Dixie League (American football)
|Dixie League (football)|
|Sport||American Professional Football|
|Claim to Fame||highest level pre-World War II minor football league|
|No. of teams||varied from 5 (1936–1937,1940–1947) to 6 (1938–1939)|
|Last champions||Charlotte Clippers|
The Dixie League was a professional American football league founded in 1936 as the South Atlantic Football Association, with six charter member teams in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D. C.. Like the American Association (another minor league that formed in 1936), its popularity (and attendance) rivaled that of the established National Football League. Unlike most minor professional football leagues, the Dixie League had a relative stability in membership in the years prior to World War II, maintaining a five- or six-team lineup (and adding a team in North Carolina upon the demise of the Washington team in 1941).
Like the AA and the second American Football League, the Dixie League suspended operations after the Pearl Harbor attack; unlike the AFL, the minor league reorganized after the end of the war and resumed competition in 1946. The following year, the DL collapsed when one of its member teams purchased the assets of a defunct team in the American Association (which changed its name to the American Football League)… and opted to jump leagues.
The Dixie League began its existence in 1936 when six independent teams joined forces for the purposes of competition. Charter members included the Maryland Athletic Club (which moved to Washington in 1936 to become the Washington Pros), Baltimore Orioles (no relation to the major league baseball team), Norfolk Clancys, Richmond Arrows, Portsmouth Cubs, and the Alexandria Celtics (the last a traveling team). Charles Hamilton became the new league's first president.
Although the new league officially called itself the South Atlantic Football League in its first year of existence, various sportswriters repeatedly called it the "Dixie League." The name was officially adopted for the 1937 season.
Like the New York Yankees of the first American Football League, the Richmond Arrows provided the financial backbone of the Dixie League in its first year, averaging twice as many paying spectators per home game as the other league members. The Arrows played all their games at home, offering the visiting teams a five percent bonus for the privilege. On November 15, 1936, Richmond's coach (Dave Miller) and players walked off the team in an effort for more pay. Richmond manager Blair Meaney, Jr. hired a new head coach (Bob Burdette) and new players (to join the five who didn’t strike) to finish the season.
Baltimore’s Ted Wright led the scoring, while the Orioles also featured the league's top passer, Leroy "Sunshine" Campbell. Until the player strike, back Mush DeLotto provided an explosive running game for the Richmond Arrows.
Fourth-place Portsmouth declined to participate in the playoffs, opting for a game against nearby rival Norfolk. Despite finishing in last place, Alexandria took Portsmouth’s place against Baltimore.
In the first game of a series between the DL champion and the winners of the American Association, the Washington Pros (Dixie League) defeated the Brooklyn Bay Parkways (American Association) 13-6 in Richmond, Virginia, January 1, 1937. While there would be more exhibition games involving members of the two leagues, this was the last time that an American Association team lost to a team in the Dixie League on the gridiron.
Compared to most sporting leagues in their beginning years, the Dixie League had begun strongly. All six charter members were in strong enough shape to compete in a second season (three of the six remained DL members from the 1936 beginning to the aborted 1947 season).
Richmond was still recovering from the effects of the player rebellion when the strikers formed a new team, the Richmond Rebels, and tried to replace the Arrows in the league. After being rebuffed, the Rebels tried to compete against the Arrows by forming the Virginia-Carolina Football League with a handful of semi-pro teams… and then marched through the season undefeated and giving up no points. The VCFL lasted only the 1937 season; the Rebels folded along with the league.
Despite the competition from the Rebels, the Arrows held their own, both on the field and at the turnstiles. Despite their improved record, the Arrows could finish no higher than third place, behind the undefeated defending champion Washington (which became the Presidents) and the newly rechristened Baltimore Blue Birds.
|Baltimore Blue Birds||5||1||1||.833||89||18|
Championship: no playoffs – Washington clinches title on 3-3 tie with Baltimore
While the league featured balance from top to bottom in its maiden season, it clearly divided into the "haves" and "have nots" in 1937. Five members of the Washington Presidents (including backfield mates Tom Oliver and Gene Augusterfer) were named to the all league team. Baltimore's Ted Wright was once again the league's leading scorer while teammate "Sunshine" Campbell dented defenses with his passes. Richmond placed three linemen on the all league team, including league most valuable player Lyle Graham. The winless Portsmouth team had a future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on its roster, player-coach Ace Parker, who played in only one game for the Cubs before he signed with the NFL's Brooklyn Dodgers in early November.
