F & AC
In 1964 the surviving members of a long defunct franchise presented the Pro Football Hall of Fame with a glistening black football carved from a chunk of anthracite coal and bearing the legend "Pottsville Maroons, NFL and World Champions 1925." Yet a check of league records will find that in 1925 the Pottsville Maroons posted a second place finish behind the Chicago Cardinals...
A Brief History of the Pottsville Maroons
The years following World War I saw the coal regions of Eastern and Central Pennsylvania produce a number of excellent football teams, with towns like Coaldale, Edwardsville, Gilberton, Lykens, Mount Carmel and Shenandoah regularly fielding strong clubs. By the mid-1920s, however, the strongest of these Anthracite League teams was clearly the Pottsville Maroons.
By 1922 the Pottsville eleven, which had originally formed around the Yorkville Hose Company, had attracted the sponsorship of area businessmen Harold Kingsbury, Irvin Heinz and Frank Schoeneman. These men upgraded the club by luring talented pro players such as Carl Beck, Benny Boynton and Stan Cofall, while at the same time maintaining a strong local presence on the field. It was a careful balancing act but the pay-off was enormous – increased on-field success and a growing fan base. By the end of the 1923 season the team was on the brink of capturing the Anthracite League title.
From Anthracite crown…
In 1924 the Pottsville eleven was purchased for $1500 by Dr. John G. "Doc" Striegel, a local surgeon. That same year the team also adopted the Maroons moniker. As legend has it, the team placed an order for new football jerseys with local sporting goods supplier Joe Zacko. "The color," Zacko was told, "is not important." With that, Zacko sent the team twenty-five maroon colored jerseys and so the nickname was born. Quaint tales concerning the origin of their name notwithstanding, 1924 also saw the newly christened Maroons experience their most successful season to date. The addition of Larry Conover, Harry Robb and future Hall of Fame inductee Wilbur "Pete" Henry, each of whom had earned all-pro honors with the previous season's NFL champion Canton Bulldogs, proved to be the final piece in the puzzle Pottsville posted a 6-0-1 record in Anthracite League play, clinching that association’s title with a late November victory over Coaldale, a perennial coal-region powerhouse. Following that victory the then undefeated Maroons issued challenges to both National Football League champion Cleveland Bulldogs and the Frankford Yellow Jackets, claimants to the Eastern professional championship. When neither team accepted, Doc Striegel scheduled a game with the NFL's Rochester Jeffersons. These two teams met in a season finale on the last Sunday of November. Rochester defeated Pottsville 10 to 7, giving the Maroons’ their only loss of the season. Even so, 1924 proved to be a monumental year for Pottsville, which ended its season with an overall record of 12-1-1, scoring 288 points and allowing only 17 while en route to capturing the Anthracite League crown! The stage was now set for the Maroons’ entry into the NFL.
In August of 1925
Doc Striegel was granted a National Football League franchise and took his
Pottsville Maroons to the big time. The Maroons proved an attractive and popular
NFL opponent, not only a good team but also located close to Philadelphia, home
of the Frankford Yellow Jackets. This allowed visiting teams a two-for-one
weekend with Saturday games against the Yellow Jackets and Sunday games against
the Maroons – who simply ignored Pennsylvania's blue-law prohibitions on Sunday
sporting events! One trip east and twice the gate receipts was an enticement few
of the league's mid-Western teams could resist.
At a time when most professional football players traveled great distances from their homes, only joining their team for games, Doc Striegel insisted that his players live in the Pottsville area. This allowed Player-Coach Dick Rauch to institute something of a novel idea in the early 1920s' NFL – regular practices. Under Rauch's guidance the Maroons made an impressive start, setting the tone for the entire season by notching a 28-0 victory over the Buffalo Bison in their first league game. As the season wore on, however, there were those who believed that Pottsville's proximity to Frankford was a boon to the Maroons for another reason – the wearing down effect the Yellow Jackets had on opposing teams. The Maroons were 5-1-0 in their six games against clubs that had played in Frankford on the previous day.
