Mar 022015
 
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Bo Molenda (23), Dale Burnett (18), Ken Strong (50), Harry Newman (12); 1933 New York Giants

Bo Molenda (23), Dale Burnett (18), Ken Strong (50), Harry Newman (12); 1933 New York Giants – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The 1933 season is the most significant in the National Football League’s early history. While being mired in the depths of the Great Depression, many significant changes were made during the offseason that ensured not only the fledgling league’s survival, but allowed it to prosper and ultimately overtake college football and baseball as the country’s first choice for sporting entertainment. This marked the birth of the modern NFL, and planted the seed that would blossom on December 28, 1958 at Yankee Stadium when the Giants and Baltimore Colts captivated a national television audience in what has become known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

The first major decision was for the league to create its own standard of play. Since the league’s inception in 1920, the rules governing competition were legislated by college football, which had hamstrung the NFL’s growth by preventing the pro game from differentiating itself from the college game. With its own set of rules ready for 1933, the NFL began to establish its own identity and attract new fans with a different style of play. The main intent was to create more excitement on offense and increase scoring.

The Impetus for Innovation

The catalyst for this unprecedented change was spontaneous improvisation. The NFL had no firmly-established tie-breaking procedure in place at the close of the 1932 regular season. The 6-1-6 Chicago Bears and 6-1-4 Portsmouth Spartans finished officially tied for first place, as ties were not factored into winning percentages at the time. Their 6-1 equated as a 0.857 winning percentage, and during the season the two had played one another to 13-13 and 7-7 ties. There had been too many disputed championships in the 1920’s and the owners did not desire another.

For the first time, a playoff game was arranged to decide who would be declared champion. A blizzard followed by subzero temperatures forced the game to hastily be shifted indoors from Wrigley Field to Chicago Stadium, which had a considerably smaller playing surface. Some of the special ground rules put in place for the game gave a glimpse into the future of football, as well as a controversy that arose late in the game.

The confined space only allowed for a field that was 80 yards in length and approximately 50 yards in width, with the sidelines nearly abutted to the grandstands. The actual playing field was 69-yards from goal line to goal line. The end zones were smaller than regulation and rounded along the end line to fit within the contours of the field that was shaped like a hockey rink. As a precaution, inbounds markers were placed on the field to allow play to begin more toward the center of the field instead of right on the sideline following an out-of-bounds play. This proved to be a revelation, as fewer downs were wasted attempting to center the ball, and also allowed for more productive offensive plays with more of the field was available to use. The goal posts were also moved up from the end line to the goal line.

The game was tied 0-0 five minutes into the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-goal from the Spartans two-yard line, Chicago fullback Bronko Nagurski charged toward the line, but abruptly pulled up and lofted a pass into the hands of teammate Red Grange for a touchdown. Portsmouth head coach Potsy Clark immediately stormed the field in protest, claiming Nagurski was not the required five yards behind the line of scrimmage when he passed the ball forward. Referee Bobby Cahn upheld the ruling and the touchdown stood. The Bears held on for a 9-0 victory and were professional football’s champions for 1932.

The NFL declared it would no longer strictly adhere to the college rule book and forged its own code on February 25, 1933. Although the professional parameters were still strongly rooted to the college game, the differences were significant and would ultimately prove to stimulate a more open and entertaining brand of football. Higher scoring games also decreased the likelihood of tie games, a direct response to the fact that the participating teams in the 1932 playoff participated in a total of 10 tie contests.

  • Forward passes were allowed anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, rather than five yards back (the penalty for which had been loss of possession.)
  • The goalposts were moved to the goal line to make field goals a more attractive option.
  • In-bound lines were added to the field to keep plays from being wasted merely to center the ball on the field.
  • The ball carrier was not ruled down unless contacted by a defender.

Structural differentiation occurred by borrowing ideas from major league baseball. Boston Redskins owner George Preston Marshall and Chicago Bears owner George Halas championed the idea of splitting the NFL into Eastern and Western divisions and having the two first-place teams meet in what they conceived as a “World Series of Football.” Splitting into divisions created “pennant races” that fans would follow, stimulating interest in more cities around the league as more teams had the opportunity to qualify for the championship. The annual championship game would also once-and-forever eliminate disputed championships. Everything would be settled on the field. This reorganization was officially implemented on July 8, 1933, and the site of the championship was predetermined on a rotating basis. The Western Division champion would host the game in 1933 and all subsequent odd-numbered years while the Eastern champion would host in 1934 and all further even-numbered years. This system remained unchanged until expansion caused the league to realign into four divisions in 1967.

The NFL expanded to ten teams in 1933, up from its all-time low of eight in 1932. The placement of the new franchises was significant. Beginning in the late 1920’s, NFL President Joe Carr mandated that the league migrate from large towns and small cities into large cities, especially ones that had a major league baseball team. This helped elevate the NFL’s image, as many pro football teams would share stadiums with their baseball counterparts.

The Staten Island Stapes withdrew from the NFL after the 1932 season (but would continue as an independent team and occasionally play NFL teams in exhibition matches.) Three new franchises received league charters and were based in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The number of franchises that had competed at least one season in the APFA/NFL was now at 51 in the circuit’s 14th season. The realignment featuring two five-team divisions operating from large metropolitan areas gave the NFL much needed stability. The days of impermanent and transient franchises were drawing to a close.

Player statistics were officially recorded by the league for the first time in 1932. Weekly postings of league leaders were distributed to the press and printed in newspapers beginning in 1933. This gave fans an interactive experience, allowing them to follow their favorite players as they would during baseball season by tracking the league-leaders in batting average and ERA.

Reload

The Giants themselves also underwent a transformation prior to the season, having endured back-to-back disappointing seasons as the core of the team that had challenged for the league title in 1929 and 1930 got old.

The core of New York’s team was its perennially-powerful line. Ray Flaherty and Red Badgro were the best pair of ends in pro football. The interior line was anchored by Len Grant, Butch Gibson, Mel Hein, Potsy Jones and Bill Owen. The infusion of new blood took place in the backfield, with fullback Bo Molenda, tailback Harry Newman and halfback Ken Strong, the latter signing with the Giants after the Staten Island Stapes left the league.

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1933)

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1933)

The Giants struggled to score points in 1932 after Benny Friedman departed for Brooklyn. The new tailback was chosen for his pedigree. Newman had played behind Friedman while at Michigan in college. The hope was his time observing Friedman playing and practicing alongside him would translate into production on the field. Newman could run, pass and kick almost as well as Friedman, and the Giants billed him as the team’s marquis star. Newman said, “’It was Benny who taught me how to pass. I think I may have thrown two passes in high school. Benny felt if I was going to make it to the top in college, I needed to be a good passer as well as a runner.”

Following four weeks of drills and practice in Pompton Lakes, NJ and exhibition games versus the All-Long Island Stars and Patterson Night Hawks, the 1933 New York Football Giants opened the season with a five-game, three-week road trip. The league opener was a Wednesday-night contest, pitting the Giants against the Pittsburgh Pirates in their inaugural football game.

The Pittsburgh Press said Newman “stole the show” and “did everything with the ball but swallow it,” while comparing him to baseball pitching great Carl Hubbell. The crowd of 25,000 remained enthusiastic, despite the Giants dominant performance. Newman scored on a 5-yard rush and threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Dale Burnett. Perhaps most pleasing to Coach Steve Owen, however, was Newman’s successful 39-yard field goal, as no New York kicker successfully made a field goal during the entire 1932 season. Strong also had a good all-around game for the Giants, scoring on an interception return and two point-afters. The Pirates only score came on a safety when the ball skittered though the end zone in the third quarter when Strong’s punt was blocked. The Giants won 23-2.

New York was overwhelmed by the Spartans and 90-degree temperatures four days later in Portsmouth. Tailback Glenn Presnell moved the Spartans offense up and down the field on New York in front of 7,000 fans. Portsmouth had the game well in hand, 17-0 in the fourth quarter, when the Giants avoided a shutout with an unusual play. Newman called his own number on a rush from the Spartans 45-yard line, ran through the line and into the secondary. He fumbled the ball when hit from behind, but teammate Red Badgro was nearby to scoop the loose ball at the 20-yard line and take it the rest of the way for the touchdown. Strong added the point-after from placement and the final score was 17-7. The busy road trip continued with an exhibition contest at the Indianapolis Indians on Wednesday before a league contest versus Green Bay at Milwaukee.

Milwaukee fans had been eager to see the Packers in person, and the game against the Giants was very much anticipated as the two teams had battled one another for league supremacy in 1929 and 1930. Instead they witnessed 60 full minutes of undisciplined execution combined with sloppy ball handling. Strong and Newman had productive game for New York, but The Milwaukee Journal provided a descriptive summary of the Wisconsin team’s performance: “Twelve thousand fans laid it on the line hoping to see the Packers and Giants artistically maul each other around in a National League football game at Borchert Field Sunday afternoon, and 12,000 fans, after seeing the exhibition, quietly left the park gently holding their noses between the forefinger and thumb.”

