The National Football League today is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, but its origins as the American Professional Football Association were much more humble. Look back at the league’s inaugural 1920 campaign, which featured its birth in an Ohio auto dealership, teams in cities such as Decatur and Muncie and the crowning of a champion four months after the last snap was taken.
The 14 men huddled inside the Jordan and Hupmobile automobile showroom in downtown Canton, Ohio, on the night of September 17, 1920, were finally ready to strike a deal. They had come to Ralph Hay’s dealership not in search of a new set of wheels, however, but a new professional football league to save them from themselves.
By 1920, pro football remained thoroughly overshadowed by the college game and a bastion confined mostly to small Midwestern industrial cities. Even worse for team owners, they were bleeding cash because of soaring player salaries and intense bidding wars as they poached players from other squads. The owners of these independent pro teams coveted a strong league such as the one baseball had in order to gain more control over the sport—and their finances.
Hay, the owner of the reigning Ohio League champion Canton Bulldogs, had invited representatives from three other in-state teams to an organizational meeting at his showroom on August 20 where they agreed on a broad outline of a new association. According to the Canton Evening Repository, the goal of the new venture would be “to raise the standard of professional football in every way possible, to eliminate bidding for players between rival clubs and to secure cooperation in the formation of schedules.”
Nearly a month later, a deal was ready to be struck. Hay gathered representatives from 11 professional football clubs sprinkled across Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and New York: Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Dayton Triangles, Decatur Staleys, Hammond Pros, Massillon Tigers, Muncie Flyers, Racine Cardinals, Rochester Jeffersons and Rock Island Independents. (So unfamiliar were the teams that even the meeting minutes mistakenly listed the Cardinals, who played home games at Normal Park on Chicago’s Racine Avenue, as being from the Wisconsin city of the same name.) Unable to squeeze into Hay’s office on the steamy night, the football pioneers, including Jim Thorpe and George Halas, sat on the running boards and fenders of the $3,000 cars on the showroom floor and grabbed cold beer bottles from an icy bucket as they hammered out an agreement.
According to the meeting minutes typed on the letterhead of the Akron Professional Football Team, the first item of business was an inauspicious one—the withdrawal of Massillon before the league even officially formed. Then, the men moved and seconded a proposal to form a confederation known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA). The new league needed a president to lead the organization and be its public face, and the choice required little debate. The team representatives unanimously selected the 32-year-old Thorpe, the Canton Bulldogs star who although past his prime was still touted by newspapers such as the Milwaukee Journal as the “world’s greatest athlete.” Indeed, the selection of the gridiron’s greatest gate attraction garnered more ink in newspapers around the country than the formation of the APFA itself.
The first game involving an APFA team took place on September 26, 1920, at Douglas Park in Rock Island, Illinois, as the hometown Independents flattened the St. Paul Ideals 48-0. The first head-to-head battles in the league occurred one week later as Dayton topped Columbus 14-0 and Rock Island pasted Muncie 45-0.
While the gridiron dimensions were the same in 1920 as today, the pro game itself was quite different. Forward passes were rare, coaching from the sidelines was prohibited and players competed on both offense and defense. Money was so tight that Halas carried equipment, wrote press releases, sold tickets, taped ankles, played and coached for the Decatur club. As opposed to today’s standard 16-game schedule, clubs in 1920 scheduled their own opponents and could play nonleague and even college squads that counted toward their records. With no established guidelines, the number of games played—and the quality of opponents scheduled—by APFA teams varied, and the league did not maintain official standings.
The Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles and Detroit Heralds joined the league before the end of the season, raising the total number of teams to 14, but the inaugural season was a struggle. Games received little attention from the fans—and even less from the press. According to Robert W. Peterson’s book “Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football,” APFA games averaged crowds of 4,241. The association bylaws called for teams to pay a $100 entry fee, but no one ever did. Muncie played only one game before dropping out before the end of the season, which concluded on December 19.
At the conclusion of the season there were no playoffs—let alone a Super Bowl—and it took more than four months before the league even bothered to crown a champion. Much as college football did for decades, the APFA determined its victor by ballot. On April 30, 1921, team representatives voted the Akron Pros, who completed the season undefeated with eight wins and three ties while yielding only a total of seven points, the champion in spite of protests by the one-loss teams in Decatur and Buffalo, who each had tied Akron and had more wins. The victors received a silver loving cup donated by sporting goods company Brunswick-Balke-Collender. While players were not given diamond-encrusted rings, they did receive golden fobs in the shape of a football inscribed with the words “World Champions.”
Needing a leader with greater business acumen, team owners replaced Thorpe with Columbus Panhandles owner Joe Carr, and in 1922, the APFA rebranded itself as the National Football League. While the ‘20s roared, the NFL sputtered. College football remained king, drawing crowds as big as 100,000, while NFL franchises came and went. Only after the signing of college phenom Red Grange in 1925 did pro football begin to increase in popularity.
The NFL’s first season was so quickly forgotten in the collective sports memory that the league’s official record books listed the 1920 championship as undecided until the 1970s. The whereabouts of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Cup, only given out that one time, are unknown. The legacy of two APFA franchises continues on, however. The Racine Cardinals now play in Arizona, and the Decatur Staleys moved to Chicago in 1921 and changed their name to the Bears the following year. Ten APFA players along with Carr are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which opened its doors in 1963 not far from the Canton automobile dealership that gave birth to the NFL in 1920.