F & AC
first six seasons the National Football League expanded from humble beginnings
to firmly establish itself as the premier professional football league. Then, in 1926, Red
Granges American Football League made the first serious challenge to the
NFLs dominance of the game. On a somewhat less grandiose scale, 1926 also saw
the formation of the Eastern League of Professional Football.
A modest affiliation of independent clubs from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the
Eastern League was a regional minor league that never intended to challenge
NFL or AFL. The Newark Blues and Atlantic City Roses were the league's two Garden
State entries. The western and southern edges of the league were represented by All-Lancaster, an accomplished team from Pennsylvania Dutch
and two clubs from the Philadelphia area, the Mount Airy Athletic Association and
Clifton Heights Black & Orange. In between lay the core of
the league, hailing from the coal mining region of
Northeastern Pennsylvania. These teams included the
Coaldale Big Green, Gilberton Catamounts, Mount Carmel Wolverines and Shenandoah
Red Jackets, all of the old Anthracite League, as well as the more recently formed
In the early autumn of 1926, Michael "Gyp" Downey prepared to bring his football team, the Bethlehem Bears, into the newly formed Eastern League of Professional Football. Downey had assembled an interesting mix of local sandlot and former collegiate players that had football fans in Bethlehem fans looking forward to a successful season. Perhaps the best known member of the team's line-up, at least to the fans in Bethlehem, was Carl Beck. A product of Harrisburg (PA) Tech, Beck had honed his football skills at the University of West Virginia before joining the ranks of the Anthracite League. Together with his older brother, Clarence, he had helped the Pottsville Maroons to that association's championship in 1924.
The first game of the Bears' 1926 season was a non-league contest against the Hackers Athletic Club, of nearby Allentown, (PA). The Hackers presented a good warm-up for the Bears, allowing the young team to develop its legs. The outing was modestly successful, a 6-0 victory coming on the strength of a Carl Beck touchdown in the first quarter. But the clubs of the Eastern League were a lot stronger than the Hackers. The Bears would need to put together a better game if they hoped to be competitive in the new league.
The following weekend the Bears kicked off their Eastern League campaign, hosting the Coaldale Big Green at Fabricators' Field. Over the years the Big Green, run by newspaper publisher Casey Gildea, had established itself as a perennial power on the gridirons of the Pennsylvania coal region. This season was no different. Coaldale was widely expected to contend for, if not capture, the new league's pennant. Bethlehem strengthened its lineup in anticipation of this contest, through the addition of Tony Youkanis. A talented sandlot player, Youkanis had played a strong game for Hackers against the Bears just one week before. As it turns out, the addition of Youkanis mattered little. The loss of Carl Beck in the second half mattered a lot. Gildea's well oiled machine ran roughshod over their hosts, as the Bethlehemites were left holding the short end of a 16-0 shut-out.
The Bears were in much better form on the first Sunday in October as the squad headed down to Philadelphia suburbs to square-off against the Black & Orange of Clifton Heights. Bethlehem was in control of that contest from the opening kick-off to the final whistle. Carl Beck and Gyp Downey pounded the ball through the line, while Carroll "Ginny" Gooch and Joe Lehecka had little trouble taking it around the ends. The combination kept the Black & Orange on their heels for most of the game. A well aimed dropkick field goal by Downey, coupled with a touchdown by Beck, provided the Bears' 10-0 margin of victory.
The Newark Blues came calling on October 10. Although Newark came into Fabricators' Field having already suffered losses to Clifton Heights and Coaldale, the score in both of those games was a close 3-0. The Blues' strong defense had yet to surrender a touchdown and was expected to give the Bears trouble. Surprisingly it was Bethlehem that played the stronger defensive game, virtually shutting down Newark's primary offensive weapon, a noted fullback out of Syracuse named Claude "Chief" Newberry. At the same time the Bears' speed gave them an edge on offense. The highlight of the afternoon was an eighty yard Ginny Gooch punt return for a touchdown, as Bethlehem rolled to a 17-0 victory.