A first quarter Green Bay fumble led to an impressive 39-yard placement field goal by Strong from a wide angle into a brisk wind. In the second quarter, Hein intercepted a pass at the Packer 25-yard line, and Newman connected with Burnett on a 19-yard touchdown pass shortly thereafter for a 10-0 New York lead. Green Bay scored late in the fourth quarter to make the final 10-7 score look respectable, but those who saw it knew better. The Milwaukee Journal detailed “the Bay’s” comedy of errors: “It wasn’t that the Packers lost, they have lost before. They lost to the Bears last Sunday but still looked like a football team. It was that they fumbled, missed signals, fumbled, missed tackles, fumbled, passed like the Apache A.C. Indians, fumbled, checked signals until they finally resorted to a huddle, fumbled, passed wildly from center, fumbled, used bad judgment in spots, fumbled – and then used butter fingers on the ball some more. It was a sad, sad exhibition all around.”

New York headed back to the East Coast for one last road game in Boston. The newly renamed Redskins were building themselves into a rugged outfit. They were strong on the line of scrimmage and had one of the great young backs in the league in Cliff Battles. After jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, Boston gained control of the tempo and pounded out long drives for a 21-7 lead in the third quarter. New York fought back. Stu Clancy connected with Flaherty on a 35-yard aerial, and then finished the drive with a 15-yard rush into the end zone. However, Glenn “Turk” Edwards pierced the line and blocked Newman’s point-after attempt, leaving New York behind 21-13.

New York Giants at Boston Redskins (October 8, 1933)

New York Giants at Boston Redskins (October 8, 1933)

Late in the fourth quarter, the Giants had the ball on their 20-yard line and were desperate for a quick score. Newman took the snap from center, sprinted toward the edge and flipped a lateral toward a teammate who missed the ball. Newman retrieved the ball on the 10-yard line, reversed field, and traversed the distance for an 80-yard touchdown. His point-after was good, bringing the score to 21-20. Newman’s long run gave him 108 yards for the contest, and earned him the distinction of being the first officially recognized 100-yard rusher in franchise history. Unfortunately for the Giants, this was not the only accolade of the day. The Redskins were able to run out the clock before New York could threaten again. Battles carried the ball 16 times for 215 yards and a touchdown in the first officially recorded 200-yard rushing performance in pro football history. The Giants headed back to Harlem with a 2-2 record.

Home Cooking

The environs of the Polo Grounds definitely agreed with Owen’s team in 1933. If they felt road weary after their five-games-over-three-weeks road trip, they certainly recovered in a hurry. New York opened their home schedule with a record-setting romp in their first-ever meeting with Philadelphia in front of 18,000 fans.

Harry Newman, New York Giants (October 15, 1933)

Harry Newman, New York Giants (October 15, 1933)

Scoring early and often, the Giants set a team record with eight touchdowns and 56 points. The New York Times game summary said: “the red-jerseyed New York team swept ruthlessly through the visiting eleven to register one of the largest scores ever made in professional football. The Giants gave evidence of tremendous power and fine cooperation, unleashing a running and passing attack that completely puzzled the Philadelphia congregation.

The Giants eight touchdowns were scored by six different players: five were rushing and three passing, with Molenda and Kink Richards each going over twice. New York had totaled eight touchdowns in a game against Frankford in 1930 in a 53-0 win, but only converted five point-afters. This time the Giants were eight-for-eight. Jack McBride converted four placements, Strong two, Newman one and Hap Moran passed to Newman for one.

Fifty-point scores were not uncommon in the early days of professional football as mismatches often occurred between the league’s handful of established franchises and the rabble of teams that struggled to hold their rosters together. As the NFL stabilized in the later 1920’s, the level of competition became balanced as there were fewer teams and stronger rosters. One-sided blowouts became less frequent. The Giants two 50-point games in 1929 and 1933 were the only occurrences of that plateau being reached through the six-year span of 1928-1933, and New York would not reach it again until 1950.

The Giants entertained the Dodgers the next week in an inter-borough battle that drew an exuberant 35,000 spectators to the Polo Grounds. Brooklyn featured familiar names to fans of the Giants: Benny Friedman, along with newcomers Chris Cagle and John “Shipwreck” Kelly, who left New York after the 1932 season and acquired a percentage of the Dodgers franchise. Newman again drew praise for his deft passing against Brooklyn’s durable defense, which came into this game off a shut out versus Cincinnati.

A unique play occurred in the second quarter with New York ahead 7-0. Newman punted to the irascible Kelly, who surprisingly punted the ball right back to Newman, giving the Giants a new possession with a net loss of one yard. The Giants lead 14-0 at the half, and after leading another touchdown drive, Newman was given star treatment and was taken out to a standing ovation. Owen sent in Richards to finish the game at tailback. Friedman got the Dodgers on the scoreboard late with a fourth quarter touchdown pass. Brooklyn successfully completed an on-sides kick, but the Giants defense held and the final score was 21-7. After bolstering their record to 4-2, good for first place in the Eastern Division, the Giants boarded the train to Washington for a mid-week exhibition match before heading to the mid-West to meet a familiar foe with a new look.

The Comeback Kings

New York Giants Center/Linebacker Mel Hein in 1933 - Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

New York Giants Center/Linebacker Mel Hein in 1933 – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

After winning the NFL title in 1932, Ralph Jones stepped down as coach for the Bears. George Halas, having bought out long-time partner Edward “Dutch” Sternamn, reinstalled himself as head coach. Part of his motivation may have been the desire to work closely with Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski, who was the embodiment of everything Halas desired in a football player: tough, smart and relentless. Nagurski was a unique specimen. At six feet two inches in height and 235 pounds, he was a nightmare for defender to bring down. On defense he played tackle where he demolished blockers. Hein stated years later, “I learned that if you hit him by yourself, you were in trouble. If you hit him low, he’d trample you to death; if you hit him high, he’d take you about 10 yards. The best way to tackle Bronko was to have your teammates hit him about the same time – one or two low, one or two high. He was the most powerful fullback that I ever played against. Bronko had a knack of running fairly low. He had a big body and he could get that body, that trunk, down and be able to throw his shoulder into you. If you didn’t get under his shoulder, he just knocked you butt over tea kettles.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune boasted the expected crowd was to be the largest ever at Wrigley Field for a professional football game. (The Cardinals occasionally played there when Comiskey Park was unavailable). An added draw was Newman, who had many fans in the area from his time at Michigan University, and his college teammate Bill Hewitt, now on the Bears. Newman was leading the NFL in passing while also averaging five yards per rush. Halas drilled the 5-0 Bears in defensing New York’s diversified attack. Also of note were the three active players who participated in the first Giants – Bears game at the Polo Grounds in 1925: McBride for the Giants and Red Grange and Link Lyman for Chicago, as well as Coach Halas. The Giants and Bears had met 13 times overall with Chicago holding an 8-5 advantage over their Eastern rivals.

The Bears were the cardiac team of the 1933 season, having won four of their five games by coming from behind late in the final period. The Giants controlled much of the action through the first three quarters, keeping the Bears pinned deep in their own end of the field throughout the third quarter. The field position advantage finally paid off for New York when Strong was good on a 26-yard placement for a 10-7 lead. The Giants defense appeared to close the contest after recovering a fumble at mid field. Newman advanced New York to the Bears 35-yard line where the drive stalled. Luke Johnsos tipped the field position advantage and swung the momentum Chicago’s way when he broke through the line and blocked Strong’s punt, Hewitt scooped the ball and wasn’t tackled until he was dragged down from behind by Newman at New York’s 18-yard line. The comeback was on and the 28,000 Chicagoans were on their feet.

Grange, who, along with Hein, played the full 60 minutes, charged forward for a first down at the eight-yard line. On third-and-goal from the 11-yard line, Keith Molesworth received the snap from center, play-faked to Johnny Sisk, and handed off to Bill Hewitt who came around from the end position. Hewitt followed blockers into the line but pulled up as a herd of New York defenders collapsed on him, and lobbed a pass to Bill Karr alone in the end zone. “Automatic” Jack Manders was good on the placement and the Bears went ahead 14-10 with six minutes to play. The Chicago defense held to preserve their perfect record at 6-0. Newman and Strong ran the ball well for the Giants, but Newman completed only two passes while having four intercepted. The Giants held Nagurski in check, but never quite got a handle on Hewitt, who was the game’s top performer.

New York returned home at 4-3, just ahead of 3-3-1 Boston, who was facing the Bears at Fenway Park. The Giants hosted the always tough Spartans, a team owning a three-game winning streak over New York. The first three quarters of the game showed no reversal of fortune for either team. Glenn Presnell ran 81 yards for a touchdown and kicked a field goal for a 10-0 lead. The battle in the trenches was mostly a stalemate. Portsmouth’s front wall was fortified by All-Pro linemen Ox Emerson and George Christensen.

Ken Strong, New York Giants (November 5, 1933)

Ken Strong, New York Giants (November 5, 1933)

New York’s first break came with approximately 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Presnell, who was soon to leave the game from exhaustion, missed an 18-yard placement attempt. Like the blocked punt the previous week in Chicago, the momentum tipped and the door of opportunity opened. Following an exchange of punts, Newman, who had not yet completed a pass, led the Giants on a 68-yard advance. Badgro and Hank Reese began to control the line of scrimmage, clearing space for Strong, Burnett and Newman on plunges and slants. Newman completed a nine-yard pass to Flaherty and completed the drive with a 12-yard aerial to Strong, who fell backward over the goal line for a touchdown. Strong missed the point-after and the deficit remained 10-6.

