American Football & Early NFL History

Baseball has many hidden lessons in its vast database, as every player’s actions are precisely recorded at the plate, in the field, and on the mound.
These player records exist back to baseball’s infancy, in the 19th century.

American football (NFL in particular) on the other hand has very little historical data for its individual players as field goals (FG), extra points (XP) and safeties, as well as any touchdowns (TD) scored via offense, defense or punt/kick returns; weren’t recorded in the NFL until 1932.  Rushing attempts, number of receptions (& total yards for each), along with quarterback (QB) stats; were also not kept until 1932.

Passer rating was first developed in the 1930’s, using available measures to determine overall effectiveness at the quarterback position.  Although its formula has varied, it is still the best statistic for the position; as all the best quarterbacks, 1) stay on the field and, 2) have the highest passer ratings of their era.  The first great NFL QB [and nickname] was Slingin’ Sammy Baugh (Washington R-words 1937-52).

MLB vs. NFL stats comparison

Jim Thorpe was a multi-sport star in the early 20th century; here are his MLB career numbers in six seasons, mostly with the NY Giants.
In 289 games (1913-1919) as an outfielder, Thorpe batted .252/.286/.362.
NL averages in 1917 were .249/.305/.328, so we can rate him as slightly below-average in getting on-base, but above average in power; making him roughly an average big-leaguer of that era.

Jim Thorpe is also in the NFL Hall of Fame (HoF), a charter inductee in 1963.
These are his career NFL stats: Eight seasons, 52 games played as a halfback; 6 TD rushing, 4 TD passing.

Jim Thorpe football

With this paltry amount of data, how is anyone supposed to know anything about what kind of football player Jim Thorpe was, outside of anecdotal & subjective opinion?
If it is impossible to determine this for a charter NFL HoFer, then what does that say about the less-than-star players of the early NFL era?
It says their contributions in blood, broken bones & shattered teeth weren’t even worth noting, because the only records that mattered were gate receipts & betting slips.

—– Timeout!

American football has its origins in English rugby.
By the late 19th century, most Ivy-league & midwestern universities had rugby & football clubs.
As a violent mob game, deaths from injury were common in its early era.
The popular use of mass-formations such as the flying wedge, in which a large number of offensive players charged as a unit against a similarly arranged defense, resulted in brutal collisions often leading to serious injuries and deaths.
Helmets weren’t mandatory in the NFL until 1943.

Walter Camp (player Yale 1876–1882) has been given the title “Father of American Football”, for inventing football’s line of scrimmage and the system of downs.

Field goals were lowered to 3 points in 1909, and touchdowns were raised to 6 points in 1912.

The NFL was formed in 1920, primarily as a vehicle for gamblers. MLB owners had just installed judge Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis as their commissioner, in order to clean up the Black Sox Scandal and restore public trust in baseball.  Judge Landis was firm & uncompromising in banning eight Chicago White Sox players for life, for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.  Gangsters were shut out of baseball and needed a new sport to fix.

Al Capone

Much like professional boxing, NFL history is dominated by organized crime.  In the early 1920s, Chicago Bears owner George Halas turned to Charles Bidwill, gambler & bootlegger associate of kingpin gangster Al Capone, for financial help.

In 1932, Charles Bidwill bought the Chicago Cardinals, which his family still owns today.

In the 1920’s, towns like Hammond IN, Pottsville PA, and Duluth MN had NFL teams. The NFL needed a franchise in New York for the league to succeed.  In 1925 NFL President, Joseph Carr recruited bookmaker Tim Mara to establish the NY Giants football team.

Art Rooney, a notorious gambler purchased the rights to establish the Pittsburgh Pirates (renamed Steelers) in 1933. Rooney financed the team for its first decade on racetrack winnings– via inside tips courtesy of his bookie friend, Tim Mara.

These are just a few capsule biographies of the legendary owners enshrined in Canton, OH. More can be read in Dan Moldea’s book Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football.

George Halas

In its earliest days, professional football was shunned by universities, with many college administrators prohibiting their players from having anything to do with the NFL.  It wasn’t until 1936, that a college draft system was finally agreed upon by the universities & the NFL.