Mid-October brought a period of rough going to the fledgling Eastern League. Down in Clifton Heights, Manager Jimmy Gallagher found his books $1500 in the red after just three games, prompting him to withdraw the Black & Orange in an effort to save his team from bankruptcy. The biggest problem seems to have been a lethal combination of poor gates and expensive guarantees. Local newspapers reported that Mount Airy and Atlantic City were experiencing similar difficulties. In Bethlehem, the Bears were feeling some strain as well. But according to Bethlehem's Globe-Times, Gyp Downey reaffirmed his commitment to play on. Privately, he hoped the conclusion of the World Series would bring more fan interest in his football team.
The Bears next headed up to Shenandoah, there to face the Red Jackets. "Shendo," like Coaldale, had come out of the Anthracite League, and also like the Big Green, the Red Jackets promised to be a tough opponent. The entire team would need to play well if the Bears were to come away from the contest with a win. Once in Shenandoah, however, manager Downey found himself with just twelve players. The rest of his squad, it seems, was stranded on a roadside somewhere, victims of an automobile breakdown. The Bears took to the field with only one player in reserve, and it wasn't long before the shortage of back-ups became a factor in the game. Shortly after the opening kick-off, center Hymie Goldman was forced out of the game with a leg injury. Charlie Heath, normally a substitute guard, replaced Goldman at center. Then, on the very next play, Heath was himself injured and forced out of the game. The Bears played valiantly with just ten men for the remainder of the contest, but Shendo's man advantage proved too much to overcome. The Red Jackets coasted to a 20-0 victory, and the Bears' record dropped to .500 in league play.
The team was back at home on October 24, to face the Atlantic City Roses. The hapless Atlantic City eleven had started off the season with a string of losses to Frankford, Mount Carmel, Gilberton and Lancaster, before pulling out a scoreless tie against Mount Airy. In the week preceding the Bethlehem game, Roses' Coach Walter French cleaned house. Among the new faces he brought into his club's lineup were Eddie McGinley and Stan Sieracki, both former Penn players, and Ferdie Eble, a gridiron mercenary who had previously seen action with several teams in Eastern Pennsylvania. French's club also received an unexpected helping hand when, for the second game in a row, Gyp Downey's team was forced to play shorthanded. Although the full roster of players was at the clubhouse when Downey distributed game jerseys prior to leaving for the field, only ten men were on hand at game time. Among those missing were Carl Beck, Ginny Gooch, Max Levitz, and brothers Leo and Tony Lynch. For the second time in as many games, the Bethlehem manager was forced to juggle his lineup and yield a man advantage. Worse yet, with most of the club's former collegians missing, the Bears' line-up consisted mainly of players whose primary experience came on sandlots around Bethlehem.
The contest itself took place in a drizzling rain that turned Fabricators' Field into a muddy mess. Still, some 500 fans braved the weather to watch as the shorthanded locals gave a good account of themselves against the Roses. Augmented by the addition of two players late in the first quarter, the Bears gained enough of an upper hand on defense to prevent the Roses from threatening even once. On the offensive side, however, Bethlehem suffered for lack of the regulars, namely Beck and Gooch. Keeping the ball on the ground, quarterback Gyp Downey and fullback Beets Berger carried most of the rushing load. The Bears' only genuine scoring opportunity came on a Downey dropkick that went wide. Neither team having scored, the game ended as a draw.
The next morning the Globe-Times reported Downey's suspension of the players who participated in the walkout, as well as his intention to petition the league in an effort to ban those involved from further league play. By the following weekend, however, cooler heads prevailed. Carl Beck and Max Levitz returned to the Bears' lineup, as did Hymie Goldman, who had missed the Atlantic City game due to a leg injury. Another new face on the Bethlehem roster was Mike Gaffney, a strong tackle also noted for his dropkicking ability, who had started the season with Clifton Heights. As the Bears headed west to face All-Lancaster, their prospects still seemed uncertain.
