the first professional football game -- 3/14/17

Today's selection -- from Playing Through the Whistle by S.L. Price. Professional football was born in the soul-numbing grime of American steel factories and coal mines. Its players were the immigrants who labored there. The first professional football game was played in Pittsburgh in 1892:

"Baseball was king in Pittsburgh [in the early 1900s]. The Pirates, a National League power, had won the 1909 World Series and starred local boy­ -- and former twelve-year-old coal miner -- Honus Wagner at shortstop. But the game's pastoral air, subtle details, and gunfighter showdowns between pitcher and batter harked back to an era of artisans and yeo­men, its rhythm increasingly at odds with the nerve-racking pace of the machine age. Football was new. Football was obvious. Football, with its bone-snapping tackles, minimal protections, and masses toiling in syncopated fury, killed 330 American college men between 1890 and 1905. It channeled frustration, rewarded power. It fed and fed off the ethos of factory, mill, and mine. It demanded -- like the production line and labor union -- the sublimation of individual want to group need. Muddy, bloody, and raw, football felt more like the life now unfolding at ground level in Western Pennsylvania: bodies punished in a fight for the slightest edge, with money, so often, dictating the terms.

1893 Pittsburgh Athletic Club football team

"Professional football began in Pittsburgh. In 1892, the Allegheny Athletic Association publicly claimed that its supposedly amateur rival, the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, paid its top player and coach, William Kirschner. Both teams responded by seeking more inventive ways of making under-the-table payoffs, and in October the PAC offered Yale all-American William 'Pudge' Heffelfinger and Knowlton 'Snake' Ames $250 to play against Allegheny. The AAA countered with an offer of $500. Heffelfinger surrendered his amateur status, and stunned the PAC by showing up on game day in the opposing team's uniform.

"'The AAA expense sheet provides the first irrefutable evidence of an out-and-out cash payment,' says the official history at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 'It is appropriately referred to today as "pro football's birth certificate:"'

"Gamblers had bet so heavily on AAA that day that the contest was downgraded to an exhibition. AAA followers were furious that they couldn't collect on their bets; PAC fans publicly lamented their rival's use of 'ringers,' and privately fumed at being outfoxed. AAA manager O. D. Thompson crowed that he had just done 'what the Pittsburghs tried to do. Only we were successful where they failed.'

"pro football's birth certificate"

"That mercenary tone filtered down to the prep level. The prac­tice of hiring the city's best players, some in their early twenties, and sending them out to play high school football soon became so common as to be embarrassing. In response, four Pittsburgh schools combined in 1906 to form the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, complete with age eligibility rules and member­ship standards for all sports; once WPIAL administrators actually began to enforce player bans -- even when, as one local paper put it, 'leading citizens found fault' -- its membership began to spread outside the city.

"The first serious challenge to the Pirates' civic supremacy emerged in 1914, when former Carlisle coach Glenn 'Pop' Warner took over as head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Warner had coached the great Jim Thorpe. He never stopped tinkering with the game­ -- inventing the screen pass, tackling dummies, the 3-point stance, and the single- and double-wing formations; numbering jerseys; and improving helmets. He instantly made Pitt a power -- national champions in 1915 and '16 -- and defeated fellow coaching legend John Heisman and his unbeaten Georgia Tech team, 32-0, before 30,000 converts at Forbes Field, to seal a third title in 1918."





S.L. Price


Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town


Atlantic Monthly Press


Copyright 2016 by S.L. Price


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