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How the NFL Went From Bush-League to Bigtime

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 27, 2024 3:01 am

How the NFL Went From Bush-League to Bigtime

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 27, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, professional football began on the factory clock and bank loans, and the first teams were bought for hundreds of dollars. Hear how pioneers of American sports culture, win or lose, went all-in to make American Football the best and most dramatic game it could be.

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Happy streaming. And we return to our American stories. Up next, the story of how a scrappy sports league called the NFL became, well, the NFL we know today.

Here's our own Monty Montgomery to get us started. Football is a pretty big deal. Pressure comes. Step it up.

Looking. Throwing deep downfield. It is picked up by the Lions. Intercepted. Coming back the other way.

Efantu Malafonwu. This is going to be over. In so many ways, the NFL has just grown into a behemoth really unlike any other. No other sport can touch it. I'm talking other sports that are popular, like baseball and basketball. And as popular as they are, they don't come close to 15 billion dollars in annual revenues.

And they said they'd like to go to 25 billion. That's Jon Eisenberg. He's the author of the book, The League, which talks about the early days of football. Let's get back into the story. It has become year-round. You could turn on a sports talk show any time of year and they'll be talking football.

I think America is the land of second chances, except for when it comes to this dude, Mr. Jabba the Hutt, you fat slobberly. That's what he was with the Oakland. What did the Panthers do at quarterback? What are the Cowboys doing at receiver?

It never stops. Even though they only played from September to December and then the playoffs, they are just really, really shrewd at continuing the narrative with draft. The Kansas City Chiefs select Patrick Mahomes as second.

The six-time world champion New England Patriots select Mac Jones. The country comes to a halt on Sundays and Mondays and it all culminates with the Super Bowl, which is a secular holiday. The football faucet never turns off in America. And the early days of the NFL were just so different. It was struggling and I think most people today would look at the NFL and say, how in the world is that possible?

How in the world did we get from point A to point B? It was founded in 1920 in Canton, Ohio at an automobile dealership. Ralph Hay, who owned the Kansas Canton Bulldogs, he called a meeting for Canton, Ohio in his automobile show. And of course, there weren't enough enough chairs for everybody.

So they, we sat around on the running boards of the Hupmobile cars. To become a member of this football league and it was a hundred dollars and it was worth it. That's George Hallis, who is one of the few original men to take that hundred dollar bet on the NFL in an era when the sport wasn't even on the radar of most Americans. Baseball was far and away the most popular American sport. Number one sport would have been Major League Baseball.

Number two, probably minor league baseball. It was very much the national pastime, very popular, played in large cities, small towns, and Babe Ruth in his glory, and tie cup, very much sort of a cultural phenomenon, not unlike football today. Baseball was extremely popular. The college football was becoming very, very popular. They built some stadiums and people were fascinated with it, but it was an amateur enterprise. Football back in the early, early days was seen more than anything else as a good way to take young men and grow them from boys into men. All right, it was considered sort of a rite of manhood, a rite of passage, you know, put them on the field, teach them to get hit, and deal with pain, and be tough, and grow up a little bit. All right, it was considered a game described by one turn-of-the-century critic as crude and barbaric with little chance of survival. The idea of paying someone to do this, a lot of society was horrified by the idea. Why take something that was so important for our young boys who are being taught how to become better men? Why take something like that and ruin it, spoil it with pay?

That was not the point. So, very early on the college coaches were very much against it. Fielding Yost, a famous coach at the University of Michigan, gave a famous speech where he said, you know, we have to root this out, this pro football scourge.

We do not want to go down this road. This could ruin football. If you got out of college, why in the world would you go do that?

You know, you would use your brain, go get into some respectable line of work. Football, professional football, was not considered a respectable line of work for the first years of the NFL. A lot of the guys that played in the NFL really had no choice. They didn't have many other options, and they were happy just to do that for a few extra bucks. And so, pro football had a lot going against it, and it showed in the quality of the league and the teams.