The aroused New York defense smothered Portsmouth on the ensuing possession and the Giants started on their 48-yard line after receiving a punt. On the first snap, Newman rolled right and lofted a deep ball into the hands of Burnett at the Spartan’s 14-yard line as the Polo Grounds crowd was “galvanized into an excited, roaring mass.” A Spartans defender was penalized for a late hit on Burnett and the ball was set on the one-yard line. The Giants lined up strong to their left and Strong followed a wave of interference to go over for the winning score and added the point-after for a 13-10 victory. Presnell and Strong registered all the points for their respective teams.

The First Pennant Race

The Giants enthusiasm was tempered after receiving news from out of town. Boston had upset the Bears 10-0. The upcoming Redskins game at the Polo Grounds would be a pivotal match for first place in the division. The 5-3 Giants had a half-game lead over 4-3-1 Boston, but the Redskins had won the first game and a sweep would give them a tie-breaking advantage. A large crowd was expected, since the game was billed as a memorial and charity fundraiser for the late Fordham coach Major Frank Cavanaugh. A high scoring game was predicted – the Redskins led the league in rushing and the Giants led the league in passing. That proved not to be the case.

The contest was a savage battle in the trenches. Boston sent Battles into the fray behind Edwards, looking to duplicate the success they enjoyed in the first game. The Giants countered with Strong plunging behind Grant. Neither team passed the ball with great success as the pressure from both defensive fronts was tremendous. It was entirely appropriate that game’s lone touchdown was scored by an unsung member of the pits.

Newman sparked the Giants only sustained drive with a 15-yard return of a Battles’ punt to the New York 44-yard line in the second quarter. Strong plunged three times for a first down at the Boston 44-yard line. Newman connected on a pass to Burnett to the 28-yard line, and then ran a slant off right tackle for a first down at the Redskins 13-yard line. Three rushes left the Giants with a fourth-and-12 on the 15-yard line. Owen passed on the field goal attempt and signaled Newman to run a play.

Newman took the snap from Hein, rolled to his right and fired a high pass toward the goal line. Battles was in position defending the intended receiver. He leapt up and batted the ball down. Tackle Tex Irvin had been running interference for Newman and was in the area. Irvin reached out, grabbed the deflected ball and fell over for the touchdown. Strong’s point-after gave New York a 7-0 advantage and closed out the scoring for the day. The second half was a field-position struggle featuring the punting exploits of Battles and Strong. Neither team advanced beyond the other’s 30-yard line nor there were no serious scoring threats.

With a 6-3 record and a firmer hand on first place, the Giants again found disconcerting news from the out-of-town scoreboard. The Bears had shockingly been played to a 3-3 tie at Philadelphia. Halas’ team would certainly be motivated to get out of their unexpected slump when they visited the Polo Grounds the following week.

In a calculated risk, Owen changed up his line-up, eschewing explosiveness for size. Given that Chicago was the league’s burliest team – their roster averaged 208 pounds, including 215 along the line – this seemed like a questionable strategy. The prospects of a defender staring down the barrel at the 267-pound George Musso running interference for the 235 pound Nagurski must have kept Owen awake at night. Strong and Newman would start the game on the bench in favor of Clancy and McBride. Owen said he would substitute the larger backs for the more dynamic pair when a scoring opportunity presented itself. Richards would also receive significant playing time subbing for Molenda, who was beat up after playing the full sixty minutes of the previous three games.

Owen’s strategy played out exactly as he had envisioned it during the closing moments of the second quarter. The larger lineup played Halas’ eleven to a stalemate through the game’s first 25 minutes. Looking for a spark, Newman and Strong entered the game with the Bears in possession of the ball at their own end of the field. Newman intercepted a Carl Brumbaugh pass and returned it 20 yards to the Chicago 25-yard line. But a clipping penalty during the return moved the ball back to midfield (the penalty for clipping was 25 yards at the time.)

Chicago Bears at New York Giants (November 19, 1933)

Chicago Bears at New York Giants (November 19, 1933)

From the 50-yard line, Newman received the snap, dropped back to pass, and kept retreating under a heavy rush all the way back to New York’s 25-yard line. Side-stepping and weaving through would-be tacklers, Newman headed back up-field. Most of Chicago’s defense was now behind Newman and his receivers took on the role of blockers. He advanced the ball beyond the 50-yard line and wasn’t brought to the ground until he had reached the 15-yard line for a net gain of 35 yards that electrified the 22,000 fans at the Polo Grounds.

Newman completed an eight-yard pass to Turtle Campbell with just over one minute on the clock before halftime. The Giants called their fourth time out of the half and accepted the accompanying five-yard penalty (essentially a delay-of-game infraction). Deciding it was too risky to run another play, Newman called for the field goal try on second down, which Strong sent through the uprights with ease for a 3-0 Giants lead at intermission.

The Bears came back with a vengeance in the third quarter. Nagurski plunged into the line and Brumbaugh flipped laterals to Sisk and delivered aerials to Molesworth during a 66-yard advance. A remarkable 25-yard play included three exchanges of the ball. Brumbaugh passed downfield to Hewitt, who lateralled to Karr. This play was Chicago’s fourth first down of the drive and set the ball goal-to-go on the seven-yard line. But on first down a lateral was mishandled and the Giants recovered the loose ball. The reprieve was temporary however. Strong launched a deep punt but Molesworth evaded several tacklers and returned it back to the New York’s 18-yard line. Sisk and Manders bucked through the line for a first-and-goal from the eight-yard line.

According to The New York Times summary, “Then came the most thrilling moments of the game and a goal line stand by the Giants that had the crowd cheering frenziedly.” On successive plunges Manders, Sisk and Molesworth advanced to the one-yard stripe. Manders was stuffed again on fourth down, but New York was offside and gave Chicago another chance one half-yard from pay dirt. The Giants line penetrated and Molesworth was thrown for a three-yard loss on the fifth attempt. New York took over possession on their own four-yard line. Grant and Ollie Satenstein were cited for their exceptional efforts to come off blocks and repel the forward charge.

Neither team penetrated deep into the other’s territory and Strong’s field goal held up for the 3-0 win. New York was not firmly in control of the division yet as Boston kept pace by defeating Green Bay. And Brooklyn was on an undefeated roll of their own and stood at 4-2-1.

The Giants dispatched the slumping Packers the next week with relative ease, 17-6. The contest was notable for Strong’s unique free kick field goal in the second quarter. You can read more about this historic occurrence here.

The Dodgers vaulted over the Redskins into second place with a 14-0 win over Boston at Ebbets Field. Brooklyn’s defense had been virtually impregnable following the 21-7 loss to New York in October. Since that game, the Dodgers surrendered only three points over five games during a 4-0-1 run (the tie game was 3-3 versus Pittsburgh). They had given up only four touchdowns thus far during the season; one to the Bears and three to the Giants. Standing at 5-2-1, a win over New York on Thanksgiving would put Brooklyn in first place by percentage points over the currently 8-3 Giants.

Owen again altered his strategy for a rugged opponent, this time emphasizing the aerial attack as Brooklyn was the toughest unit to run on. The first half saw the expected physical line play from both units and three missed field goals, two by New York and one by Brooklyn. The second Giants miss was one that had the fans of both teams on their feet in anticipation of a potentially great feat.

New York had the ball on Brooklyn’s 45-yard line with only seconds on the clock before halftime and elected to go for what would be a record long field goal. Newman knelt on the Giants 48-yard line for the hold. The snap and spot were perfect and New York’s front kept the Dodgers out for Strong’s booming placement. It was high and long enough but sailed just outside the right upright. Remarkably, the ball flew over the end zone and hit the Ebbets field grandstand wall before coming back to the turf. Its flight was estimated to have been 65 yards and the 28,000 fans gave Strong an ovation for his effort as the teams walked off the field for intermission.

Dale Burnett (18), Harry Newman (12 - making the tackle), Ken Strong (50), New York Giants (November 30, 1933)

Dale Burnett (18), Harry Newman (12 – making the tackle), Ken Strong (50), New York Giants (November 30, 1933)

A four-play drive in the third quarter, all passes, gained 59 yards to set up Strong’s 16-yard field goal to put the Giants on top 3-0. Following an exchange of punts, New York was on the move again, now with Clancy in for Newman. Clancy plunged for three-yards and McBride completed a nine-yard pass to Flaherty for a first down. Four consecutive rushes moved the chains again and the Giants had the ball on the Dodgers 11-yard line as the game moved into the final period.

Brooklyn crowded the line of scrimmage and Clancy called for a trick play. McBride received the direct snap from Hein and handed off to Molenda, who faked a line buck and tossed a diagonal pass toward Flaherty in the end zone. Flaherty was knocked down by a defender before the ball arrived and the pass interference penalty gave New York a first-and-goal on the one-yard line. Clancy went over for the score on a plunge and the Giants had the game in control after McBride’s placement made it 10-0. Brooklyn never threatened and the Giants returned to the Polo Grounds at 9-3, all but assured of the first Eastern Division title in league history.

