American Football League (1926)
|Claim to fame||first competitor of National Football League|
|No. of teams||9|
|Last champion(s)||Philadelphia Quakers|
The first American Football League (AFL), sometimes called AFL I, AFLG, or the Grange League, was a professional American football league that operated in 1926. It was the first major competitor to the National Football League. Founded by C. C. Pyle and starring Hall of Fame halfback Red Grange, the short-lived league with nine teams competed against the more established NFL both for players and for fans. While Pyle’s and Grange’s New York Yankees team became a reliable draw, the lack of star power and the uncertain financial conditions of the other eight teams led to the league’s dissolution after one season.
Origin of League
The controversial ending of the National Football League’s 1925 season led to the founding of the first AFL by Red Grange’s agent, C. C. Pyle. In an era in which no professional football team had a prearranged schedule (each team was responsible for booking its own games, with virtually no limitations as to the number of games), the Pottsville Maroons were hailed as the NFL champions by several newspapers after Pottsville defeated the Chicago Cardinals on December 6, even though there were still two weeks left in the season.
Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien hastily arranged for two more games – one against the Milwaukee Badgers the following Thursday, another against the Hammond Pros two days later, even though both teams had already disbanded for the season. Two shutouts (59-0 and 13-0) later, the Cardinals claimed the top spot with a 11-2-1 record. Simultaneous with the Cardinals-Pros game was an exhibition game between Pottsville and an all-star team consisting of former Notre Dame players at Shibe Park, near the home of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, who protested the invasion of territorial rights by the Maroons.
Despite an order from NFL commissioner Joe Carr to cancel the exhibition, the Maroons proceeded to defeat the Notre Dame all-stars 9-7, scoring a field goal in the last minute. Carr immediately canceled the Maroons' scheduled game against the Providence Steam Roller and suspended the franchise. In the league meeting in January 1926, O’Brien refused to accept the championship, but the league record book remained unchanged, showing the Cardinals with a 11-2-1 record to the Maroons’ 10-2-0.
While NFL management was contemplating the penalties for the suspended Pottsville franchise (which was eventually reinstated with the payment of a moderate fine) in December, C. C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle surprised the league by requesting a franchise in New York City for himself and star back Red Grange and secured a five year lease for Yankee Stadium, in direct competition to Tim Mara's year-old New York Giants. When Carr announced a ruling in favor of Mara's objection to Pyle's application for NFL membership, Pyle announced the formation of the first American Football League, featuring Grange and the New York Yankees. The NFL charter member Rock Island Independents left the seven-year-old league to join the AFL, and, and the upstart league matched the NFL in having a road team representing Los Angeles.
The new league chose former Princeton athlete, former New York City deputy of street cleaning, and former Newark, New Jersey chief of waste disposal Bill Edwards as its league president and prepared to compete against the older league for its talent and spectators. The AFL and NFL were head-to-head in New York (Yankees and Giants), Brooklyn (Horsemen and Lions), Chicago (Bulls vs Bears and Cardinals), and Philadelphia (Quakers and Yellow Jackets). The AFL’s Cleveland Panthers, previously independent, were also prepared to go face-to-face with the Cleveland Bulldogs, the NFL champions of 1924, when Bulldogs owner Sam Deutsch decided to suspend the operations for 1926.
Boston Bulldogs. Coached by Herb Treat, Boston’s first professional football team had been in financial difficulty from the beginning, having played only six games before folding in November 1926. Its lack of stars and lack of offense (only three points per game) doomed the franchise as the team failed to score a point in either of its two home games in a nearly empty stadium. Boston would wait until 1932 before it received a professional football franchise (the Boston Braves, now the Washington Redskins).
Brooklyn Horsemen. Coached by Eddie McNeeley, the Horsemen featured Notre Dame Four Horsemen Harry Stuhldreher and Elmer Layden. Unlike the other New York AFL team, Brooklyn suffered at the turnstiles. After only four games, the team was forced to merge with its NFL counterpart (the Lions), played three games in the NFL as the Brooklyn Lions (all shutouts), and winked out of existence at the end of the season.
Chicago Bulls. Owned and coached by Joey Sternaman (brother of Chicago Bears owner Dutch Sternaman), the Bulls also featured the younger Sternaman as quarterback. While the Bulls' owner created havoc within the Chicago Cardinals by securing a lease for Comiskey Park (forcing the Cardinals into a much smaller Normal Field) and attempting to sign their star halfback Paddy Driscoll (who wound up on the Bears as a result of a trade), the Bulls quarterback provided the bulk of the team’s offense, scoring 52 of the Bulls’ 88 points in 14 games. The Bulls were one of only four AFL teams still playing at the end of the season.