The Bethlehem-Lancaster tilt was another close one. Within minutes of the opening kick-off, Hymie Goldman was back on the sideline with a re-injured leg. John DeRocco, affectionately known as "Johnny-D," was shifted over to cover center and the Bears' line played solidly the rest of the contest. It was a hard fought scrap, but heading into the final quarter Bethlehem held a 6-0 lead on the strength of two Gyp Downey field goals. Sensing the end was near, Lancaster launched its most effective drive of the game a strong series of passes that eventually took the ball inside the Bethlehem 5-yard line. The Bears defense stopped the Red Roses' offense on each of the next three plays, but on fourth down Rae McGraw, the former Penn captain, broke free on an end-around for a game tying touchdown. With the score even and little time left on the clock, the Bears went all out to prevent the point-after. Their determination paid off when Gyp Downey broke through the line and blocked the kick. That play summed up the entire game for the Bears. Despite the fact that the contest ended as a 6-6 tie, the effort was by all accounts was the club's strongest game to that point in the season.
Heading into November the Bears stood at a crossroads. The team had made a strong showing against Lancaster, but if it was entertaining any ideas of pulling out a respectable record in the league, it had to begin notching victories. It was time to put up or shut up. The winning had to begin with the next game, against the Mount Carmel Wolverines.
The tilt with Mt. Carmel started off poorly for Bethlehem. Carl Beck fumbled the opening kick-off, and Mt. Carmel recovered. Thankfully the Bears' defense stepped up and prevented any advantage from the turnover. Later in the opening quarter the Wolverines pushed to the Bears' 35-yard line, before kicking a forty-three yard field goal to go ahead, 3-0. Bethlehem bounced back with a drive of its own in second quarter. That series ended with a Mike Gaffney touchdown reception. Gyp Downey's extra point put the Bears ahead, 7-3. After the half Bethlehem tried to build on its lead, but three scoring opportunities were squandered when penalties nullified two apparent Bethlehem touchdowns, and another Downey dropkick drifted wide of its mark. Later the Bears initiated another, more successful, drive. Taking possession at their own 20-yard line, the series culminated with twenty-five yard Gyp Downey field goal that took the Bethlehem lead to seven points. Late in the game the Wolverines once again took to the air. Starting close to mid-field, a quick series of passes brought the ball to the Bethlehem 25-yard line. With time enough remaining for just one or two plays, the Wolverines put it up again in a desperate attempt to reach the end zone. The Bears' Joe Cannon, however, got the pick. Time finally ran out with Bethlehem in possession.
In the week leading up to Bethlehem's next game, against Mount Airy, a remarkable stroke of good fortune befell the Bears. Gilberton squared off against Coaldale on Armistice Day, and a Catamounts' victory opened the door for the Bears in the race for the league championship. In order to take full advantage of this good fortune, however, Bethlehem would need to run the table in its three remaining league games.
The Mt. Airy Athletic Association was a middling team in the Eastern League, one that Bethlehem was expected to handle easily. The first quarter confirmed expectations, as the Bears darted out to a 14-0 lead on the strength of a passing game that netted two Gyp Downey touchdown passes one to Mike Gaffney and the other to Joe Cannon. Mt. Airy's only scoring opportunity came in the second quarter, but a Joe Cannon interception ended that threat. In the third quarter a fifteen yard field goal by Downey rounded out the scoring. The Bears coasted to a 17-0 shutout.
Next up at Fabricators' Field was the Gilberton Catamounts. Fresh off of victories over Mt. Carmel and Coaldale, Gilberton was making their own run at the league championship. The clash between the up and coming Bears and the Catamounts, featuring renowned halfback Fritz Pollard, was expected to be a difficult one. The winner of this contest would be in the catbird's seat heading into the final weekend of the season.
