“You can’t both be called the Tigers. Or you can. Whatever. We’re kind of making this up as we go along.”
~Jim Thorpe, the first president of the NFL
The NFL is part of our nation’s DNA, exhibiting everything we stand for. Teamwork. Perseverance. Struggle. Old white men punishing people when they dance too much in celebration. A shocking inability to properly handle domestic abuse. And, of course, Tom Brady’s cleft chin. Imagining America without football is almost impossible. What would we do with our winter Sundays? Football is in the bible, you guys. “On the seventh day, the Lord kicked back a 12 pack on his recliner and watched NFL Red Zone with a close eye on his fantasy team.”
We think. Listen, just like most Americans, we like to use the bible to make our point, despite not having really “read it.” But we digress.
The point is, as much as we assume that football has always been with us, there was a time when the league was brand new and very, very ridiculous. So let’s hop in a time machine of words and go back to 1920, where the first season of a National Football League took place. It was sloppy as hell.
The First Season of the NFL was Ridiculous
Before the NFL, there was a smattering of various professional leagues without much in the way or organization. So in 1920, a group of representatives of various Ohio League teams, including Jim Thorpe (yes, that Jim Thorpe) got together and decided they wanted to create a league that would “Raise the standard of professional football in every way possible.” The league, which would be called the American Professional Football Association until 1922 when it changed its name to the National Football League, would introduce a salary cap and promise not to sign college players under contract with other teams (this was a concern at the time).
A meeting was held at a Hupmobile showroom (yes, seriously) in Canton, Ohio with representatives from Ohio League and New York Pro Football League teams and the league was formed. While it was an integral step in creating a professional football league similar to what we know today, this was 1920 so of course there was all sorts of ridiculous shit going down. First of all, let’s start with the team names. We typically believe that a good league has to have good team names. Yes, there can be some duds out there (what the fuck is a Packer, Green Bay) (Shut up, Packers fans, we know the actual answer, we’re just making a point) but generally your league at least doesn’t have duplicate names or names that make you go, “ha, wait, what?” The 1920 APFA could not make that claim. Of the fourteen teams that played the 1920 season, here are their names listed in order of least ridiculous to most ridiculous.
14: Chicago Cardinals
One of only two founding teams that still survives today (yes, the Arizona Cardinals have been around since 1920 in one form or the other), the name actually is a pretty good name for a Chicago team, as the Cardinal is Illinois’ state bird. Either way, it’s a fine name.
13: Canton Bulldogs
A bulldog is a solid mascot for a team. We’re pretty sure the only reason there aren’t any professional bulldog teams is the same reason why there aren’t any professional Wildcats or Huskies. When 70% of all high school and football teams call themselves something, you’re hesitant to put it behind a professional franchise. Still, the Bulldogs is a better option than, say, the Golden Knights.
12: Buffalo All-Americans
That’s a strong name. All-Americans. We can get behind that. It’s basically just a wordier way of saying Patriots, and the only thing wrong with the Patriots is their insufferable fans. DEFLATE GATE WAS A FAWKING CONSPEARAHHSY.
11: Muncie Flyers
Muncie Indiana has a population of 70,000 people. They have no business having a professional Football team. They were barely in the league, too, only playing a single official league game in 1920. That said, the name itself is fine. The Flyers is a totally acceptable name.
10: Rock Island Independents
You’re not an Independent if you’re in a league, dingus.
9: Detroit Heralds
Your team name sounds like a fucking newspaper. Try again.
8: Rochester Jeffersons
We were hoping that they called themselves the Jeffersons because of an affinity for our nation’s third president. Barring that, we’d be okay with one of them being a time traveler from the 70s who was really into network sitcoms. Unfortunately the real reason for this name is even more boring—their playing field was located on Jefferson Avenue. That would be like the Chicago Cubs calling themselves the Chicago Wavelands. Just a bad call all around.
7: Decatur Staleys
Of all the teams on this list, you would not have expected that the Staleys out of Decatur, Illinois would end up being one that goes the distance. But hey, if you move your team into Chicago and change your name to the Bears, you’re probably more likely to last than some team in central Illinois named after the company that owns it. The Staleys were owned by the A.E. Staley Company from 1919 to 1921, which basically means that their naming process was the same as your Little League baseball team that randomly got sponsored by the local ice cream shop.
6: Columbus Panhandles
Nothing drives fear into the hearts of man like a goddamn panhandle, apparently.
5: Dayton Triangles
No. You do not name your team after shapes. Jesus Christ, what are you, a bunch of fucking nerds? “We are the Lafayette Parallelograms, and we will run parallel to victory!” Go fuck yourself.
4 and 3 (tie): Cleveland Tigers and Chicago Tigers
In a vacuum, the Tigers are a very good name for a sports team. But how the hell did they not get the memo that you can’t have two teams in the same league rocking the same name? Did they not even double check on this? Or did they just jot down the names and were like “okay, the Tigers, okay, the Triangles well that’s fucking dumb, okay the Tigers hmmm did we say that one already? I’ll just include it again just in case.”
