NFL was born in smoky auto showroom in Canton 95 years ago

Jim ThorpeJames F. King

The NFL was born 95 years ago today on a hot and muggy Friday night inside an automobile showroom in Canton, Ohio.

Chairs were scarce -- and there was just enough beer to go around -- when the representatives of 11 pro football teams gathered, some of them seated on cars, to create the American Professional Football Association on Sept. 17, 1920. Two years later, the name was changed to the National Football League.

Ralph E. Hay, an automobile dealer who had purchased the Canton Bulldogs in 1918 at the age of 27, didn't know what to expect when he invited the owners of 10 other teams to his showroom on the corner of Cleveland Avenue and Second Street. He just knew they all had to get under one roof and organize a league if professional football was going to survive.

Prior to the meeting, players played for multiple teams during the course of a disorganized season. Schedules and opponents changed frequently, as did the names of college players and coaches who participated in pro games under assumed names to make extra money.

"Joe Carr, who owned the Columbus Panhandles at the time, said in one year Knute Rockne played his team four times with a different jersey each time," said Dr. James Francis King, Hay's grandson. King was named after his grandfather's friend, James Francis Thorpe, the Hall of Fame player who also served as the NFL's first president.

Hay initially met with representatives from three other Ohio pro teams at his office on Aug. 20, 1920, and formed the American Professional Football Conference, with Hay named the temporary secretary. The owners of those teams agreed to stop bidding on players from rival clubs, to establish a maximum on financial terms for players, and to cooperate in the formation of schedules. They also unanimously voted not to seek the services of any undergraduate college players. After the meeting, Hay was tasked with reaching out to other major professional football owners in the country to establish a national league.

"He contacted 10 of the other owners specifically to get them to Canton to organize the league, and they all came to Canton by rail or bus," King said. "They were going to meet in Ralph's office, but there were 15 men there and they couldn't get into his office. It was too small, so they went into his showroom and there were two Hupmobiles there. They sat on the fenders and running boards. He had buckets of beer on the floor and there was a lot of cigar smoke in the room."

King heard stories about the meeting from his mother, Virginia, who was Hay's only child, and his great uncle, Lester Higgins, who was the secretary-treasurer of the Bulldogs. Higgins and Decatur Staleys owner George Halas, who both died in 1983, were the last living attendees of the meeting.

In his autobiography, Halas wrote: "The showroom, big enough for four cars -- Hupmobiles and Jordans -- occupied the ground floor of the three-story brick Odd Fellows building. Chairs were few. I sat on a running board."

"The significance of the meeting was profound," said Joe Horrigan, the executive vice president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "There was pro football in 1892, but there wasn't any kind of organization to it. There was little news coverage of it. It was something no one had ever heard of before, but the local papers did report a meeting was held, and they cited that there were three real reasons for a need for a league. They were to combat players' high salary demands, to keep players from jumping from team to team, and to protect college eligibility. And so 95 years later, how are we doing?"

In addition to Canton and Decatur, the Chicago Cardinals, Akron Pros, Cleveland Indians, Dayton Triangles, Massillon Tigers, Hammond Pros, Muncie Flyers, Rock Island Independents and Rochester Jeffersons were represented at the meeting. Hay started it at 8:15 p.m., and it ran for two hours. Akron's Frank Nied took down the minutes, which would later be typed up on the letterhead of the Akron Professional Football Team. The two pages of those minutes are still on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"It's kind of the birth certificate of the NFL," Horrigan said. "It's one of the most significant artifacts we have."

The newborn APFA would adopt many of the rules and regulations Hay and the Ohio owners set forth in their meeting the previous month. Many of the managers in the room wanted Hay to become the league's president, but he knew that wouldn't create the headlines the new league was yearning for.

"He declined, thinking that Jim Thorpe's name and fame would be important to the league," King said. "He said, 'If this league is going to be successful, our man has to be Thorpe. Nobody knows me, everybody knows Thorpe.' So for a year, Jim Thorpe became the president of what would be the NFL."

Thorpe, then 33, was his era's "world's greatest athlete" and was one of the most recognizable figures in the country. He won the gold in the decathlon and the pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics, setting records that would stand for decades. He also played professional baseball and football and led the Bulldogs to four titles as a player and coach before the formation of the new league in 1920.

By the start of the first APFA season in 1920, the Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles and Detroit Heralds had joined. Only two of the original 15 franchises -- Halas' Staleys, who moved to Chicago and became the Bears, and the Chicago Cardinals, who moved to St. Louis and then to Arizona -- still exist.

Canton was one of pro football's best teams in the early years. Five future Hall of Famers played for the franchise: Thorpe, Guy Chamberlain, Joe Guyon, Pete Henry and Link Lyman. The Bulldogs were the first NFL team to win back-to-back titles in 1922 and 1923, amassing a record of 21-0-3 during that time.

In 1923, Hay sold the team, which had been a money-losing passion project that was funded by his automobile business. The franchise folded after the 1926 season, but the legacy of the meeting Hay organized lives on.

"That meeting Ralph planned, organized and chaired is the reason the Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton," King said. "The NFL was born in his showroom."

King, 79, is the oldest of Hay's seven grandchildren and still calls Canton home. He is a pioneer in gastroenterology and is credited with performing Ohio's first colonoscopy in 1970. He retired last year and has devoted much of his time to raising awareness of the accomplishments of his grandfather. Despite his key role in founding the NFL, Hay is not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Hay is certainly being remembered by the city of Canton. A plaque that recognizes Hay and Thorpe hangs outside the Frank T. Bow Federal Building, which was built in the downtown Canton location where Hay's dealership once stood. Last year, a section of Second Street outside the building was renamed Ralph Hay Way, a "Birth of the NFL" statue was unveiled where the showroom was located, and Sept. 17 was proclaimed Ralph Hay Day in Canton.

"He had the foresight to recognize the need for a league, and he actually got it done," King said of Hay. "It's a pretty significant event, and his role in it has kind of gotten lost over the years. ... He risked his money to support football, and he had the vision and drive to get the league to become a reality."

Even though the Hall of Fame might not exist in Canton if Hay hadn't called that meeting 95 years ago, it's not a complete oversight that he hasn't been enshrined.

"One of the issues is he owned the Canton Bulldogs for a short period of time, only four seasons," Horrigan said. "He also didn't sign Jim Thorpe. When he bought the team, Thorpe was already there. So his real contribution to the game was trying to organize a league, which was really serving the interest of the teams of the day, but he had a very, very profound contribution in calling that meeting."

King remains confident that Hay will finally get a bust -- or at least be properly honored inside the Canton shrine -- by the time the NFL's centennial comes around in 2020.

"Everybody in Stark County [where Canton is located] thinks it's a no-brainer that he should have been in a long time ago," King said. "There's very strong local support. I had a nice breakfast with Hall of Fame President David Baker a week or two ago, and he was telling me about the competition [for enshrinement], but I have a feeling they might give Ralph an exhibit for his legacy if he doesn't get inducted with a bust.

"He wanted football to be bigger than baseball. He knew the NFL would be big, but he never could have dreamed the multibillion-dollar industry that meeting he organized inside of his showroom would create."