The NFL was midway through the last season of their first decade when the deepest and longest lasting economic downturn in the history of Western civilization struck. The Great Depression began in the United States soon after the stock market crash of October 1929. Over the next several years, consumer
spending and investment dropped like a rock. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its peak, some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed and over half of the nation’s banks had failed.
Soup Kitchens and Bread Lines sprung up across the country simply to help these people just survive another day. Entertainment, specifically sports, were not at the top of the average American’s wish list. Food and shelter was. Company teams so popular in the 1920’s across the country virtually disappeared along with the companies themselves.
This was the backdrop against which the NFL began its second decade of existence. As I outlined in my last installment, forty-two separate teams started play in the NFL during the 1920’s. Over the next twenty years, from 1930 until 1949, only seven would attempt to make a go of it. There were no shortages of players in the 1930’s . . . only a team’s ability to pay them.
The Portsmouth Spartans started play in 1929 and began building its roster from defunct independent professional and semi-professional teams in the Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia area. Portsmouth, Ohio (a little over 100 miles up-river from Cincinnati on the northern bank of the Ohio River) somehow escaped the early devastation of the depression and fielded a pretty good football team. In 1930, the Spartans joined the NFL compiling a 5-6-3 record and followed up the next year with an 11-3 record – good for 2nd place behind the Packers (12-2).
By the time 1932 rolled around, the Great Depression was starting to take its toll on Portsmouth. They had lost $16,000 over the season and found themselves $27,000 in debt. To save money, the Spartans cut their roster to seventeen players and traveled by bus rather than by train. By week 11 of the regular season, the Spartans had an outside chance at winning the NFL Championship. They had to beat the Green Bay Packers and hope that the Chicago Bears would beat those same Packers the following week.
The Spartans lined up against the Packers and didn’t make a single substitution for the entire game. They beat the three-time defending NFL Champion Packers 19-0 using only eleven players – total. The Chicago Bears then defeated the Packers the following week to create a 1st place tie between the Spartans and the Bears. Both teams agreed to play a championship play-off game on December 18th in Chicago. The loser would drop to 3rd place.
What was overlooked was the Chicago weather at that time of the year. It was bitter cold and there was three feet of snow on the ground. George Halas suggested that they play the game indoors at Chicago Stadium, primarily an ice hockey rink. By Friday, it was still snowing and the game was, indeed, moved indoors with a number of rules concessions as the Stadium couldn’t provide a regulation 100 yard field (kickoffs were made from the 10 yard line, touchbacks were placed at the 10 yard line and no field goals were allowed). There were some exhibition games played indoors prior to this, but the Chicago Bears went on to win the first official NFL game played indoors by a score of 9-0.
1933 would be the last year for the Portsmouth Spartans. The depression had finally hit the area and the team was deeper in debt. In the spring of 1934, George A. Richards bought the Spartans for a reported $15,000 (some speculate that he also paid off an additional $5,000 of accumulated debt) and moved the team to where they still play today as the Detroit Lions.
in 1931, the Cleveland Indians joined the NFL. That is not a typo . . . the Cleveland Indians were one of many football teams of that era that “borrowed” the name of professional baseball teams that played in the same geographic area. To name just a few besides the Indians, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants (yes, the Dodgers and the Giants both played baseball in New York before they moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1957 and 1958 respectively), the Washington Senators, the Cincinnati Reds and of course the New York Yankees.
The Indians only lasted this one year while the Reds joined the NFL in 1933 and posted a 3-6-1 record. However, they started the 1934 season at 0-8-0 and had their franchise suspended for failure to pay the league dues for that season. Prior to the 1934 season, St. Louis purchased the Reds (for $20,000)but needed league owners to approve the sale which was not initially granted. Only when the Reds franchise became available did the owners finally approve the sale (for $30,000) and they were invited to play the Reds’ last three games of the NFL season as the St. Louis Gunners. Those would be the only three games played in the NFL by the Gunners as they fell prey to the economic times and failed to field a team for 1935. An interesting side note is that the 75 combined points scored by Reds and the Gunners over these two seasons are only two points more than the 73 points scored by the Chicago Bears in the 1940 NFL Championship game alone.
Two of the only other four teams to join the NFL in the 1930’s also entered the league “borrowing” team names from their established Major League Baseball counterparts – The Boston Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Another one of the early victims of the depression were the Newark Tornados. After beginning play in the NFL in 1929, the owners sold the franchise back to the NFL after the 1930 season. In yet another sign of the harsh economic times the NFL ordered that the franchise be sold to the highest bidder for the 1931 season but there were no takers. George Preston Marshall wanted to place a team in the Boston market and purchased the franchise from the NFL in early 1932, moved the team to Boston and named them the Boston Braves after the team with which they would share a stadium (Braves Field). In 1933, the team moved to Fenway Park and Marshall re-named them the Boston Redskins.
From 1933 to 1935, the Redskins played mediocre football compiling a 13-19-3 record. However, in 1936 they finished at 7-5-0 and won the NFL’s Eastern Division Championship. Marshall was so upset about the lack of fan support and attendance during the regular season (gate receipts were still the major source of revenue) that he gave up home field for the NFL Championship Game – choosing instead to play the Green Bay Packers at New York’s Polo Grounds. The following year, 1937, Marshall moved the team to Washington DC where they continued on their winning ways and won the NFL Championship after the first year in their new city. They continue play today as the Washington Redskins.