The first half of the contest was a punting duel between Gyp Downey and Fritz Pollard, with neither team gaining any real advantage. A dropped ball by Pollard in the third quarter, however, set up the Bears first points of the game. The Catamounts' star halfback recovered his own fumble, but with more than thirty yards to go for a first down, he was forced to punt. A good return by Carl Beck set up a dropkick by Downey that gave the Bears a 3-0 lead. In the final period a Downey punt lofted over Pollard's head, going out of bounds on the Catamounts' 6-yard line. Just a few plays later Gilberton turned the ball over again when Bethlehem's Ginny Gooch intercepted an errant pass that he promptly returned thirty yards for a touchdown. A blocked point after attempt held the Bears lead to nine points. When the Catamounts again took possession they opened up their passing game. Soon afterward Pollard broke loose in open field and appeared to have a clear run to the end zone. But Carl Beck came up big, tackling the Gilberton halfback in the open field and preserving the Bears' 9-0 victory.
On Thanksgiving Day the Bears headed up to Staten Island (NY), to face a team known as the Stapletons so called because they hailed from the Stapleton section of Staten Island. A well-rounded club that had been challenging independent teams from throughout the New York-North Jersey area since 1915, the "Stapes" season record at the time they faced the Bears stood at 7-3-0. Two of those losses had come against the National Football League's Brooklyn Horsemen and American Football League's Newark Bears. The holiday clash with the Staten Island club could have provided a real measure of the Bears prowess, but manager Downey opted to rest several of his regular starters in preparation for the all important league finale, against Lancaster, the following Sunday.
The Stapleton offense relied heavily on the run, powered primarily by fullback Doug Wycoff, while the Bears countered with a mix of rushing and passing. Bethlehem got on the board first, with a second quarter touchdown pass from Honey Lewin to Leo Douglass, who was wide open in the end zone. The Stapes struck back in the third quarter, when Wycoff bulled his way through the Bethlehem line for a score. The follow-up extra point, by former Georgia Tech star J. D. Brewster, tied the score at seven all. Late in the final quarter Brewster took the ball over for Staten Island's second touchdown. His follow-up dropkick provided the final, 14-7, margin of victory. While reporting on the Stapleton game, the Globe-Times also noted the the Bears were scheduled to take on the Amicus Club, a successful team from nearby Allentown (PA), the following Saturday. For some unknown reason, however, it appears that this contest did not take place.
Playing their second game in four days, the Bears squared-off in a rematch with All-Lancaster. This contest, between the two leading teams in the Eastern League, would most certainly determine the league champion. The warm sun made cold conditions bearable, as the two teams spent the afternoon locked in a bitter defensive struggle. Before long Lancaster seemed to gain the advantage when three key Bethlehem players Mike Gaffney, Joe Cannon and Carl Beck were forced out of the game with injuries. The Roses' backfield trio of Rae McGraw, Briggs Kingsley and Bunny Sawyer pressed forward, but the Bears defenders held firm. Late in the first quarter Bethlehem penetrated deep enough for Gyp Downey to try a thirty-eight yard dropkick, but the attempt fell short. Lancaster penetrated to the Bethlehem 35-yard line twice in the third quarter, but both times the Bears defense stiffened. On the second drive a Lancaster dropkick fell well short of its mark. The Bears' Ginny Gooch fielded the errant ball, which he returned to the Lancaster 40-yard line. The short lived series ended soon after on a Bears' fumble. With time running out Lancaster took to the air with a passing attack that brought the ball back into Bethlehem territory. That drive also ended in a turnover, as Charlie Eastman picked a Kingsley pass that had been intended for Rae McGraw. On the ensuing drive the Bears took the ball nearly the entire length of the field in just two plays. First, a Downey to Eastman pass, combined with a lateral to Gooch, took the ball to the Lancaster 30-yard line. Then another quick pass to Leo Douglass put the ball inside the 5-yard line. Two strong rushing plays brought the ball within inches of the goal before a Bethlehem penalty reset it farther back. With time running out Gyp Downey dropped back to the 20-yard line to improve his angle and dropkicked the game winning field goal.
