National Football League (1902): Wikis


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National Football League (1902)
Sport Football
Founded 1902
Director Dave Berry
Claim to fame *First attempt for a national professional football league
*First night game in pro football history
No. of teams 3
Country(ies) United States
Ceased 1902
Last champion(s) Pittsburgh Stars
Founder John Rogers (Phillies)
Ben Shibe (Athletics)
Dave Berry (Stars)

The National Football League (NFL) was the first attempt at forming a national professional football league in 1902. The league has no ties with the modern National Football League. In fact the league was only composed of teams from Pennsylvania, which was hardly "national". Two of the teams were based in Philadelphia, while the third was based in Pittsburgh. The NFL was a curious mixture of football players and baseball players who adapted to playing football. Future Baseball Hall of Famer Rube Waddell was with the Philadelphia Athletics, and Christy Mathewson a fullback for Pittsburgh. Two of the three teams were owned by the Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Athletics, with the third team suspected of being owned by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The league folded after the 1902 season. [1]





Ironically the roots of the league lie with baseball, not football. It began as a part of the baseball wars between the National League and the new American League that began in 1901. In Philadelphia the AL's Athletics lured several of the NL's Phillies from their contracts, only to lose them again through court action. When Phillie owner John Rogers decided to start a football team, the Athletics followed suit. A's owner Ben Shibe fielded a team made-up of several baseball players as well as some local football talent. He appointed his baseball manager Connie Mack as the team's general manager and named former Penn player, Charles "Blondy" Wallace as the team's coach. Each Philadelphia team was named after their respective baseball clubs and became the Athletics and Philadelphia Phillies.

However both Rogers and Shibe knew that to lay claim, to what the hoped would be, the "World Championship"; they had to play a team from Pittsburgh, which was the focal point of football at the time. They called on pro football promoter Dave Berry and a Pittsburgh team was soon formed around a championship team from Homestead.[2] This team was named the Stars, after the number of football players on the team who were considered football stars during the era. The team was owned and operated by Dave Berry, the former manager of the Latrobe Athletic Association. However many historians believe that due to Berry's limited wealth and the amount of talent on team, that Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss and Pirates president William Chase Temple may have secretly owned the team.[3] The first league had no bylaws, no offices and no schedule-making powers. However three of the top professional football teams in country helped make up for those shortfalls. [4]

These three teams are all that made up the 1902 NFL. Due to the animosity that existed between Philadelphia's Shibe and Rogers, Dave Berry was picked to the league's president. Attempts were initially made to expand the league outside of Pennsylvania into other major cites like Chicago and New York City. However neither city was interested in joining the league at the time.[5]

1902 season

With all the baseball involvement, training didn't get underway for the football teams until September 29, 1902 with the season was scheduled to open a week later on October 4. However, most of the players were already in shape. Besides the baseball players, many of the others had jobs that kept them in good condition. For example, Pittsburgh halfback, Artie Miller, came in after a summer's lumberjacking in the Wisconsin woods. To make the preseason even less stressful, the average football team in 1902 only used about a half-dozen plays and they were all standard.

The Philadelphia Athletics of the 1902 National Football League

The league played all of its games on Saturdays, since there were no Sunday sports events according to Pennsylvania blue laws in 1902. The Pittsburgh team played all of its home games at the North Shore Coliseum, while the two Philadlephia teams used their own respective baseball stadiums, Columbia Park and National League Park, for home games. Each team played two games against each of other two teams. When they were not playing each other, the teams played various teams from colleges and athletic clubs from Pennsylvania and southern New York state.

On Thanksgiving Day 1902, Berry billed a game between the Stars and the Athletics as being for the championship of the National Football League. The Athletics had split on the season with the Phillies, as had Pittsburgh. Although a Philadelphia victory on Thanksgiving would give the A's the championship hands down, a win by the Stars could tie the league race tighter. Mack readied his A's for the big game by playing an exhibition tour through northern Pennsylvania and southern New York. In Elmira, New York the Athletics joined in the first night game in pro football history.[6] Lights were set up along the sidelines and giant searchlights glared from behind the goal posts. The A's won the game 39–0 over the Kanaweola Athletic Club.

1902 championship first attempt

When Mack agreed to Berry's championship game, he was promised $2,000 for his team's participation. However when he arrived in Pittsburgh, he saw that the stands were pretty much empty and since his $2,000 came from the ticket sales at the gate, it looked as if he wouldn't be getting his $2,000 and his team would be stranded, with no money, in Pittsburgh. Therefore seeing no reason to take the field, Mack refused to play until his team was paid their share of the gate, $2,000. It looked as if the game wouldn't be played. However Mack received a check for $2,000 from William Corey, the head of Carnegie Steel who impatiently wanted to see the game, and the game soon began. Corey got his money's worth, if he liked evenly matched games. Both teams played at their best to a scoreless tie. It was a fair verdict, but Berry's "championship game" hadn't decided anything.

1902 championship

Another championship game was soon planned between Berry and Mack. But because of a lack of funds Berry almost ended up cancelling the game. However, he later promised to his players, they would all share equally in Saturday's game, which was sure to be a sell-out. After some complaints were addressed, everything was set. The crowd was a little better on Saturday, but not much. About 2,000 fans showed up, and the players knew before the game began that they were going to come up short at pay time. The game looked like it might once again end in a tie. However a late touchdown by Ellis and another by Artie Miller led Pittsburgh to an 11–0 win over the Athletics.


Not many fans noticed the championship win. The Pittsburgh players were too busy suing Temple for their Thanksgiving Day money to do much gloating over their victory, and the story disappeared from the newspapers before the suit was settled. Most of the players tried it again with Franklin or Canton or Massillon in the next few years. The Philadelphia Athletics went home and beat the Phillies to wrap up second place. It was a nice win and gave them the city championship, but that's all it was; the season was won by Pittsburgh the week before. [7]

Meanwhile several members of the Athletics and the Phillies went on to play in the first World Series of pro football on a team erroneously named New York at New York's original Madison Square Garden (the "error" was deliberate as the tournament's founder felt that the combined team was the best in the event, and bestowed upon them home field advantage for the tournament). New York and Syracuse AC played in the first indoor football game in front of 3,000 spectators, on December 28, 1902. Syracuse, with Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner at offensive guard, won the game 6–0 and went on to win the tournament.[8][9]

The league quietly folded, and the war between the baseball leagues was resolved the next spring. While the NFL thrived in Philadelphia, it never took hold in Pittsburgh. Public relations errors by Berry resulted in a lukewarm reaction to the franchise. Many Pittsburghers followed their local athletic clubs and colleges more than the Stars. In fact the Washington and Jefferson Presidents football team had a much greater following than the Stars. It would not be until 1920 that the idea for a true "national football league" would come to be accepted.


With the win, A's players decided to call the Stars game an exhibition, and declared themselves the champs. However the team had agreed to that season-ending championship game against Pittsburgh the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and they had lost it. This was recognized by all parties at the time as the championship game. Each team carried a record of 2–2 for league play. Pittsburgh had by far the better point ratio, scoring 39 points to their opponents' 22. Both the Athletics and the Phillies gave up more points than they scored in their league games. Finally Dave Berry used his power as league president and name his Stars the 1905 champions. [10]

Final standings

Team Games Wins Losses Ties Pts For Pts Against  %
Pittsburgh Stars 5 3 2 1 39 22 .600
Philadelphia Athletics 5 2 2 1 28 34 .500
Philadelphia Phillies 4 2 2 0 34 33 .500




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