Monday, September 1, 2014
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Connie Mack's football team preceded the Eagles

Baseball legends Connie Mack, Christy Mathewson and Rube Waddell were part of a professional football league that predated the NFL.

Connie Mack's football team preceded the Eagles

Former A´s manager Connie Mack, here greeting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Former A's manager Connie Mack, here greeting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

For 50 years and more than 7,500 regular-season games, Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics to widely varying levels of success on the baseball field.

Few recall, however, that for one chilly autumn in 1902 - 18 years before the league that eventually became the National Football League was formed - the austere Mr. Mack managed a professional football team, also called the Philadelphia Athletics.

And in the course of a season that lasted less than two months, Mack's team managed to make a lasting name for itself, featuring as it did a Hall of Fame pitcher on the line and playing in both the first night game and first indoor game in professional football history.

Research into the roots of professional football did not begin in earnest until the 1950s, and contemporary newspaper accounts of the new league's games vary on several key points. But discussions with officials at the Football Hall of Fame and historians of the game, and an examination of football - history books and newspaper accounts yield a fairly clear account of what transpired in the fall of 1902.

 *

That summer, Mack's baseball Athletics - led by pitcher Rube Waddell and his 25 victories - were kings of the baseball world, winning the pennant in the new American League by five games over the St. Louis Browns. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the National League champions.

But the two leagues were then bitter rivals, frequently raiding each other for players, and the World Series was an idea whose time would not come until the following year.

As the weather grew cool, Mack and Athletics owner Ben Shibe searched for some gimmick that would allow them to capitalize on the popularity of their team. In early October, opportunity arrived on a train from Pittsburgh.

David Berry, a Pittsburgh promoter and the manager of some early barnstorming professional teams in western Pennsylvania, was eager to create some sort of pro football league. He had gotten unofficial support from the owners of baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates, and now he was headed east to see if he could help get a team started in Philadelphia.

Shibe was receptive, and when John Rogers, who owned the National League's Phillies, heard about his rival's plans, he immediately expressed an interest in starting his own team. In a matter of days, the three-team National Football League - no relation to the present-day conglomerate - was formed.

Berry, Shibe and Rogers easily filled their rosters with former collegiate football players from their areas. The owners, though, were eager to maintain strong connections to baseball, easily the nation's preeminent game at the time.

The Athletics named Mack - who had just completed his second year with the baseball Athletics - their manager and signed the talented, eccentric and popular Waddell as a lineman and gate attraction.

Bill Shettsline, the baseball Phillies' manager, assumed that position with that club's football team.

The Pittsburgh Stars, managed by Berry, had perhaps the strongest baseball connection of all - halfback Fred Crolius, who was an outfielder with the Pirates, and a fullback by the name of Christy Mathewson.

Mathewson, like Waddell a future Hall of Fame pitcher, was 22 and just reaching his prime in baseball (he would win at least 30 games in each of the next three seasons for the New York Giants). Mathewson and most of the other players were promised about $50 a game.

Newspaper stories describe the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Mathewson, who had played football at Bucknell, as a hard-running fullback and an outstanding punter. Waddell, on the other hand, was with the Athletics for reasons other than his football skills.

Coming off a season in which he was hailed as the best pitcher in baseball (25-7 with a 2.05 ERA and a league-leading 210 strikeouts), he was, of course, a substantial drawing card.

But he also was a substantial eccentric, the player who first gave lefthanded pitchers their reputation as flakes, and Mack wanted to keep an eye on him in the off-season.

"He was like a big child," Mack said in his autobiography, and stories of his antics seem to confirm that.

After a poorly pitched game, Waddell would frequently pout, pack his bag and take off for the nearest fishing hole. He also had a lifelong passion for fire engines and on a few occasions when hearing one screech past during a game, would exit the stadium to chase it. During one off-season, Mack found out he was wrestling alligators in Florida and quickly put a stop to that.

Listed as a lineman, the 6-1 1/2, 196-pound Waddell, by all accounts, did not play much for the football Athletics - but that's not to say his presence wasn't felt during the 1902 season.

When the Athletics traveled to some small town for a game against an amateur team, Waddell's presence would be heralded boldly in the local newspapers as a means of drumming up interest. Children would flock to the football field for a look at Waddell and before long Mack would be looking for him too.

At least twice, the manager said, he found him beneath the stands playing marbles with the youngsters.

Today, Waddell's antics might be looked upon as symptomatic of some sort of mental disorder, but Mack seemed to react to them with a paternalistic shake of the head - until the night before Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh.

That night, Waddell slipped away from the hotel after hearing about a big billiards match taking place nearby. He bet heavily on the loser and returned to the hotel broke.

Waiting for him in the lobby was a stern-looking Mack. Instead of apologizing and slinking off to his room, though, Waddell asked Mack for a loan. His legendary patience exhausted, Mack angrily lectured the wayward athlete.

Apparently contrite, the pitcher/lineman turned to head toward his room. But reaching into his pocket for a key, he dislodged a pistol he had stored there. The gun fell to the floor and discharged.

The next day, Mack sent Waddell home to Bradford, Pa. - his football career ended.