By the Bears' reckoning, their 6-2-2 record against league opponents and post-season victory over All-Lancaster was certainly enough to legitimize their claim to a Eastern League championship. It seems, however, that there was some question regarding Bethlehem's claim to the championship. This may have been related to the introduction of several ringers into the Bears lineup for the team's final four games against Eastern League opponents. Whatever the reason may have been, the league appears to have looked upon the Bethlehem-Lancaster season finale as little more than a post-season exhibition. Local newspapers soon reported that the league awarded the title to the 5-2-3 All-Lancaster Red Roses. Presumably on the basis of that team's mid-October victory over the 5-2-2 Gilberton Catamounts.
Shortly after Bethlehem's victory over All-Lancaster, Manager Gyp Downey announced that arrangements had been completed for a game between his club and the Pottsville Maroons. After being jilted by the Eastern League, a victory, or even a strong showing, against a team of the Maroons' caliber would provide some consolation. The Maroons, of course, were the most well known of the old Anthracite League teams, having made the jump to the National Football League in 1925. That season Pottsville had played well enough to claim the league championship, but a dispute over an exhibition game played in Philadelphia resulted in the club's suspension and rendered the team ineligible for the title. Naturally, the Maroons and their fans had little regard for the league's decision. Denied the right to call themselves NFL champions, they bestowed upon themselves the title of world champions of professional football. In 1926 the self-styled champions rebounded from the previous season's disappointment, and were once again leading contenders for the NFL crown.
Speculation of a game between the Bears and Maroons had been building over the Thanksgiving weekend. Rumor had it that the contest would be played a Muhlenberg Field, just outside of Allentown (PA). In his announcement, however, Downey, assured everyone in Bethlehem that the game would be held at Fabricators' Field. There was plenty of hype in Bethlehem during the week leading up to the game there had to be. The Globe-Times reported that the Downey had agreed to provide the Maroons a guarantee of $4000. That was an amount higher than had been taken in at any of the Bears' previous games. The Maroons were far and away the most formidable foes the Bears had faced all season, so in an effort to both increase both his club's chances on the field and the draw at the gate, the Bears' manager signed players Bull Behman, Saville Crowthers, Doc Elliot, Adrian Ford and George Tully. All were members of the American Football League champion Philadelphia Quakers. On the morning of the game, however, Pottsville's management lodged a protest over the inclusion of the Philadelphia players in the Bethlehem lineup. As a result, Bull Behman and Doc Elliot sat the game out. Even with the services of those two players the Bears would have been hard pressed to come away with a victory. Their absence added to the Maroons' advantage, forcing the Bears to play a defensive game.
During the first quarter Pottsville launched a rushing attack that combined Tony Latone and Barney Wentz up the middle, along with Jack Ernst and Bob Millman around the ends. This set up to set up the game's first score, a five yard touchdown run by Latone. In the second quarter the Gyp Downey moved his defensive backs up to the line in an effort to shut down the run. The Maroons countered by putting the ball in the air. The well-balanced mix of passing and rushing that followed quickly resulted in three additional touchdowns a George Kenneally touchdown reception, and two on the ground by Latone and Barney Wentz, respectively. Wentz also went three for four on point after attempts, giving Pottsville a 27 to 0 lead at halftime. The Maroons coasted through most of the second half, although the Bears' defense did make three strong stands to stop the Maroons within a few yards of the end zone. In the closing minutes of play the Bears mounted one last attempt to put some points on the board. After taking over possession deep in their own territory, a quick series of passes brought the ball across mid-field. From there one final forty-five yard pass into the end zone was attempted. The ball fell incomplete as time expired.
