Friday, June 8, 2012

Football History 101: George Halas and the Galloping Ghost

Our last history lesson found football taking a big step forward in the development of the game, with the legalization of the forward pass and a few other rule changes designed to improve player safety.  Today, we examine the way professional football made it through a brief downturn and emerged in the form of an organized league.

As I mentioned in my first Football History 101 post, I'll eventually be focusing solely on the history of football at the professional level.  However, as I'm sure you've noticed, in the early days of pigskin progress in the pros was mostly driven by advances made at the college level--particularly the rule changes I just mentioned.

Today, however, marks the last time we will discuss the status of the college game in parallel with the pros, and it's during the time period we're looking at today--the 1910s and 1920s--that the college game had the most influence on developing football as a popular pastime in the U.S.

You'll remember that in 1906 a gambling scandal cast a cloud over a pair of rival teams in Ohio that threatened to erode what little public support the sport had garnered to that point.  Fortunately, it would manage to survive, thanks in large part to the surging popularity of college football--and the rise of a new brand of player idols, the skill players.

Football's popularity at the college level was due, in turn, to those new rules President Theodore Roosevelt insisted on when he assembled the college football powerhouses in 1905.  Obviously, the legalization of the forward pass, even though it took a while to catch on, would ultimately be the most significant change to the sport, from a pure playing perspective.  However, it was the creation of the neutral zone between the offensive and defensive lines, and the requirement that linemen line up ON the line of scrimmage, that would allow the guys who actually carried the ball to grab the spotlight.

You see, when opposing teams were allowed to line up nose-to-nose, and some guys could take running starts at the other team, the result on virtually every play was a mountain of humanity, with only the biggest bruisers visible as they literally threw the smaller guys around (right)Now that there was a chance for the smaller guys--i.e., the running backs and quarterbacks--to see daylight, fans could better observe their strength, athleticism and quickness.  Pretty soon, it was the scrappy backs that commanded the crowds' attention and ardour--legends like Carlisle Indian School's Jim Thorpe and Notre Dame's George Gipp, a.k.a. "the Gipper" (who was famously portrait by a young Ronald Reagan in the film Knute Rockne, All American).

The Gipper

So, how did this help the pro teams?  Some were lucky enough to convince some of these big college stars to play for them, under assumed names, for money.  Jim Thorpe, for example, got a $250 per game salary in 1915 with the Canton Bulldogs (one of the teams involved in the nasty gambling brouhaha).  His presence was a major draw, reflected in the gate receipts for Canton and every team they visited.  By 1916, several teams in Ohio were experiencing a resurgence thanks to the presence of one or more big college stars on their rosters.

As you might imagine, America's involvement in World War I changed the gridiron landscape:  young men not in college were enlisting, and those just graduating opted to hone their football skills in the service.  After the war, though, large numbers of players in the latter category took their skills to the pro teams--enough to field competitive teams outside the State of Ohio, in places like Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin.

One of these new teams, the Decatur Staleys in Illinois, became one of the premier teams in the country.  Owned by A.E. Staley, it was the company team of Staley Starchworks and, along with the company baseball team, served as advertising for the business.

George Halas is in the middle of the front row.

Staley hired a popular two-sport athlete, George Halas, to coach his team (Halas played for the New York Yankees until he was replaced by Babe Ruth).  In addition to coaching the team, Halas was tasked with scheduling and recruiting (and given ample resources for the latter), so he became the de facto general manager for the team as well.

In the course of finding opponents for his team, Halas became involved in  an effort with several other teams to organize a league.  On August 20, 1920, four Ohio teams met and they created the American Professional Football Association (APFA).  They invited several more teams, including the Staleys, to a follow-up meeting in September; Jim Thorpe was named president at that meeting.

Even though its first two seasons were characterized by large numbers of vacant seats and lackluster play (compared to the college game--pro players were older, and they had full-time jobs, which meant less time to practice to hone skills and learn more complicated and tricky plays), the league managed to survive.  In 1921, the APFA had twenty-one members, a new president in a promoter named Joe Carr, and the following year had a new name:  the National Football League.  The organization that started in a car dealership conference room never looked back.

One of the figures that most effectively guided the NFL into the Roaring Twenties was George Halas.  Halas had moved the team to Chicago (A.E. Staley had dropped them as his company team) and renamed them the Bears.  He helped the league most by snagging the most dynamic player coming out of college in 1925--Harold "Red" Grange, a.k.a. "the Galloping Ghost."  He earned that nickname by being able to run into a crowd of tacklers, disappear, and emerge on the other side--still carrying the ball--eventually galloping his way to the end zone.

Grange's 1925 season for Illinois made him a legend.  When the Fighting Illini battled the University of Michigan Wolverines, who were on a 20-game winning streak, Grange scored four touchdowns in the first quarter--the shortest run for 45 yards.  He would score another two times before the game was over.  When they visited the University of Pennsylvania, they were underdogs, but behind the Galloping Ghost, they won convincingly, 24-2.  Grange scored all three touchdowns and had 363 total yards.

A Bears program featuring Grange on the cover
Having Grange play for the Bears gave the NFL the shot in the arm it so desperately needed.  Grange had hired an agent, C.C. Pyle, who was an event promotion specialist by trade.  Though it would be unheard of today, Pyle and Bears owner George Halas worked together to schedule a whirlwind tour of the league after the completion of the games that had already been scheduled.  This tour lasted from Christmas Day through January, and included games in warm-weather cities.  When all was said and done, Red Grange played before 300,000 fans over a 10-week span--an unprecedented number.  Incidentally, Grange's contract with the Bears included a share of gate receipts, so he ended up with a huge payday in the end.

This show biz spectacle, so carefully crafted by Pyle and Halas, earned the NFL a share of the football glory along with the colleges, and launched the careers of both Pyle and Halas.  The rise of George Halas was important to professional football, as he would continue to press for changes and advances in the game--some of which we will learn about in our next lesson.

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