After two years of stability, the Dixie League made some adjustments in 1938. William Nickels, Jr. became the league's second president, replacing Charles Hamilton. The DL was forced to play with only five teams after the folding of the Baltimore Blue Birds, and the Washington Patriots became a traveling team (having been upstaged by the Washington Redskins' entry into the market the year before).
A. E. Stutz, the founder and owner of the Norfolk Clancys, died in late 1937; in 1938, new owner Harry Howren started stockpiling talent (including back Mush DeLotto, formerly of Richmond) sufficient enough for the newly renamed Shamrocks to dominate league play that year. Another Shamrock player, tackle Vernon "Buck" Miles, was named the league's most valuable player at the end of the season.
Portsmouth, winless in 1937, reached .500 in 1938 as quarterback Larry Weldon led the league in scoring.
No playoffs: Norfolk was declared league champions
After the season, Norfolk was defeated, 16-14, by the Hazelton Redskins, champions of the Eastern Pennsylvania Football League. Two members of the 1937 Baltimore Blue Birds ("Sunshine" Campbell and Johnny Spirida) provided the difference in the game, with Campbell throwing two touchdown passes and Spirida scoring ten points in the game.
The number of traveling teams in the Dixie League was halved with the folding of the Alexandria Celtics. The number of league members stayed at five with the entrance of the Newport News Builders, which actually played its home games in nearby Hampton.
“Buck” Miles became the league MVP as he repeated his feat of scoring the most points in the Dixie League. His Cubs finished the season in a tie for the league lead with the Richmond Arrows (the Cubs had a 6-1 record, the Arrows 6-1-1). For the last game, the Cubs added Ace Parker (after he finished an All-Pro season with the NFL Dodgers). He scored the only touchdown in a 7-0 Cubs victory over Newport News Builders to force a playoff with the Richmond Arrows for the league championship (in which Parker scores the only touchdown in a Cubs 7-0 win).
|Newport News Builders||2||4||1||.333||45||47|
Playoff: Portsmouth 7, Richmond 0 – Portsmouth wins league championship
With the addition of the Roanoke Travelers, the Dixie League returned to having six teams for the 1940 season. While the team made a successful debut, finishing in second place, the Travelers had the misfortune of having almost half of its season cancelled as a result of bad weather.
Two early losses deprived Richmond of a chance for competing for the league title (which was easily won by Portsmouth), but the Arrows entertained the fans by being the first DL team to average more than two touchdowns a game. "Sunshine" Campbell, returning to the Dixie League after playing in the American Association and the EPFL, provided the passes, and A. B. Conner became the MVP of the Dixie League by scoring 49 points.
Portsmouth’s Larry Weldon set a new league record by throwing seven touchdown passes in the span of ten games. Over a span of 20 games in 1939 and 1940, Weldon and the Cubs managed to win 16 games, lose two, and tie two games (a .889 winning percentage) – and win two league titles.
Washington struggled through its third consecutive season as a traveling team… and left the league after the end of the 1940 season.
|Newport News Builders||1||7||0||.200||43||92|
No playoffs: Portsmouth declared league champions for the second straight year.
For the first time, the Dixie League had six teams, all of them with actual home fields, with the Charlotte Clippers replacing Washington. As the United States started preparing for a war that appeared to be inevitable in the fall of 1941, the league benefited from the addition of military personnel from bases in the region.
Playing for the Newport News Builders, two such newcomers broke passing and scoring records that were established just the previous year. George Cafego had eight of his passes go for touchdowns, while Ken Fryer scored 61 points, more than any minor league player in a single season before the entry of the US into World War II. Despite the records on offense, the Builders finished the 1941 season in third place.
Charlotte had a successful freshman season in the Dixie League, scoring 184 points, roughly 30 more than Newport News and Norfolk… and the previous record set in 1940 by Richmond. The Clippers finished second to Norfolk, whose star back Pete Sachon was billed as "Pistol Pete" three decades before Pete Maravich. "Pistol Pete" Sachon was selected the DL most valuable player for 1941.
|Newport News Builders||6||3||1||.667||158||87|
No playoffs: Norfolk declared league champion
Like two other professional football leagues – the American Association and the third American Football League – the Dixie League suspended its operations in early 1942 in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack and the US entry into World War II. Norfolk Shamrocks owner Harry Howren disagreed with the decision of the league and opted to form the Virginia Football League for the 1942 season with DL members Portsmouth, Newport News, and Richmond. The plans were short-lived as Newport News failed to field a team and the other three teams played few games before competition was cancelled due to lack of spectator interest.
