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by Larry Schmitt with contributions from Rev. Mike Moran for BigBlueInteractive.com
The 1930 season was the NFL’s eleventh in operation. Although the circuit had made many significant improvements in its structure, organization and operation, it still was subordinated in the general public’s favor. Baseball, college football and boxing received far more attention and recognition from the media and public. Pro football was largely ignored until the World Series had concluded, and Sunday sports pages were filled with college football summaries from Saturday, while pro football previews rarely existed, even in the cities where the home team was hosting a contest that very day.
New York City is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Prior to the onset of the Great Depression in October 1929, three local colleges fielded nationally-significant teams – Columbia, Fordham and NYU – that were loyally followed by fans. When they met one another, games were moved from their respective campuses to the larger Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium to accommodate the demand for tickets. It was not uncommon in the 1920’s for the Giants to play a home game in front of crowds in the low 10,000’s the day after a college game that featured a capacity crowd in the same building. The NYU-Fordham contests guaranteed full houses at the close of the decade, with crowds of 50,000 and 60,000 packing the Polo Grounds respectively in 1928 and 1929. The 1930 game was moved to Yankee Stadium where 78,500 patrons purchased every ticket. New York had plenty of football fans, they just happened to prefer the college version of the sport.
Big Crowds and Seminal Moments
Accentuating this preference was the fact that New Yorkers’ support for teams beyond the city limits was robust as well. The Army Cadets from West Point, which is approximately 50 miles north of Harlem, used the Polo Grounds as its home-away-from-home when playing marquis games that drew crowds that exceeded the capacity of Michie Stadium.
This devotion to college football expanded beyond the state. New York’s large Catholic and Irish populations formed a segment of fans that soon became known as the “Subway Alumni.” Although most of them never visited South Bend, Indiana, they adopted the team as their own. Notre Dame’s first contest in the city was at the Polo Grounds on November 8, 1921 against Rutgers. The crowd of 15,000 would prove to be the smallest the visitors from Indiana would ever perform before within the metropolitan area, but a phenomenon had taken root. The turnout was probably affected by the fact that the game was held on a Tuesday. Notre Dame had beaten Army 28-0 at West Point the prior Saturday and stayed over at the Bear Mountain Inn to prepare for the Rutgers game. Newspapers covered the game extensively and reveled in Notre Dame’s performance in their 48-0 win.
Notre Dame had visited West Point nearly every season since 1913, and their rivalry had become celebrated as both teams were national powers. The first meeting between the two in New York took place on October 13, 1923 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. A near-capacity crowd exceeding 30,000 watched Notre Dame’s 13-0 victory. A month later, on November 24, Army played rival Navy to a 0-0 tie at the Polo Grounds. The stadium was filled beyond its normal capacity. The throng of 63,000 was accommodated by temporary bleachers along the outfield walls, and was the largest in city history to that point.
The Army-Notre Dame game on October 18, 1924 was held at the Polo Grounds as well, and was a tremendous boon for the visitors from Indiana. Over 60,000 fans were in attendance while a major corner stone of Notre Dame lore was established. This was the day New York Herald Tribune writer Grantland Rice penned his famous opening to his game summary of Notre Dame’s 13-7 victory:
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.
The Army-Notre Dame game outgrew the Polo Grounds. Between 1925 and 1929, the five games between the teams at Yankee Stadium averaged over 80,000 spectators. The November 10, 1928 game featured another legendary moment for Notre Dame. Tied 0-0 with Army at halftime, Notre Dame Head Coach Knute Rockne delivered his impassioned, and now legendary, “Win One for the Gipper” speech in the Yankee Stadium locker room. Notre Dame controlled the second half for a 6-0 win over the previously unbeaten Army team.
Army also played Navy in New York City during this time. The 1925 and 1927 games were held at the Polo Grounds, where the crowd of 75,000 in 1927 was the largest ever at the venue for any sporting event. The 1930 game at Yankee Stadium was attended by 70,000 spectators. The largest crowd for an Army game in New York was the December 12, 1928 contest against Stanford before a standing room only house of 86,000, and the November 8, 1930 contest versus Illinois drew 74,000 fans.
