The Birth of the NFL

As the NFL celebrates its 100th season, SNUK takes a look back at those early days and how the league came about.


At the beginning of the twenties, professional football was slowly coming into its own as it emerged from being in the shadow of the country’s favourite sports of baseball and college football.

With no formal structure in place, pro team manager and owners would arrange the games between themselves and not everyone involved was honest.

The players would be ex-collegiate athletes and usually the bigger they were, the more sought after they became. Size did matter before the forward pass became an integral part of the game’s offense.

The individual owners enjoyed having control over their teams’ scheduling and the signing of players. They were risking their money and didn’t need regulations that could affect their investment. Some teams would load their line-up with ringers to boost the team’s performance, especially if there was money on the result of the game.

Another financial risk to teams would be the disappearance of guaranteed appearance purses with no redress if it occurred.

Eventually, with players jumping from one team to another and wages escalating, the owners realised the need to organise themselves effectively if the pro game and their finances were to flourish. Pro football had no formal structure or rules and the poaching of players from another team was common practice.

The use of college players was also a growing concern in the professional game with the view that lovers of college athletics should recognise the athlete owed his services to his school.  


The northern states were arable territory for the growth of the game, and it was Ohio that proved to be the catalyst for its development. The Canton Bulldogs were viewed as the world champions and it was in Canton that the seeds were sown to grow the professional game.

Jim Thorpe in action

Jim Thorpe played for the Bulldogs and at the beginning of the twentieth century was recognised as one of the best athletes in the world. He won two gold medals in the most stamina sapping events of the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. He then turned to playing both football and baseball for a year-round career in sport.

Thorpe explained the different levels between college and pro football. “You can talk about college football stars,” he said, “but I believe that the professional football players have it over the college stars just as the professional (base) ball players have it on the college men. Since I have played pro-football in Canton and against the Massillon Tigers in the Middle West, I have become convinced that there is no comparison between the two.”

In January, 1920 Ralph E. Hay, the business manager of the Bulldogs, announced the opening of a new auto sales and service agency at 205 Cleveland Avenue, Canton. The Jordan car, built in Cleveland, would be the primary vehicle sold before he also became an agent for Hupmobiles autos.

The summer of 1920 saw Thorpe retire from playing as he joined Hay as co-partner and the coach of the Bulldogs.

Just a few miles from Canton, Art Ranney and Frank Neid were forming a new team in Akron from the ashes of the Akron Indians. The Akron Exhibition Company set up to promote baseball in the town decided to venture into football. In Ranney and Neid, the company found the perfect duo to manage their investment in the Akron Professional Football club team.

Neid was a sports promoter and had previously managed the Comets and the Marlowes football teams that were recognised as the best amateur teams in Akron. Together with Ranney, the pair had taken the Akron Indians to a 5-5-1 record the previous year.

With a new athletic park to showcase their team, the Pros were hoping to improve their standing. The return of their star running back Fritz Pollard confirmed their intent.

Jim Thorpe played baseball in Akron and the football team were hoping to lure him from Canton but failed with that objective.

The Massillon Tigers and the Cleveland Indians were part of the existing pro loop. The Tigers were from a small mining community in Massillon, Ohio and were receiving fresh backing from the vice-president of Central Steel, F.J. Griffiths.

Joe Carr, who was later to become the NFL’s commissioner, also showed an interest in his Columbus Panhandles becoming part of the professional loop. Enough teams were keen to ensure the league’s survival if agreement could be reached between them.

While the proposed league was still a welcome idea, the teams continue to prepare for the forthcoming season.  The Canton Daily News printed the Bulldogs schedule in their July 11 edition. The newspaper highlighted the team’s visit to Buffalo, predicting it would present a big challenge as the Bulldogs would face one of the most formidable professional elevens in the country.


A few days later, the Canton newspaper printed Ralph Hay had confirmed reports received from Cleveland that football moguls of Akron, Massillon, Cleveland and Canton would meet in August with a view to producing a “nonconflicting” schedule.

The league is born>>>