F & AC
In 1902 the war
between baseball's well established National League and the upstart
American League was really heating up. In an effort to get the upper
hand in the battle for fans, John Rogers, owner of the NL's Philadelphia
Phillies, founded a professional football club. The Phillies, as the
eleven was known, was essentially the same team that had taken the field
the previous year as Wilson Wright's Philadelphia Football
the Diamond to the Gridiron
"Blondy" Wallace, captain of the previous season's
Philadelphia Football Club, split from the team and pitched the idea of forming a rival football club to Ben
Shibe, majority owner of the AL's Philadelphia Athletics. With a little coaxing
Shibe agreed. He christened his new team – you guessed it–the Athletics, and set about assembling the best roster possible.
Wallace was named captain of the squad, but control of the team was
placed in the trusted hands of Connie Mack, manager and minority owner
of the Athletics baseball club.
The original National Football League...
and Shibe were shrewd and understood that capturing the title of
"city champions" could help to win over fans to their
respective baseball clubs. They soon realized, however, that if other
teams could be drawn into the mix they might lay claim to an even
grander title, that of "world champions."
into New York and Chicago came up empty, a football
promoter in Western Pennsylvania named Dave Berry took their bait.
In short order
Berry gathered together several former members of the recently disbanded
Homestead Library & Athletic Club squad. That team's success in
recent years, as well as its dominance over the Philadelphia Pros the
previous season, left him confident that a reconstituted Homestead
squad, playing as the "Pittsburgh Stars," could hold its own
against either Philadelphia club.
their three teams assembled, Rogers, Shibe and Berry formed what they
called the National Football League, with Berry as league president.
teams played one another in a round-robin tournament interspersed with
additional games against non-league teams. Some typical opponents were
the Wilmington AA, the Orange
AC and the Pennsylvania
The first meeting between league teams, on October 18, ended with the Athletics defeating the Phillies, 6 to 0. Just one week later these two clubs met again. That game, which included an on-field brawl requiring police intervention, saw the Phillies defeat the Athletics, 17 to 0. By mid-November the Phillies had also split a pair of games with Pittsburgh, while the Athletics had defeated Pittsburgh, 11 to 10. This set up a sure fire thriller for Thanksgiving Day, when the Athletics and Pittsburgh would square off once again. An Athletics victory in this last scheduled game of the season would give them the league title, while a Pittsburgh triumph, on the other hand, would leave all three teams tied a 2-2-0 in league play, but give the title to Pittsburgh on the strength of that final victory.
In preparation for the Thanksgiving Day contest, Manager Connie Mack took his Athletics on an exhibition tour of Northern Pennsylvania and Southern New York. On November 21st the Athletics stopped in Elmira, New York, where they defeated the Kanaweola Cycle Club, 39 to 0, in pro football's very first night game.
On Thanksgiving Day the evenly matched Athletics and Stars played to a scoreless tie. A second game was then quickly scheduled for the following Saturday. While the Athletics allowed that this next contest might settle the question of which team was the better "eleven" they adamantly held to the position that, as the scheduled season had ended, on the strength of their record they were the league champions.
The rematch was a
virtual mirror of the previous meeting, with the two teams again holding
one another scoreless until the final minutes of the game, when a pair
of Athletics foul ups led to two quick Stars' scores. Pittsburgh
defeated the Philadelphia, 11 to 0. On the strength of this late season
victory, Berry declared his team the league champions.
The Athletics headed
back to Philadelphia with their own claim to the league title. Once home
they again met the Phillies. A 17
to 6 victory over their cross-town rivals granted the Athletics
bragging rights to the title "Champions of Philadelphia."
In late December of
that same year the first World Series of Football was held at Madison
Square Garden in New York city. While neither the Phillies nor Athletics
participated in this event, several members of both squads joined
together on a team known variously as New York, the New Yorks
and the New York Philadelphians.
The Philadelphia Athletics Football Club finished the 1902 season some $4000 in the red. Manager Mack reorganized the team for the 1903 but the squad played only two games, a 0 to 12 defeat at the hands of Watertown and a 6 to 0 victory over the All-Syracuse eleven, before calling it quits.
By the Numbers
1902 National Football League Final Standings
1902 National Football League Game Results
1902 National Football League Game Results
Almost without exception the players of the first National Football League were exceptional. The Athletics, in particular, fielded a number of players who went on to play with the much vaunted Franklin All-Stars team of 1903, and/or later participate in the great Canton-Massillon rivalry of the early 1900's, including: team captain Charles "Blondy" Wallace – perhaps best known for his role in the Canton-Massillon scandal of 1906 – Lynn "Pop" Sweet, Dave Cure and Paul "Twister" Steinberg for Canton, and "Doc" Merriam, who played center for the great Massillon team of 1905.
... and Hall of Famers?
While there may not have been any future Pro Football Hall of Famers in the first National Football League, there were a few men who would eventually find themselves enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.
Connie Mack "The Tall Tactician" who managed the American League's Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years was also chosen by team owner Ben Shibe to manage the Athletics football club.
Rube Waddell One of the best left-handers in the history of baseball and star of the Philadelphia Athletics baseball club, Connie Mack put Waddell on his football squad's roster so that he could keep an eye on this eccentric star. Although Waddell is not known to have actually donned the togs in any of the Philadelphia Athletics' football games, he did later take to the gridiron as a guard for the Reading (PA) Athletic Association.
Christy Mathewson While a fullback and punter for the Pittsburgh Stars, rather than either of the Philadelphia teams, it's still worth noting that Mathewson was also an ace pitcher for the New York Giants, with 373 career victories. He was one of the first five inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Links to Additional Information
of the Gridiron's Virtual Scrapbook Vol. 10: The National Football League
Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society
© John J. Fenton, 2012-2000, all rights reserved.