Welcome to Naptime Huddle’s second lesson in its Football History 101 course. Our first post took us into the 1890’s when the brutality of the college football game was threatening to bring it to an end…
As college football was working through its teenage angst, outside of the collegiate ranks it was taking its first hesitant baby steps. If you were too old for college, not interested in college, or just graduated college, you could get your football fix playing for a local athletic club. These clubs weren’t just for athletics and keeping in shape, though: they were also for networking, particularly for young men just starting who wanted to get connected with the older businessmen already established in the community.
This healthy, innate ambition was channeled quite effectively through athletic competition of all kinds between clubs of neighboring cities. Not all athletic clubs fielded a football team, however; its brutality was not to the liking of all establishments, as its older, slower members could suffer injury, and that wouldn’t be good for member recruitment. However, for those clubs that had football programs, and took them seriously, a recent college grad who had been a star player could be the difference between success and embarrassment. Therefore, as with your company softball team, it wasn’t unusual for a club to seek out a “ringer.” Believe it or not, many communities, particularly working class towns in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, took great pride in their local teams, attending games in great numbers and providing financial support. Since the clubs profited from this support, through greater membership rolls, they were motivated to find the best players they could and convince them to join their teams.
What made ringer recruitment difficult, however, was the inability to compensate players for their efforts (and risk of injury). The athletic clubs were members of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which prohibited the paying of players. The business leaders and pillars of the community who were members of these clubs could not be deterred, however, and compensation schemes were developed that skirted the letter of the law, though not its spirit. For example, after a game, a player would receive a “trophy,” in the form of a gold watch or similar trinket. The player would then take his prize to a pawn shop for a certain amount, maybe $10, and he would turn around and sell his pawn ticket to a club member for that same amount, thus pocketing $20. The club member would go to the pawn shop, buy the trophy back, and return it to the club for the next game.
In 1892, the amateur system took its first big hit when the Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA), in preparation for its game against arch rival Pittsburgh Athletic Club, hired a recent college star named William "Pudge" Heffelfinger. Pudge was a large man for his time, standing at over six feet and weighing over 200 pounds, and was known throughout the country because of his playing career at Yale. In the game against Pittsburgh, Heffelfinger led AAA to victory when he caused and recovered a fumble in the closing minutes of the game and ran it back for a touchdown. He received double compensation for his expenses, another common practice at the time, but he also received an extra $500 for his efforts, making Heffelfinger the first professional football player.
Over the next few years, other teams in Pennsylvania began to recruit and pay top players as well. Would the AAU crack down on this practice? If so, what would become of non-collegiate football? Like the college game, would the municipal football experiment be over before it had a chance? Tune in next time for your next lesson in Football History 101 to find out!