September 26, 2010

1926: First AFL Begins Play With Three Games

On September 26, 1926 the first organization to be known as the American Football League (AFL) commenced play with three games. The AFL came into being through the efforts of star halfback Red Grange’s agent, C.C. “Cash & Carry” Pyle. Pyle and Grange (pictured above) had created a sensation when the player known as The Galloping Ghost signed to play for the NFL’s Chicago Bears in 1925 following the conclusion of his last college season at Illinois.

The Bears had made the most of two barnstorming tours following the regular season that featured Grange. However, once the tours were over the contract was concluded. Pyle and Grange informed George Halas and Dutch Sternaman, co-owners of the Bears, that the star halfback would agree to come back for another year for a five-figure contract and part ownership in the franchise. Halas and Sternaman refused, and Pyle responded by leasing Yankee Stadium for five years with the idea of placing a team in the nation’s biggest market that would be built around Grange.

Pyle first sought to join the NFL with his new club, but when the owners finally rallied around New York Giants’ owner Tim Mara (who had purchased exclusive rights to the New York City area for his club that played at the Polo Grounds) and turned down Pyle’s request. Not to be deterred, Pyle proceeded to set up a rival league.

Eight franchises joined the AFL, in addition to Pyle’s New York Yankees. Bill Edwards, a politician and former star athlete at Princeton University, was hired as the new league’s president (at reportedly ten times the salary of his NFL counterpart, Joe Carr). In addition to the Yankees, other teams were located in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, and Rock Island. There was also a club called the Los Angeles Wildcats that was actually a traveling road team based in Chicago (hence they aren’t credited with being the first Los Angeles-based pro football team).

Several NFL veterans jumped to the new league, including QB Joey Sternaman (pictured at right), brother of Dutch Sternaman, who left the Bears for the Chicago Bulls, where he was also owner and coach; Giants’ tackle Century Milstead, who joined his coach, Bob Folwell, with the Philadelphia Quakers; and lineman Al Nesser, former mainstay of the Akron Pros who went to the Cleveland Panthers. Significant rookie signings included backs Harry Stuhldreher, of Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen”, by the Brooklyn Horsemen (no doubt influencing the choice of team nickname; he would eventually be joined by another member of that fabled backfield, FB Elmer Layden); Georgia Tech’s Doug Wycoff by the Newark Bears; and Penn’s Al Kreuz by the Quakers.

Not surprisingly, the largest crowd (22,000) of the first week turned out at Cleveland’s Luna Bowl where the Panthers faced Grange and the Yankees. If they came to root for the home team, they went home happy for the Panthers dominated the New York club and won 10-0; if they came to see Grange, they were largely disappointed. Other than a 21-yard punt return in the second quarter, The Galloping Ghost didn’t accomplish much. Most of Cleveland’s players had been with the NFL’s Cleveland Bulldogs in 1925, giving them an advantage. Tailback Al Michaels threw a touchdown pass to wingback Dave Noble in the second quarter and Doc Elliott contributed an extra point and 32-yard field goal for the Panthers. The best drive of the day for the Yankees came in the third quarter (with Grange on the bench) as they made it down to the Cleveland three yard line but came up empty.

There were far fewer fans on hand (2500) at Browning Field in Moline, Illinois where the Rock Island Independents (a charter NFL franchise that jumped to the AFL) hosted the league’s traveling club, the Wildcats. The Wildcats were so named because they featured George “Wildcat” Wilson (pictured below left), a star rookie tailback out of Washington, and he had a solid outing against the Independents. So did blocking back Jim Bradshaw. But untimely penalties and a dropped pass on the goal line kept the Wildcats from scoring any touchdowns; their only points came on an 18-yard field goal by Jim Lawson in the first quarter.

While Rock Island had difficulty moving the ball on the ground, they had success through the air in the second quarter as blocking back Johnny Armstrong threw a pass to tailback Wes Bradshaw that gave the Independents a first down on the Wildcat five yard line. Three plays later Armstrong ran around end for a touchdown, and that was all that was needed as Rock Island won, 7-3.

At Davids’ Stadium in Newark, NJ before 2000 fans, the host Bears took on Joey Sternaman’s highly favored Chicago Bulls. The Bulls started off quickly as Sternaman ran for 40 yards on the second play of the game and then followed up with a pass to end Eddie Anderson to the Newark five yard line. FB Buck White ran for a touchdown from there and, with the successful extra point, the Bulls had the early 7-0 lead. The Bears defense stiffened from that point on, however, and while the Bulls continued to move the ball, they were unable to score again.

The star rookie tailback Wycoff keyed a late third quarter drive in which he compiled 60 yards on the ground. The ball was inside the Chicago one yard line as the period came to an end, and Wycoff plunged over for the touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Wycoff kicked the extra point to tie the game, and that ended up being the final score, 7-7.

For the Newark Bears, the opening tie was the high point of the season. They went 0-3-2 and never scored another point the rest of the way to finish at the bottom of the league. The Bulls went 5-6-3 to come in fifth. Rock Island won only once more as they put together a 2-6-1 tally to end up tied for seventh with Brooklyn. The Los Angeles Wildcats were 6-6-2, good enough for fourth place. The Cleveland Panthers failed to last the season, going 3-2 to finish third. Grange’s New York Yankees ended up at 10-5 and second to the league-champion Philadelphia Quakers (who opened their season on October 2).

In fact, only four of the original nine teams managed to play the full season. Fan and financial support wasn’t strong enough outside of New York City as the franchises dropped away. Afterward, the champion Quakers took on the NFL’s Giants (who had finished seventh) in a challenge game and were badly beaten, 31-0. The league folded, with the Yankees being taken into the NFL where they lasted two seasons and never finished ahead of the Giants.

Red Grange eventually made his way back to the Bears, as did Joey Sternaman. “Wildcat” Wilson played three years with the NFL’s Providence Steam Roller. Doug Wycoff toiled for six seasons with the New York Giants, Staten Island Stapletons, and Boston Redskins.