That’s not even the most remarkable part of this, however. No, it’s not that both of these teams were like “No, we keep our name, we don’t care.” It’s that we very nearly had THREE teams called the Tigers, but the Massillon Tigers withdrew from the league before it could finish forming. You know, people say originality is dead in today’s internet culture, but apparently it’s been dead for a long time.
But at least the Tigers are a good team name. You can’t say the same for…
2 and 1 (tie): Hammond Pros and Akron Pros
What the shit!? First of all, being a professional team and calling yourself the Pros is redundant at best, stupid and obnoxious at worst. It’s a stupid name, but it blows our fucking minds away that two teams played against each other with the same stupid name and no one felt the need to change it. Jesus, 1920 was a mess.
With this laundry list of ridiculous teams confirmed, 33-year old Olympic Medalist and the “historically recognized at being good at sports” Jim Thorpe was named the League President, though he would also serve as a player-coach for the Bulldogs. Having a player-coach serve as a League President is a pretty ridiculous move, though at least they managed to choose someone who is revered enough in history for us to forgive that. What we can’t forgive, however, is that each team picked their own schedule independently. Literally, it was, “play whoever you want, whenever you want, as frequently or infrequently as you want.” Each games counted, no matter who the opponent, which makes the Rochester Jeffersons middle-of-the-pack 6-3-2 record (oh yeah, there were a shitload of ties back then) downright disgraceful. The Jeffersons played 10 of their 11 games against local league teams, playing such epic games as a 0-0 tie against the Utica Knights of Columbus (a team they played twice that season), losing both their games against the All-Tonawanda Lumberjacks, and boasting two wins and a 0-0 tie against the Rochester Scalpers.
Let’s repeat that again. The Rochester Jeffersons, a professional football team, played all but one game against local semi-pro and club teams, and largely owe their winning record to the fact that they went 2-0-1 against a team from their same city called the Scalpers. We can only assume that at the end of the season the owner of the Jeffersons drove the team bus off of a goddamn cliff.
“But at least we beat Fort Porter 66-0!”
The first game of the season saw the Rock Island Independents absolutely shellac the, sigh, St. Paul Ideals by a score of 48-0. The first games between league opponents occurred the following week, on October 3rd, 1920, where the Columbus Panhandles were shutout 14-0 by the Dayton Triangles (they were the first team to score a League touchdown, the site of which is marked with a plaque at Triangle Park in Dayton, which does still exist). That week also saw the Muncie Flyers losing 45-0 to the Rock Island Independents. Muncie was so traumatized at this beating that they said, “Fuck this, we’re out,” and decided not to play another game for the rest of the season. They would play two games in 1921 before dropping out of the league.
By the way, Muncie was completely within their rights to do that. There was no minimum amount of games for teams to play. So while the Akron Pros, Decatur Staleys and Canton Bulldogs played 13 games, most teams played when they felt like it, with the majority of teams playing somewhere between 6 and 9 games in the season. By the end of the season, the Akron Pros were the only undefeated team, with an 8-0-3 record, though the Decatur Staleys had a claim to the division title with their 10 wins and 10-1-2 record, and the Buffalo All-Americans claimed a 9-1-1 record. The All-Americans scored the most points of the season, with 258 (or about 23 a game), while the Akron Pros were the best defensive squad, giving up, holy shit wait is this a typo, seven points over the course of the entire season. Jesus, that’s impressive, but it sounds like every Akron Pros game was just a boring mess.
Wow…what a barn-burner
There were no playoffs after the season, so the League Champion was determined by a meeting where every team cast a vote for the champion, who would win the Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup (a cup which no pictures of exist, and was only used for the 1920 season). The Staleys and All-Americans each claimed that they should win, as they had more wins than Akron and each tied the team in their one matchup. The Staleys would have come away with the title, if not for their 7-6 loss to the Racine Cardinals (who closed the season as the Chicago Cardinals). As it stood, the Akron Pros won due to their undefeated record, and they were named league Champions. It would be the only championship that the Akron Pros would win, and they would eventually fold in 1927 due to financial problems.
To really drive home how scattershot the whole operation was, Bruce Copeland, the sportswriter for the Rock Island Argus, compiled the official All-Pro list of the 1920 season entirely by himself. He used games played at Rock Island, other newspaper accounts, and his own memory to toss together a first-, second- and third-team list, which is still the official All-Pro list you’d find on pro-football-reference.com.
Despite the fact that the first season of what is now the NFL was inherently ridiculous, with its inconsistent scheduling, bad team names, and general “let’s just wing it” approach, it was a success. As we’ve discussed previously, it’s pretty common for leagues to lose most of their members or fold during the season, so finishing the season intact was a victory. And it did lay the foundation for the NFL’s future success. Ten of the players in that 1920 season would go on to become NFL Hall-of-Fame players, and the League would continue to grow in relevance and popularity until it became that reason to day drink on Sunday that it is now.
So sure, in retrospect, the 1920 APFA season was pretty silly. But at the end of the day, it was a roaring success. And also pretty silly.