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  • The Cincinnati Football RedsA Franchise in Failure
  • Carl Becker (bio)

At their annual meeting in July 1933, the owners of the teams in the National Football League (NFL) granted franchises to the Cincinnati Reds, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Entrepreneurship in professional football had long been risky, but as the season of 1933 approached, the NFL was moving into a new era, one that might give greater security to a fledgling franchise—in this instance the Cincinnati Reds. Professional football, once a pariah in American football, was winning respectability among sports fans; membership in the league would stabilize, offensive play would become more exciting, and attendance at NFL games would steadily rise.1

Organizing the American Professional Football Association in 1920 (renamed the National Football League in 1922), the owners of the charter teams sought to solve problems plaguing professional football: the rapid movement of franchises in and out of the league; players jumping from team to team for higher salaries; the use of ringers (often collegians playing under assumed names to protect their eligibility for collegiate play) to accommodate local pride and the gambling fraternity; inchoate scheduling; and the disrepute of professional football. Becoming president of the league in 1921, Joe Carr, founder of the Columbus Panhandles, one of the charter clubs, soon dealt with issues involving movement of players from team to team, the use of ringers, and, at least to some extent, scheduling. But he had to wrestle for many years with questions of membership and the reputation of professional football.2 [End Page 7]

At the outset, the charter clubs numbered fourteen and primarily represented midsize midwestern cities—Columbus and Canton in Ohio and Hammond in Indiana, for example—and a few larger cities, notably Chicago and Cleveland. By their policy governing membership, Carr and the charter owners permitted a clutter of membership to develop down to 1926 They awarded franchises to nearly any petitioner knocking on the door, often waiving the entrance fee of $100 Nor did they raise serious questions about whether owners of a prospective franchise could weather losses at the gate for a season or so. As a result, membership in the league fluctuated substantially from 1920 through 1926 During the period, including the charter members, transactions involving franchises numbered at least fifty-six, thirteen of them by cancellation or suspension of franchises. In 1926, the peak year for membership, the number reached twenty-five. Now franchises represented small, medium, and large cities throughout the Midwest and East.3

In a roundabout way, Carr and the owners ultimately fashioned a restrictive policy on membership because of another problem. Through the 1920s, the league had to face the hostility of the collegiate establishment—of university administrators, coaches, and fans who asserted that the cash nexus contaminated amateurism. Amateur football, they insisted, built strength of character and manhood that served the individual, the family, and the nation. They had an eloquent spokesman in Amos Alonzo Stagg, the renowned collegiate coach. In 1923, addressing an open letter to "all friends of college football," he declared that "Sunday professional football" threatened the welfare of the intercollegiate game, corrupting as it did the amateur spirit. Perceiving professional football as a territory taken by ethnic and working-class Americans, the collegians, often middle- and upper class old-line Americans, created another reason for disdaining the Sunday game.4

The amateurs attempted to call the professionals to account after Harold "Red" Grange, the sensational running back at the University of Illinois, signed a contract with the Chicago Bears only hours after playing his last collegiate game in 1925 and embarked with the team on three barnstorming tours through the East, South, and West. In response, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the American Football Coaches Association urged administrators not to employ any coach, trainer, or official who gave his services to professional football. The NFL softened the anger by adopting a rule in 1926 prohibiting franchises from signing any collegian until his class had graduated.5

The barnstorming tours drew modest crowds in some cities, but attendance at games in New York City and Los Angeles numbered 60,000 and 70,000 Such numbers, though, did...


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