What I've been reading
I have been getting more and more interested in the early history of the NFL and college football, and as I've mentioned a few times, Krys grew up in Pottsville, so this book was something I was very keen on. The title refers to the Pottsville Maroons, a seminal team in the formation of the NFL, but one which gets absolutely no credit from the league it helped make great. Fleming's book, which may get the movie treatment in the near future, aims to change that. He has an uphill battle, because of the villain of the story, whom I'll get to below.
Fleming begins his book in fine fashion, as he tells the story of a speech Red Grange, who was probably one of the two or three best college football players in history, gave in Forksville, Pennsylvania (his home town). Grange teased the audience by saying he would speak of the greatest football player and the greatest team he had ever seen. They assumed he meant himself and the Chicago Bears of the 1920s and 1930s, but Grange instead told them of Tony Latone and the Pottsville Maroons, against whom he had played in 1927. Fleming writes that the audience was stunned, because by the 1950s, nobody had ever heard of the Maroons. But according to Grange (and many others, including Fleming), the Maroons were most responsible for giving respectability to the National Football League, and how the league treated them in return was, and is, disgraceful. Fleming then back tracks to tell the story of this forgotten team.
Fleming begins by focusing on Latone and Pottsville, which is a pretty good place to start. Pottsville in the 1920s was booming (unlike today) thanks to the coal industry, of which it was the center. It was built on the back of men like Latone, whose father was a coal miner and who drank himself to death in 1908, forcing his 11-year-old son to find work in the mines. He became a breaker boy, kids who sat on steep coal chutes and picked slate and other debris out of the flow. This, of course, caused great injury to the tips of their fingers, but they had very little choice. Latone joined the Navy in 1915, but after the war he returned to the mines. His only release was football, which he began to play in the early 1920s. Luckily for Latone, he began playing football just when a new pro team was starting up.
Dr. John Striegel, a local Pottsville magnate, bought the team in 1923 and immediately began stocking talent. Striegel was a perfect 1920s businessman, unafraid to take chances. In 1924-25, he went after the most talented players he could find and petitioned for entry into the NFL. Fleming takes a brief look at the early years of the league, when teams entered and left with regularity thanks to financial problems, scheduling was a mess, and the professional game was held in much lower regard than college football. In fact, most pro sports (with the strange exception of baseball) were held in far lower regard than amateur sports - remember, tennis and golf stayed amateur for years - and football struggled with this more than most sports. Striegel showed the commissioner, Joe Carr, that the team had great support in Pottsville, but Carr really let him into the league so other teams could beat them up. In Pennsylvania, blue laws prohibited games on Sundays, which made it difficult to convince teams to come east just for one game on the weekend. Pottsville ignored the laws, and Carr figured teams could play a game against the Frankford Yellow Jackets in Philadelphia on Saturday and get an easy win against Pottsville on Sunday, picking up some additional gate receipts in the process.
Striegel hired Dick Rauch as coach, and the two began building their team. Striegel and Rauch shared a vision of pro football, one that emulated the wide-open style of college football. Pro football in the early 1920s was an ugly affair, with teams simply pounding each other into submission. Passing was extremely rare, and scoring even more so. Striegel and Rauch got together a talented team, including Tony Latone, and the team won their first NFL game but then lost their second 6-0, to Providence. This wouldn't have been such a big deal except for the fact that Striegel and the team were going broke. The only way they could stay afloat was to keep winning, because that would spur interest and allow Pottsville to go barnstorming later in the season, which would bring in additional revenue. Their next game was against Canton, an early NFL powerhouse, and it might have been the final game in Pottsville's history. Except the Maroons won 28-0, holding the Bulldogs to 1 first down. They were almost unstoppable after that, shutting out their next three opponents (giving them five total for the season).
After these blowouts, the team played Frankford in Philadelphia. Shep Royle, the owner of the Yellow Jackets, is one of the villains of the story, as he considered himself far above the coal-black miners from the north. He played his games on Saturday to honor the state's blue laws, and teams that played the Yellow Jackets then had to travel 90 miles north to play another game the next day. Meanwhile, Coach Rauch was able to watch the games on Saturday and scout the Maroons' opponent. However, on 14 November, the Maroons were soundly beaten, 20-0, and the season, once again, appeared doomed. But before their rematch on 29 November, the Maroons won three more games, including a shutout of the Green Bay Packers, while the Yellow Jackets lost two. Fleming makes the point that the Maroons were gaining a reputation as a team that "played the game the right way," meaning they played like college teams, without ego. The public saw professional football players as mercenaries, but as reporters saw Pottsville play, they began to write articles about how it shouldn't be a problem for football players to make money, and how they could play the game as well as Notre Dame, the paragon of football in America. This came into clearer focus when the Maroons played the Yellow Jackets again and destroyed them 49-0. This led to an "unofficial" Championship Game against the Chicago Cardinals in Chicago on 6 December. The Cardinals were 8-1-1, while the Maroons were 9-2. The Championship went to the team with the best winning percentage, so the winner of that game would probably be the NFL Champion. More importantly in the context of the finances for the team, the winner of the Pottsville-Frankford game would get to play the 1924 National Football Champions, Notre Dame, with their legendary stars, the Four Horsemen. This would guarantee thousands of dollars for the struggling franchise.
