Long-lost title; For 78 years, a small town in Pennsylvania
|By VINNY DiTRANI, STAFF WRITER
SOURCE: North Jersey Media Group
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)
August 24, 2003
More than 40 years before the first Super Bowl, this coal-mining town was the center of the pro football universe - for one week.
There wasn't even an official title game. So Pottsville (PA) claimed and briefly was acclaimed the 1925 NFL season champion in early December when it went to Chicago and defeated the only other legitimate contender, the Cardinals, 21-7, to leapfrog the Cards in the league standings.
Just one week later, however, the championship was revoked by the league after Pottsville infringed on the Frankford Yellow Jackets' territory to play an exhibition game against a team of Notre Dame all-stars in Philadelphia. To this day, the Maroons' still-faithful say the title was stolen from them by an overly officious league. Others say the championship legitimately was revoked for disobeying what remains one of the NFL's most important commandments: Thou shalt not play in another team's market area.
League owners will discuss in October whether to restore the championship and turn this east-central Pennsylvania burg into Title town, USA. Previous efforts have failed, but that has not deterred efforts to regain this town's moment of glory.
The last of the Maroons, Joseph C. "Duke" Marhefka, died June 30 at the age of 101. Yet the Pottsville Maroons Memorial Committee continues the fight. Headed by David J. Holley and including two men who saw the team play, Nick Barbetta, 88, and Matt Whitaker, 89, the committee has been trumpeting the cause for years.
In May, Mayor John D.W. Reiley and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell addressed the NFL owners in Philadelphia, looking to get the ruling of league president Joe Carr reversed. The NFL promised a decision at its Oct. 29-30 owners get-together after reviewing this great emotional vs. factual puzzle.
The Pottsville story is one of the most intriguing in a sport whose heritage falls far short of baseball in historical prominence. However, the recent push to regain what townspeople insist is rightfully their own has brought attention to a group of players who helped create a professional football league that decades later would surpass the college game in fan attention and appeal.
Here is a look at the town, its story, and the rebuttal.
Queen City of the Anthracite - that was the title given the city about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia during the 1920s. Coal was the major industry, and until 1925 the town's pro football team played in the Anthracite League, an independent coal region league and representative of the many regional leagues that provided the NFL's major competition in its formative years.
After the team won the Anthracite League title in 1924, Dr. John G. Striegel, a local surgeon and team owner, went to Chicago to secure an NFL franchise. As Striegel wrote checks worth $1,700 to guarantee entry, the Maroons were going around town, collecting money to back those checks.
"Money was tough at that time, and just to be able to field a team in a city this size was something," said Holley of the town that boasted about 25,000 at the time.
To assume the Maroons strictly were local coal miners is a mistake. There were some homebreds such as Frankie Racis and leading rusher Barney Wentz, but many players came from other areas. Walter French and Eddie Doyle attended West Point, Charlie Berry and Jack Ernst were from Lafayette, Frank Bucher was from Detroit, Hoot Flanagan from West Virginia, Russ Hathaway was from Indiana. The coach, Dick Rauch, was one of several Penn State products.
The players boarded with families in town or lived in the Plaza Hotel. At night some could be found drinking at Slappy Joe's.
Residing in town gave the 1925 Maroons an advantage over opponents. "Pottsville made the players live close to town so they could practice during the week," said Holley. "Most of the other teams, the guys would come to town on Saturday or Sunday, put their uniforms on, and play. Pottsville practiced all week so they were ready to go."
Linemen made about $100 per game, while backs could make as much as $200. That translates into $3,630 and $7,260, respectively, in today's economy, in which an NFL rookie making the minimum salary draws $13,235 per game. The players earned quite a bit more than their coal-mining neighbors, who brought home about $15 for a six-day week. But the football employment was seasonal, and players had to work other jobs the rest of the year.
The Maroons would hop on a trolley car to Dolin's Field for their midweek practices. The games actually were played in Minersville, 2 1/2 miles west of Pottsville. The Minersville Ballpark was a baseball stadium that could hold about 9,000 spectators. The average 1925 attendance, for the five games at which the crowd total was estimated, was 4,800 per game, including a sellout against the rival Frankford Yellow Jackets, whose protest eventually would force the league to strip the Maroons of their title.
Admission was $1 and programs cost 10 cents. The field contained so much anthracite dust that when it rained, the surface became toxic and any open wounds easily could become infected. The team gained its nickname because Joseph Zacko, a local sporting goods dealer told to deliver 25 matching jerseys regardless of color, produced maroon ones. Favorite son John O'Hara, the noted author, covered Maroons games for a local newspaper.