Competition Amid Apathy
Amidst all this appreciation for college football, the Giants were received with relative indifference. In 1921, University of Chicago Head Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg famously tagged pro football as a “menace,” and fans of the college game still derisively termed NFL product as “Post Graduate Football” and stayed away in droves. While that claim proved ludicrous decades later, pro football’s image problem was real and largely self-inflicted.
The NFL game was indistinguishable from the college game, and experienced great difficulty attracting new fans. Many colleges had programs dating back to the 1890’s; their fan bases were deeply rooted and loyal, while the NFL experienced a nomadic and unpredictable period of franchise movement and lack of stability.
The Giants inaugural-season crowd average at the Polo Grounds was a seemingly robust 24,000 for nine dates. But, when discounting the 73,000 who showed up for the Red Grange game on December 6, the average drops significantly to 17,875 for the other eight home games. The following season was grim. Pro football felt the strain of over-saturation in the market as five teams competed on Sundays in the greater New York area: the Giants and Brooklyn Lions of the NFL, and the Newark Bears, Brooklyn Horsemen and New York Yankees of the rival AFL. Before the season closed, Newark ceased operations and the Brooklyn teams merged as a single entity within the NFL. Grange’s Yankees were the AFL’s lone survivor and were absorbed into the NFL in 1927. Both they and the Giants – whose attendance for eight home dates at the Polo Grounds plummeted to a paltry 9,500 per game average – finished in near financial ruin.
The Giants attendance rebounded into the middle 10,000’s for the next two seasons: 18,500 for the championship season of 1927 and 16,000 in 1928. A strong team in 1929 featuring headliner Benny Friedman boosted the season average to 21,250 for eight home dates. Over this span, the Giants largest home gate, aside from the 1925 Grange game, was a turnout of 38,000 to see the Providence Steam Roller on November 8, 1927. That was a triple header on Election Day where the Giants were warmed up by two high school games, who no doubt were the bigger attraction. It is not known how many stayed in their seats to watch the pros at day’s end.
Most Giants home crowds ranged from 15,000 to 25,000, but many dates fell below 10,000. Compounding the problem was the fact that the Giants gave away thousands of tickets for each date, in hopes of attracting new fans to home games. On the road, the gate for Giants games averaged approximately 4,000-5,000 less than home games. The Giants largest away game was 26,000 for a game against the Bears at Wrigley Field on November 3, 1929. Games in smaller cities like Providence, Frankford, Pottsville and Green Bay were usually in the 8,000-9,000 range.
Hard Times, Good Times
The onset of the Great Depression in October 1929 put another strain on the fledgling pro game. Nobody knew it at the time, but the Depression proved to be a blessing in disguise and helped the NFL gain respectability.
As would be expected, initially, the first result from the economic downturn across all sports was reduced attendance. Baseball, boxing, and college and pro football all suffered at the gate. The big three sports would not fully recover to their Roaring 20’s-level of prosperity again until well after World War II. Pro football, however, bucked the trend. By the late 1930’s, attendance began a slow but consistently steady upward climb, as did press coverage.
This effect was twofold. First, many colleges reassessed their football programs. Many universities subordinated football’s relevance, and others disbanded their programs completely. It was no longer possible for some football fans to find a game to attend on a Saturday afternoon, while interest by others faded as their favorite program’s prestige diminished. Second, the job market for college graduates shrank dramatically. For some, pro football was their only opportunity for employment, even if it was only for a portion of the year. Ken Strong, a member of the Staten Island Stapletons at the time of the stock market crash and later of the Giants, said, “The Depression sent a lot of boys into professional football who would have had jobs in good times. It has helped a good many of them pay off debts they ran up in order to get through college.” This resulted in higher-quality rosters in the pro ranks, and better games. Some college fans for the first time gravitated to the NFL to follow the alumni from their college teams.