It was very much a fly-by-night enterprise. In the beginning, any sort of sporting businessman that wanted to bring a team, if he had a couple hundred dollars and had a place to put a team, they would take you. You know, Tim Mera sort of stumbled into a meeting with the NFL, a couple of NFL guys that were trying to start a team in New York, and basically was talked into. He wasn't even invited to the meeting. He showed up, and they said, well, you can have a franchise for $500.

And he said, well, at that price, why not? That team, the New York Giants. Other teams had more industrial roots.

When George Hallis started the Decatur, Illinois, Staley's, it was a starch company, A.D. Staley Company. Playing football was part of the job. They recruited them to play football and work, you know, in the factory. Playing football was sort of a bonus.

Well, we had a great season in 1920 because we're the first team to practice every day. They all had jobs with the Staley Company, and I taught Mr. Staley in getting the players two hours a day off for practice. A lot of them worked for maybe these factories that owned a team, or they worked somewhere else.

No, you didn't make it. There was no money on the table. Some of the games, the crowd, they would pass a hat and ask the fans to put in a dollar or a quarter or whatever they could so the players could get paid. And some teams played in little stadiums, high school stadiums, a couple thousand fans. Some teams played in public parks. The champion of the league, the Green Bay Packers, played in a high school stadium and with no restrooms, by the way.

So you were lucky to get a couple thousand fans to a game. Players could jump from team to team. And what's really interesting about early football is how different the game itself was. The ball was rounder, much rounder, and there was not much passing. The game was just sort of a scrum, a muddy scrum. Most of the plays involved just a back plunging into the line, which was just a tangle of arms and legs, and really people just wrestling there at the line of scrimmage. And, you know, they had little pads on and they wore what they called, they didn't even call them uniforms, they called them sweaters, team sweaters.

And sometimes the teams had the same color sweaters. And so the game was almost indecipherable. Not much happened.

Hunting was a much bigger deal than passing. There was very little scoring. It wouldn't be surprising to see a game with a final score of 6-2, a safety and a touchdown and a missed extra point. It was an odd sport. Not that many people wanted to see it. It didn't draw that many people because it wasn't very exciting. Did you ever take a franchise that was worth a million dollars perhaps?

No, I didn't, Chad. I always had to go to the bank to be able and get a loan to be able to start the team off for the following season. And it wasn't until 1959. It was the first year that I didn't have to go in the bank.

George, God bless you. And you're listening to John Eisenberg tell the story of the NFL before it was the NFL. And hearing George Hallis, the legend, talk about the fact that finally by the late 1950s, he didn't have to go to the bank to keep his team afloat. And just the working class roots of this, guys taking a couple of hours off to practice so they could represent their factory. When we come back, more of the story of how the NFL came to be here on Our American Story. And each day brings a new chance to collect daily bonuses.

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Find the perfect Roku player for you today at Happy streaming. And we return to Our American Stories and the story of how the NFL became the behemoth we now know today. When we last left off, John Eisenberg, author of The League, was telling us about how football used to be a disrespected mess of a sport. John now turns to the stories of the men whose decisions pull the NFL out from the muck.

Take it away, John. They were all men who came to football from different places. Some were successful in other lines of work.

It really just exemplifies an earlier time in America. You know, Tim Mera started out, I mean, it's straight out of Charles Dickens, really. Yeah, he's, you know, the Lower East Side of New York, and he's surrounded by, you know, it's not a wealthy family and he didn't go to school. He started running numbers for bookies.

Just a little kid that he, you know, he's just surviving with his street sense. And so he gets in with a bookie and has taught the game. This was an era when horse racing was really, really popular and a lot of Americans bet on horse races. And it was different than going to the racetrack today where there's a tote board and you bet basically with the track. You would bet with an individual bookie.

They would be lined up on a row and people would go and it would be an individual transaction. And he got into that and he succeeded at it. He was personable, he was a big Irish guy with an infectious personality. And so he took from there into a number of other lines of work.

It's a type of life that I don't think you could have anymore. You know, he invested in all sorts of things. He did stocks, liquor, boxing. He liked to promote boxing matches.

