Latrobe Athletic Association

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Latrobe Athletic Association
Founded 1895
Folded 1909
Based in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, United States
League Independent
Team History Latrobe Athletic Association
(1895–1907)
Team Colors Orange, Maroon[1] (1895–1898)
         
Red and Blue (1898–1903)
         
Red, Green (1903–1909)
         
Nickname(s) "Latrobers"
Head coaches Russell Aukerman (1895–1896)
John Brallier (1896)
Walter Okeson (1897)
Alfred E. Bull (1898)
Russell Knight (1899–1900)
John Brallier (1902–1907)
General managers David J. Berry (1895–1904)
John Brallier (1904–1907)
Owner(s) Latrobe YMCA
W. Pennsylvania Championship wins (3) 1903, 1904, 1905
Undefeated seasons (4) 1898, 1903, 1904, 1905
Home field(s) Latrobe YMCA

The Latrobe Athletic Association was a professional football team located in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, from 1895 until 1909. The team is best known for being the first football club to play a full season while composed entirely of professional players. In 1895, team's quarterback, John Brallier, also became the first football player to openly turn pro, by accepting $10 and expenses to play for Latrobe against the Jeannette Athletic Club.[2]

Origins[edit]

In 1895 the local Latrobe YMCA organized a local football team and announce that the team play a formal schedule. With the decision, Russell Aukerman, an instructor at the club and a former Gettysburg College halfback, was named as a player-coach. Meanwhile, David Berry, an editor-publisher of a local newspaper, the Latrobe Clipper, was chosen as the team's manager. Harry Ryan, a former tackle from West Virginia University, was then elected as the team's captain. The then team began to conduct daily practices in early August. Since many of the players held jobs unrelated to football, those men working different shifts were accommodated with evening drills when they could not attend regular sessions in the afternoon. Their practices were held on a vacant Pennsylvania Railroad lot at the corner of Depot and Alexandria Streets, which was lit at night by a street light.[1]

First admitted professional football player[edit]

John Brallier: The first football player to admit to being a professional

Just before the start of the season, Latrobe quarterback Eddie Blair found himself in a scheduling conflict. Blair, who also played baseball in nearby Greensburg, discovered that the team's first football game against the Jeannette Athletic Club conflicted with a prior baseball commitment. Berry was now given the task for replacing Blair, for the game. He heard of an Indiana Normal quarterback named John Brallier. Berry contacted Brallier at his home in Indiana, and offered him expenses to play for Latrobe. However Brallier was reluctant to play since he would be playing for Washington & Jefferson College within just a few weeks. This led Berry to offer Brallier $10 to play for Latrobe against Jeannette, plus expenses, with the promised several future games. Brallier, accepted the offer and became the first player to openly admit to being paid to play football player. The quarterback arrived in Latrobe the night before the game and practiced with the team.[3]

While Brallier was considered the first professional football player and deemed a national icon for many years, it wasn't until after his death in 1960 that evidence proved John Brallier was not in fact the first professional football player, but merely the first one to openly admit that he was paid. William "Pudge" Heffelfinger of the Allegheny Athletic Association is now considered the first professional player.[4]

Early years[edit]

1895 season[edit]

Latrobe's 1895 team

The first game of Latrobe's 1895 season was played on a Tuesday afternoon on September 3, 1895. Before the game, a parade formed on newly paved Ligonier Street. The parade was led by Billy Showalter’s Cornet Band, while both the Latrobe and Jeannette teams followed in full uniforms. The Latrobe team colors of Orange and Maroon were displayed in store windows and hotels, and on street corner poles. Stores closed, and steel mines and coal and coke works declared a half-holiday for the occasion. The game began at 4:00 pm with Latrobe coming out as the victor over Jeannette. Latrobe's coach, Russell Auckerman, scored two touchdowns (each worth fiur points at the time), while Brallier kicked two extra points (then worth 2 points each) for a final score of 12–0.