Wide-scale growth and prosperity for the pro game was still a long way off, but the seed planted by pro football in 1920 was now beginning to take root. Still, even with more attention on pro football, many still thought the pro game inferior to the college game. Many in the general public would quickly proclaim that a good college team would be more than capable of whipping the best pro teams. It would not be long before that theory was put to the test, and that debate rendered obsolete. It served as the catalyst for pro football’s ascension in public opinion.
Champions and Contenders
Notre Dame was the National Champion in 1929 and would repeat with a dominant and undefeated 1930 season. The Packers were the NFL champs in 1929, finishing just ahead of the Giants in a heated race, and had not lost a game since December 1928. The difference between first and second place was a late season contest at the Polo Grounds where Green Bay defeated the Giants 20-6. They would renew their rivalry twice in 1930, and it was not a coincidence. Teams still set their own schedules, and a meeting between two good teams usually meant a strong turnout at the gate (weather permitting) and this was not lost on the owners who spent the offseason tightening their belts. Tim Mara said later of the challenging financial period, “The only luck we had was in 1930. I agreed to go to Green Bay for $4,000, and the Packers agreed to come to New York for $5,000. We cleared $60,000 on the two games. This was a real lifesaver, coming as it did right after the Wall Street crash.”
The two teams featured similar traits – high-scoring offenses that helped further the passing game (something that would tremendously help pro football vault over college football later in the decade) and powerful lines that battered opponents. The Giants led the NFL in scoring in 1929 while the Packers allowed the fewest points. New York tailback and passing pioneer Benny Friedman said years later, “We had no problems with anyone else, but the Packers were special. They were so big, and yet they were so fast, that they almost won their games before they took the field.”
New on the Giants roster in 1930 was end Morris “Red” Badgro. All-Pro end Ray Flaherty left the Giants to coach at Gonzaga, but Badgro stepped in and performed just as well as his predecessor. Rookies Len Grant and Butch Gibson brought young blood to an already strong line and back Dale Burnett contributed as a blocker and occasional ball carrier.
The 1930 New York Football Giants were a confident team heading into the early part of their season, which as usual was a string of road games as they waited for the baseball Giants to conclude their season and vacate the Polo Grounds. Friedman, tackle Steve Owen and halfback Jack Hagerty picked up where they left off the year before and dominated the Newark Tornadoes and Providence Steam Roller by an aggregate tally of 59-7. In between, the Giants also played a Thursday night exhibition contest against the Long Island Bulldogs in Brooklyn. New York’s resolve was quickly put to the test the following week on a visit to the reigning champions in Green Bay.
The Packers also brought back much of their 1929 roster into the new season. Tackle Cal Hubbard, guard Mike Michalske and end Johnny “Blood” McNally, who wrought havoc on the Giants in their pivotal game in 1929, were back and as good as ever. A newcomer brought an enticing dimension with him. Tailback Arnie Herber, while playing in limited time behind Verne Lewellen, showed promise with a strong and accurate passing arm.
City Stadium was filled with 13,000 fans to greet the 2-0 and unscored upon Packers. The front walls of both defenses controlled the early action. Midway through the second quarter, Green Bay advanced into New York territory. Lewellen connected on a short pass to end Tom Nash, who evaded a defender before traveling the distance into the end zone on a 15-yard play. The Giants offense was unable to respond and punted the ball back. New York also held, then created a golden opportunity by blocking the Packers punt. From Green Bay’s 24-yard line, three rushes moved the chains for a first down. After being thrown for a loss, Friedman connected with Len Sedbrook for a 20-yard touchdown.
Both defenses regained firm control of the contest through the third quarter. The 7-7 tie was broken in the final period when McNally received a short pass from Red Dunn and raced 55 yards for the touchdown and eventual 14-7 victory. Again, New York had played the Packers tough but came up just short. The Packers seemed to have a knack for spurning the Giants by making a big play late precisely when they needed it.