By the end of November Pottsville ranked as one of the two top teams in the league, and their December 6 game with the league leading Chicago Cardinals would give a true measure of the Maroons' prowess. At that time the NFL title went to the team with the best league record at the close of the season, so considering the standings at that point in the season this meeting between the (9-2-0) Maroons and the (9-1-1) Chicago Cardinals was looked upon by many as the championship game. A snowstorm and cold weather kept the Comiskey Park crowd low but that didn’t stop the Maroons, who dominated the Cardinals to walk away with a 21 to 7 victory and the league championship all but cinched.
The Maroons, with a claim on the NFL title in hand, returned from the Windy City to a raucous reception in Pottsville. The team then planned to wrap-up their season against the Providence Steam Roller and, perhaps more importantly, collect a big pay-check for an exhibition game against the Notre Dame All-Stars. Promoted as the best "amateur" eleven in the country, this team featured the Four Horsemen who had led Notre Dame to the 1924 collegiate championship, and was sure to draw a big crowd. The Maroons’ Minersville Park, however, was actually a high school stadium. Rather than risk limited attendance – and gate receipts – arrangements were made for the game to be played at the much larger Shibe Park, in nearby Philadelphia. On learning of this plan the Frankford Yellow Jackets quickly protested to the league. Not only was Philadelphia was within their franchise territory, but the Yellow Jackets also had a league game versus the Cleveland Bulldogs scheduled just across town on the very same day. Surely, they contended, the draw of a Pottsville-Notre Dame contest would adversely affect attendance at their game. Another simmering point of irritation was the fact that earlier in the season the Four Horsemen club had agreed to form a team and play the best pro club in Pennsylvania, and that had looked to be Frankford until the Yellow Jackets were trounced by the Maroons, 49-0, in late November!
League president Joseph Carr agreed with Frankford and telegrammed Pottsville with his decision. The Maroons, however, claimed to have already received permission to play from the league secretary prior to signing a contract with Notre Dame. Doc Striegel, the Maroons’ owner/manager, questioned whether the league would make good on any financial loss caused by the breaking of that contract. The league's response was that it would do so "within reason." Striegel saw this response as too vague and decided to play the game rather than risk financial loss. He was later quoted as saying, "If it was wrong for Pottsville to play the Four Horsemen in Philadelphia I should have been informed before the matter had reached its present stage, and league or no league Pottsville will be in Philly on Saturday to fulfill its contract. We had a football team in Pottsville, and a good one, before we joined the National League, and I suppose we will have one just the same regardless of any action the officials decide to take."
As Doc Striegel promised, the Maroons went down to Philadelphia and played their game. They defeated the Horsemen and crew by the score of 9-7. President Carr responded immediately, suspending the Maroons from the league and forbidding the Providence Steam Roller from playing Pottsville in the season finale. Although not oblivious to the controversy surrounding their status, the victorious Maroons returned to Pottsville, confident in themselves and safe in the belief that they were the world champions of professional football, to celebrate success with their faithful. Meanwhile, the team management quickly scheduled a game with the Atlantic City Roses in place of the prohibited Providence contest. The Maroons then headed to New Jersey and closed out their season the following weekend with a hard fought 6-0 victory over the always game Roses.
When the issue was taken up at the league's winter meeting the following February, it was decided that the Pottsville franchise was under suspension at the conclusion of the league’s season and therefore ineligible for the title. The Chicago Cardinals, who had finished out their season with victories over Milwaukee and Hammond, to post a better league record than Pottsville, were voted league champions of 1925. Then, amid a swirl of controversy, the Cardinals refused to accept the title! While Chicago's refusal meant that the championship was never officially awarded, it is recognized as belonging to the Cardinals' franchise.
