Learn about Life in the 1920s

Growth and Development of Professional Football - 1933

Growth of the Game of Football Is Closely Linked With the Story of Dr. Harry A. March, Who Brought It Into the East With the Backing of Tim Mara

IN the office of Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants professional football team, there hangs a framed photostatic enlargement of an editorial that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune: "An enthusiastic supporter of intercollegiate football could not watch a game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants without coming away with the feeling that he had been witness of the game in its most highly developed form, an exposition of all those things which undergraduates sweat for, strive for, and are never quite able to attain. Here was football at its peak. Here were all the elements which go to make it a game that low temperatures, the worst of bad weather and everything else fail to discourage and dishearten."


The story of professional football is closely linked with the story of Dr. Harry A. March. You can see him any Sunday bouncing up and down the side-lines, following the play of the Giants in the Polo Grounds in New York City. Dr. March might be called "an alumnus of post-graduate football," who lives for Sunday afternoons like any old captain who ever sat on the Yale Fence lives for Saturday afternoons.

Back in 1924, a mail-carrier named Findley complained to Dr. March: "Working-men like me can't get off on Saturday afternoons to see college football even if we had the money and the pull to get the tickets." Out in Ohio, where Dr. March came from, they had been playing professional football on Sunday afternoons for a long time. Why not in the East? thought Dr. March. With the idea thoroughly worked out in his own mind, Dr. March went looking for a backer. As Tim Mara puts it, "Doc March was looking for an angel, and I was it." So well did Dr. March do his work that Mr. Mara had invested $25,000 in the idea before he ever saw a professional game.

Quit the Sand Lots

Professional football began back in 1898 out in western Pennsylvania, with teams in Latrobe, Greensburg, Oil City, Franklin, and Pittsburgh. There was also a good team in Watertown, New York, before the turn of the century. As the professional game developed from a sand-lot affair, there was active competition to get the best of the college stars to slip away after their Saturday games for a "pro" game on Sunday. Dr. March recalls the time that Greensburg signed up "Doggy" Trenchard, a famous Princeton end who was still in college, for a Sunday game against Latrobe.

A telegraph operator in Latrobe intercepted the arrangements, and when Trenchard boarded the train for Greensburg, he found that he was accompanied by a delegation of Latrobe citizens, who unloaded Mr. Trenchard at Altoona. To the surprize of the Greensburgs, Trenchard played for Latrobe on Sunday.

A Team of Workingmen

The popularity of professional football moved west into Ohio, where teams were developed in Canton, Massillon. Columbus, Akron, Shelby, Dayton, and Toledo. The Columbus team had a unique history: It was made up from the working-men in the shops of the Panhandle Railroad and in-cluded eight members of the Nesser family. Rivalry was intense between those teams. The "Big Three," composed of the teams from Akron, Canton, and Massillon, was as inspired a league as that oldest of football triangles, Yale-Harvard-Princeton.

The war took all the players away from the growing professional game, but after the war the game was organized on a permanent basis. Joe Carr formed the National League in Canton with thirty member-teams and a franchise set at $50. To-day those franchises are worth $10,000, and none is for sale. When Dr. March brought the professional game into the East, he started it on the road to share honors for public interest with big-league baseball.

The smaller teams dropped out and the professional baseball centers became the professional football centers.

Ten Teams in League

There are ten teams in the National League at present: The Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears, the Chicago Cardinals, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Portsmouth Spartans make up the Western Section; the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Philadelphia Eagles, the New York Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Boston Red-skins make up the Eastern Section. The teams play games for percentage ratings in either section, and at the end of the season, the highest team in each section goes into a "World Series" play-off to decide the national championship.

The professional game to-day does not differ markedly from the college game, save in point of perfection. They have adopted the intercollegiate rules with a few changes, namely: On the kick-off, the receiving team may line up in any position beyond the ten-yard restraining line; the flying tackle and the flying block are permitted; a runner may make a forward pass from any point behind his line of scrimmage; a runner is not down "when any portion of his person except his hands or feet touches the ground"; the goal posts are placed on the goal line instead of ten yards beyond.

Some Differences

Mr. Mara points out further: "Ours is a harder game, but we take better care of our players than the colleges do of theirs. If a man is taken out of a game for an injury, he is automatically suspended from play for two weeks under the rules of the National League. We couldn't put him back in, even if we wanted to, and we go through a whole season with only twenty-two players under contract—again by the rules of the League. We don't take a college player out of school any more, either. Our rules won't let us sign up a college player until after his class has graduated from college. All our rules are designed to speed up the game and to make victory more dependent on perfection of play. Next year, for instance, a fumble will be ruled a free ball. We don't have to legislate safety into the professional game. The men who play it know their business and they are built to 'take it.' "

Source: The Literary Digest for December 9, 1933