After the game, Brallier played a second game with Latrobe, before traveling to Washington & Jefferson for college. The game was held on September 14, against a squad from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and ended in a 7–0 Latrobe loss. While at Washington & Jefferson, Braillier became the college's varsity quarterback. Meanwhile, the 1895 Latrobe YMCA team ended up playing 11 games, for a record of 7–4 with two losses to their cross-county rivals, the Greensburg Athletic Association, and single losses to Altoona and West Virginia University.[3]

1896[edit]

Latrobe played its second season in 1896. Many of the players on team played the year before. Brallier accepted an offer to return to the team and served as the team's quarterback and coach. The team started off with wins against the Pittsburgh Imperials, the renamed Jeannette Indians, Altoona, and Western University of Pennsylvania (now University of Pittsburgh) before finally losing to the Greensburg Athletic Association, 10–4. The team later split a two-game series against West Virginia University and won against Braillier's former Normal Indiana team, before once again losing to Greensburg, 10–0, to finish with a 7–3 record.[5]

First All-Pro team[edit]

1897 Latrobe Team: The First All Professional Team to Play an Entire Season

The Latrobe team was composed entirely of professionals in 1897. Manager Dave Berry signed a number of college players from east coast college, and as far west as Iowa, to the team. Meanwhile, Walter Okeson, a former All-American end from Lehigh University, was named as the team's coach. George Shelafo of the Carlisle Indian School, located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, also joined Latrobe that season. Shelafo was set to play for the University of Chicago that fall before he was lured to Latrobe by Berry. After the team's game against Western University of Pennsylvania, Doggie Trenchard and Eddie Blair, the team's original quarterback who was replaced by Brallier in 1895, joined the team.

The team began the season 7–0–1 with wins over Jeannette, Pittsburgh Emeralds, Pittsburgh College, Pitt, and a team from Youngstown, Ohio. The team remained undefeated before facing the Duquesne Athletic Club for a 12–6 loss at Pittsburgh's Exposition Park. However the team did rebound to defeat the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, and Youngstown. The championship of western Pennsylvania was expected to be a battle between the Duquesne and Pittsburgh Athletic Club. However both Greensburg and Youngstown ended up defeating Duquesne. This led to talk of a championship game between Greensburg and Latrobe. However with the season still incomplete, a regular season game between the two clubs took place in Greensburg on November 20, 1897. The game resulted in a hard fought 12–6 victory for Latrobe in what locals called “one of the greatest games ever played in western Pennsylvania.” However after a 18–0 defeat at the hands of West Virginia, Latrobe lost the final game of the season to Greensburg, 6-0. However a Pittsburgh-based football expert picked an all-western Pennsylvania team from among the region's amateur, pro, and college teams, and three of the 11 players chosen were from the Latrobe club. These members were Walter Okeson (end), Harry Ryan (tackle), and Ed Abbaticchio (fullback).[6]

First all-star team and down years (1898-1902)[edit]

Latrobe's manager, David J. Berry

The Latrobe squad remained a strong competitor for the next several seasons. However the team did not provide much of a challenge for the western Pennsylvania championship. The 1898 team started off to a 7–0 record, before losing three games to Pittsburgh Athletic Club, Duquesne Country and Athletic Club and Greensburg to finish 7–3.[4]

After their 1898 season first all-star team in professional football history, composed of early football players, from several teams in the area. The team was formed by Latrobe manager, Dave Berry, for the purpose of playing the Duquesne Country and Athletic Club, which fielded a team composed of many of the game's stars from the era. The game between the two clubs ended in a 16-0 Duquesne victory and is considered to be the very first all-star game for professional football. Contrary to popular belief, while the game was held at Exposition Park, which would be currently located inside of the city limits of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the 1898 location of the game was Allegheny, Pennsylvania which was not incorporated into the city of Pittsburgh until 1907.[7]

The very next season marked the team's first undefeated season, despite only playing four games. However the 1898, 1899 and 1900 seasons did showcase what can historically be considered Latrobe's most colorful player, Charles Barney. Off the field, Barney had a reputation for entertaining both fans and fellow players by lifting and holding a piano while a man played it. The 1901 Latrobe season was another low-profile year, the team played only three games for a 2-1 record. But the stage was set for a later resurgence with development of some squad members. The team lost, 12–0, to a squad from nearby Derry and won two games over teams picked up from men working at Latrobe Steel.[1]

"Wait until next year"[edit]

For the team's 1902 campaign, John Brallier rejoined the team as player-coach. Latrobe, once again played only a small number of games that fall. The team played in four games. After posting scoreless ties against Indiana Normal and the Wilkinsburg Sterling Athletic Club, the team defeated the Indiana First Regiment team, 22-2. In the season finale, Latrobe defeated the Latrobe Steel Works, 17–0. At the end of the season most of the team's followers and players were optimistic about the club's future. Most of Brallier’s players were between the ages of 17–18 years and expressed a desire to learn, and drilled for long hours in fundamentals. Brallier correctly, as it turned out, anticipated what was reflected in street conversation throughout Latrobe, “wait until next year.”[4]

Undefeated seasons[edit]

1903[edit]