Prior to 1933, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had “Blue Laws” that included prohibiting sporting events on Sundays (the day when most NFL games were played). Once these Blue Laws were relaxed to allow for sporting events, the path to financial success in the NFL in Pennsylvania became available. Art Rooney, a local sports promoter, anteed up the $2,500 NFL franchise fee and formed the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Once again, the team was named after the baseball team with which they would share a stadium – in this case, Forbes Field.)
On the other side of the state in Philadelphia, the man who was the main force in lobbying for the modification of the Blue Laws, Bert Bell, teamed up with a small group of investors and purchased the rights for an NFL franchise. He chose the name “Eagles” for his new team after a short-lived program that was part of FDR’s New Deal – the NRA (National Industrial Recovery Act) whose symbol was an American Eagle. The paths of these two teams over the next fifteen years became intertwined like no other two teams perhaps in the history of professional sports.
Neither team was very successful on the field. For their first ten years, the Pirates record was 32-75-6 while the Eagles posted a 23-82-4 record over the same time frame. In 1940, in an attempt to bolster fan interest and subsequent gate receipts, Art Rooney (in recognition of the city’s heritage) changed the name of the team to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, losing records affected the Eagles’ bottom line financials. Bell’s small group of investors wanted out and in 1936 put their shares of ownership up for sale at a public auction. Bert Bell purchased those shares for $4,500 and became the sole owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Then, in December of 1940, Art Rooney did what would be unthinkable today. He sold the Pittsburgh Steelers. His big picture of the franchise was that he had neither a nucleus of player talent nor the financial ability to build a winning team. In a deal conciliated by Bell, Rooney sold his Steelers team to Alexis Thompson for a reported $160,000. He then took the proceeds of the sale and bought half of Bell’s interest in the Eagles. Over the next few months, both teams entered into massive and multiple player trades sending Steelers players to the Eagles and Eagles players to the Steelers. Thompson, who was based in New York, didn’t relish the idea of moving to Pittsburgh and agreed to keep the team there for only one year and then planned to move it to Boston to replace the departed Redskins.
Then, in April of 1941, Rooney and Bell literally traded franchises with Thompson. Thompson ended up as the owner of the Eagles and was much happier being closer to his base in New York and Rooney and Bell were the owners of the Steelers and had brokered some much needed cash for the franchise through the deal. Both team’s rosters were littered with players from the other team but this was mostly obscured in Philadelphia when Thompson’s new Head Coach “Greasy” Neil cleaned house before the Eagles’ 1941 season.
By 1943, World War II had broken out and approximately 40% of all NFL rosters had been drafted or had enlisted into the U.S. Armed Forces. The inability to field full strength teams led some of the owners to consider shutting down the league until after the war. But Bert Bell led a different group of owners in arguing that, if the NFL ceased operating during the war, they would never be able to resume operations after the war ended. Further, he argued that since Major league Baseball was continuing “as is” then the NFL should follow suit and do whatever was necessary to continue on. To this end, the Steelers and the Eagles merged teams for the 1943 season competing as the “Steagles” and for the 1944 season, the Steelers and the Chicago Cardinals played as a combined team. (The “Steagles” went 10-0-0 in 1943 and the “Pitt-Cards” went 0-10-0 in 1944.) But the connection doesn’t end there.
Back in 1937, the NFL awarded a franchise to Homer Marshman and Associates and they fielded the team known as the Cleveland Rams. Like most new teams, they were nothing to write home about and compiled a last luster record of 21-43-2 from 1937 through 1942. In 1941, Dan Reeves and Fred levy, Jr. purchase the Rams from Marshman. In 1942, both Reeves and Levy enlist in the Armed Forces and the team is run by Club Secretary, Bob Kelley.
In 1943, citing wartime travel restrictions and a lack of players, the Rams requested permission from the NFL to suspend operations but returned to play in 1944 with basically an expansion roster full of free agents and castoffs from other teams. They did, however, draft a Quarterback in 1944 by the name of Bob Waterfield and he would lead them (along with 1945 1st round draft pick Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch) to the NFL Championship in 1945 and became the first player ever to be named the NFL’s MVP by a unanimous vote.
After returning from military service, Daniel Reeves sees an opportunity to avoid a local conflict with another new team from the All American Football Conference (the Cleveland Browns) and to tap into a new market in Los Angeles. He petitions the NFL to sanction this move and gains a majority approval from the other owners. The two votes against the move? The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Even as part owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bert Bell was still having some financial difficulties. Slowly but surely, Art Rooney started buying out Bell and when Bell was elected as Commissioner of the NFL in 1946, he sold his last remaining shares to Rooney.
The NFL had somehow survived the Great Depression and a World War. But not without casualties. In 1926, the NFL had a high of twenty two teams. By the end of the 1940’s, this number had dwindled to ten and five of them started play in the league during the Great Depression and survived. Think what you want about single wing football played in leather helmets, but the men and teams that survived the first thirty years of the NFL, laid a solid foundation for the greatest sporting enterprise in the world . . . the NFL.
In my next installment . . . The Mergers.