"There was a grandstand, a concession stand, and a little alleyway to where the clubhouse was," recalled Whitaker. "Below that was the bleachers. There were no seats on the opposite side of the field, so people would stand along the sidelines. Edgar Lewis, the Minersville police chief, would walk up and down sidelines swatting people in the legs with his nightclub if they got too close to the play.
"Players all wore high-tops, with leather helmets and no facemasks. One player, Duke Osborne, played in a baseball cap. Newspapers and magazines were used for thigh pads and hip pads. Offenses were all single wing with very few forward passes thrown."
The Pottsville Maroons played a brand of football contemporary fans might not recognize. There was no glitz, just lots of grit; little grace, just lots of shots to the face. It wasn't just smash-mouth: it was smash-nose, smash-eye, smash-ear, and smash-anything-else-worth-smashing.
The style of football reflected the area in which it was played. "In the history of Pottsville and Schuykill County you won't find too many people born with a silver spoon," said Reiley. "There is a strong work ethic and ethnic diversity. And the team played coal region-type football, hard-nosed football typical of the region itself."
While there was no radio coverage of the Maroons-Cardinals game from Chicago, the Pottsville fans, about 1,000 of them, did get a running account of the action. "We jammed into the Hippodrome Theater, where they put a chart on the stage with the field," Whitaker recalled. "They marked where the ball was, and would give you a play-by-play. Somebody was on a radio in Chicago sending back the information."
In the early morning, fans showed up at the railway station to welcome their heroes back from Chicago. The Third Brigade Band, which dated back to the Civil War, led a parade up Centre Street. The Maroons were the undisputed champs - at least for a week.
While Maroon fever is high, there are few outward signs this once was a mecca of pro football. Walking up North Centre Street you encounter a historical marker, the kind usually reserved for the site of a Revolutionary or Civil War battle. This one, on the corner of Race Street across from RJ Miske's Florist Shop and Beauregard's Cafe, gives the hometown version of the Pottsville rise to the top and subsequent fall "in a controversial league decision."
The stretch of State Route 209 that runs from town to the location of the old Minersville Ballpark has been renamed Pottsville Maroons Highway, with appropriate road signs along the way. The King's Valley Shopping Center covers the old field site, with Palermo's, a storefront Italian restaurant that still welcomes smokers, standing at what was the 50-yard line. Dolin's Field, where the team used to practice, now is home to the M&T Bank and Yorkville Drug Store.
The coal mines are all but exhausted, and the population has dwindled to about 15,700. People downtown actually do not cross a street against the "Don't Walk" sign. The major attraction in town is the Yuengling Brewery, oldest in the nation. Tours are available.
Pottsville could be just about any small city in the United States. What differentiates it is the drive to bring back that 1925 title. There were failed attempts in the 1960s and the 1980s. "We feel more confident this time, we feel there's a good possibility, especially with the intervention of the governor," said Holley.
Rendell, a big football fan who does some post game radio work for Philadelphia Eagles games, joined Reiley in the presentation before the league owners in May. There has been some political arm-twisting since then, and Barbetta wrote a personal letter to each of the 32 NFL owners asking for their support. Ian Lipton, chairman of the Pottsville Bicentennial Commission, wrote President Bush asking for his help.
"America is about anyone with ability, regardless of where they come from, regardless of their background, having the opportunity to rise to the top," Lipton wrote. "America is about realizing your community. This little piece of our community's history is especially important to its citizenry."
The major Maroons memorabilia resides in the Schuykill County Historical Society, once the Female Grammar School building now being developed into a local museum. The bronze-plated shoe Berry used to kick the winning field goal over Notre Dame is on display. Russ Zacko, whose father outfitted the Maroons, once tried to barter the shoe to the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in exchange for the 1925 title. No deal, said the league.
Also in the museum is the Gladiator Trophy (now given annually to the NFL Man of the Year) Pottsville was presented by the league in 1985 as a tribute to the role the team played in the development of the league.
In a back room is the deflated football Berry kicked for the 9-7 win against the Four Horsemen. Director Dr. Peter Yasenchak is trying to determine the best way to "reinflate" the football for display, perhaps using some sort of foam. He is uncertain, however, if the covering - with the bladder inside - will crack if expanded.
The hope is there will be a greater display when and if the league returns the championship to Pottsville, perhaps in conjunction with the city's bicentennial celebration in 2006.
"I think it will give us a big sense of pride, just like if your team went out and won the Super Bowl, or your high school team goes out and wins the state championship," Reiley says of the local residents. "Not just the town, but the county, the whole region."