For 1903, a YMCA was organized under the leadership of the Latrobe Steel Works, and its membership included many of the players from the 1902 team. A football organization was formed with Brallier once again serving as a player-coach. A fence was built around the Latrobe Steel Athletic Grounds and new uniforms were ordered with money donated by several local merchants. Further experience was added when several former players of the 1890s rejoined the team. Locally, Latrobe was the acclaimed western Pennsylvania champion after posting the undefeated season.[1] While the Franklin Athletic Club was generally considered the "U.S. Pro Champion" that year, the team had refused to play Latrobe.[8]

Ironically for a team that made history by fielding an all-professional line-up for a complete season, the 1903 Latrobe team was composed of all amateurs. Brallier wrote in retrospect in 1934 that the 1903 Latrobe backfield “was the best I had ever played with and the best I have ever seen.” However, despite their winning season, the Latrobe team was losing money. Crowds for the games were small, which led to a drop in revenue.[1]

1904[edit]

At a June 4 team meeting, Brallier was once again elected as the team's coach and manager, and Harry Ryan was again elected as the team's captain. Latrobe's 1904 season ended in another undefeated season for the team. In an effort to keep expenses down, the team reportedly used just nine footballs throughout the season. After all debts and expenses were paid, the 16 players divided up about $500 in profits. A big post-season event was a chicken and waffle benefit supper at Latrobe's Mozart Hall, at which over 5,000 waffles “rolled in pools of chicken gravy” were consumed. The Hotel Mahaney also held a banquet for the team.

However tragedy ddid strike the team shortly after the season. Paul Blair, the brother Latrobe's Eddie Blair, was killed when he was hit by train walking along the Pennsylvania Railroad line between Latrobe and Derry.[9] Latrobe players Harry Ryan and John Brallier served as pallbearers at the funeral. The team also reportedly sent a beautiful floral wreath, to the Blair home. In the wreath, draped in team colors, were the words "Latrobe Football Team, 1904".[1]

1905[edit]

By this time it had been three years since Latrobe posted a defeat, and the team scored on only once in the last two seasons. The 1905 season saw a mood of optimism in Latrobe. Several new college players were signed to the team. While jobs were secured to bring some more football talent to Latrobe and keep others there. However scheduling was difficult, many teams either refusing to play Latrobe or asking overly high financial guarantees. Still the team did manage to secure an 8-0 record without giving up a point.[1]

However this season Latrobe took part in a high-profile game against the Canton Bulldogs from Canton, Ohio. The Bulldogs were a professional team of wide repute in the unofficial "Ohio League" and would later became a founding member, and two-time champion, of the National Football League. Canton was a particularly strong team that scored over 100 points in many of its games. A game between the two clubs was arranged November 18, 1905 in Latrobe. Despite injuries to several of the Latrobe players, the team went on to defeat the Bulldogs 6–0.[10] A season-ending game against Canton's "Ohio League" rivials, the Massillon Tigers, was proposed but never occurred.

On December 2, 1905, the Latrobe Bulletin devoted a full page to the three-year Latrobe record of 26-0, and 794-5 points spread. Furthermore, the Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph published two teams of all-stars, and among western Pennsylvania 22 teams. The paper cited were five Latrobe players: Hayes (tackle), Van Doren (tackle), Harry Ryan (guard), Gibson (guard), and Brallier (quarterback). At the end of the year, a Football Association was being planned to include teams in Latrobe, Steelton, Franklin, and Pittsburgh representing Pennsylvania, and the Akron Indians, the Canton Bulldogs, the Massillon Tigers, and Shelby Blues representing Ohio. The plan was for the teams to settle championships within each state, with the two state winners to meet in a championship game on Thanksgiving Day. Salary limits were reportedly established, while other details were worked out. However the project never materialized.[1]

Decline[edit]

1906 season[edit]

The 1906 season saw the beginning of the decline of professional football in Latrobe. Many players were still attracted to Latrobe for football, and many players remained in the community, working in industrial, mining, and mercantile jobs. The success of the three years through 1905 brought inquiries from prominent players all over the nation who wanted to come to Latrobe in 1906. However, an effort to obtain funds with which to pay players apparently failed when 25 shares at $100 each were not subscribed.