Pottsville's exile from the NFL was short lived. Fearing that the Maroons, a powerhouse club of championship caliber, might jump to the upstart American Football League, the league reinstated the team prior to the beginning of the 1926 season. That year the Maroons were once again in the thick of title contention until late in the season. Pottsville’s shutout victories over the Buffalo Rangers and Akron Indians were typical of that year’s campaign, which the team finished with a very strong 10-2-1 record to garner third place in the final standings. The Maroons' strong on-field performance, however, belied other problems. Towards the end of that season, as management struggled to meet its financial obligations, there were published reports of a strike among the team's players. As Doc Striegel declared that these reports were exaggerated, the press began to speculate that Charlie Berry would assume control of the team the following season. 1926 also saw the signing of George Kenneally, a rookie end out of St. Bonaventure. Gigi, as Kenneally was known, would impact the club both on and off the field by earning all-pro status and being named team captain in just his second season, and later becoming part owner of the club.
The Maroons' fortunes, however, were on the wane. The 1927 season brought the beginning of a decline in the team's on-field performance. The Maroons finished that campaign a disappointing 5-8-0. Doc Striegel relinquished operational control of the team for the 1928 season by "loaning" it to a group of three players – Herb Stein, Pete Henry and Duke Osborn. Henry took over the coaching reigns but the downward spiral continued. The Maroons ended what turned out to be their final season in Pottsville with a dismal 2-8-0 record.
End of an era...
Faced with declining performance on the field and increasing financial difficulties, Doc Striegel finally sold the club during the off season to a New England based partnership that included Maroons' standout George Kenneally. The new owners relocated the franchise to Boston prior to the 1929 season, where it was re-christened the Bulldogs. Six veteran Maroons' players made the move with the team. Dick Rauch also returned to the fold, resuming his position as head coach.
The 1929 season's brightest moment came in late October when the team returned to Pottsville for a two game swansong, taking on and defeating the Buffalo Bison and Orange Tornadoes. Unfortunately the franchise relocation and name change had done little to improve the club's prospects. The Boston Bulldogs folded just three games after that last visit to the scene of past glories, ending the franchise’s final season with a 4-4-0 record.
During their short tenure in the National Football League the Pottsville Maroons fielded some very competitive teams. The table below gives a stats summary of the Maroons' five NFL seasons. For more detailed information regarding the team's successes and disappointments click on the year desired to view a breakdown of that season's game schedule and results, including games against non-league opponents.
Pottsville Maroons' NFL Seasons Summaries
Typical of many early NFL teams, the Pottsville Maroons competed in the league for just a few short years. But that only serves the accentuate their achievements. In addition to laying claim to the 1925 NFL title, several Maroons' players can also boast some pretty impressive individual accomplishments. The club's roster includes no less than three Hall of Fame inductees. Wilbur "Pete" Henry was with the team when it captured the Anthracite League championship in 1924 and again in 1927-28. John "Johnny Blood" McNally and Walt Kiesling were also with the team for the 1928 season. Both Henry and McNally are charter members of the Hall of Fame, having been enshrined with the first class of inductees in 1963. Kiesling was similarly honored just two years later.
Charlie Berry was an outstanding player who in 1925 led the league in scoring, with 74 points, and in points-after-touchdowns, with 29. In 1926 Barney Wentz tied for the league lead in touchdowns, with 10, and was third in scoring, with 60 points. That same season Jim Welsh tied for the league lead in points-after-touchdowns, with 10.
The Maroons were also well represented on several early all-pro teams. Among those Maroons players to receive first team all-pro honors were Charlie Berry (1925 & 1926); Walter French (1925); Barney Wentz (1925); Frank Racis (1926); Tony Latone (1926); and Jim Welsh (1926). Click here to view a complete listing of players who received all-pro honors as members of the Pottsville Maroons. The Pottsville Maroons' yearly player rosters are viewable by clicking desired year: 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, and 1929.
Dr. John G. Striegel traveled to Detroit in February of 1926 to argue the Maroons' case at the league's winter meeting. Unfortunately the other owners sided with President Carr, who made the point that the Maroons were under suspension at the conclusion of the season and therefore ineligible for the title. The 1925 NFL crown was then awarded to the Chicago Cardinals, a team which in spite of its loss to the Maroons had finished the season with the highest winning percentage in the league. Pottsville, it seemed, would have to be content with their self-proclaimed title of world champions. The fight for the NFL title, however, was far from over.