The next stop on road trip provided another familiar opponent, against the always formidable Chicago Bears, who had recently undergone a significant change in on-field leadership. George Halas and Edward “Dutch” Sternaman, who co-owned the Bears, had also served as co-coaches for the franchise’s first nine seasons. Both men were opinionated and strong willed, which often led to confrontations. During the offseason, the two founders decided the best path for all involved would be to step back and find someone new to coach the Bears while they both focused on the business aspect of running the team. They settled on Ralph Jones, who was a successful collegiate coach at Purdue and Illinois.
Jones was a cerebral coach, and he tinkered with Halas’ favored offensive system, the original T-Formation. Jones set the quarterback under center where he would receive a direct snap. (Previously he would take a short snap approximately two or three yards behind the center.) Jones also widened the line splits, giving the blockers more freedom for lateral movement within schemes, rather than simply trying to outmuscle the defender directly across from him. The most revolutionary change was the pre-snap motion where one of the halfbacks would move laterally across the formation and be far outside the end when the play started. Over the course of the upcoming decades, this back-in-motion would ultimately evolve into the flanker.
Nearly as unique as the new schemes was the rookie who made the X’s and O’s come to life on the field, Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski. At six feet, two inches in height and weighing approximately 235 pounds, Nagurski was larger than most linemen of his era. He lined up at tackle on defense, but was a fullback on offense. It certainly is no surprise that Nagurski was a devastating force on line plunges, but he also proved to be adept at ball placement when pulling up before hitting the line and delivering a strike to a receiver. Later in his career, Owen answered a question regarding the best way to defense Nagurski, “With a shotgun, as he’s leaving the dressing room.”
Just over 12,000 fans showed up for the Bears home opener at Wrigley Field. Like the Giants, the Chicago football teams opened their seasons on the road while they awaited their shared stadia to become available after the conclusion of baseball season. The first quarter featured a scoreless 15 minutes where New York wasted long advances with lost fumbles in Chicago territory.
When the Giants finally secured a firm grip on the ball, they took over the game quickly. They erupted for two touchdowns in the first six minutes of the second quarter, sparked by a takeaway. Dale Burnett intercepted a Carl Brumbaugh aerial at Chicago’s 20-yard line and was dragged down from behind at the two-yard line by Nagurski. Ossie Wiberg plunged over the line for the touchdown but Friedman’s placement attempt sailed wide left. Following a short Bears punt, Friedman directed a 47-yard scoring drive over ten plays. Eight advances were rushes, including three by Friedman totaling 19 yards. The star tailback was one-for-two passing, with the completion being good for 10 yards to Len Sedbrook to the three-yard line to set up Burnett’s touchdown plunge. Red Grange’s brother Garland Grange blocked Friedman’s point-after attempt.
Apparently satisfied with the 12-0 lead, Friedman retired to the sidelines for most of the afternoon while Jack Hagerty assumed the helm. Attempting to placate the patrons who called out to see Friedman launch aerials, Head Coach LeRoy Andrews reinserted Friedman in a quasi-curtain call, and he finished the day a modest three-for-five for 33 yards passing. The Giants defense handled Jones’ new version of the T-formation with little trouble, having allowed just six first downs and not letting Chicago reach New York’s 20-yard line.
The Giants home opener came on a short week as they had a Thursday game scheduled against Chicago’s other team. The Cardinals featured a genuine triple threat in Ernie Nevers, a player who could run, catch, punt and drop kick with equal effectiveness while also playing rock-solid defense. The marquis attractions Friedman and Nevers would meet up under the lights in the Polo Grounds’ first-ever night game, a new marketing experiment by the NFL in its continuing quest to engage the public.
A crowd of 15,000, which included former Governor Al Smith, watched the Giants perform in the clutch with big plays in a come-from-behind win. All of New York’s scoring occurred in the final five minutes of both halves.