He had an empire, a small empire with all sorts of things. And he didn't even really like football. And I mean, Art Rooney started the Pittsburgh franchise, really never did, you know, didn't work a job. He was a horse player and one of the great gamblers in the history of America went on a run at Saratoga, a run of gambling that you just can't even imagine this today. He needed money and he'd gone to the races in New York and he'd hit on some races. Then he went up to Saratoga and he started betting and he started winning big. Over a period of days, he kept winning and it got covered in the newspapers and people would cheer for him.

Everybody says, oh, there's Art from Pittsburgh and they would cheer him as he walked to the betting window. It's this little guy with a stogie waddling around, you know, making more money at the racetrack than people made sometimes in their lifetimes. That is the definition of street smarts and he used that to fund this football team.

And I mean, he's crazy enough. He occasionally still played some semi-pro baseball. He was an athlete.

George Preston Marshall was the owner of the Washington Redskins franchise that was known as the Redskins for so long and he had a theater background. He was a failed actor, but he never lost. He had a big swept back blonde hair and a deep voice and he dominated every room he was in.

It was almost like he was acting all the time. Very much a theatrical sense of most things and football was no different and Bert Bell was the only one who was really born into wealth. He started the Philadelphia franchise. He was very wealthy. He was cut off basically because he blew all his money.

He was so spoiled. Guys like this, that first generation of owners, they were quintessentially American and they're doing what they could to stay on their feet and they're not succeeding because they went to law school or med school, got and went into a profession and rose through the ranks. They're just having street smarts to keep from going under and doing what you can. It's that sort of business sense.

Almost all of them were in that boat. They were men of sport and they were definitely rivals. They were all had their own sort of competitive juices and they wanted to win at something, but what they mainly wanted to do was make their venture succeed. So it set up this dynamic, which is the key dynamic of the success of the NFL and that is they were rivals on the field, but they were partners in the business of professional football. They knew that anything, any sort of element that would make the game better was important, even if it set their own team back.

They all understood that from the get-go, that the greater good would always matter more. And the biggest example being the institution of the draft in 1936, the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants were completely dominant and Bert Bell, who had started the Philadelphia franchise, stood up at a meeting, a league meeting, and said, gentlemen, I'm going to be out of business here in a year or two if I don't start getting some better players. Before then, it was just a free-for-all. The best teams could go get the best players coming out of college. There was no system for assigning talent coming out of college. So the best teams were only getting better. Bert Bell said we have to have a draft where the weakest teams get to pick first and it will eventually level the playing field. And the owner, George Hallis and Tim Merrill, owner of the Bears and the Giants, knew it would end their rule of dominance, but they immediately said you're right and they voted for it. And that came out of the notion that always the greater good would prevail over any team's individual interest. And so they did understand that dynamic.

They were businessmen first. And aside from leveling the playing field, by the way, it also cut down on cost. That was another reason they went for it because before there was a draft, every team could bid on every player. Bidding wars erupted left and right over all the best talent.

So that drove up prices, drove up salaries. But after the draft, only one team had your rights and there was no bidding war and you took what they offered. Aside from just the draft, they would share information. Today, the NFL draft and the scouting of players is considered such a secret science. But back then, they would share a lot of information.

Team in Boston didn't have the money to go scout somebody in Alabama, but maybe one of the teams that was more southern or team in Chicago would have the money. That's not to say that they didn't try to one-up each other. I mean, at the league meeting, where they would do the scheduling, the big joke was you couldn't go to the bathroom if you were one of the owners when you were at the league meeting because while you were in the bathroom in five minutes, they would schedule like six road games for you and make your schedule tougher.

You always had to be there. So they weren't opposed to putting the screws to each other. There were also rules changes that brought about more passing and brought the game a little further away from the muddy, stagnant brawl. That most passive observers were used to with the sport. They made it much easier to pass the ball.