The Maroons' fans and a number of regional sportswriters continued to consider Pottsville the 1925 NFL champions and argue with the league to reverse its decision. Oddly, with the passing of time that argument seems to have grown rather than faded. Perhaps the closest the team ever came to actually recovering their "stolen championship" was in 1963. That year the NFL appointed a special committee, consisting of Jack Mara of the Giants, Art Rooney of the Steelers and Frank McNamee of the Eagles, to investigate the Maroons’ claim. The committee found validity in the Maroons' argument, but when brought before league's executive board the issue was voted down, 12 to 2. The only votes in support of the Maroons came from George Halas and Art Rooney. The issue came before the league owners again in 1967, but met with similar results. Even though that action probably closed the door to any possibility of the Maroons gaining the title, the team still had strong supporters willing to continue fighting the good fight. The most ardent of these was probably Russ Zacko, son of the Pottsville sporting goods dealer who had been supplier to the Maroons. As the story goes, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame was preparing to open it wanted several articles in Mr. Zacko's possession, including the ball used in the 1925 Maroons-Cardinals game and the shoe used to kick the winning field goal against the Notre Dame All-Stars. He rebuffed HOF officials, saying that they could have the artifacts when the league restored the Maroons' title.
The Pottsville Maroons' Memorial Committee, which Russ Zacko served as president until his death in 2002, continues as the standard bearer in the cause of restoring to Pottsville and her beloved Maroons the "stolen championship" of 1925, but it does not stand alone. In March of 2003 Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell joined the fight by kicking off a drive to get city councils from across the state to petition the NFL to restore the 1925 title to the Maroons in time for Pottsville's bicentennial celebration in 2006. This movement also had the strong support of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. In spite of these efforts it now seems unlikely that the league will ever change its original ruling on the 1925 Pottsville Maroons. League officials met with Gov. Rendell and Pottsville Mayor John Reiley at the NFL's 2003 Fall Meeting, but when the issue was finally brought up for consideration only Jeff Lurie of Philadelphia and Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh supported the motion as team owners voted 30 to 2 against reopening the file. "It was a championship caliber team that ran into an unfortunate conflict with the league's rules," said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "At this late date, it was impossible to overturn." This was probably the final time that the league will consider this issue.
At the same meeting the league named Pottsville winner of the Daniel F. Reeves Pioneer Award, given in recognition of innovations introduced to the game. There have only been six recipients of this award since its inception in 1972. The Reeves award was to be presented to representatives of the community in ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August of 2004, and would have joined the Gladiator on the town's mantle. That award, now presented annually to the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, was given to the town in 1985 as a tribute to the role played by the Maroons in the growth and development of the league. Unfortunately the Reeves award was viewed by some as a consolation prize intended to buy-off those who support the cause of a league title for the 1925 Maroons. Regrettably, Pottsville Mayor John Reiley bought into this line of thought and, despite the objections of surviving family members of the team's players, declined to send a delegation to Canton to accept the honor.
On a brighter note, the Memorial Committee has also taken the lead in other efforts to commemorate the team. In recent years the committee played an important role in the successful drives to both erect a state historical marker commemorating the Maroons and to rename a portion of a local highway in honor of the team. The spirit of the Maroons has also continued to live on in the hearts and minds of the people of Pottsville. The town hosted two Maroons' reunions, in 1961 and 1963. Both events were well attended by former players and others associated with the team. Sadly, however, the last surviving Maroons' alum, Duke Marhefka, a veteran of the 1924 Anthracite League championship squad, passed away at age 101, in 2003.
Links to Additional Information
The Discarded Championship
Day The Fans Took Over At Pottsville
Latone: The Hero of Pottsville
Blood: He Scored Pottsville's Last NFL Touchdown
Football Hall of Fame Pioneer Award - Pottsville
© John J. Fenton, 2013-2001, all rights reserved.