes from Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1791. The town by-laws prohibited playing baseball within 80 yards of the new meeting house, presumably in response to some broken windows. A hundred years later and some fifty miles to the south, the game of basketball was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts. James Naismith, a physical education teacher, was looking for an indoor activity to keep his students occupied during the winter months.
It probably shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the game of football was also born in Massachusetts. While many colleges were fielding teams to play soccer or rugby in the 1860s and 1870s, students at Harvard were playing their own hybrid called “the Boston Game.” Their 1874 match with a team from Montreal’s McGill University is recognized by most historians as the first intercollegiate football game. Two years later, representatives from Rutgers, Yale, Columbia, and Harvard met in Springfield, Massachusetts to hammer out a set of common rules, and college football was born.
Those rules would be refined throughout the 1880s. Yale coach Walter Camp helped introduce some key concepts that made the game look less like rugby and more like what we would recognize as football today – things like the line of scrimmage and the idea of requiring a team to gain a certain amount of yardage within a fixed number of plays.
Birth of Professionalism
Like other sports, football was popular with the athletic clubs that proliferated in the late 19th century. These clubs formed teams to compete against one another, and it didn’t take long for professionalism to enter the world of club football. The first professional player that we know about was Pudge Heffelfinger, who received $500 to play one game for the Allegheny Athletic Association on November 12, 1892. Undoubtedly, there were others before him who managed to keep their earnings secret. The next year, the Pittsburgh Athletic Club signed one of its players to a contract to play for the entire season, and by 1896, several of the clubs from the Pittsburgh area were openly professional.
The first attempt at a professional football league came in 1902. John Rogers, owner of baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies, founded a football team with the same name in 1901. Not to be outdone, Ben Shibe, owner of Philadelphia’s other baseball team formed a football team in 1902. The baseball rivals tried to get other teams to join with them to compete for a self-proclaimed “world championship.”
They found only one taker, a promoter in Pittsburgh, but the three teams christened themselves the National Football League and played each other in a round-robin tournament. Each team finished with a 2-2 record, and all three teams claimed the championship. Many of the best football players of the day participated in this league, as did three baseball Hall of Famers. Christy Mathewson, ace pitcher for the New York Giants played halfback and punter for the Pittsburgh Stars. Connie Mack, manager of the Athletics baseball team also managed the Athletics football team, and Rube Waddell one of the best left-handed pitchers in history, was a reserve lineman for Mack’s squad.
A yearly football tournament was played in New York in 1902 and 1903, dubbed the “World Series of Football.” With less than 2000 tickets sold for each game, there wasn’t much evidence that there was money to be made by running a football team. Baseball teams played games every day for six months, and that produced enough revenues that teams could afford to travel from New York to Chicago, Boston to Cincinnati, or St. Louis to Philadelphia. The pageantry of college football drew fans in droves, and it wasn’t unusual for crowds of 60,000 to see a matchup between rival schools, and that enabled colleges to build their own stadiums and pay coaches handsomely.
The pro game drew only passing interest, so teams were forced to minimizes their costs. The best way they could do that was to limit their travel. Thus, there wasn’t great incentive for a nation-wide league of professional football teams in the 1910s. It made more sense to stay closer to home, with teams sponsored by local businessmen whose chief interest was promoting their company.
Over the next few years, the cradle of pro football shifty from western Pennsylvania to central Ohio. By 1905 there were at least seven pro teams playing in Ohio, most notably the Massillon Tigers and the Canton Bulldogs. These independent teams had to fend for themselves, and while some were more successful than others, they all faced the same challenges.
Making the Pro Game Profitable
Fans were clamoring for entertainment after the end of World War One, but it was difficult for teams to generate revenues without good players, and good players cost money. Rising salaries were making it difficult for many teams to continue operating.
Finding and signing players was tough enough, but keeping them was even tougher. Rival teams would snatch players from each other by offering bigger paydays, and this often left teams in the lurch.
Another issue was the controversial use of college players who were still enrolled in school. It was easy for one pro team to take a unilateral stand against encroaching on the amateurs. However, if your opponents were stockpiling college stars and you weren’t, the talent levels left you at a disadvantage.
Cooperation could resolve most of these issues. During the summer of 1920, representatives from four pro teams met in Canton, Ohio to discuss the idea of forming a league. They met again in September, with six additional teams attending and four others ending letters of interest. Originally they called their league the American Professional Football Association, but two years later it would change it’s name to the National Football League.