With new baseball books not titled “The Mitchell Report” not coming out for a couple of months, I took a stab at a recent book written about one of the obscure parts of the history of the NFL. That is, the controversial championship decision of 1925, which is officially recorded as belonging to the Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals, but one that many think should belong to the long defunct Pottsville Maroons. Pottsville’s story is recounted by ESPN.com writer David Fleming in his new book: Breaker Boys.
Pottsville is a city in Eastern Pennsylvania that in its heyday was known as the “Queen City of Anthracite.” The coal mines of Pennsylvania provide a backdrop for Fleming’s recounting of the 1925 season as the book opens with a horrific description of what working in a coal mine was like around the turn of the century. One of the jobs in a coal mine was called a “breaker boy” and it was a job given usually to children who would pick pieces of rock that weren’t coal out of a long chute.
Pottsville had little else going for it except pro football and back in 1925, that was akin to saying that your town was notable for having the second-highest murder rate in the country. Football in the 1920s was a sport played by proper college men, not mercenaries paid by the game and rounded up each week to entertain the masses.
However, the nascent National Football League was trying to make a go of it since 1919 and in 1925, the league invited one of the most dominant semi-pro teams, the Pottsville Maroons, to join its ranks. And there begins Fleming’s tale about a town’s love for a team and how its dreams were crushed by either a technicality or a conspiracy.
Back in 1925, the NFL decided its champion strictly by regular season record. There were no playoffs. Whoever had the best winning percentage was declared champion. However, teams didn’t have fixed schedules. Some teams played more games than others if they wanted to make more money. And while the league would try to schedule some games, teams would often make up the schedule while they went along to get more favorable matchups for the box office.
The Maroons, after an early season stumble to the Providence Steam Roller in a 6-0 loss in bad weather in which Providence picked up no first downs, won four straight games, before traveling to Frankford (a Philadelphia suburb) to play their archrivals, the Yellow Jackets. Frankford won that game 20-0 and appeared to be on its way to the championship.
Pottsville played a home THE NEXT DAY and won and then won three straight and faced Frankford in a rematch at home. The Maroons destroyed Frankford 49-0 and ran their record to 9-2. Even better for Pottsville, they were offered a date to play a game against a team of recent Notre Dame alumni, which was essentially the famous “Four Horsemen” team in Shibe Park in December.
But before that game, the Maroons and the Chicago Cardinals arranged a game in Chicago at Comiskey Park to decide the NFL Championship. The Cardinals were 9-1-1 and both teams decided it would be best to decide the game on the field. The Maroons prevailed 21-7 and proclaimed themselves NFL champs.
Then the story gets weird. Frankford owner, Shep Royle, informs NFL Commissioner Joe Carr that the Maroons game in Philadelphia is infringing upon his territory and that his Yellow Jackets had a game to play on the same day (December 12, 1925). Carr agrees (although no such territorial rule seemed to have been written down) and warns the Maroons and their owner, Dr. John Striegel, that if the Maroons play against Notre Dame that they will be expelled from the NFL.
But Striegel decides he can’t back out of the game. For starters, he is expecting a big crowd. Secondly, Striegel wants to use his Maroons team to show people that pro football players were just as good as the best college teams. And after a slow start and the help of a referee who actually felt that Notre Dame players could be called for penalties (much of Notre Dame’s offense was predicated on what most would consider illegal shifts), the Maroons rally for a 9-7 on a late field goal.
The Maroons proclaim themselves the “World Champion” of football. And within weeks, everything was gone. Carr followed through on his promise to strip the Maroons of their championship (and existence). And for the last 82 years, the people of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, have maintained that they won the 1925 NFL title. But the official NFL record books say it was the Chicago Cardinals and discussion of the matter in NFL circles has been effectively squashed by members of the Bidwill family who have been mismanaging the current Cardinals franchise through three different states since the 1930s.
Fleming does a good job of capturing the details of football in the 1920s. It wasn’t a pretty game. The game was mostly a series of headlong plunges into the line by men who seemed to have little regard for their own well-being, such as Pottsville running back Tony Latone, a former “breaker boy”, whose running style earned him the nickname, “the Howitzer.”
We are also introduced to the Maroons’ coach, Dick Rauch, a young man just out of college who would go on to become a noted ornithologist. And there is also the story of young Walter Berry, just out of college at Lafayette, who is quickly named captain of the team and becomes the soul of the team and along with his college quarterback, Jack Ernst, the two develop an early version of the screen pass into a devastating offensive weapon. Berry would kick the game-winning field goal against Notre Dame although he had missed an extra point earlier in the game.
The Maroons were one of the few NFL teams of the era that played its players by the season instead of by the game. Most teams would just tell players to show up the day of the game and pay them afterwards, but the Maroons lived in Pottsville fulltime and actually held regular practices. They became part of the community and people looked at them as heroes, not mercenaries.
Fleming is clearly on Pottsville’s side in the dispute over the championship, although this article by Joe Horrigan, Bob Braunwart, and Bob Carroll of the Professional Football Researchers Association seems to make a good case for Carr’s decision. The authors argue that Pottsville knowingly played the game against the Notre Dame alums despite the NFL’s warning that the game was not approved and that the Maroons failed to play out their schedule anyway. Fleming argues that the NFL didn’t let the Maroons play their final two games. And then there are charges and countercharges about the Cardinals playing extra games to get a chance to get a higher winning percentage, including playing a game against a team that was forced to use high school players. Fleming does not mention that five of Pottsville's opponents were playing on a Sunday after playing Frankford the day before (Sunday football was illegal in Philadelphia) and often were seriously banged up.
Perhaps what’s more interesting to me is the disparity between what we know about what happened in Major League Baseball in 1925 and what happened in the NFL in 1925. In a matter of seconds, most of us could dig up the standings for the 1925 AL and NL seasons (Washington and Pittsburgh won with the Pirates winning the World Series in seven games) and also find the leading hitters and pitchers. But how many of us even knew that there was a pro football team in Pottsville? And that there was a disputed championship? How did the NFL go from such complete disorganization to becoming the most popular team spectator sport in the country?
Was Pottsville cheated out of a championship? I don’t know. But I’m glad I got the chance to learn about this forgotten episode of NFL history from Fleming.