They created hash marks. So the offense started in the middle of the field and could operate better. All this stuff just opened the game wide open almost immediately. Also, it's worth mentioning that George Marshall, the failed actor who created the Washington Redskins, decided to do something truly revolutionary. Treat the game like a Shakespearean drama. He invented the playoffs. If you can imagine for the first 12 years, the winner of the league champion was determined by a vote of the ownership at a league meeting several months after the season.

That's who decided who the champion was. He says, let's have playoffs. He very correctly ascertained that the World Series was the biggest sports event on the American calendar.

Let's do the same thing. So he created an Eastern Division, a Western Division, and had a game that decided a championship on the field. An unbelievable decision in the history of football to create a postseason, which in the beginning was just one game. But nonetheless, if the season was a theatrical production, now it had a climax.

So yes, it was very much a play. And he brought in marching bands. There was so much pop in college sports with the bands.

And there was a real show. And he just very quickly decided, we have to bring that to the pros as well. Let's give the fans more than just a boring football game. Let's put a show on.

But most importantly, in the end, let's make the game better. When we come back, more of the story of the NFL here on Our American Stories. Thank you so much for watching, and we'll see you in the next one. We'll see you in the next one.

We'll see you in the next one. And we return to Our American Stories and the final portion of our story on how the NFL became what it is today with Jon Eisenberg, author of The League. When we last left off, Jon was telling us about the men who created the NFL.

Let's continue the story. Once you've got a more modern era of offensive football and you've got teams in big cities playing interesting football as of about 1935, you start to see stadiums with decent crowds. So a little more money on the table, and it achieves a bit of tradition. These teams have been around for a little while by this point. The Chicago Bears were a force in Chicago, always popular. New York was a baseball town, no question about it. But the New York Giants had won some championships and had a winning tradition, and they played at the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, and fans came out to watch. They liked it. These teams were beginning to establish tradition.

They had not folded. The depth of the depression they could have when the league was down to eight teams, but it started to grow. And so players coming out of college, it could be, well, maybe this is OK, something good to do. Don Hudson was the star of the Rose Bowl for the University of Alabama, 1935. He's the Rose Bowl star.

It's an end. He gets contracts, offers from three teams. The league decides that he belongs with the Green Bay Packers. So he goes with them, and he's immediately a star, one of the athletic stars of America. And so the esteem begins to grow. You just see a few more college players make that transition, and it becomes suddenly no longer just an embarrassing thing to do.

It becomes something that you can go on and play football after college. And it was a good brand of football. And you can make a name for yourself and get in the newspapers, and it began to change. And so just by hanging in there and by doing what they could to stay alive and to grow themselves and to grow the league, they just created an entity that was more respectable. It was no longer fly by night.

You got paid to play on a yearly contractual basis. And so it was becoming legitimate and respectable. All these changes they'd made really were distilled into the so-called greatest game ever played, which was the Giants and the Baltimore Colts in 1958. It's a championship game that went into overtime on national television. Forty million people watched it.

And it is the owners, Bert Bell, he was commissioner of the league by then. He was up in the stands crying because it was dramatic. It was entertaining. It was popular. It was sports at its best.

There were a few moments before that game, though. Coming out of World War II, the NFL was challenged by a rival league, the All-American Football Conference. And it was a well-funded league. They had some owners with money, oiled money, and they put some decent teams on the field. And the NFL took it on.

And it was really four years of a football war. And the NFL prevailed. By 1950, the AAFC was out of business, and the NFL brought in the best teams in the AAFC, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers. So that added two more successful franchises to the roster of NFL teams.

So as you head into the 1950s, you're beginning to see a league that is growing with stable franchises with history and quality. And so the opening game of the 1950s season, it was the first game after the two leagues had merged. And the champions of both leagues in 1949 played each other. Champions of the AAFC were the Cleveland Browns. Champions of the NFL were the Philadelphia Eagles. And they met on the field in the opening game. And the Cleveland Browns won in a landslide. They won 35 to 10, I think the score was. And that was supposedly the best team in the NFL, about routed by one of the new teams. And the game was televised coast to coast.

