Day 716: Football With A Future – The 1920 Teams

originally published December 16, 2013

As football fans, we can all feel the hot breath of impending playoffs breathing upon our collective neck, as tonight two more teams – the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens – struggle to overcome their mid-season screw-ups for the opportunity to suit up in January. I’ll spare everyone my predictions of the outcome, or my analysis of who I feel has the most favorable outlook for a Super Bowl run, and instead do what I do best: have a look at some history.

The National Football League will be turning 100 at the end of this decade, an event that will no doubt be heralded with throwback uniforms, extensive retrospectives, and yet another season of the Cleveland Browns finishing in the basement.

Mostly, the league will be taking stock of where it has been, and how it has evolved over its first century. I’m going to beat them by seven years.

There were fifteen teams in the 1920 American Professional Football Association (APFA), which was renamed the NFL two years later. Here’s a look at where they all went.

The Muncie Flyers finished at the bottom of the league with an impressive 0-1 record. After being thrashed 45-0 by the Rock Island Independents, they couldn’t get another league game scheduled. After an 0-2 record the following year, the club scooted off to the minor leagues.

The Columbus Panhandles played in the league’s first game, falling to the Dayton Triangles 14-0. The team went 2-6-2 in 1920, and after three unimpressive years they changed their name to the Columbus Tigers. The best they ever finished was eighth, and after unleashing a formidable stink with their sub-par play, the team gave up after the 1926 season.

Technically based out of Hammond, Indiana, the Hammond Pros were somewhat inaccurately named. Most of the players on the team had day jobs, and as such they didn’t have time to work out and train like the athletes elsewhere in the league. They also lacked a home field, so there was never really a fan base to embrace them. So really they weren’t actually ‘Hammond’, nor were they ‘Pros’. They were the most integrated team of the original fifteen though, with six of the league’s African-American players between 1920 and 1926 playing for the Pros, and the team also had Fritz Pollard, the league’s first black coach, on the sidelines. They never won more than two games, and after 1926 the Pros were no more.

Rumor has it that George Halas wanted to move the Decatur Staleys to Chicago, but would have had trouble since the city already had two AFPA teams. He challenged Guil Falcon, coach of the Chicago Tigers, to a Thanksgiving Day winner-take-all game: the losing team folded, while the other represented Chicago in 1921. The Staleys won 6-0, and the Tigers wrapped up operations after the season, the first AFPA team to do so. This is nothing more than a football urban legend, but it makes for a compelling story.

The Cleveland Tigers didn’t fare much better. They finished 2-4-2 in that first season, then changed their name to the Indians to match the city’s Major League Baseball team. They had also signed three Native Americans for the 1921 season, so I guess it all made sense somehow. After 1921, the team suspended operations. There was no money to keep going under any name.

The Detroit Heralds proudly represented Motor City, at least until November when crappy weather caused the team to cancel a bunch of games, finishing with a 2-3-3 record. They renamed themselves the Tigers for the 1921 season, and like every Tigers team in this league so far, they collapsed. Players bitched about not getting paid, and before the season was out, the team was history.

Headed up by football legend Jim Thorpe, the Canton Bulldogs entered the 1920 season as an already-established lucrative franchise. This was one of the teams that had successfully rallied interest in the sport around the country. They snagged NFL championships in 1922 and 1923, but money problems led to a move to Cleveland in 1924, where they won again. The team strutted back to Canton the following year, but after a couple of sorrowful seasons, they were jettisoned into history. Still, the franchise’s few moments of early-league pride were enough to convince the NFL to plop the Pro Football Hall of Fame down inside Canton’s city limits.

Based out of Rochester, New York, the Rochester Jeffersons were another team that wasn’t quite good enough to match forces with the pros. They finished over .500 in 1920, but all their wins were against non-league teams. They actually only ever won two games against AFPA/NFL teams, both in 1921, and suffered four winless seasons between 1922 and 1925. After that, the team was promptly flushed.

The Dayton Triangles: an incredibly stupid name, and a convoluted history:

  • They became the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1930.
  • Changed their name to the Brooklyn Tigers in 1944.
  • Due to wartime player shortages, they merged with the Boston Yanks in 1945.
  • Moved to New York and became the New York Yanks in 1950.
  • The team dissolved in 1951, replaced by the Dallas Texans.
  • The Texans dissolved midway through 1952, replaced by the Baltimore Colts.
  • The Baltimore Colts became the Indianapolis Colts in 1984.

So in a way, the Dayton Triangles kind of still exist, but not really.

The Rock Island Independents finished fifth in the league three times, but never any better. In 1926, when Red Grange started up the American Football League to compete with the NFL, the Independents became the only NFL team to make the leap to the new league. An exciting and daring move, but ultimately a stupid one – the AFL didn’t pay as much, and most of the team’s decent players took off for a better paying gig with an NFL team. The league – and along with it the Rock Island Independents – folded after one season.

Originally known as the Morgan Athletic Club when it was founded in 1898, the Chicago Cardinals finished the 1920 season with a respectable 6-2-1 record, and went on to a long and proud existence, moving to St. Louis in 1960 and then to Arizona in 1988. There are only two charter AFPA teams still in the NFL today, and the Cards are one of them. The bad news is that they haven’t won a championship since 1947.

The Buffalo All-Americans are one of three teams who claim ownership of the 1920 championship title. Under modern NFL rules, where a tie is counted as a half-win, half-loss, the All-Americans and Decatur Staleys would have had the best record in the league. And the team that eventually won – the Akron Pros – never beat either club; both matches ended in a scoreless tie. But the All-Americans were dropped into the third place slot, and that’s where history will keep them. The team changed its name to the Buffalo Bisons in 1924, then the Buffalo Rangers in 1926. They hopped back to Bisons in 1927, but under any name this franchise was simply destined to fail. It folded part-way through the 1929 season.

Founded as a company team for the A.E. Staley food starch company, the Decatur Staleys were run by George Halas. Whether or not the winner-take-all story with the Chicago Tigers was true, the Staleys did move to become the Chicago Bears in 1921, and the franchise has been a fixture in the league ever since. That year, Halas had the brand new Green Bay Packers expelled from the league in order to keep them from signing a key player. Halas then kindly arranged for their re-admittance to the NFL once he and his Bears had scooped that player to their own roster, setting up the longest-running rivalry in the league. Halas remained with the team as player, coach, then owner until his death in 1983.

With a  record of 8-0-3, and despite some kvetching out of Decatur and Buffalo, the Akron Pros have the noble honor of being the first AFPA champions. Perhaps the football gods agreed with Decatur and Buffalo, as they proceeded to smite the Pros with a  few dismal seasons, ending with their ultimate crumpling after the 1926 season.

The Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals – the two lone charter teams in the NFL – might be on their way to the post-season this year. They probably won’t play each other, but if they do, I hope the announcers make a mention of this one-time rivalry. If they don’t, I’m sure someone will bring it up in another seven years.

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