Cleveland Panthers. The Panthers had existed as an independent team since 1919, mostly playing teams from upstate New York. Coached by Roy Watts, the Panthers featured six players who played for the NFL’s Cleveland Bulldogs in the 1925 season: Al Michaels, Al Nesser, Dick Wolf, Dave Noble, Ralph Vince, and Doc Elliott. Despite having a potent offense and a winning record, the Panthers drew poorly at home aside from the league-opening game. The team left the AFL hours after losing to the Los Angeles Wildcats road team on October 31; they would return to independent status until folding in 1933.
Los Angeles Wildcats (some news sources referred to the team as the "L.A. Wilson Wildcats"). Named after former University of Washington star halfback Wildcat Wilson and owned by C. C. Pyle and Red Grange, the Wildcats were strictly a traveling team based in Rock Island, Illinois. With only one exception, the entire roster consisted of players who competed for colleges located west of the Rockies. One of its 14 games was played in Toronto, Canada (December 8: New York won, 28-0). Jim Clark was the head coach.
Newark Bears. Owned by the New Jersey Athletic Association (William Coughlin, president) and coached by Hal Hansen, featured a backfield consisting of people who attended college in Georgia (Georgia Tech and Oglethorpe College). The Bears scored a touchdown in its first game, a 7-7 tie with Chicago – and then did not score again in its remaining four games. Newark was the first AFL to fold, calling it quits after playing Rock Island to a scoreless tie in front of 400 fans on October 24, 1926. For its final game, Newark changed its nickname to the Demons.
New York Yankees. Coached by Ralph Scott, the Yankees showcased Red Grange, quarterback George Pease, and wingback Eddie Tryon, a backfield who dominated the league in all offensive categories as the team finished in second place with a 10-5 record. While the rest of the league was starving at the turnstiles, the Yankees were a consistent draw. The Yankees were the only AFL team to outlast the league itself: the league dissolved as the Yankees were on a barnstorming tour of the South and West, and the Yankees entered the NFL as a continuation of the just-defunct Brooklyn franchise for the 1927 season. While New York Giants owner Tim Mara was officially the owner of the “new NFL franchise”, he leased it to C. C. Pyle and Red Grange to compete as the Yankees.
Philadelphia Quakers. The Quakers were a revival of an independent team which played one season in 1921 as an independent (and before that, as the Union Club of Phoenixville from 1907 to 1920). Owned by Leo Conway and coached by Bob Folwell, the Quakers were the AFL’s only league champion, finishing with a 8-2 record and possessing a formidable line anchored by tackles Bull Boehman and Century Milstead. On December 12, 1926, the Quakers played an exhibition game in a snowstorm against the New York Giants in front of 5000 windblown fans, and lost 31-0. Like Chicago and the traveling Wildcats, the Quakers were still alive at the end of the sole AFL season but folded along with the league at the end of the year.
Rock Island Independents. A charter member of the NFL, the Independents left the established league to make the unique accomplishment of being a charter member of a second professional football league, the AFL. Coached by Johnny Armstrong, the Independents played their first three games at Rock Island and then played the rest of their games as a traveling team before entering oblivion on November 21, 1926.
1926 AFL standings
|Philadelphia Quakers||8||2||0||.800||93||52||L. S. Conway||light blue/gold|
|New York Yankees||10||5||0||.667||212||82||C. C. Pyle||red/white/blue|
|Cleveland Panthers||3||2||0||.600||62||46||Charles Zimmerman||brown/gold|
|Los Angeles Wildcats||6||6||2||.500||105||83||C. C. Pyle||light brown|
|Chicago Bulls||5||6||3||.455||88||69||Joey Sternaman||orange/black|
|Boston Bulldogs||2||4||0||.333||20||81||Robert McKirby||dark blue|
|Rock Island Independents||2||6||1||.250||21||126||A. H. Bowlby||green/white|
|Brooklyn Horsemen||1||3||0||.250||25||68||Humbert Fugazy||maroon/black|
|Newark Bears||0||3||2||.000||7||26||William Coughlin1||purple/white|
The first AFL did not maintain individual statistics (the same was true of the NFL until 1934). In recent decades, researchers of the history of American football have compiled them from contemporaneous newspaper accounts. The following is reported by David S. Neft, Richard M. Cohen, and Rick Korch in The Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of Professional Football, From 1892 to the Present.