Chicago baffled New York on a 75-yard advance featuring reverses, a triple pass and delayed line bucks. The drive was initiated near the end of the opening period and carried over into the second. Mack Flenniken went over for the score but the point after was missed. The middle part of the quarter was played evenly before Sedbrook took off on an 85-yard touchdown run for New York to tie the game. Then Friedman shrewdly directed a touchdown drive that was capped off with a Wiberg plunge. Friedman’s point-after gave the Giants a 13-6 advantage at the half.
A scoreless third quarter set up a thrilling final period. The first nine minutes of the quarter were dominated by stout defenses and exchanges of punts. With under six minutes to play, Chicago assumed possession of the ball on the mid-field stripe. On first down, Bunny Belden connected with Chuck Kassel on a deep pass for a 42-yard gain. Flenniken plunged twice for the final seven yards and the touchdown. Howard Maple’s point-after try was wide, but the Cardinals were within one point, 13-12 and had momentum on their side.
The kickoff return gave New York the ball at mid-field and Friedman wrested control of the contest. Line plunges and slants were mixed with a 10-yard completion to Tiny Feather. Friedman went over for the score to give the Giants a 19-12 lead, but missed the point-after. Chicago initiated a desperation drive for a tie, but Nevers lost a fumble on New York’s 40-yard line. Friedman battered through the Cardinals defense, and completed a pass to Glenn Campbell at the two-yard line. Three Freidman goal-to-go plunges were stonewalled by Chicago’s front, but he creased them on fourth down for the final tally and a 25-12 win.
There was no opportunity for rest. In less than 72 hours the Giants would host Frankford for their third game in eight days. As was their custom, however, the Yellow Jackets arrived at the Polo Grounds having played a home game on Saturday – local blue laws forbade public gatherings on Sunday. The scoreless first quarter belied the firepower in New York’s passing offense. Four of the Giants team-record eight touchdowns came from the arm of Friedman, and the Giants topped the 50-point mark for the first time in franchise history. The other scores came via two rushes, an interception return and a fifth touchdown pass by Hap Moran, which had commenced the parade.
The Giants previous high mark for points in a game was a 45-3 win at the Buffalo Bisons in 1929. An unofficial milestone was reached in this 53-0 win as well. Friedman was the first-known player to accumulate 300 yards passing in a game. Newspaper accounts credit him with 18 completions in 23 attempts for 310 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. NFL statistical records were not officially recorded until 1932, however, so this performance is mostly overlooked in historical chronicles.
(The NFL’s first officially recognized 300-yard passer is by Pat Coffee of the Cardinals. On December 5, 1937, Coffee was 17-of-35-for 304 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in a 42-28 loss to the Bears in a game that was called with just under three minutes to play on account of darkness at an icy Wrigley Field. The Giants first official 300-yard passing effort was by Paul Governalli on November 9, 1947, who was 16-of-35 for 341 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 41-24 loss to Philadelphia.)
After a full week off, the Giants went back to the three-games-in-eight-days grind. The defense was up to the challenge, and New York defeated Providence on Sunday, Newark on Wednesday night and Staten Island on the following Sunday by aggregate score of 68-14 at the Polo Grounds.
The game against the Stapletons was actually a formidable challenge as the Giants escaped with a come-from-behind 9-7 win off the foot of Friedman who was good on a 42-yard placement field goal with under 1:00 on the clock. (You can read more about this game here.)
A two-games-in-four-days road trip saw Friedman rush and pass New York to a 19-6 win at Portsmouth on Wednesday night before a Sunday afternoon rematch with the Cardinals at Comiskey Park. A small crowd of only 4,000 attended because across town at Wrigley Field the Bears tangled with Green Bay in a crucial contest that drew 22,000 spectators. Both Chicago teams lost close games: the Bears 13-12 and the Cardinals 13-7, setting up a stretch run for first place between the 10-1 Giants and 8-0 Packers.
