November 12, 2009

1892: Pudge Heffelfinger Becomes First Documented Pro Football Player

On November 12, 1892 a crowd of approximately 3000 packed Recreation Park in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), home of the Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA), for its showdown with the archrival Pittsburgh Athletic Club (PAC). In the second half of the 19th century, athletic clubs became very popular and were used to organize teams in a variety of sports including football. Winning was a means to gaining social prestige for the club, and so games were taken quite seriously and rivalries could be very fierce. These two teams had played to a hard-fought 6-6 tie at the PAC’s home field on October 12, and there were rumors that both sides were attempting to hire ringers for the rematch.

In fact, PAC’s manager, George Barbour, had made a trip to Chicago to make an offer to William “Pudge” Heffelfinger and another player to join his team. Heffelfinger had been a three-time college All-American guard at Yale (1889-91) and was now playing for a traveling amateur team, the Chicago Athletic Association. Barbour was unsuccessful, however; for Heffelfinger had quit the team and gone to Pittsburgh where he met up with the AAA’s manager, Billy Kountz. When game day arrived, Heffelfinger and two other teammates from Chicago were playing for the Three A’s (as they were often referred to locally).

The PAC immediately protested and an argument broke out between the clubs. The substitutes for the two teams began playing, which hardly satisfied the crowd in attendance, but finally the regular players agreed to an abbreviated game (since darkness was approaching) of 30 minutes rather than the usual 45. Heffelfinger did not disappoint – he forced a fumble that he then picked up and ran 35 yards for the game’s only touchdown. The AAA won, 4-0 (touchdowns were worth less in those days).

Afterward, Heffelfinger received $500 plus $25 for expenses (his teammates from the Chicago AA, Ed Malley and Ben “Sport” Donnelly, received expense money). It was the first recorded incidence of an athlete being paid to play football.

While it is suspected that others may have been paid prior to Heffelfinger, and certainly received perks provided by the athletic clubs for their participation, the entry in the Allegheny Athletic Association’s ledger documenting the transaction is the oldest proven player payment (the documentation wasn’t uncovered until the 1960s, and is now held by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Previously, a club in Latrobe, Pennsylvania had claimed to be the first to have paid a player, in 1895).

It did not take long for professionalism to take hold, even if at a rather modest level. By 1896, there were teams that were entirely made up of paid players. The league that would become the National Football League was still 24 years in the future.

Pudge Heffelfinger went on to become a college football coach at the University of California, Lehigh University, and the University of Minnesota. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. But for one game, he made his mark in the development of pro football.