January 15, 2011

1939: Champion Giants Win First Pro All-Star Game

While the Pro Bowl dates back to the 1950 season as the NFL’s annual postseason all-star game, there was an earlier version called the Pro All-Star Game. The first was held on January 15, 1939 at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, better known as a minor league baseball ballpark.

Referred to in the media as the first “professional bowl football game”, the format was different than that of the Pro Bowl. Instead of being a matchup of the top players from two different conferences, the Pro All-Star Game featured the winner of the NFL Championship game against a squad of stars from the rest of the league. In the case of the first contest, the New York Giants faced an All-Star roster that was filled by not only players from the other NFL teams, but from two local independent pro football clubs, the Los Angeles Bulldogs and Hollywood Stars. Game proceeds were donated to the Salvation Army.

There was a disappointing crowd estimated at around 20,000 on hand on a bleak and cold day, with fog covering much of the Los Angeles basin. The starting backfield for the All-Stars consisted of Washington tailback Sammy Baugh, FB Clarke Hinkle of the Packers, QB Ernie Pinckert of the Redskins, and Detroit HB Lloyd Cardwell. Starting linemen included ends Gaynell Tinsley of the Cardinals and Perry Schwartz of Brooklyn, tackles Bruiser Kinard of the Dodgers and Joe Stydahar of the Bears, guards Byron Gentry of Pittsburgh and Pete Mehringer of the LA Bulldogs, and Detroit center John Wiatrak. The team was coached by Washington’s Ray Flaherty and Gus Henderson of the Lions.

The Giants, coached by Steve Owen, had gone 8-2-1 during the 1938 season and defeated the Packers by a score of 23-17 for the NFL title. Center Mel Hein was the league’s MVP, QB Ed Danowski (pictured above) was an All-Pro and one of the better passers, and FB Tuffy Leemans was the second-leading rusher (463 yards). New York had a deep and talented club.

Despite the array of outstanding players, the first half was unexciting, and both sides were especially ragged during the first quarter. The Giants finally scored in the second quarter as Len “Feets” Barnum kicked an 18-yard field goal following an interception at midfield by LB/FB Johnny “Bull” Karcis. The All-Stars came back to tie the score with a 19-yard field goal by Green Bay’s Ernie Smith with 20 seconds left in the half after driving from their 35.

Following a missed 47-yard field goal attempt by New York’s Ward Cuff in the third quarter, the All-Stars took over at their 20. Baugh threw a 10-yard pass to Schwartz and then, on second and inches, a pass to Cardwell (pictured at left), who caught it at the New York 40 and ran the rest of the way for a 70-yard touchdown in the game’s most spectacular play. Joe Stydahar kicked the extra point to give the All-Stars a 10-3 lead.

Late in the same period, the Giants began a 73-yard drive that carried over into the fourth quarter. Danowski completed five straight passes with the last one being a 32-yard scoring throw to end Chuck Gelatka at the goal line. Cuff kicked the tying extra point.

The All-Stars moved deep into Giants territory on a drive that featured the running of FB Johnny Drake of the Rams and Green Bay tailback Cecil Isbell. However, they came up empty when a 21-yard field goal try was partially blocked.

With less than five minutes remaining in the game, Rams tailback Ed Goddard fumbled a punt inside his own 20 that G Orville Tuttle recovered for the Giants. Leemans ran three times for seven yards and then Cuff (pictured at right) kicked a 20-yard field goal. The Giants held on to win, 13-10.

New York had the edge in first downs over the All-Stars, 13 to 10. Ed Danowski completed 9 of 13 passes to overshadow Sammy Baugh, who was successful on 4 of 9.

There was much disappointment over the low turnout and comments in the newspapers to the effect that Los Angeles was not yet a major league pro football venue.

“They told me the game would turn the customers away,” Giants owner Tim Mara said, “and I believed 'em. So I brought the team out and the game cost me plenty of money, not to mention the tough afternoons I had at Santa Anita (a local racetrack).”

Despite the complaints, the next two Pro All-Star games were held in Los Angeles, although at Gilmore Stadium rather than Wrigley Field. The last two games of the series, following the 1941 and ’42 seasons, were held in New York and Philadelphia, respectively, due to World War II restrictions on crowd-drawing events in West Coast cities that might be vulnerable to attack. In all, the NFL champions won four of the games, the All-Stars one.