Only 10,000 spectators braved a cold rain to watch the Giants clinch the Eastern Division title against Pittsburgh. The 27-3 final score belied the frustration New York endured for most of the first three quarters. Newman passed the ball nearly at will on three long drives in the first half – including a 98-yard march between the one-yard lines – that all came up empty. With three minutes left in the third quarter, the Pirates still lead 3-0. Finally New York’s attack broke free. Newman peppered the Pittsburgh secondary with accurate strikes to sure-handed receivers and Strong capped the drive with a scoring strike of his own for a 7-3 advantage at the end of the penultimate period. Another touchdown drive gave the Giants a 14-3 lead. The Giants intercepted two passes (including one by Newman), giving New York short fields to work with and the rout was on.

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (December 10, 1933); Ken Strong with the Football

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (December 10, 1933); Ken Strong with the Football

A surprisingly-tough Eagles team gave the Giants a run for their money to end the regular season at the snow-covered Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. Given that New York had already clinched the division and had easily rolled over the Eagles in the first meeting, they may not have been sharp. A 61-yard rush by Swede Hanson in the middle of the fourth quarter gave Philadelphia a 14-13 lead and apparent upset victory, but it was to be short lived. The 8,000 fans who withstood the winter weather were stunned to see Newman complete a 61-yard touchdown pass to Richards immediately after. The 20-14 lead held and 11-3 New York closed the season on a seven-game win streak and with a perfect 7-0 record at home. Despite the championship game being held in Chicago, Owen and the Giants were confident.

The First Greatest Game Ever Played

Anticipation was high for the NFL’s first championship game between division winners. Newspaper coverage previewing the event was the most extensive since Grange’s debut in 1925. The Chicago Daily Tribune billed the game as “the football championship of the United States.” Articles were written in both cities portraying the exploits of Newman, Strong, Manders and Nagurski. Point spreads were not published, but The New York Times hinted toward what handicappers might be thinking, “The elevens are so evenly matched defensively that the game probably will be decided on mistakes or ‘breaks,’ with the chance that it will develop into an aerial battle.”

New York Giants - Chicago Bears NFL Championship Game Program (December 17, 1933)

New York Giants – Chicago Bears NFL Championship Game Program (December 17, 1933)

Grange would not start the game for Chicago, but he would see plenty of playing time. In his ninth season of professional ball, Grange no longer possessed the breakaway speed that had earned him the moniker “The Galloping Ghost”. But he was an extremely-intelligent player and was one of Halas’ most dependable defensive backs.

Despite a light rain and fog at the game’s start and chilly temperatures, 30,000 eager fans arrived at Wrigley Field, the largest crowd there in eight years. The game opened at a deliberate pace as the two teams sparred one another. Gradually the tempo increased as they warmed up and before long their engines were humming. The ebb and flow, big plays, momentum swings and rapid lead changes made everyone forget the weather in a hurry. The New York Times summary put it succinctly: “The game was a thrilling combat of forward passing skill, desperate line plunging and gridiron strategy that kept the chilled spectators on their feet in constant excitement.”

On Chicago’s first possession, Molesworth quick-kicked the ball over Newman’s head, and pinned New York deep in their own end. Strong punted for the Giants on third down, and Molesworth returned the ball eight yards to the New York 42-yard line. Nagurski and Gene Ronzani rushes moved the chains twice and set the ball on the 15-yard line. From there the Giants defense stiffened and Manders was good on a 16-yard placement to giving the Bears a 3-0 lead.

New York resorted to deception to try to get on the scoreboard. The ball was spotted on the Bears 45-yard line, where the Giants lined up in an unbalanced formation with both guards and tackles deployed to Hein’s right and only the end on his left. The right end was split approximately 20 yards toward the sideline. Newman stepped up from his tailback position directly under center. On the first signal, the left end stepped back, making Hein eligible, and the wingback stepped up to cover the right tackle and the right end stepped back. Hein snapped the ball into Newman’s hands, who handed it right back to Hein. The line fired off to their right, Newman followed the fullback into the line as if he still possessed the ball and was brought to the ground by Musso. While this was going on, Hein nonchalantly walked forward approximately five yard with the concealed ball. Chicago had been completely fooled. None of the Bears defenders had paid any attention to the center, but Hein suddenly broke into a sprint toward the goal line. Brumbaugh alertly saw Hein take off and chased him down after a 30-yard gain. The Bears held and kept New York off the scoreboard.

Hein said, “This was a play we had to alert the officials about ahead of time. We put all the linemen to my right except the left end. Then he shifted back a yard, making me end man on the line, while the wingback moved up on the line on the right. Harry Newman came right up under me, like a T-formation quarterback. I handed the ball to him between my legs and he immediately put it right back in my hands – the shortest forward pass on record. I was supposed to fake a block and then just stroll down the field waiting for blockers, but after a few yards I got excited and started to run and the Bear safety, Keith Molesworth, saw me and knocked me down. I was about 15 yards from the goal, but we never did score on that drive.”

In the second quarter, Grange returned Richards’ punt to the Giants 46-yard line. Ronzani caught a 15-yard pass on second down at the Giants 29-yard line. A short rush and two incomplete passes brought Manders out for another field goal, which was good from 40-yards and gave Chicago a 6-0 advantage.

1933 NFL Championship Game (December 17, 1933)

1933 NFL Championship Game (December 17, 1933)

New York returned the kickoff to their 38-yard line. On second-and–five, Richards bucked into the line, bounced off Lyman and charged through the secondary until he was brought down at the Chicago 29-yard line. Newman threw a scoring strike to Badgro and Strong’s point-after placement marked the game’s first lead change as New York moved ahead 7-6. The score held to halftime, as a long Chicago drive resulted in a rare Manders’ missed field goal attempt.

In the third quarter, Richards punted out of bounds at the Bears 37-yard line. Nagurski bulled through the line for a 14-yard gain to the Giants 49-yard line. After an incomplete pass and three-yard Ronzani plunge, Nagurski picked up seven yards on a cut back through the line for a first down. George Corbett completed a 27-yard pass to Brumbaugh before New York stuffed three rushes. Manders was good on his third field goal, this one from 18-yards, to put Chicago back on top 9-7.

Newman returned the kickoff to New York’s 27-yard line and completed a pass to Burnett on first down to the 50-yard line and then another pass to Burnett to the Bears 37-yard line. On second-and-10, Richards bucked for six yards and on third down Newman connected with Badgro to Chicago’s nine-yard line for a first-and-goal. New York was penalized for illegal motion, so on first down from the 14-yard line, Newman completed a 13-yard pass to Max Krause who was pushed out of bounds at the one-yard line. Richards was stuffed on a plunge by Lyman, but Krause went over for the score on third down. Strong’s placement put New York ahead 14-9.

The mutual offensive momentum was irresistible. Corbett returned the kickoff to the Bears 23-yard line, then alternated plunges with Nagurski for a combined seven yards. One third-and-three from the 30-yard line, Nagurski was stopped after a gain of one. Chicago was flagged for illegal motion on the play and the Giants accepted the five-yard penalty to give Chicago a third-and-eight. From a punt formation, Corbett passed to Brumbaugh who traversed through open field down to New York’s eight-yard line, a gain of 67 yards which had the Wrigley Field stands in a state of bedlam. Two rushes netted two yards, and on third-and-goal, Nagurski faked a plunge and lobbed a pass over the line to Karr in the end zone – the same exact play that had won the championship in the playoff against Portsmouth the previous season. Manders’ placement put Chicago back ahead, 16-14, the third lead-change of the quarter.

Strong returned the kickoff to the Giants 26-yard line. Three consecutive Newman completions quickly moved New York to Chicago’s 25-yard line. After a false start, Newman completed his fourth consecutive pass, this one to Burnett, and the Giants had a first-and-goal on the Bears eight-yard line as the thrilling third quarter ended.

On the fourth quarter’s first play, Newman handed off to Strong who ran a slant to the left, spun and lateraled the ball back to Newman. Chicago’s defense reacted to the ball and changed direction. Newman spotted Strong alone in the end zone and finished the drive with his fifth completion and a touchdown to regain the lead. Strong said, “Newman handed off to me on a reverse to the left, but the line was jammed up. I turned and saw Newman standing there, so I threw him the ball. He was quite surprised. He took off to his right, but then he got bottled up. By now I had crossed into the end zone and the Bears had forgotten me. Newman saw me wildly waving my hands and threw me the ball. I caught it and fell into the first-base dugout.” Strong’s placement put New York on top again, 21-16.

The Bears received the kickoff and generated two first downs as they advanced to midfield. New York’s defense held its ground and forced a punt. The Bears defense responded in kind and forced a Giants punt after three downs. The Giants got the ball back when Ronzani threw a deep pass that was intercepted by Krause at the Giants 35-yard line. Unable to move the chains, New York went three-and-out again and gave the Bears favorable field position in doing so. Strong received Hein’s true snap, but Chicago pressure quickly penetrated and rushed the punting attempt. The ball went straight up in the air and bounced forward for a net of nine yards.

The Bears started their third possession of the fourth quarter on the Giants 47-yard line. A nine-yard pass and Nagurski run gave Chicago a first down on the Giants 33-yard line. Nagurski faked a plunge and completed a jump pass to Hewitt who raced through the secondary. As two defenders converged on Hewitt at the at the 20-yard line, he lateralled to Karr who continued diagonally toward the sideline, then cut back to pick up a block on a defender, and ran the distance for the go-ahead touchdown. Brumbaugh’s placement put the Bears ahead 23-21 with three minutes on the clock.