The coaxial cable had been laid. People were able to sit in Omaha or wherever else and watch this game. So a large crowd saw this, and it just showed the sports world that, look at this quality of football that's going on here. And in many respects, it was beginning, it was beginning, and college football had more tradition and history, but it was beginning to become evident that for all the doubts that had been about pro football, these were grown men. These were not kids.

These were grown men. They could pass the ball better. They were faster. The collisions were more dramatic.

The hitting was harder. Everything that was interesting about football was better in the pros, and the nation could see it on television. And it's just a moment there, that opening game in 1950, where everything just popped. It was like, wow, look at this.

Look what's on display here. And set in motion a decade where the games were really dramatic, and there were these quarterbacks, a generation of quarterbacks, Bobby Lane, Norm Van Brocklin. They were stars. It was just a better brand of football than college football. And after that, baseball had a fight on its hands for the most popular sport, and pretty soon pro football overtook it. That's a book in itself.

It's really interesting. Baseball was not that great on television early on. It took a long time, which was the more popular sport, but they realized, boy, the ball is little. You can't really see the ball, and unless you had 20 cameras, and nobody had the money to put 20 cameras on a game, you couldn't really tell what was going on.

So that was really just customer feedback. You put a football game on, it's a contained area, it's almost like a stage. Right off the bat, you could see the game.

That was really important. And you put it on, and people watched it. They could tell what was happening, and the ratings were much better for football.

It just worked as a television property. Then what happened to pro football in the 1950s? You had Johnny Unitas, and Bobby Lane, and Norm Van Brocklin, and Otto Graham, these dramatic quarterbacks, flinging the ball all over the field. And high-scoring games, games that came down to the last minute, it was just very compelling. And plus, and there's no question, one of the real draws of football over the years and to this day is the violence.

You saw people hitting each other hard, and people getting injured, and it was sort of a spectacle. Baseball just didn't have any of that. Suddenly football looked new and modern. Pro football, I'm talking about, looked new and modern.

And yet it was clear that there was some science behind it, and it was sort of fascinating to people. And it just was a moment where all those factors came together. I think there were periods of time in the early eras of the NFL when the league might not have made it. George Hallis, who really was the only one of the five who was at the, he was at the Hup Mobile meeting in Canton, Ohio, in 1920. And so he was the one that helped recruit some of these other guys in.

He's really the conscience of the league in the early years. And these other guys were his business partners. And even though they were rivals on the field, they understood, completely understood, that we're not going to have anything here unless we work together and just keep digging away at this and believe in what we have. And so they were individual team owners, and they were cutthroat in some respects and wanted to beat each other. But they are the ones who kept the league from going under. And really, with their constant rule changes on and off the field, they set the league up to succeed, take off as it did in the 1960s and 70s, which is another era of real growth, when it became so popular. So they are the pivotal figures in the history of the league because there may well have been no league, if not for these guys. And a terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Monty Montgomery himself, a diehard NFL football fan, no, a diehard Detroit Lions fan. And a special thanks to John Eisenberg. He's the author of The League. Go to Amazon or Your Usual Suspects and buy the book. It's a terrific read. And what a story about in the end of a bunch of mavericks who dared to start this league. And my favorite story is Tim Maris. He's a bookie.

He doesn't go to college. He's a bookie back when that's how you placed your bets for that second big popular sport in America, horse racing. It was baseball and horse racing and nothing else, maybe boxing. And now it's the NFL, the NFL reigns supreme without Tim Maris, without Art Rooney and all of the men that we heard about, there'd be no NFL.

The story of how the NFL came to be here on Our American Stories. You wouldn't settle for watching a blurry TV, would you? So why settle for just okay TV sound? Upgrade your streaming and sound all in one with Roku Streambar. This powerful two in one upgrade for any TV lets you stream your favorite entertainment in brilliant 4K HDR picture and hear every detail with auto speech clarity.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-02-27 04:17:01 / 2024-02-27 04:30:19 / 13

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