As Fleming gets to this point in the book, he does a nice job with the political machinations that swirled around the team. Pottsville beat the Cardinals easily, 21-7, but then the problems began. Royle was angry that his team would not reap the benefits of a game against Notre Dame, especially because the game would be played in Philadelphia. He quickly scheduled a game for the same day and then cited a rule, which had never been written down in the NFL rule book, that claimed a team had a "territory" that could not be violated by another team. Striegel and Royle met with Carr, the commissioner, but they couldn't come to any agreements about the game. Fleming claims that the NFL was keen to put Striegel in his place and went along with Royle because they were angry that Pottsville was showing up the rest of the "established" teams. There is quite a lot of blame to go around in this case: Striegel could have backed down, but he wanted the money from the Notre Dame game. Obviously, Carr could have ignored the rule, especially because it was just being invoked to anger the Maroons. Fleming is puzzled by this, because the Maroons' success was making pro football more viable in the country. He conveniently ignores Red Grange's barnstorming tour that was taking place at this time, although he does mention it. He doesn't give it as much credence as many football historians do, though. Still, he makes very good points that the Maroons, with their concentration on team play and their "modern" style, were just as attractive to customers as Grange's flair, especially because at the end of his tour, Grange wasn't playing as much due to injuries. Fleming makes it clear that Carr was cutting off his nose to spite his face when he sided with Royle.
In another twist, the Maroons beat the Fighting Irish, 9-7. Nobody expected them to win, but most people thought if Pottsville made a good showing, they would validate the NFL. But the Maroons smashed the Irish silly and a late field goal gave them the win. This victory legitimized the NFL but wrecked the franchise, as Carr suspended them because they defied the league. It gets more confusing, as Chicago scheduled two more games after their loss, attempting to get enough games to pass Pottsville in winning percentage. In the second game, a Cardinals player recruited four high school players to play for Milwaukee, and Chicago won both games easily. Carr, incensed by this obvious ploy, struck the games from the records and fined the Cardinals. In a deal brokered by the league, the Maroons, as the best team in the league, were allowed to return to play on the condition that they give up any claim to a championship and stop demanding proof of the territory law cited by Royle. The owner of the Cardinals also agreed to not stake a claim to the championship, something that would become important later.
The Maroons didn't last much longer, as the stock market collapsed and the coal market with it, and Striegel left the town, and his wife, later on and disappeared into obscurity. Fleming gets into the efforts of several NFL bigwigs to get the Maroons recognized, to no avail. In the early 1960s, Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, along with many other presidents and owners, petitioned the NFL to allow Pottsville to claim the title in time for the opening of the Hall of Fame in 1963. Their petition was abrasive and unfocused, but the real reason it was denied was because of one man, one of the two villains of the book (the other is his brother): Charles Bidwill Jr. Bidwill's family purchased the Chicago Cardinals in 1932 and almost immediately laid claim to the 1925 title. Bidwill helped defeat the petition, and in 2003, the Cardinals' current owner, Bill Bidwill, was named a member of a three-person committee to look into the Maroons controversy after a new petition by Dan Rooney and Eagles' owner Jeffrey Lurie, who suggested the teams share the title. Not surprisingly, in October 2003 the owners voted 30-2 against even discussing the issue. Bidwill keeps it that way to this day.
Why does Bidwill do this? Well, the Cardinals are one of the oldest professional football teams (operating since 1899), and in that time, they have won one NFL Championship - in 1947. Since that one, they have won one playoff game, in 1998. The theory is that it's such a pathetic franchise, mostly due to the ineptitude of the Bidwill family, that any attempt to take away even stolen glory will be squashed. Bidwill, despite wasting all the money he receives from the league as part of the profit-sharing that makes the NFL a bastion of parity, is still a major player in NFL circles, and he has enough power to keep the issue off the table. Fleming mentions that the Cardinals might be under a "Maroons curse," which explains their awful teams for the past, well, 60 years, and that would be poetic justice.
Unfortunately for the Maroons, their players are all gone, so the team's window might be closing to reclaim their title. As unfortunate is the fact that the league refuses to even recognize anything the team did - Tony Latone, for example, was the unofficial rushing leader in the 1920s (outgaining even Red Grange), but he's not in the Hall of Fame. This means that web sites like this one can claim that "the NFL crowned the Cardinals its champions." No, it didn't. If the NFL isn't going to let the Maroons share the title, the least they could do is take it away from the Cardinals. Bidwill has tried to wreck football in three cities (Chicago, St. Louis, and Phoenix), so this is one of the more minor things he needs to answer for, but it's still a shame that one man is allowed to tamper with history this way.
Fleming's book is a fascinating read. He brings us a wonderful portrait of a 1920s town that was trying to create something relatively new: a connection to a professional football team. The players lived in the city and got to know the residents. Fleming lionizes the team and the city a bit too much, of course, and, as I mentioned, he discounts Grange's contributions to legitimizing the NFL, but for the most part, this is an excellent look at an extremely important part of NFL history that has never been highlighted enough. As I mentioned, there's a rumor that a movie is in the works, and maybe it will spur more interest in the team and shame Michael Bidwill, who is more important these days in the Cardinal organization than his father, into admitting that his team has no claim to the 1925 title and that it should be shared. The Maroons helped make the NFL what it is today. The NFL should recognize that.