|Eddie Tryon||New York||72|
|Red Grange||New York||50|
|Wildcat Wilson||Los Angeles||25|
|Harry Fry||New York||18|
|Mal Bross||Los Angeles||14|
8 tied with 12 points each
|George Pease||New York||7|
|Wildcat Wilson||Los Angeles||4|
|Red Grange||New York||2|
8 tied with one touchdown pass each
|Red Grange||New York||3|
|Red Maloney||New York||2|
|Eddie Tryon||New York||2|
19 tied with one touchdown catch each
|Eddie Tryon||New York||6|
|Red Grange||New York||4|
|Duke Morrison||Los Angeles||2|
15 tied with one touchdown run each
|Jim Lawson||Los Angeles||2|
|Dick Reed||Los Angeles||2|
|Eddie Tryon||New York||1|
|Art Coglizer||New York||1|
Demise of the first AFL
While a new nine-team AFL was competing against a National Football League that expanded to 26 teams for the 1926 season, optimism yielded to economic reality for both leagues as most professional football franchises were on financially shaky ground. The war for talent and audience had a disastrous effect on all but the strongest teams. Of the 31 teams that were in existence in 1926, only 12 survived to play in 1927.
While the Yankees and the Quakers consistently drew large crowds, the rest of the AFL did not, and one by one AFL franchises went out of business, even with the financial assistance of C. C. Pyle. The first sign of trouble occurred in mid-October, when Rock Island played its last home game (of three consecutive) and started wandering like the Wildcats. The following week, Brooklyn played its third (and last) home game in the AFL, in front of mainly empty stands. On October 24, 1926, the Newark Bears changed its nickname to the Demons, played a scoreless tie with Rock Island, and disbanded hours after the end of the game. The following week saw the end of the Cleveland franchise.
November 1926 wasn't much brighter for the house of cards that was the American Football League. The Brooklyn Horsemen left the league when it merged with its NFL cousins, the Lions, and played the last three games of its existence (three shutout losses) as the Horsemen. By the middle of the month, the Boston Bulldogs called it quits, as did Rock Island a week later. By Thanksgiving of 1926, there were only four teams operating in the AFL (New York, Chicago, the Wildcats, and Philadelphia), with only the Quakers making a profit for the year (boosted in part by huge attendances stemming from the United States Sesquicentennial celebration and the very large stadium capable of hosting them) and Pyle was spending money to keep the other three teams afloat.
As the Yankees went on a barnstorming tour and the Quakers repeatedly tried to arrange for a game between champions of the two leagues, the Wildcats officially became inactive (in reality, they were touring with the Yankees as the "designated opponent"). The New York Giants (seventh place) accepted the Quakers' challenge, opting for a game in the Polo Grounds on December 12, 1926. The Quakers hopes for both football credibility and a financial windfall evaporated in a blustery snowstorm as only 5000 witnessed complete domination of the AFL champs by the Giants. The final score was 31-0.
The same day, the Chicago Bulls and the New York Yankees met for the last American Football League game in Comiskey Park. The Yankees won, 7-3. The league was no more.
After the AFL
While the bulk of the AFL disappeared at the demise of the league, three members had an official existence after the Giants-Quakers game. Although the Brooklyn Horsemen disbanded after its last NFL game, the team's franchise was never withdrawn or canceled by the league. Tim Mara purchased the franchise and proceeded to lease it to C. C. Pyle for his New York Yankees team. The agreement between the two rivals limited the number of home games that the Yankees were permitted to play in its namesake stadium (four in 1927) and forced Pyle's squad to be primarily a road team displaying the talents of Red Grange. This arrangement lasted for two years: the Yankees were no more after the 1928 season. The Cleveland Panthers, on the other hand, reverted to independent status, and played until 1934.
- 1926 AFLG Standings, Stats and Awards. The "G" apparently refers to "Grange"
- David S. Neft, Richard M. Cohen, and Rick Korch, The Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of Professional Football, From 1899 to the Present (St. Martin’s Press 1994), ISBN 0-312-11435-4
- George Gipe, The Great American Sports Book (Doubleday 1978) ISBN 0-385-13091-0
- The Grange League - Pro Football Researchers Association, citing New York Times, July 17, 1926
- "Bill Edwards Named President of A.F.L." New York Times, March 8, 1926