The Giants looked to strike fast after receiving the kickoff, and lined up in the same unbalanced formation where Hein had run with the snap-handoff in the first quarter. Only this time, Newman took the snap and pitched to Burnett who ran right, while Hein released as a receiver. The Bears were fooled a second time, but Burnett was pressured by the pass rush and his throw was high and wobbly. The arc of the ball allowed Molesworth to recover and knock the ball to the ground incomplete before Hein could get his hands on it.

After moving the chains there was time left for just one more play, and Newman called for a hook-and-lateral. Newman completed a pass to Badgro who had Burnett trailing him. Grange had been in position and when tackling Badgro, he noticed Burnett looking for the ball. As he wrapped up Badgro, Grange pinned Badgro’s arms to his body. Badgro was unable to release the ball to the wide open Burnett as Grange wrestled him to the ground.

Grange said, “I was alone in the defense and Burnett was coming at me with (Hein) on the side of him. I could see he wanted to lateral, so I didn’t go low. I hit him around the ball and pinned his arms.” Badgro unsuccessfully tried to run through the tackle once he realized he couldn’t deliver the ball. “If I’d gotten by Red Grange, I would have scored. Grange had me around the middle. His arms were around the ball and I couldn’t get rid of it. If I get by him, we win the game.

The clock expired and the final gun went off. Owen overheard an official near the New York bench ask, “Who won?” to which Newman quipped, “How should I know? I was only playing.”

There was no most-valuable-player award at the time. Newman and Manders stood out for their respective teams, but The Chicago Daily Tribune had this to say on the subject after going through a roll call of performers:”…realize that THIS football game belonged to the teams. No better example of teamwork and uniform direction can be found in the history of the sport…and in all mechanics of the game, blocking and tackling, the players left slight chance for criticism. Six times the lead changed. And on each occasion that New York or Chicago went to the fore the tension increased.”

The significance of the moment was not missed in the post-game buzz. Scribes noted the impact of the new rules and realized they had just been treated to a glimpse of the future. And they raved about it. The New York Times said: “The struggle was a revelation to college coaches who advocate no changes in the rules. It was strictly an offensive battle and the professional rule of allowing passes to be thrown from any point behind the line of scrimmage was responsible for most of the thrills.”

For the very first time, pro football was acknowledged as a leader, something to be emulated, not scorned. It would be some time before the tag “post-graduate” would be retired for good, but during that chilly and wet afternoon at Wrigley Field, the pendulum swung in the pros favor and there would be no looking back.

Jun 152014
 
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1927 New York Giants

1927 New York Football Giants – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

The early attempts to organize professional football were no doubt sincere. But results were minimal. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that trial-and-error was the guiding principal for many of the organizational efforts by the nascent National Football League (NFL). Even its first name, the American Professional Football Association (APFA), required refinement. At least that was a quick-and-easy fix; many others were not.

APFA President Joe Carr (who served from 1921-39 and is known as the man who brought respectability to professional football) was quick and decisive to correct faults. His simple philosophy was the sport should always strive for the highest possible standards and the public should be considered first, last and always.

The lack of standardized player contracts, make-shift schedules and franchise instability were paramount issues that were gradually rectified over time. However, with no post-season play until 1933, the most public controversies were the ones that came after the close of each season (the end to each season being sometimes ambiguous itself) when more than one team claimed itself league champions. Four of the first six APFA/NFL titles were publically disputed, hurting the credibility of the pro game with a sporting public who clearly preferred the college game at the time.

It didn’t help any that the first controversy came after the APFA’s inaugural 1920 season. The lack of structure was astounding and nobody had the foresight to recognize that it was lacking. There were 14 teams stacked top-to-bottom, with a convoluted method of calculating win percentage (remarkably, the all-too-common ties were discounted); no coherent tie-breakers; unbalanced, makeshift schedules that teams modified during the season; and a lack of a clearly defined conclusion to the season. This was a recipe for disaster.

Even worse, most of the early championships were not awarded until an oft-contentious vote at the spring meetings, months after the last game had been played. The title outcome was inevitably anti-climactic.

A Litany of Confusion, Confrontation and Conspiracy

Intrigue surrounded the 1920 Championship as three teams claimed ownership of the title. It also illuminated the folly of treating tie games as non-entities.

The Akron Pros appeared atop the APFA with a record of 8-0-3. However, the unbalanced schedule saw two teams with more victories than Akron. The Decatur Staleys (soon to be known as the Chicago Bears) were second with a 10-1-2 record, and third were the Buffalo All-Americans at 9-1-1. Both challengers supported their bids by highlighting the fact that the Pros did not beat either of them, having played both to 0-0 ties.

Regardless, the vote at the April owners meeting went to Akron. Interestingly, applying the tie-breaker principle that was put in place in 1972 that calculates tie games as a half-win and half-loss, Akron and Buffalo would have tied for first place with a win percentage of 0.864 and Decatur third with 0.846. Buffalo and Decatur may have left dissatisfied, but this was nothing compared to what they would be embroiled in next season.

As the 1921 season was coming to a close, the renamed Chicago Staleys and Buffalo All-Americans found themselves in a fight for first place. They met on Thanksgiving Day with the All-Americans coming out on top 7-6. The win vaulted Buffalo to the top of the APFA standings with a 7-0-2 record and dropped Chicago to second at 6-1-0. Buffalo won their remaining two games to finish 9-0-2 and publically touted themselves as league champions. The Staleys played one more game against Green Bay, which they won, and finished their schedule at 7-1.

At this point, the Staleys owner-player-coach George Halas challenged Buffalo owner Frank McNeil to a rematch on his turf. McNeil accepted, but allegedly on the grounds that the game be treated as an exhibition contest. The 10-7 Chicago win served as a catalyst for turmoil. Now within a win of 9-1-2 Buffalo, Halas quickly scheduled two more games on his home field against Canton and the Chicago Cardinals, winning one and tying the other.

Halas successfully petitioned the league’s owners to award his 9-1-1 team the league crown. His claim was unique, and the ultimate decision at the April owners’ meetings set a significant precedent, despite McNeil’s objections. Halas argued not only that the aggregate score of the two Buffalo-Chicago contests (which favored the Bears 16-14) be taken into consideration, but that the second game be given more weight in that it had more importance being nearer the close of the season. The majority of owners decided that the outcome of the second head-to-head contest should carry more weight. That policy would remain through 1932.

Fortunately for Carr and the rest of the now renamed National Football League, the 1922 and 1923 seasons were without title dispute as player-coach Guy Chamberlin’s Canton Bulldogs trucked through the competition with nearly unscathed records of 10-0-2 and 11-0-1. Despite their on-field success, Canton struggled financially and suspended operations for the 1924 season.

Sam Deustch, owner of the Cleveland Indians franchise, quickly signed seven members of the Canton roster, including Chamberlin, and signed Michigan Wolverine passing sensation Benny Friedman after his college graduation. The bolstered Cleveland team, which included a late-season addition of tackle Steve Owen from the Kansas City Cowboys, defeated the Chicago Bears 16-14 in their opener and faced little competition the rest of the season, losing and tying the Frankford Yellow Jackets on their way to a 7-1-1 record. All of this factored into another convoluted, off-field fight to determine the league’s championship, but in this case to the betterment of the league’s reputation as a loop-hole would be closed in the process.

The league standings, at the still-ambiguous close of the 1924 season, stacked up in this order: Cleveland 7-1-1 (0.875 win percentage), Chicago 6-1-4 (0.857) and Frankford 11-2-1 (0.846). Halas attempted similar tactics that worked in his favor in 1921. After a Thanksgiving Day win boosted the Bears record to 5-1-4, he scheduled a game against the weak Milwaukee Badgers, which Chicago won 31-14, then challenged Cleveland to a rematch.

Carr stepped in and ruled that the schedule retroactively officially ended November 30. Teams were permitted to continue playing, but those contests would be rendered with an exhibition status and would not count in the official league standings. Cleveland was awarded the championship, Chamberlin’s third in a row.

The next season in 1925, another precedent was set, one which would significantly support the New York Giants tenuous franchise.

College football was still a significantly larger draw than professional football. The Pottsville Maroons and Frankford Yellow Jackets had an agreement that the better team in the region would host the Notre Dame All Stars in Philadelphia. The teams split their head-to-head games, but Pottsville’s 49-0 advantage in the second game and their better record was decisive. Frankford ostensibly believed Pottsville ran up the score in their landslide victory, and petitioned the league office that Pottsville hosting the game in Philadelphia was an infringement on their territory. To underscore their point, Frankford scheduled a game versus Cleveland at Frankford Stadium, which was just outside of Philadelphia, on the same date. Moving or cancelling the game would be a financial disaster the Maroons would not be able to absorb, as the All Stars would not appear for a game at Pottsville’s high school stadium at Minersville Park.

Carr sided with the plaintiff Yellow Jackets and telegrammed the Maroons to move or cancel the exhibition contest. Pottsville owner John Streigel declared his intent to still play the game. Streigel later said he received verbal permission from Carr to play the All Stars at Shibe Park, even though Carr issued two subsequent statements claiming the opposite.