Most surprisingly to the fans at Comiskey Park was that the hero of the day was neither Friedman nor Nevers. Friedman struggled through the first half, completing just one of eight pass attempts, while Nevers caught a 20-yard pass for a 7-0 Chicago halftime lead. That score had been set up by a 65-yard Nevers punt that was downed on the New York one-yard line. The ensuing Giants punt only moved the ball out to the 35-yard line, giving Chicago a short field. Nevers rushed for 10 yards on first down and scored two plays later.
Moran entered the game after halftime but there was no change on the scoreboard until several minutes had elapsed from the fourth quarter clock. When New York had the ball on their own 40-yard line, Moran completed a five-yard pass to Hagerty who sprinted down field, zig-zagged through would be tacklers, and crossed over for a 60-yard touchdown. Moran’s placement try was blocked and the Giants trailed 7-6.
After forcing a Chicago punt, New York took over from their 30-yard line. Moran lofted a deep ball to Glenn Campbell for a 35-yard gain into Cardinal territory. On first down, Moran connected again with Campbell, this time for seven yards to the 28-yard line. On second-and-three, Moran faked a pass and raced around end to the Chicago 15-yard line. Mule Wilson plunged twice to set up a first-and-goal from the two and Moran received the honors of going over for the touchdown himself. His point-after put the Giants in the lead 13-7. New York’s defense preserved for the important victory. Moran unofficially finished the day six-of-eight passing for 147 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception. Despite missing a field goal late to ice the game, he outplayed both Friedman and Nevers and was the lead man in both the Chicago Herald Tribune and New York Times on Monday.
On November 16, the day the Giants lost 12-0 to the Bears in miserable cold rain and wind at the Polo Grounds, the big news was college star back Chris Cagle was to be released from his coaching contract at Mississippi A&M to play for the Giants. Cagle had been a star performer for West Point before losing his amateur eligibility when it was discovered he had been married, which was a violation of college rules at the time. The current Giants squad faced an improved Bears team that featured the powerful Nagurski finding his niche. He plowed through New York’s front wall setting up one fourth-quarter touchdown and going over for the second himself. The Giants passing attack, whether it was Friedman or Moran, struggled on the sloppy track in front of the small crowd of 5,000 fans. Good news arrived for the Giants from out of town however. The Packers were upset by the Cardinals at Comiskey Park 13-6, giving the Giants a chance to vault past Green Bay as the Packers came to New York the next week.
Pro football generated some buzz during the week leading up to the game. The contest was billed as a de facto league championship match. The New York Times even made mention of former Giant Cal Hubbard returning to face his old team with its new star Cagle. The public bought into the hype and the 40,000 fans gave the Giants their largest home attendance mark since Red Grange’s visit in 1925.
To the dismay of fans, however, Cagle left the game in the first quarter having suffered a facial laceration after catching a short pass. Badgro put the Giants on the scoreboard first when he caught a perfectly placed spiral from Friedman along the sideline at the two-yard line and was tackled lunging over the final stripe for the touchdown. Friedman’s placement gave New York a 7-0 lead that held into the second half.
In the third quarter, Moran set up New York’s second touchdown with a rush out of the punt formation with the Giants pinned deep at their end of the field. Moran ran around right end then cut up the center of the field. Two blockers kept pace with Moran, who evaded McNally twice as he traversed up-field, until the Green Bay 10-yard line. Lavern Dilfer, who had been deep to receive the presumed punt, made a flying tackle of Moran one yard short of the end zone. This 91-yard carry remained the franchise standard until 2005.
Three consecutive plunges left the ball about a foot away from pay dirt, where Friedman followed behind the left guard for the touchdown. Friedman’s point-after placement was blocked and New York lead 13-0.
Green Bay valiantly fought back. A long pass reception by McNally gave the defending champions the ball on New York’s 11-yard line, but the Giants defense stiffened and thwarted the advance on downs at the two-yard line. The Giants punted the ball back and a Dunn-to-Lewellen aerial quickly gave the Packers a first-and-goal on the four-yard line. Lewellen swept around right end for the touchdown, but Dunn’s placement missed. The third quarter ended with New York ahead 13-6.
