Day 544: And The 1925 NFL Champion Is… Umm…

originally published June 27, 2013

Right about now the truly manic hockey fans in Chicago are probably ringing the final bells of their celebration festivities, gleefully swimming in the milky afterglow of a well-played, riveting Stanley Cup series. The city knows a little something about championships: the Blackhawks won one just three years ago, the Bears have but one Super Bowl ring but a proud history of NFL titles prior to the Super Bowl era, and the Cubs… well, they’re number one in a lot of hearts.

But there’s one championship title hanging on the metaphorical mantle of Windy City pride that may or may not be completely deserved. It’s a controversy that has ruffled the feathers of certain folks for the greater part of a century.

This is the story of how Chicago snaked a championship from the grips of a league technicality. Legally and legitimately, the title is theirs. But when you take an objective look at the 1925 championship, your perspective may vary.

The National Football League operated in a much looser, much less organized fashion in the 1920’s. Barely a half-decade old, they had to contend with paltry attendance, only two superstars (George Halas and Red Grange, both of whom played for the Chicago Bears), and a public that was more interested in the outcomes of college games than this taped-together league of paid players. Many teams folded after a year or two; there wasn’t much in the way of fan loyalty.

The rules stated that each team was required to play eight games, finishing on or before December 6. If they wanted to schedule a few more games up to December 20, just to bring in some more money, that was fine – those games would also be counted on the official standings, provided they were played against another NFL team. At the end of the season, the team with the best record would be crowned champion; there was no final championship game.

In 1925, that winning team looked to be the Pottsville Maroons, a team with a name so gloriously old-timey, I just want to hug it.

On December 6, the final day for listed league games, the Maroons faced off against the other NFL powerhouse that year, the Chicago Cardinals. The Maroons proved themselves to be the better team, defeating the Cardinals 21-7. The season was officially over, however there were two more weeks in which teams could schedule some extra games. But with a 10-2 record and now the tie-breaker, the Maroons were a lock to finish above the 9-2-1 Cardinals.

The team that would eventually gum up the works was the Philadelphia-based Frankford Yellow Jackets. Earlier in the season, the Yellow Jackets arranged for a non-league exhibition game between the top team in the east and the Notre Dame All-Stars. Frankford had beaten Pottsville in mid-November, and they naturally assumed they’d win the right to play the game. Football was big at Notre Dame, and landing the audience for a show-off game against those players would have been a sweet financial jackpot.

The Frankford Yellow Jackets lost the opportunity to play Notre Dame when they went on a losing skid, getting shut out four times, including a 49-0 trouncing in their rematch against the Pottsville Maroons. So Pottsville had the honor, and were slated to play Notre Dame at Minersville Park, a dinky little high school field. The Maroons tried to find a bigger field, and settled on Shibe Park in Philadelphia – deep in the heart of Yellow Jackets country.

The scheduling rules of the early NFL were sketchy, but they did exist. And one of them stated that a team could not play an exhibition game against a non-league team in another team’s city. Commissioner Joseph Carr warned the Maroons in writing, but they claimed someone had told them over the phone that they were allowed to play.

Always get it in writing. That’s the lesson here.

(Sally, the fast-talking operator who connected you, cannot be called upon as a material witness)

The NFL awarded the championship to the Chicago Cardinals, issuing a suspension on the Pottsville Maroons for having violated league rules. The Cardinals had hurried together a couple more games in the final two weeks of allowed playing time, including one against the Milwaukee Badgers that featured four high school players on the Badgers’ side, since not everyone on the roster stuck around after December 6. That was also a violation of the rules, but it only resulted in a $1000 fine against Chicago (which was later rescinded) and the promise that their 59-0 win would be stricken from official league standings (though no one ever got around to that).

To his credit, Chris O’Brien, the owner of the Chicago Cardinals, refused to accept the championship for his team. At first. The NFL promised to revisit the issue later, but never did. And eventually the Cardinals proudly counted 1925 as a championship year. The NFL finally looked into the controversy in 1963, but voted 12-2 in favor of not changing the historical record. Art Rooney and George Halas, then-owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears, were the two who wanted the record altered.

So who really deserves the 1925 championship title? The Pottsville Maroons did break the rules – that can’t be argued. Whether they did in fact receive permission to play the Notre Dame game over the phone, we’ll never know for certain. So assuming the verbal okay doesn’t count, and that the suspension was written in the rulebook as an appropriate penalty for such a transgression, then I’d give it to Chicago. But my heart tells me Pottsville was the better team, and deserved the title.

Some believe – and by ‘some’ I mean those who vehemently subscribe to sports-related superstition – that the unearned championship wound up cursing the Chicago Cardinals. The team went on to win only one other NFL championship (in 1947), and even after moves to St. Louis and Arizona, they’re still looking for another title.

In 2003 when the topic was once again brought up at the NFL owners’ meeting in October, only two teams pushed for the case to be reopened: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles – the two Pennsylvania teams, where Pottsville had committed their heinous misdeed of playing on someone else’s turf. One could point out the painful irony that when the Cardinals finally got a legitimate shot at another NFL title in 2009’s Super Bowl XLIII, it was the Steelers – a Pennsylvania team – who snagged the win away from them in the final minute.

All the Pottsville Maroons got for their troubles was a home-made trophy, which now sits like a big question mark in the NFL’s Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. And for now, it looks like that’s all they’ll ever get.

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