Players & Points
Michael "Gyp" Downey, who served off the field as a Bethlehem police officer, was easily the most important person associated with the team. Not only was he Bears' player-coach and manager, but he also led the team in scoring with 41 total points. A talented drop-kicker who took care of most of the team's kicking duties, Downey was reported by the Bethlehem Globe-Times to have led the Eastern League field goals. Carroll "Ginny" Gooch, a halfback out of the University of Vermont he was later enshrined in that institution's athletic hall of fame was the Bears second leading scorer, with 18 points on three touchdowns. Downey and Gooch were two old team mates, having previously played together for the Millville (NJ) Football & Athletic Club Big Blue.
The table below provides a breakdown of all the players who contributed to the Bears 1926 season points total:
Carl Beck, the Bears' stalwart backfield man, received first team All-Eastern League honors in 1926. At his regular job, the tall blonde walked a beat for the Harrisburg (PA) police force. Beck had first gained notice playing collegiate ball at the University of West Virginia. Professionally he played in the American Professional Football Association, later known as the National Football League, for the Buffalo All-Americans, before joining with his brother Clarence to help the (pre-NFL) Pottsville Maroons capture to the Anthracite League championship in 1924. While this strong fullback only scored two touchdowns, including one in non-league play, for the Bears, his powerful running was a key component of the team's success. Mike Gaffney and Charlie Eastman were two mid-season additions to the 1926 Bears lineup, but still managed to garner second team All-Eastern League honors. Both players greatly contributed to the strong defensive line play that enabled the Bears to make their nearly successful end of season run for the Eastern League title. Gaffney, a sandlot veteran with no collegiate experience, had started the 1926 season with Clifton Heights but jumped to the Bears after the Delaware county club dropped out of the league in mid-October.
Eastern League Footnotes: The 1926 Season
In January of 1926, James "Casey" Gildea, well known in independent football circles as the owner/manager of the Coaldale Big Green, began making the rounds in Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, pushing his idea for a football league. Gildea's intention was to organize a circuit of teams similar to his own well established and successful but unable to compete financially with the teams of the National Football League. As the core of the new circuit, Gildea sought out the membership of old Anthracite League clubs Shenandoah, Gilberton and Wilkes-Barre, as well as the Thomas AC, of Bethlehem. He also courted several other well established Pennsylvania clubs, including John Swank's All-Lancaster club and Jimmy Gallagher's Clifton Heights eleven. Looking across the Delaware River, Gildea invited two well established South Jersey teams: the Melrose AC Roses, of Atlantic City, and the Millville Big Blue to join the league. Invitations were also extended to the Orange (NJ) AC and the Staten Island (NY) Stapletons, two of the most accomplished independent clubs in the North Jersey-New York area.
By the time the 1926 football season opened, ten teams were on board with the newly christened Eastern League of Professional Football: Atlantic City, Bethlehem, Clifton Heights, Coaldale, Gilberton, Lancaster, Mount Airy, Mount Carmel, Newark and Shenandoah. The league's first season had plenty of ups and downs, including financial difficulties that led one club to drop out of the circuit, and a controversy surrounding the championship. The game on the field, however, was very competitive of the nine teams that completed that first season, five had league records of .500 or better. But perhaps the most important indicator of the Eastern League's strength is the fact that it remained organized through the next season.
The table below provides an as complete as possible listing of the Eastern League 1926 standings. Click on the individual team names to see a more detailed breakdown of that club's season schedule and results, including non-league contests and links to period newspaper articles reporting on some games.
Following the close of the 1926 season, league president Herman Meyer announced his "All-Eastern League" selections. The Bears could take pride in the fact that Carl Beck was named to the first team, while Mike Gaffney and Charlie Eastman received second team honors. Much to the chagrin of Bethlehem fans, however, the well deserving Gyp Downey received no recognition. As organizer, manager and coach, the multi-talented Downey had brought his players together and guided them through a rocky start to a strong finish as arguably the best team in the league. But more to the point, he was a force on the field who made his presence felt on both sides of the ball. In addition to his strong defensive play, Downey led the Bears offense in scoring and was also reported to have led the league in field goals.
President Meyers' All-Eastern League selections were as follows:
© John J. Fenton, 2007, all rights reserved.