Green Bay made one lengthy, exhausting advance in attempt to tie the game in the final period. They overcame a holding call at mid-field (a 15-yard penalty at the time) and moved the chains five times until the ball reached New York’s five-yard line. Herdis McCrary plunged twice for a yard, and Bo Melinda slammed ahead for a two-yard advance. The thrilled Polo Grounds crowd was caught up in the tension-packed goal-line stand, and on their feet exhorting the defense. Before the ball was snapped, several players on both sides of the line jumped early. The players held their positions once the ball was reset. On the snap, Dunn handed to McCrary who was stoned by the center of the Giants front wall as the Polo Grounds faithful roared their approval.
Neither team threatened to score again. The 13-7 final moved 11-2 New York ahead of 9-2 Green Bay in the league standings. The New York Times game summary unofficially gave the Packers the statistical edge in first downs 15 to eight, as well as passing yards 138 to 67. The Giants led in rushing yards, 172 to 160, most of which came from the lengthy jaunt by Moran. This was only the second loss the Packers had suffered in 24 months.
The Giants had little time to celebrate their huge victory; for the third time their schedule had them playing three games in eight days. Next up was a Thanksgiving Day game at Staten Island against the coveted player who got away.
Prior to the 1929 season, Coach Andrews was instructed by Tim Mara and Dr. Harry March to offer a $4,000 contract to the graduated NYU star and triple-threat back Ken Strong. For reasons still unclear, Andrews offered Strong a contract for $3,000. Strong declined the offer and signed with the Stapletons, and would always relish the opportunity to show up the team that had underbid for his services.
Thompson Stadium was standing-room only with over 12,000 fans in attendance while hundreds more crowded outside the fences trying to view the action on the field. Although the Stapletons entered the game at 4-4-2 and never having beaten the Giants before, they had plenty of motivation. Aside from Strong, Mule Wilson had recently signed to Staten Island after being released by the Giants; Doug Wycoff was a member of the 1927 World Champion Giants; and the Giants first star player, Hinkey Haines, was an assistant coach on the sidelines.
The game was a physical altercation where both teams earned every inch of ground they were able to muster. Wilson was part of the Stapletons starting 11 and the leading ground gainer on the day, but his biggest impact was felt on defense. He repeatedly fought through blocks and dropped Friedman and Cagle in the backfield for losses and frustrated New York’s typically potent offense. The first score of the game came with just under 1:00 to play in the second quarter. Campbell blocked Strong’s punt at the Staten Island 20-yard line and recovered the loose ball in the end zone himself. The hold for the point-after try was mishandled and Friedman’s pass for Moran in the end zone was defended. The Giants led 6-0 at the half.
New York’s defense made a crucial stand in the third quarter after Jim Fitzgerald recovered a fumble on the Giants 20-yard line and a subsequent unnecessary roughness penalty set the ball on the five-yard line. Four consecutive rushes were stopped and the Giants took over on downs. Staten Island held their ground as well, and a Friedman punt from the end zone gave the home team the ball on the plus 45-yard line. Wycoff completed two passes to Bernie Finn to again set the ball five yards from New York’s goal line. This time Wycoff took the ball over for the score on second down and Strong’s placement was good and gave the Stapletons a 7-6 lead in front of their raucous crowd.
The struggle continued well into the fourth quarter. New York lost its captain Friedman to a leg injury, but the Giants were able to mount a last minute desperation drive despite his absence. Cagle completed two passes to Moran, giving the Giants a first and goal on the five-yard line but failed to score after three plunges and a missed a placement field goal attempt by Wiberg. The loss cost the Giants more than the services of Friedman. Their stay atop the standings was all too brief, as Green Bay had routed the Yellow Jackets in Frankford 25-7 and regained first place.