 *

In fact, much of Mack's duties with the football team were of the baby- sitting and paymaster variety. While he had more than a passing knowledge of the game, the actual calling of plays and formation in that era was usually left to the captain on the field - in the Athletics' case former Penn all- American Blondie Wallace.

The game, of course, was substantially different than the football of today. The field was 110 yards long, passing was illegal, field goals and touchdowns were worth five points and teams had three downs to travel five yards for a first down.

Through October and November, these three teams played 11 to 14 games each. They faced each other twice and filled out their schedules with games against amateur clubs.

 CROWD SIZES

Generally, the professional clubs steamrolled the amateur teams and beat up on each other.

All three teams played their games at the fields of their affiliated baseball teams - the A's at Columbia Park (29th and Columbia), the Phillies at the field at Broad and Lehigh Streets that would later be called Baker Bowl, and the Stars at Pittsburgh's Exposition Park.

Newspaper stories list the size of the crowds for some games, but not for others. An Athletics-Phillies game on Oct. 18 at the Phillies' field drew 5,000 fans, while the rematch a week later attracted 3,500 to Columbia Park.

Crowd sizes were rarely mentioned as the season wore on, a likely indication of diminished fan interest and a likely cause for the financial pressures that were beginning to squeeze the league.

One game that might have drawn a large gathering, though, occurred on Nov. 8 in Philadelphia between the Stars and the Athletics. It was the same Saturday of the Penn-Harvard game in Cambridge, Mass. Since Penn football was extremely popular in the city, Shibe announced that a miniature football field would be set up during the Athletics-Stars game and telegraph reports from Cambridge would permit the fans to chart the progress of Penn's game.

(A larger simulated field was set up at the Inquirer building, then on Market Street, and an estimated 10,000 people stood outside and followed the progress of the Penn-Harvard game, won by Harvard, 11-0.)

As the teams limped toward the season's conclusion, what interest there was seemed to be focused on a Nov. 27 game in Pittsburgh between the Stars and Athletics.

Standings weren't kept and no method had been established for determining a champion, but since the Athletics and Stars were both playing better than the Phillies, some people started labeling this game as the league championship.

In preparation, Mack arranged a series of three games with amateur clubs in north-central Pennsylvania and southern New York as the Athletics traveled to Pittsburgh. The Athletics won the three games by a combined score of 78-0, but the Nov. 21 game in Elmira, N.Y., was notable for more than the score.

The team from Elmira's Kanaweola Athletic Club was made up of men who worked during the day. Since the Athletics couldn't linger on their way to Pittsburgh and since the amateurs were eager to play these famous professionals, special accommodations were made and a night game was planned.

Some amateur teams in western Pennsylvania and the Midwest had experimented none too successfully with football under the lights, but this was the first time professionals had tried it.

Every large electric light that could be found in the region was brought to the club's playing field and placed along the sidelines. Someone contributed a couple of search lights and one was placed in each end zone. Unfortunately, the lights shone directly into the players' eyes. The Athletics stuck with simple plays and triumphed, 39-0.

Shibe's funds nearly exhausted, Mack and the A's arrived in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving eve in time for Waddell's escapade.

The players hadn't been paid for the games on the trip and began complaining loudly to Mack.

As a result, Mack demanded a $3,000 guarantee from the Pittsburgh club. When he arrived at the field on the rainy, raw Thanksgiving Day, he noticed a tiny turnout. Fearing that a small crowd might threaten his team's payment, Mack refused to start the game unless he received the money in advance.

 THE FINAL GAME

A fan approached and asked about the delay. When informed of the reason, the fan, who happened to be Carnegie Steel president William Corey, wrote Mack the $3,000 check.

As the teams prepared to play, the owners of the stadium stormed onto the field and contended that the Stars had not lived up to the terms of their lease. This time, Corey did not come to the rescue, but the problem somehow was resolved and the game was played, a 0-0 tie as it turned out.

The teams decided to play again two days later to resolve the matter of the championship. They did, but the result apparently has been lost to history. The Football Hall of Fame does not have a record of the game, Pittsburgh football historian Bob Carroll contends that the Stars won, 17-6, and several pro football histories say the Athletics won, 12-6.

No matter, though. It was the fledgling league's final game. The money had run out and so had the interest of Shibe, Rogers and Mack. The Athletics finished at 10-2-2, the Stars at 9-2-1 and the Phillies at 8-3.

 *

But before they were through, the Athletics had one more date with history. Contacted by a New York promoter, the Athletics players recruited some of the Phillies and traveled to Madison Square Garden for a four-team indoor tournament, billed as the "World Series" of football .

Tons of dirt were dumped on the Garden floor and steamrollers packed it tight into an undersized field. On Dec. 28, a football doubleheader was scheduled and in the opener - the first indoor pro game in history - the Syracuse team led by Pop Warner defeated the Athletics, 6-0.

The team disbanded, the players migrating to western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, which were the almost exclusive province of professional football for another two decades.

Mack, meanwhile, returned to baseball and the A's dugout. In 1950, 36 years after Waddell's death, 25 years after Mathewson's and 30 years after the present-day NFL was founded, he finally left.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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