Carr suspended Pottsville from the league immediately following the exhibition contest, and awarded their scheduled game at Providence on December 13 to Frankford. Nevertheless, Pottsville’s 10-2 record and convincing head-to-head win against the Chicago Cardinals paced them ahead of the 9-2-1 Cardinals. However since the league’s end date had been previously set at December 20, Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien scheduled two more home games against weaker teams to pad his team’s win total.

When the season finally ended on December 20, the top of the standings had the Cardinals in first at 11-2-1 and Pottsville 10-2-0. Pottsville was not represented at the owners meeting when the crown was given to the Cardinals since they were still barred from the league.

New York, New York

Given all that tumult, it is easy to forget that professional football finally placed a permanent foothold in the nation’s largest city, New York, which had been a part of Carr’s vision for long-term league success. Carr had originally envisioned boxing promoter Billy Gibson to be the founder, but he deferred instead to friend Tim Mara. Present at the meeting was also the football-knowledgeable Dr. Harry March. March had been vital in the success of the APFA/NFL’s predecessor, the Ohio League, where he had served as the team physician for the Canton Bulldogs. Mara took March on as a minority owner and installed him as team President to take charge of assembling a quality roster.

The Giants fared reasonably well for their first season of competition in 1925, finishing the year 8-4, but they struggled to attract paying customers. In fact, tickets for games at the Polo Grounds were routinely handed out free of charge to fill empty seats. It wasn’t until a visit from Illinois superstar Harold “Red” Grange, who had made the mid-season leap from college to the Chicago Bears, that the Giants could declare a profit and decide to move forward with their franchise. The possibility of the Giants dissolving after one season was very real, as nine other franchises had disbanded or left the NFL during or after their inaugural season of play.

The Polo Grounds seating capacity for football was normally around 55,000, but the demand to see the already legendary Grange was so irresistible that temporary seating was put in place in the outfield and standing room only tickets were issued. The gate was estimated to be in excess of 70,000 and photographs from the event support this claim. The only other time the Polo Grounds was that full was for the game against the Notre Dame All Stars in 1930. Not even the five post-season contests the Giants hosted in the Polo Grounds in later years against stalwart franchises Chicago, Green Bay and Washington had as many.

Irony reared its head just a few short months later when Grange’s manager, Charles C. Pyle, found a loophole in the contract with the Bears and signed Grange. Pyle prematurely leased Yankee Stadium before he even had a team. But Pyle had Grange so he had leverage. When Pyle approached Carr on the idea of expansion in New York, Mara and March balked. The prospect of having a team with Grange playing within walking distance of the Polo Grounds would spell the Giants doom. As tempting as it was to have Grange headlining the marquee in New York, Carr had no choice but to follow the precedent he’d set the prior season in the dispute between Frankford and Pottsville. Carr upheld Mara’s claim to having “exclusive right to anything in New York.” Being spurned but resolute, Pyle formed his own league to feature his star player, the first-ever American Football League (AFL).

This was now a league-wide threat for Carr and his constituents. The AFL attempted, and sometimes did, lure players from the established but still tenuous NFL. The Giants lost both their best lineman Century Milstead and head coach Robert Folwell to the upstart league. Part of Carr’s response to the new threat was to reinstate the Pottsville franchise, being fearful that team would sign with Pyle. Also, he forged an agreement with the Giants to allow a franchise in Brooklyn. Carr feared the AFL establishing two franchises in New York and wanted to beat them to the punch. He assured the Giants that the Brooklyn team’s schedule would not conflict with the Giants. This was keen foresight on Carr’s part, as the AFL then placed a franchise in nearby Newark, New Jersey. Just one year after having a single professional football team in New York, the metropolitan area now had four! The man most responsible for saving the Giants franchise in 1925, Red Grange, now threatened to render them irrelevant.

The 1926 season played out much like the one before for the Giants. Their 8-4-1 record was similar and so was their attendance. With no draw like Grange to fill the house and player salaries increasing with the competing league, the Giants finished in the red financially. They did win the war against Pyle however. Following the season, Mara and March hosted a game at Yankee Stadium against the AFL Champion Philadelphia Quakers. The motivated sixth-place Giants team manhandled the Quakers at the Polo Grounds 31-0, leaving no doubt as to which league was superior. Fortunately the crowning of the NFL champion was not business as usual. All was calm and everyone was in agreement when the title was bestowed upon Chamberlin’s 14-1-2 Frankford team. It was his fourth championship with his third team in only five seasons, a feat that has yet to be equaled.

Contraction and Contrition

The AFL disappeared just as quickly as it emerged. Although the Yankees drew well wherever they went, the rest of the league seemed to go unnoticed. The debts incurred by the NFL teams were a fraction of those compared to the ones suffered by the AFL. The Giants fortunes seemed to turn around quickly following that boastful triumph over the Quakers.

The dissolution of the nine-team AFL was a significant coup for the NFL, which had fielded 22 teams in 1926. The available talent was spread thin over the total of 31 teams in operation between the two leagues. A series of difficult ownership meetings that off season resulted in the contraction of the NFL. Gone were sentimental favorites with Ohio League roots like Canton, Akron, Hammond and Columbus. It was just not practical for the league’s survival to maintain franchises in locations lacking growth potential. For the NFL to become a big-time league it had to play in big-time cities, and having better players on those teams improved the quality of the product on the field.

The NFL would field 12 teams for the 1927 season. Ten were NFL survivors of the great purge of 1926, plus the return of the Cleveland Bulldogs following a year of suspended operations. Pyle’s Yankees team, which had the distinction of becoming the forty-first franchise in the APFA/NFL’s seventh season of operation, was the sole newcomer from the now-defunct AFL . The only small market team continuing on was publically-owned Green Bay.

Part of the consolidation directly benefitted the Giants. The Brooklyn Horsemen disbanded, but Carr kept its charter active. It was awarded to Mara as payment for unresolved debts. Soon after, Pyle returned to Carr’s office seeking admission to the NFL. This time Mara and March had no objections. Mara leased the former Brooklyn charter to Pyle, who would continue to feature Red Grange at Yankee Stadium. But the Football Yankees schedule would be tightly restricted. The Yankees would primarily be a traveling team, and their few home games would not coincide with Giants home games. Lastly, the season would end with a home-and-home competition for the City Championship.

With Pyle being reduced from threat to nuisance, the focus of the New York Giants was now on team building. Having less competition and a larger talent pool to select from, Mara confidently told March, “I don’t care what it costs but get the players you need. I want a winner this year.”

March’s vision was simple and the approach primal. After installing Earl Pottieger the Giants third head coach in just their third season, this Giants team would be built for power and control both sides of the line of scrimmage. The roster was composed mostly of veterans and was unusually deep; there would be little drop-off in performance when a sub was called upon.

Joe Alexander and George Murtagh, New York Giants (1927)

Joe Alexander and George Murtagh – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Mickey Murtagh returned at center from the 1926 team. Hec Garvey and Al Nesser were well-traveled and experienced guards. Nesser was familiar to March as he was one of the seven famed Nesser brothers who played for Carr’s Columbus Panhandles in the Ohio League. They were professional football’s original “royal family” and their reputation was rock solid. Legendary Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne competed against them as a member of the Massilon Tigers and famously stated, “Getting hit by a Nesser is like falling off a moving train.” Al brought championship experience, having been a member of the 1920 Akron Pros. Joe “Doc” Alexander, a remnant from the inaugural 1925 Giants, backed them up when available, as his medical practice demanded much of his time.

The left tackle was one of the largest and toughest players in all of professional football, Steve Owen. March brought Owen to the Giants the prior year after observing him as a member of the 1925 Kansas City Cowboys. The Cowboys had visited the Polo Grounds that season and later served as the Giants barnstorming team after the regular season. Owen was a man who relished having his hand in the dirt, “We were pretty much a smash and shove gang. We were bone crushers, not fancy Dans.” Wilbur “Pete” Henry, a member of the 1922 and 1923 champion Canton Bulldogs, served as the right tackle for the early portion of the season. The sub for Owen and Henry was Dick Stahlman.

The athletic Chuck Corgan, who had been a teammate of Owen in Kansas City, was a good receiving end. On the other side was the rookie wunderkind Cal Hubbard. At 6’4” and 245 pounds, he was the largest member of a team stocked with big men. But it was his unusual speed and agility that made him one-of-a-kind. He did more than just set the edge for end runs. Hubbard would routinely knock his counterpart on his back and continue his path of destruction downfield, springing Giant ball carriers for long gains. He was also a premier defender, patrolling the line of scrimmage as an end or prototype linebacker. His ascension to stardom was as brutal as it was quick. Wellington Mara recalled Hubbard years later, “You could tell when Cal hit a man. You would hear it on the bench – a hard, dull boom.”

The backfield may have lacked the notoriety of the group blocking for them, but it was talented and versatile. The mainstays were tailback Hinkey Haines and fullback Jack McBride, both members of the 1925 Giants. They complimented one-another with a blend of power and speed. McBride was the power back who bulled through the line while Haines rushed around the corner with elusiveness and speed. Atypical of the common trend though, the fullback McBride was the Giants primary passer, whereas the tailback for most teams performed that role. McBride was also the primary kicker, whether from a drop-kick or placement. The versatile Doug Wycoff subbed both positions. Mule Wilson was the lead blocking back, and he was backed up by Jack Hagerty, who was moved from the halfback position he’d played during the 1926 season. A veteran presence was provided by the former Ohio Leaguer Joe Guyon, who played multiple roles including wingback. Guyon had been a teammate of Jim Thorpe’s with the Canton Bulldogs in the Ohio League in 1919 and also with the NFL’s Oorang Indians in 1921 and 1922. Phil White served as a utility sub for halfback and fullback.