On November 29, 1906, the Latrobe was defeated for the first time in four years by Canton, 16–0. On top of that, Latrobe had been guaranteed $1,500 for the game, $1,200 of which was to used to pay the players, and $300 for expenses. But the Canton's manager Blondy Wallace was unable to pay, the result of the fallout from an infamous betting scandal between Massillon and Canton. The problems had soured Canton's 1,200 fans who turned out for the game, further complicating things. Canton players were not paid as a result, in addition. To help pay for the Latrobe team's expenses an effort was established in Latrobe, which raised part of the team's $300 expense debt, and the balance of the money was borrowed by the YMCA so that it could be paid.[1][11]

1907 season[edit]

By October 1907, sentiment in Latrobe had grown for keeping the football team comprising local men and not hiring players from out of town. However, despite the changing atmosphere, the 1907 season was moderately successful with a 5-2-2 record. Harry Ryan was retired; while John Brallier served mainly as a coach. Leo Gibson was then elected as Latrobe's captain.

California YMCA[edit]

In a bizarre story during that final season, the "California (Pennsylvania) YMCA team" came to Latrobe for a game, and was ejected from its rooms at the Parker House for "chasing and frightening a chambermaid," jumping on beds and breaking two of them, and for language "far from what might be asked for from YMCA boys." Latrobe would go on to win the game, 38–0, in front of a small crowd. However, it was later discovered that there wasn't a YMCA located in California. Who Latrobe played in that game remains a mystery.

1908-1909[edit]

The decrease in community interest and the change of the team from a professional football club to local amateur team, coincided with John Brallier's last year as a player, although he continued to help coach local teams. Some of the players continued with the 1908 and 1909 loose amateur squads, captained by Peck Lawson, however the out-of town players and the old rivalries had generally disappeared.[1]

Legacy[edit]

Several of the prominent members of the original Latrobe professional football teams, including Brallier, Ryan, Abbaticchio and Peck Lawson, lived around Latrobe for many years. Ed Abbaticchio, outside of football, also played National League baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, and in between played in Boston for the club that is now the Atlanta Braves.[12] John Brallier practiced dentistry in Latrobe, and the others were generally employed in locally. Brallier later spent 20-years as a school director, from which he retired at the end of 1931. In 1979, John Brallier was voted one of the "Best Pros Not in the Hall of Fame" by the Pro Football Researchers Association.[3]

After World War II, the success of baseball's Hall of Fame spawned plans for a similar football hall. At that time, Latrobe was recognized by the National Football league as the birthplace of professional football, and Brallier was given a lifetime pass for NFL games. However the Hall of Fame was awarded to Canton, but homage was paid to Latrobe's status when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers played an exhibition game there on August 29, 1952. The event also honored the early pro player survivors.[10]

Today Latrobe is home to the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp, located at Saint Vincent's College.[13]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Van Atta, Robert (1980). "Latrobe, PA: Cradle of Pro Football". Coffin Corner (Professional Football Researchers Association) 2 (Annual): 1–21. 
  2. ^ "Chronology of Football 1869-1910". NFLTeamHistory.com. Retrieved February 28, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c PFRA Research. "Ten Dollars and Cakes: The "Not Quite" First Pro: 1895". Coffin Corner (Professional Football Researchers Association): 1–5. 
  4. ^ a b c Riffenburgh, Beau and Bob Carroll (1989). "The Birth of Pro Football". Coffin Corner (Professional Football Researchers Association) 11 (Annual): 1–30. 
  5. ^ Van Atta, Robert (1983). "The History of Pro Football At Greensburg, Pennsylvania (1894-1900)". Coffin Corner (Professional Football Researchers Association) (Annual): 1–14. 
  6. ^ "Out in the Boondocks". Professional Football Researchers Association. Retrieved February 28, 2012. 
  7. ^ PFRA Research. Stars Over All-Stars (Annual). Professional Football Researchers Association. pp. 1–5. 
  8. ^ PFRA Research. "Franklin's Hired Guns: 1903". Coffin Corner (Professional Football Researchers Association): 1–3. 
  9. ^ "Picked Up Son's Shoe, Disclosed His Death". The Latrobe, PA "Bulletin (December 12). 1904. 
  10. ^ a b Van Atta, Robert (1981). "The Early Years of Pro Football in Southwestern Pennsylvania". Coffin Corner (Professional Football Researchers Association) 3 (Annual): 1–21. 
  11. ^ Carroll, Bob (1984). "Blondy Wallace and the Biggest Football Scandal Ever". Pro Football Researchers Association 5. Retrieved February 24, 2012. 
  12. ^ During his first tenure in Boston, the team was called Beaneaters from 1903-05; in his final season in 1910, they were called the Doves; the club's current nickname, Braves, was adopted in 1911, and the club moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1953, and Atlanta, Georgia in 1966.
  13. ^ Fetter, Karen. "Latrobe: A Great Town In Westmoreland County". InWestmoreland.com. Retrieved February 28, 2012.