Most players were paid under $100/game, and NFL games were commonly fixed.  Players would also bet their game salary, if they were confident of a win.  Key players could be bribed to throw a contest since there was little media interest outside of the tabloid press. Football players & fans were heavy-drinking roughnecks, so mobsters in the bootlegging & gambling rackets were natural partners for the NFL.

The NFL Championship Game of 1946 proved how deep gambling interests ran in professional football.  New York Giants players, Frank Filchock & Merle Hapes, took bribes from gamblers to throw the championship game; which the Bears won 24-14.


The best-known early-era football player was college star, Harold “Red” Grange.
Grange earned football fame & glory for his electrifying runs at the University of Illinois from 1923-25.
In his 20-game college career he ran for 3,362 yards; caught 14 passes for 253 yards; and completed 40-of-82 passes for 575 yards.
Grange, a 3-time All American, scored at least one touchdown in every college game he played, but one.

Nicknamed the ‘Galloping Ghost’, Grange barely lasted two seasons as a star in the NFL.
His left knee was crippled in a game against the Chicago Bears in 1927.
Grange missed 1928, and then re-joined Halas’ Bears for six relatively mediocre seasons, until he retired in 1934.

College football was more popular than the NFL into the 1950’s.
Michigan & Notre Dame built huge stadiums where students & alumni flocked to the spectacle, in a time before radio & television.
College coaches Glenn “Pop” Warner (coach 1895-1938)) and Knute Rockne (coach Notre Dame 1918–1930), are considered football’s greatest innovators of this era.

The NFL was dominated by tough and punishing two-way players such as Chicago Bears RB Bronko Nagurski (1930-43) and Green Bay Packers RB Johnny Blood (1925-38).  In 1925, rosters were limited to 16 players and the fat rugby ball couldn’t be thrown very far. Stretchers were routinely used to carry off injured players.

1924 Chicago Bears

Curly Lambeau, head coach for the Green Bay Packers (1919-1949) had been an early innovator; developing a passing attack and winning 6 NFL titles with great players such as Arnie Herber (QB 1930-45) & Don Hutson (WR 1935-45).

Curly Lambeau with Don Hutson (14) and Irv Comp--1944

Every NFL franchise has its sordid past, and the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers are no exception. The most notorious events in Packers history involved Curly Lambeau’s stand-off in the late 1940’s with the team’s executive committee, for control of the team.
The executive committee were a dozen power-hungry local businessmen that served as the Packers de facto front office.

Conflicts of interest arose over Rockwood Lodge, the training facility for the Green Bay Packers from 1946-49; insisted upon & designed at great expense, by Lambeau.

Rockwood Lodge was reviled by Packer fans, because it necessitated a drive outside the city to watch practices.
The players hated practicing on the field of rock, which created injuries and depleted their roster; the Packers went 3-9 in 1948, followed by 2-10 in 1949.
At the end of the 1949 season, the Green Bay Packers were on the verge of bankruptcy; three weeks behind on payroll & gate receipts to opponents, with no incoming revenue.
The Packers had become a target for contraction, as the impending AAFC merger would add new NFL franchises in large-city markets of Cleveland, San Francisco & Baltimore.
Curly Lambeau reportedly wanted to move the Packers to California; while fans & the executive council insisted the team stay in Green Bay.

PHOTO: Green Bay Packers/Stiller-Lefebvre

Rockwood Lodge was almost completely vacant on January 24, 1950, when it mysteriously burned to the ground; its cause remains unsolved to this day.
The only official response from the team after the incident came from Packers secretary-treasurer Frank Jonet, when he confirmed that Rockwood Lodge was fully insured.
One week later, Lambeau resigned his position with the Packers and moved to Chicago to coach the Cardinals.
The Packers, fell firmly under the control of the executive council and eventually received a $75,000 settlement from their insurance company; which prevented the team from folding.

Rockwood Lodge Packer practice

Larry Names, author of a definitive early history of the Green Bay Packers states: “Everyone in Green Bay knew at the time, that they went out there and burned that place to the ground to save the franchise…torching Rockwood Lodge is what allowed the Packers to survive.”

NFL Integration & Specialization of the Game

Black athletes had been allowed to play college football since the 19th century, although the ACC & SEC didn’t integrate until the 1960’s & 1970’s.
The NFL had a handful black players in its early years, but none ever played under a professional contract.
A Jim Crow owners agreement in 1932 (insisted upon by Washington R-words owner George Preston Marshall), barred blacks from the NFL until after WWII.