The Maroons-Cardinals game was not on Pottsville's original schedule. But it was the NFL practice those days for each team to schedule about 10 games through the first week in December, then add significant games as they saw fit the final two weeks. After the regular portion of the schedule, the Chicago Cardinals (9-1-1) were the best team in the "West;" Pottsville (9-2) the best team in the "East." So they would meet Dec. 6 in Comiskey Park in what was considered the 1925 championship game.
The next day the Philadelphia Record reported, "As far as the Chicago Cardinals are concerned, Pottsville, Pa., is the hub of the National Professional Football League wheel and the sturdy football machine representing the Pennsylvania mining town is the champion of the league."
Walter French, who also played baseball for the Philadelphia A's, was the star in the 21-7 Maroons win on an ice-covered field with 30 mph wind making the temperature, 18 degrees, feel even colder.
"Everyone was declaring us the champions, everyone," remembered Barbetta. "We won it fair and square that day."
The Maroons had a league game remaining against Providence. Before that, however, was their exhibition against the Notre Dame All-Stars. The team included the famed Four Horsemen backfield - quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, left halfback Jim Crowley, right halfback Don Miller, and fullback Elmer Layden - plus other members of the 1924 Fighting Irish squad that went 10-0 and was declared national champion. Ironically, the All-Stars originally had signed to play Frankford, but backed off when the Yellow Jackets were crushed by the Maroons, 49-0.
"They wanted to play the best and we were the best," said Barbetta. "Dr. Striegel, the president of the team, or the owner if you want to call him that, called [NFL president] Joe Carr's office. A fellow by the name of Jerry Corcoran answered the phone. Striegel said, 'We're calling for permission for a game against the Notre Dame All-Stars.' Corcoran said he didn't see anything wrong with that, go ahead and play them. But he never would admit this afterward."
Carr was in the hospital at the time, but the Maroons thought the OK from Corcoran was good enough.
Figuring this clash between the best of the colleges and the pros was too big for Minersville Ballpark, Striegel moved the game to Shibe Park in Philadelphia - which was within the Yellow Jackets territorial rights. Pottsville won on a 30-yard field goal by Berry, who went on to a career as an American League umpire from 1942-62.
The next day Carr received the official protest from Frankford, which lost a league game to Cleveland at Frankford Stadium, across town from Shibe Park, that Sunday. He then suspended the Maroons and stripped them of their title.
"They even had the Cardinals play two more games so they could have more wins in the standings," said Barbetta, venting frustration that has built for 78 years. "They played one team [Milwaukee] that didn't have enough players, so they recruited four Chicago high school kids to play for them. I have the names of those kids and the fictitious names they played under. A Chicago sports writer sent them to me. The four never played in another amateur game. One of them was 16 years old at the time."
The Cardinals beat the winless Milwaukee Badgers, 59-0, and afterward the league forced the Milwaukee owner to sell his franchise and suspended for life the Cardinals' Art Folz, who had recruited the four prep players from Crestwood Academy. The Cards also beat the Hammond (Ind.) Pros, who had played only four games all year and hadn't played in a month, to finish 11-2. The suspension prevented the Maroons from playing their final game, so they wound up 10-2.
"The Cardinals owner, Chris O'Brien, refused to accept the title," said Barbetta. "He didn't want it because he didn't think they deserved it. Then the next year Joe Carr came to the Hippodrome and welcomed the Maroons back to the NFL and said all was forgiven."
The Maroons were reinstated for the 1926 season and played three more years in Pottsville before the franchise was sold and moved to Boston. But all was not forgiven: what Holley calls "the stolen title" never was returned. "The penalty," he adds, "undoubtedly was too great for the act."
The case against
Joe Horrigan does not delight in being the Grinch of Pottsville. In fact, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's affable vice president of communications/exhibits and his friend, Bob Carroll, set out in 1978 to see if they could make a case for the Maroons reacquiring the 1925 title.
"I love their civic pride and the fact that after all these years they still care," Horrigan says of the Pottsville backers. "But I just wish they would step back once and realize they did not have all the information when they made their case. The facts simply do not back their claims."
Horrigan says documentation shows the Maroons were warned about the consequences before playing Notre Dame in Philadelphia. Jerry Corcoran, the man they spoke to at the league office, was the manager of the Columbus team and not even a league official.
"The Maroons probably were given permission to play the game, that was not an unusual thing at the time," he says. "Teams were not penalized for playing non-league teams. But the Maroons were told directly several times not to play in Philadelphia, which was Frankford's territory. The team owner asked if the NFL would back him financially if he pulled out of the contract with Notre Dame. He was told the league would, to a degree. That apparently was too vague for him so he went on and played the game. He made a financial decision."
Red Grange, the name in professional football at the time, played no direct role in the Maroons' saga. Yet his fingerprints are all over the aftermath.