Power Football

Steve Owen and Cal Hubbard, New York Giants (1927)

Steve Owen and Cal Hubbard – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Following a dress rehearsal against the Orange Athletic Club, the Giants opened their regular-season campaign by disappointing 7,500 Providence fans with a stifling 8-0 victory over the Steam Roller. The local press lauded the Giants “great forward wall” and singled out Cal Hubbard, “He put on one of the greatest displays of line work ever seen on a Providence gridiron.” The rookie set up New York’s only touchdown by blocking a punt that Owen recovered at the Providence 2-yard line. Hubbard was also instrumental in limiting the home team to five first downs.

The defense continued its good work at Cleveland the following week, but the offense sputtered. It was surprising that only 3,000 fans attended given that it was their first opportunity to witness the home debut of rookie passing sensation Benny Friedman. Friedman moved the ball well but the Giants defense was stout when most needed. Doug Wycoff returned a punt 70 yards for New York, but the rest of the special teams performance was dreadful. The Giants missed five field goals and left Cleveland with a 0-0 tie.

Following a 19-0 win in front of 5,000 fans in Pottsville, where New York’s subs enjoyed plenty of second-half playing time, the Giants returned home to the Polo Grounds, unfortunately to second billing.

New York Giants vs Cleveland Bulldogs (October 16, 1927)In the re-match against Cleveland, Friedman arrived several days ahead of his Bulldog teammates and was lavished with several honors, not the least of which was a gala event in his honor at the Hotel Majestic. Despite this being just his fourth professional game, he was easily one of the NFL’s marquis attractions among the likes of newsreel sensations Red Grange and Ernie Nevers. The Giants even printed the tickets for the game to read: “N.Y. Giants vs Benny Friedman’s Bulldogs”.

All of the pomp may seem excessive, but to his credit, Friedman lived up to the billing. Even as a rookie he was audacious in his play calling, throwing the ball on first down and from deep in his own territory when the common practice at the time would call for conservative line plunges or a punt. Although the crowd at the Polo Grounds was not nearly as large as the one to see Grange two years earlier, the Giants had to be pleased with the turnstile count of 25,000.

The Giants strong line controlled most of the first half, but the game was tied 0-0 at halftime after Jack McBride missed a field goal attempt. The third quarter began with an exchange of punts, then Cleveland’s speed got the better of New York’s muscle. Friedman connected on a 35-yard pass to Tiny Feather down to the Giants 30-yard line, followed by a 15-yard completion to Jim Simmons to the 14. Friedman and Simmons alternated rushes until Simmons went over for the score from the one-yard line. This was the only score of the game (Friedman was wide on his point-after attempt) and the first of the season yielded by the Giants. But Cleveland won the game 6-0 and the Giants fell to 2-1-1. Friedman ended the afternoon 11-17 passing, which was very respectable for the time and unheard of in a winning effort. Normally that many pass attempts came in desperate, come-from-behind situations.

Although New York fielded a quality team, something was amiss. Aside from the poor tackling exhibited in the second half of the loss to Cleveland, the running game on offense was sporadic. The Giants made a move by sending the powerful but slowing Pete Henry to Pottsville. They then signed Century Milstead, who was idle after a one-year hiatus with the rival AFL’s Philadelphia team. He had been the best lineman on New York’s 1925 team.

Al Nesser, New York Giants (1927)

Al Nesser – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The infusion of relative youth and tangible athleticism was appreciably noticed during a home-and-home weekend against the defending-champion Yellow Jackets. As was their custom, Frankford played their home games on Saturday as Sunday spectacles were prohibited by local blue laws. Often they would follow up a Saturday game at Frankford Stadium with an away game against the same team on Sunday. The rushing game was greatly improved, as the Philadelphia press cited Haines for “having an outstanding game” for New York in their 13-0 victory.

At the Polo Grounds rematch, a 20-point second quarter for New York was highlighted by a spectacular defensive play that brought the crowd of 15,000 to its feet. Jack Hagerty intercepted a pass at his own 47-yard line, sidestepped two Yellow Jackets, cut up-field, stiff-armed a would-be tackler along the sideline, and eluded several others until he was dragged down from behind at the 3-yard line for a 50-yard return. Phil White went over for the touchdown and the Giants subs held Frankford off the scoreboard in the second half to finish the 27-0 victory.

The following week saw a physical, altercation-filled scrum with Pottsville. The New York defense was dominant once again, registering a safety in a 16-0 win. The 20,000 Polo Grounds faithful must have been amused when a second safety was awarded after the Maroons punter had lined up beyond the end line to receive the snap despite several warnings to correct his position from the closest official.

The Giants played host to another of the NFL’s early stars the next week when Ernie Nevers arrived with his traveling Duluth Eskimos. They represented Duluth in name only, having played in the city only once in 1926. The Eskimos counted on lucrative visitor’s shares of the gate by playing an all-road schedule in large venues such as the Polo Grounds. The 15,000 who showed up may have been a mild disappointment to the Giants, but it was far more than Duluth could realistically hope for in northern Minnesota.

Jack McBride, New York Giants (1927)

Jack McBride – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Nevers was the second most famous player in the league after Grange, and some observers believed him to be of equal talent. Nevers was a triple threat on offense, played rock solid defense and could be counted on to play close to the full 60 minutes every game, occasionally completing the duration without a trip to the bench. Glenn “Pop” Warner, who coached Nevers at Stanford famously called him, “the football player without a fault.”

The Giants powerful defense did yield yardage to Nevers, who was cited by the press for giving “a strenuous effort,” but again refused to yield a point. The Eskimos penetrated the New York 30-yard line five times but came away empty. Three of those drives ended with interceptions while the other two saw them halted on downs. Jack McBride engineered three scoring drives for New York. The final one featured an exclamation-point 25-yard touchdown pass to Hinkey Haines to close out the 21-0 win.

At 6-1-1, the Giants may have been pleased with their place in the standings. But a three-way race with the Packers and Bears for the number one spot in the league made it clear that there was no time to rest on laurels. Tuesday was Election Day and the Providence Steam Roller was coming to the Polo Grounds, while on the other side of the Harlem River the Bears would be visiting their old teammate Red Grange and the Yankees. This would be Grange’s first game back after tearing a ligament in his knee at Cubs Park back in October, and it was the Yankees first home game of the season.

The Giants played in front of their largest house of the year; 38,000 fans showed up for a football triple header, as the Giants and Steam Roller played following two high school games. The headliners did not disappoint. The Giants capitalized on three big plays in all three phases of the game: Mule Wilson’s 54-yard interception return, Jack McBride’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Jack Hagerty and Hagerty’s 53-yard punt return. Most of the fans probably forgave the Giants for missing three of their four point-after attempts in the 25-0 victory after learning the rival Yankees, with a limping Grange, upset Chicago 26-6. End Ray Flaherty, who would join the Giants in 1928, starred for the Yankees that afternoon by hauling in three touchdown receptions. The Giants now held the top spot in the NFL and had the inside track to the championship if they could win out the rest of the way.

The Giants had next been scheduled to play the Buffalo Bisons, but the Bisons disbanded mid-season. Instead, the Giants played a non-league exhibition at Staten Island against the Stapletons. Showing no fear of travel or injury, the Giants then visited Boston to play another exhibition game against Pierre Marquette the Saturday before a crucial league contest against the Chicago Cardinals, who were now coached by Chamberlin. The Cardinals held no advantage as they played at Frankford on Saturday as well.

The Giants jumped all over the visiting Cardinals early, scoring three touchdowns in the game’s first 10 minutes. New York’s subs played to a stalemate as the Giants coasted to a critically important 28-7 victory that maintained their slim advantage over the Bears who were next on the docket. Chicago was in a second place tie with Green Bay, but both of the Packers losses were to the Bears so the Packers only hope for first place would be both teams above them collapsing.

Strength Versus Strength

Again, the Giants participated in a non-league exhibition at Staten Island the Thursday prior to their biggest game of the season. The 8-1-1 Giants knew owner-player-coach Halas would have his 7-2-1 Bears ready to go, as he had been in this situation many times before. A Chicago win would give the teams matching 8-2-1 records and the Bears a late-season head-to-head victory. Should both teams win out after that, history had already demonstrated Halas’ persuasiveness among the league’s owners in regard to championship votes. Ironically, the situation could even have been in reverse. In the event of a tie, the Giants would be the team in position to challenge the Bears to a rematch. Knowing the precedent set in 1921 with the Bears and Buffalo, would Halas have even accepted and risked a title he may have believed already belonged to him?

Were it not for miserable cold and the threat of snow, the crowd of 15,000 at the Polo Grounds probably would have been much larger, as the local press had well-publicized the significance of the game. Although no official NFL championship game yet existed, this was as close to it as you could get. The winner in all likelihood would end up being crowned champion, even if they had to wait until April for it to be declared official!

If any team were capable of matching the Giants on the line of scrimmage it was the Bears. They had two future Hall of Famers at the tackle positions: Link Lyman and Ed Healy. Center George Trafton was an All-Pro. The backfield featured future Hall of Fame halfback Paddy Driscoll and tailback/quarterback Dutch Sternaman. Sternaman co-coached the Bears with Halas.