The league stayed in limbo until 1946. As American troops returned to the United States after the end of World War II, the owners of the Dixie League member teams, led by Howren, announced plans for "reorganizing" the league. With the exception of Roanoke (which was replaced by a team from Greensboro), the Dixie League of 1946 resembled the DL of five years earlier, although a couple of members (Richmond and Portsmouth) opted for changes in the team name. William Nickels, Jr. continued as the league president.
While the league opted to maintain continuity on the playing field, the Dixie League joined forces with the American Association (which changed its name in 1946 to the American Football League) and the Pacific Coast Professional Football League. On March 24, 1946, PCPFL president J. Rufus Klawans announced the "big three" minor leagues had formed the Association of Professional Football Leagues. The APFL entered into a working compact with the NFL, prohibiting the participation of players signed to "outlaw leagues" (originally directed toward the third AFL – which never returned from its limbo – but was subsequently applied to the newly formed All-America Football Conference). The Association lasted less than two years.
The new working relationship the "big three" minor leagues and the NFL reaped positive benefits for the Dixie League as the DL teams lined up "sponsors" in the major league. While both Dixie League and AFL teams acted as "farm teams" for their "sponsors," rules were in place to prevent the stockpiling of talent for later use by the NFL. As a result, the major league teams were not permitted to "raid" their minor league brethren, and the quality of play, and the players, was a step up compared to before World War II.
In addition to the new Greensboro franchise, the Dixie League of 1946 had two charter members change their names. The former Portsmouth Cubs became the Portsmouth Pirates, while the former Richmond Arrows adopted a familiar name: the Richmond Rebels.
The 1946 Dixie League campaign featured a tight race between two teams with potent offenses, the Charlotte Clippers (with backs Casey Jones and Butch Butler) and Richmond (with backs Glenn Knox and Tony Gallovich). League records for offense fell as Butler threw 11 touchdown passes and Richmond's Morgan Tiller had eight touchdown receptions. The two teams were even in their battle for the league title until the Rebels lost their final two games.
The Dixie League had a successful revival in 1946. No one could have foreseen its sudden demise a mere one year later.
|Newport News Builders||1||9||0||.100||53||219|
No playoffs: Charlotte declared Dixie League champions
1947 and the demise of the Dixie League
After a successful revival in 1946, the Dixie League prepared for a season of change in 1947. It inaugurated a new president, Tom Hanes. The Greensboro Patriots moved to Winston-Salem, while the Roanoke Travelers returned to the fold, replacing the defunct Newport News franchise. Plans for possible expansion were being made for the 1948 season.
The optimism of the league started to disappear just before the first week of competition. Both Winston-Salem and Roanoke withdrew, leaving the Dixie League with a mere four teams. The week after the opening day (October 5) games, the league itself disappeared.
On October 7, control of the Portsmouth Pirates was transferred from an ailing Charles Aberson to a group based in Charlottesville, with the agreement that the team would revert to Aberson in 1948. The next day, the league was blindsided by the announcement that longtime DL member Richmond purchased the assets of a defunct American Football League franchise (the Long Island Indians, which lost all three games they played that season) and defected to the other minor league.
The move inflicted a fatal wound to the Dixie League. A month earlier, the DL had six members ready for competition; after the Richmond defection, only three teams remained. The league was forced to call it quits. While there were discussions of a possible reorganization for 1948, the Dixie League was no longer a viable entity. The Charlotte Clippers continued through 1949 as an independent team, while members of the Portsmouth Pirates and Norfolk Shamrocks combined forces to test the waters of independence in 1948.
The Richmond Rebels, Dixie League charter members like Portsmouth and Norfolk, continued their participation in the American Football League until the league had its implosion in 1950 (the Rebels won the last two AFL championships, in 1949 and 1950). The team petitioned to join the All-America Football Conference for the 1950 season, but the major league’s merger with the National Football League thwarted the club’s intentions.
- Nothing Minor About It: The American Association/AFL of 1936-1950 – Bob Gill, Pro Football Researchers Association (1990)
- A History of the Dixie League – Bob Gill, Pro Football Researchers Association (1988)
- Other Minor Leagues – Bob Gill, Pro Football Researchers Association (1989)
- All for One… The Minor Leagues' "Big Three" Make History in 1946 – Bob Gill, Pro Football Researchers Association (1989)
- "3 Top Minor Football Leagues In Alliance to Combat 'Jumping'; Pacific Coast, American and Dixie Circuits to Ask N.F.L. to Join - Plan Protection of Clubs' Territorial Rights" - New York Times, 24 March 1946
- "FOOTBALL PACT ENDED; Bell Reveals That N.F.L. and American Loop Have Parted". New York Times. February 10, 1948.