George Preston Marshall

In 1946, the Cleveland Rams received permission from the league to move to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles civil-rights activists successfully lobbied the (publicly-funded) LA Coliseum commission; insisting upon an integrated team as a term for lease approval.
UCLA football star Kenny Washington played for the LA Rams in 1946, becoming the first black athlete to receive a contract to play a professional American team sport.

Kenny Washington

The NFL initially adopted the rules of college football.  Starting in the 1930’s, the NFL made significant rulebook changes to separate itself from the college game.
The most significant NFL rule changes in its pre-Super Bowl era were:

1933– legalizing the forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.
1950– unlimited free substitution.
1951– no tackle, guard, or center is eligible to catch a forward pass.

The new substitution rules were designed to open up the game by specializing offense, defense & special-teams platoons. As the number of players/team was steadily expanded from 32 in 1950, to 40 in 1964, these now-available roster spots would be filled with valuable specialists.

By the 1950’s, specialization of the game started to change its style, particularly in the evolution of the modern QB, led by Otto Graham (Cleveland Browns 1946–1955) and Johnny Unitas (Baltimore Colts 1955–1973).  This led directly to the television success of the NFL in the 1950’s, when it finally passed college football in popularity.

Johnny_Unitas 1967

Early modern-era QBs: Bart Starr (Green Bay Packers 1956–1971), Len Dawson (Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs 1962–1975), and Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota Vikings/NY Giants 1961–1978); helped move professional football from a three-yards-in-a-cloud-of-dust style, into a more wide-open passing attack.

Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns 1957-65) and Gale Sayers (Chicago Bears 1965-71) were the greatest running backs of the pre-merger era.


RB Paul Hornung (Packers) and DT Alex Karras (Lions) were suspended by the NFL in 1964, for betting on games. In Dan Moldea’s Interference, QB Len Dawson candidly discusses throwing games for money in the 1960’s.

Hornung and Bart Starr led the Green Bay Packers, coached under Vince Lombardi from 1959-67, to NFL dominance; winning 5 NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi retired from coaching after Super Bowl II, and died of cancer in 1970.  The Super Bowl trophy has since carried his name.

The arrival of the AFL in 1960, challenged the NFL’s monopoly and brought other innovations to the pro game. Franchises were established in seven new cities: Houston, Denver, San Diego, Oakland, Buffalo, Kansas City & Boston; along with the Jets in NY. All are still in existence.
AFL team photos from the 1960’s show rosters filled with one-half black players; while the average NFL roster was less than one-quarter black players, and the Washington Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate in 1962—by government order.

The 1963 AFL San Diego Chargers are widely credited as pro football’s first steroid team, with its offensive lineman compelled to take steroids during training camp & throughout the season.
The Chargers won their only AFL title that year.

San Diego Chargers1963

The NFL Hall of Fame opened in 1963 in Canton, OH, with a charter class of 17 members; six of them coaches, owners or league executives.
Standards for the NFL Hall of Fame are inconsistent and nebulous, as demonstrated below:

NFL HoF Comparison Example #1:  Linemen from the 1950’s & 60’s


Art Donovan (DT)  Baltimore Colts (1950-61):
Career stats: 12 seasons, 138 games, 8 fumbles recovered, 1 safety
HoF card reads, “Five time All-Pro…Donovan developed into one of the best defensive tackles in league history…one of the most popular players in the league…many feel he was at least as valuable to the Colts as a morale builder with his sharp wit and contagious laughter.”


Jerry Kramer (RG)  Green Bay Packers (1958-68):
Career Stats: 11 seasons, 130 games
Not in the HoF; although he too was a five-time All-Pro, anchoring multiple championship teams.
There is no real career performance data for either, outside of all-pro voting. As far as anyone can tell, Donovan and Kramer were both dominant linemen, on opposite sides of the ball– essentially the same players in value. Can anyone explain why one is in the Hall of Fame and the other isn’t?  Maybe Jerry Kramer wasn’t very funny or popular.

Click here to read Part 2— NFL History: The Super Bowl Era