"The Cardinals played those last two games to build up their record so they could get a better gate for an exhibition game against the Bears and Grange," Horrigan says.
He adds the territorial rule was considered so important that the next year Grange and his manager/agent, "Cash-and-Carry" Pyle, applied for a franchise in New York. They were turned down because Tim Mara already held the New York market. So Grange started his own league, the AFL, in competition with the NFL.
"Carr, in his infinite wisdom, allowed the Maroons back into the league in 1926 because he feared they would jump to Grange's league and give the AFL a strong franchise," Horrigan explains.
Horrigan says since Pottsville was suspended for the rest of the 1925 season, it has no right to the league title because in effect the team did not exist at the end of the year. Despite the emotional lure of this tiny Pennsylvania town trying to regain a championship, Horrigan says the facts are indisputable. "They were booted out of the league before the end of the season," he said, "and you can't go back and retroactively give them the title."
After the presentation by the Pottsville contingent at the May NFL owners meetings, Reiley says Steelers' president Dan Rooney stood up and withdrew the protest of the Frankford Yellow Jackets.
"Pittsburgh now has the rights, the piece of paper, to the Frankford franchise," the mayor explained. "The Steelers and Eagles got together during World War II and for one year  the combined teams played as the 'Steagles.' When they separated again after the season, the Steelers received the Frankford rights."
Rooney obviously is in the camp of his Pennsylvania brethren. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue did not take a side, but said: "We were asked to reassess it, that the punishment was not appropriate to the offense. We will be looking at that issue.
"People recognize that the passion of fans, not only in Pottsville but throughout Pennsylvania, should lead us to try to do something that's positive recognition of those fans and the accomplishments of that Pottsville team."
That could mean restoring the title to the Maroons during those Oct. 29-30 meetings, ironically in Chicago, where Pottsville originally claimed the 1925 championship.
Or the owners could decide Carr's decision was just, and dismiss the Pottsville claim once again with the proper regrets to the city.
Then there's the compromise route: naming the Maroons co-champions with the Cardinals, who in their long, bleak history need to keep all the titles they can. Pottsville would be OK with that. "We'll take half a loaf at this point," says Holley.
"I just don't know," said Giants' president Wellington Mara, shaking his head over the situation. "It's such an emotional thing to see the whole town behind it like this. They even got the governor to come talk to us on their behalf. Emotionally my heart goes out to them.
"But on the other hand if we do something here, it might just stir up another controversy. We have to look at the facts. This is a very, very tough call."
If that call goes their way, it will be Super Bowl Sunday in late October for the people of Pottsville, many of whom didn't even know their town once had a pro football team until the rebirth of the controversy.
"Everyone knows about it now, what with all the newspaper articles and letters to the editor," said Reiley. "We will have one great celebration if we get back that title we think we won fairly 78 years ago."
The root of the problem:
Why Pottsville's Maroons were suspended for the rest of the 1925 NFL season, which cost them a title.
Pottsville essentially clinched the championship with a 21-7 victory over the only other legitimate contender, the Chicago Cardinals, in Chicago.
The Maroons decided that the next week's exhibition against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and their "Four Horsemen" was too big a game for Minersville Ballpark in Pottsville. So they moved the game to Shibe Park in Philadelphia - within the territory controlled by the Frankford Yellow Jackets of Philadelphia. Pottsville claimed it received NFL permission for the game from another owner who was at the league office. That man later denied he gave the Maroons permission.
Pottsville beat Notre Dame, 9-7, in a game that dwarfed Frankford's NFL game on the same day.
An official protest by Frankford resulted in the stripping of the Maroons' title. The Cardinals scheduled two more games, as teams were permitted, so they could pad their record and surpass Pottsville's victory total.
The big game:
The lineups and box score of the Pottsville-Notre Dame game, as they appeared in the Philadelphia newspapers the next day:
Touchdowns: Crowley, Latone. Point after touchdown: Crowley (placement). Goal from field: Berry (placement).
Substitutions: Pottsville - Beck for R. Stein, Latone for French, Bucher for Doyle. Notre Dame - Cerney for Miller, Bergman for Crowley, Maher for Layden, Crowley for Bergeman, Miller for Cerney, Regan for Garvey, Hayes for Hunsinger.
Referee: William Hollenback (Penn). Umpire: Lieutenant Harmon (Army). Field judge: Kisney (Trinity). Head linesman: Ed Bennis (Penn).
Time of periods: 15 minutes
The 1925 Pottsville Maroons
10-2-0 .833 - 2nd place - (Suspended from NFL, Dec. 12, 1925)
Coach: Dick Rauch
Owner: Dr. J.G. Striegel
Home: Minersville Ballpark
Team colors: Maroon and gold
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