April 11, 2010

1936: Second AFL Awards Eight Franchises

On April 11, 1936 the second pro football organization to be called the American Football League (the first existed for one season in 1926) awarded eight franchises for the inaugural ’36 season.

The prime mover behind the new league was Harry March (pictured below left), an experienced executive both as personnel director for the New York Giants and in the league office of the NFL. Plans had been announced in November of 1935 for the formation of the AFL, which March indicated would be a “players’ league” and would seek to draw talent away from the NFL.

The eight franchises announced on April 11 were in Boston, Cleveland, Jersey City, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, and Syracuse. This lineup of clubs was hardly set, however, as three of the franchises (Jersey City, Philadelphia, and Providence) dropped out in August, well before the season commenced. Rochester was granted a franchise, although by early September that team was also gone and Brooklyn entered the circuit.

The league played its first regular season game on September 27 before 6500 fans at New York’s Triborough Stadium, with the New York Yankees defeating the Syracuse Braves, 13-6.

The Yankees were the most successful at raiding the NFL – most notably, they signed back/kicker Ken Strong away from the Giants. They were coached by ex-Giant Jack McBride (pictured at top right) and also had end Les Borden and back Stu Clancy (both also former Giants). Syracuse had star end Red Badgro, who was also a co-coach, but he stayed for just three games and jumped back to the NFL. The Pittsburgh Americans snagged two members of the NFL’s Pirates, end Ben Smith and guard Dave Ribble. Cleveland’s entry, the Rams, signed fullback Damon “Buzz” Wetzel as well as Ohio State’s All-American center, Gomer Jones (pictured below), and an end who would later become far more prominent as a pro head coach, Sid Gillman.

It was the team that accomplished the least in pursuing players from the NFL that ended up having the most success, the Boston Shamrocks. Coached by George Kennedy and splitting their games between Fenway Park and Braves Field, the Shamrocks won the AFL title with an 8-3 record.

The Cleveland Rams went 5-2-2 with the league’s best defense to finish second and draw well at Municipal Stadium. The Yankees, playing at Yankee Stadium (where they hosted the first night football game in that storied venue’s history) as well as Triborough Stadium, were next at 5-3-2. Pittsburgh was a competitive 3-2-1 on the field but drew poorly at Forbes Field, averaging 2500 per home game.

The remaining teams were both uncompetitive and unstable. After losing five straight contests, the Syracuse Braves moved to Rochester, played two more games, and folded with a final record of 1-6. The Brooklyn Tigers, who were in trouble from the start because of the lack of a home stadium, took advantage of the demise of the Braves to take up residence in Rochester; it didn’t help, as the club played just one home game at Red Wing Stadium and failed to win at all, completing the season with a 0-6-1 tally.

Following the season, the Rams were accepted into the NFL for 1937 (two relocations later, they are still there). Another Ohio city, Cincinnati, joined the league in ’37 as well as an independent team that failed to gain entry into the NFL, the Los Angeles Bulldogs. The Bulldogs, considered the first major league sports team to be based on the West Coast, dominated the league in its second (and final) season.

The second AFL lasted just two unstable seasons, but, in the Rams, did field one franchise that survives to this day. They also provided a team name that was revived later, the Cincinnati Bengals – beyond that, the club bears no relation to the 1968 expansion franchise in the fourth AFL that is part of today’s NFL. However, this first Bengals team joined the minor league American Professional Football Association after the league’s demise and became a member of the third AFL in 1940.