The Bears front line asserted itself early. After receiving the opening kickoff, Chicago pounded away at New York’s defense, moving the chains until facing a first-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Three line plunges set the Bears up with fourth-and-goal on the one. Halas wanted six and ordered Sternaman to go for it. Fullback Jack White took the ball on a handoff, but as he attempted to vault over the wall of crashing bodies, White was hammered in mid-air and knocked backward by Al Nesser.

Hinkey Haines and Jack McBride, New York Giants (1927)

Hinkey Haines and Jack McBride – Photo Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The scoring threat was thwarted, but New York was still in trouble. Not surprising for the era, the Giants lined up in punt formation of first down. Mule Wilson was deep to receive the snap. The up-back Hinkey Haines cautioned him to line up correctly with his heels in front of the end line, recalling the incident with Pottsville’s punt several weeks earlier, and requested that the referee wipe mud off of the ball with a towel for a more accurate snap. Chicago realized the predicament the Giants were in and jammed nine men on the line of scrimmage. While the official wiped the ball down, Haines discreetly deepened his position a few steps and surveyed Chicago’s deployment as he called the signals. Haines received a direct snap and lofted a perfect pass to Chuck Corgan over the unguarded middle. The Bears had only two men deep and did not take Corgan down until he had advanced beyond midfield to Chicago’s 41-yard line.

Although the Bears kept the Giants off of the scoreboard, the stunning 58-yard play not only tipped the field position back to the Giants favor, it also quelled the surge of momentum the Bears had in their favor with the long opening drive. The action largely took place around mid-field for the remainder of the first half with the teams exchanging punts. At the half, the game was deadlocked 0-0.

The third quarter began much the same way, but the Giants received a jolt in an unlikely fashion. On the Giants second possession of the half, Halas attempted to clip Joe Guyon. Guyon had heard him coming though. As Halas launched himself, Guyon pivoted and rammed his knees into Hala’s chest, sending him to cold turf breathless. As Halas was helped off the field with two broken ribs, Guyon slyly told his Giants captain Steve Owen, “That fellow ought to know you can’t sneak up behind an Indian.”

The ensuing 15-yard penalty on Halas was the spark New York had been looking for. Jack McBride punctured the Chicago front for a total of 53-yards on the 60-yard drive and went over for the touchdown from the two on a fourth-and-goal. The point-after was missed so the score held at 6-0. Another exchange of punts had the Bears pinned on their own two, and a poor punt only moved the ball out to the 30. McBride mixed runs with passes. Three line plunges from goal-to-go gave him his second touchdown of the quarter. And this time the point-after was good. The Giants led 13-0 as the quarter came to an end.

Undeterred, Driscoll took the Bears down the field as he did to start the game. Noticing that the New York front seemed to be growing fatigued, Sternaman kept calling for rushes as Chicago pushed and pounded the ball to the Giants 10-yard line. Here the Bears reached deep into their playbook and changed up their strategy entirely, lining up in a spread formation. Sternaman caught a pass from Laurie Walquist and darted into the end zone. The point after was good and the lead was trimmed to 13-7.

The concluding 10 minutes of action was fierce and physical, both powerful lines traded blows but neither offense could advance until Chicago’s last possession. A trade of punts preceded a last valiant effort by the Bears. The Chicago running game found a few creases and moved into New York territory with the clock running after each carry. The tiring Giant defense was bending and Chicago had the ball on the 17-yard line. Perhaps feeling a sense of desperation with the clock now just under 2:00 or recalling how the Bears last scoring drive ended, Sternaman called the first pass play of the possession. Mule Wilson made the play for New York and intercepted the throw. The Giants ran three plays to run out the clock. The chilled crowd celebrated the thrilling win, but the victors and losers were too spent to react.

“It was the hardest game any of us ever played,” said Steve Owen. “I played sixty minutes at tackle opposite Jim McMillen, who later became a world wrestling champion. When the gun ended the exhausting game, both of us just sat on the ground in the middle of the field. He smiled in a tired way, reached over to me, and we shook hands. We didn’t say a word; we couldn’t. It was fully five minutes before we got up to go to the dressing room.”

Once inside the locker-room, little changed. Hinkey Haines described the ironic scene, “That victory just about gave us the championship, but you’d have thought we all were just given walking papers.”

March tended to his battered victors, “Some of them looked like they’d never walk again.”

The key plays in the first quarter still reverberated. “Al Nesser (who stopped the Bears on fourth-and-goal from the one) was the real hero,” said Century Milstead. “Bare-headed and with no shoulder guards, he just kept submarining their running plays. He was battered but he never quit.” Owen complimented the selling of the fake punt, “Haines called one of the smartest plays I’ve ever seen to win for us. He stage-managed it perfectly.”

The New York Times led off the Monday game summary superlatively: “The Giants powerful forward wall met their equal in the Chicago Bears’ line yesterday and the battle that ensued was one of the most brilliant and savagely fought in the three years of professional football in New York…The play was spirited through sixty minutes of action, both elevens traveling at a fast and furious pace.”

The New York Daily News singled out the Giants touchdown maker: “Jack McBride was the outstanding figure in this grim grid struggle, counting both Giant touchdowns in a wild burst of ground spurning in the third quarter after the first half had been scoreless.”

Settling One Final Score

The Giants truly needed the full week off following their most important triumph in the franchise’s short history. They must have been relieved to not have any exhibition contests interrupt their recovery. The season-ending home-and-home matches with their neighboring Yankees were most likely anti-climactic for most observers. But there is no doubt some within the Giants organization relished watching “arrogance being humbled” first hand as the Giants swept Pyle’s team 14-0 and 13-0 in miserable weather in front of small crowds. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were among the 10,000 fans who braved the snow and sleet to watch the first game at the Polo Grounds in support of Grange’s team. Haines quickly dampened any enthusiasm they may have brought as he returned a first quarter punt 75 yards for a touchdown. Only 8,000 came through the turnstiles the following week to watch the two teams slosh around in the Yankee Stadium mud. Ball handling was treacherous in a fumble-filled contest. Joe Guyon was a featured ball carrier in these two games and contributed significantly to both Giants victories.

To his credit, Grange’s heart was stronger than his damaged knee. He played as long as he could and suffered a beating as the Giants repeatedly gang-tackled him after short gains. He hung tough, finished the first game and came out late in the second only after the outcome had been decided. Unfortunately the fans chose to express their disappointment in his performance by booing him, despite the fact he was the Yankees leading passer and had several good punt returns.

A Team For The Ages

It was a relatively inglorious end to an 11-1-1 season that had been anything but that. Yardage statistics from the 1920’s and early ‘30’s are sketchy. Some beat writers compiled such stats for the teams they covered, as did some teams. Over the years, historians have attempted to make calculations from news stories, but all such attempts are fragmentary and therefore not officially recognized. Jack McBride may have led the Giants in both passing and rushing in 1927. There is no doubt he led the Giants in passing yardage by a wide margin; the rushing total could be up for debate. He and Hinkey Haines carried the ball close to the same number of times. Given Haines’ break–away ability, a missing long gainer or two could easily tip the scale in his favor.

Hinkey Haines, New York Giants (1927)

Hinkey Haines, New York Giants (1927)

Scoring records are reliable though. McBride led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with six. Including his two field goals and league-leading 15 point-afters, McBride also led the NFL in total scoring. McBride finished second (behind Friedman) in touchdown passes with six. His favorite target on scoring plays was Haines, who finished tied for first in the NFL with Ray Flaherty with four scoring receptions.

The post-season accolades, albeit diverse and unofficial, were abundant and adulatory. Various media outlets that covered professional football would comprise their own All Pro-style lists of players after each season. Not surprisingly, the most consistent over the early years was the daily paper from the football-crazed town of northern Wisconsin, The Green Bay Press-Gazette.

New York Giants who appeared on more than one first team list included: Cal Hubbard, End; Steve Owen, Tackle (though sometimes on these lists he was slotted in the Guard position); Jack McBride, Fullback (surprisingly usurping the great Ernie Nevers on occasion here); and Al Nesser, Guard.

Of course, the ultimate personal recognition is receiving a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio. Four members of the 1927 Giants have their likeness on display there for future generations of fans to admire: Steve Owen, Cal Hubbard, Joe Guyon and Wilbur “Pete” Henry.

In terms of perpetuity, New York set a record that realistically is not likely ever to be broken: the Giants shut out 10 of their 13 opponents, surpassing the nine shutouts by the Canton Bulldogs in 1922. Cumulatively, the Giants only gave up 20 points all season (Canton only gave up 15 points over 12 games in 1922).

The legacy of the 1927 Giants was power and control at the line of scrimmage. They were built to succeed in an era where the rules and equipment demanded conservative play in battles of field position. The few times New York exhibited weakness was when encountering speed (the two games they failed to win were the loss and tie against Friedman’s Bulldogs) and when they were spread horizontally (the touchdown they surrendered against the Bears.) After he retired, Red Grange summed up the 1927 champions succinctly: “It was the best football team of its time. Their line beat the hell out of you and wore you down, and their backs could move the ball. But they would have been passed off the field by the top teams of the 30’s.”