As the compressed schedule prevented Friedman from dressing for the Giants game against Brooklyn at the Polo Grounds on Sunday, Hagerty would get the start in his place. This promised to be another rugged contest for New York as not only did the Dodgers feature the NFL’s stingiest defense (they would finish the season allowing a league low 4.9 points per game), but had the motivation of yet another former New York star, Jack McBride, who led the league in scoring.
The crowd of 25,000 was not restricted just to fans of the home team hoping the Giants would keep pace with Green Bay, many fans came over the bridges from Brooklyn to support their team as well. New York significantly outplayed the Dodgers in the first half but only had six points to show for it, and again that lone score was the result of Campbell recovering a blocked punt. This time Campbell blocked Jim Mooney’s punt at Brooklyn’s 45-yard line, scooped the loose ball, evaded Mooney and rambled the distance uncontested into the end zone.
In the second half, Brooklyn’s offense began to find seams in the Giants front. Stumpy Thomason ran for several long gains and also cleared the way for McBride between the tackles. McBride ultimately doomed his former team in the fourth quarter on a 37-yard rush that set up his two-yard plunge for the tying score. His point-after placement gave Brooklyn a 7-6 edge that held up as the final score. McBride played the full 60 minutes, scored all the Dodgers points and essentially buried New York in second place as Green Bay annihilated the Stapletons 37-7 two boroughs away at Thompson Stadium. Rumors of a player revolt surfaced the day after the game and Andrews was abruptly dismissed as head coach.
A few weeks earlier, Mayor Jimmy Walker had devised a plan where three football games would be used for unemployment relief fund generation. Local school NYU would host Colgate University on December 6 in one benefit, the Army-Navy game at Yankee Stadium on December 13 was the second, and a new and exciting venture would be the Giants opposing a team of all-stars from Notre Dame, coached by Knute Rockne.
Allegedly, according to some players, Andrews became obsessed with facing Rockne and his All Stars. Practices became unusually brutal and he verbally berated the players, and threatened fines and releases. One story purported Friedman and Owen approaching Mara and seeking relief from the conditions that the team felt had become intolerable. He obliged and installed the two as co-player coaches for the remainder of the season. Friedman said years later: “(Andrews) just got himself all worked up thinking about this great meeting with Rockne. He thought he had to be tougher with us and pretty soon he lost control of himself completely.”
Although the 11-4 Giants still had a mathematical chance to move back ahead of the 10-2 Packers, it was unrealistic as their hopes were tethered to the unlikely probability of a Green Bay collapse. The season played out with New York winning its final two games at Frankford and Brooklyn, and Green Bay losing at the Bears and tied at Portsmouth. The Packers became the NFL’s second champions to repeat, and they did it by four-thousandths of a percentage point.
The method for calculating win percentage at this time is important to consider, and it had to do with the way the league handled ties. Essentially, tie games were disregarded as if the games had never been played. Green Bay’s record of 10-3-1 gave them a win percentage of 0.769 because the tie game at Portsmouth was discluded from the factoring – the 10 wins were divided by 13 total games. It was not until 1972 when the NFL changed the parameters and treated a tie game as a half-win and half loss. When this calculation is applied retroactively to the 1930 Packers record, their win percentage is 0.750 which would drop them to second place behind the 13-4 Giants win percentage of 0.765.
Despite the late season slump that dismantled New York’s championship hopes, the season was considered a qualified success. The Friedman-led squad led the NFL in scoring for the second year in a row and the Giants were a marquis attraction on all their road trips. The attendance at the Polo Grounds was sometimes curtailed by poor weather, but the turnout for the November game against Green Bay was very encouraging and hinted that pro football was beginning to catch on in New York. Friedman was a first-team All Pro, and Badgro and linemen Rudy Comstock and Joe Westoupal were second-team All Pro.
The Giants had one more game to play. The upcoming exhibition contest against the Notre Dame All Stars had no effect on league standings or post-season awards, but it meant everything in regards to gaining the respect and recognition of the general public. The entire NFL was vested in a strong performance from the Giants, even if the majority of the home fan base was not.
The Pros Versus the Joes
Like the Packers, Notre Dame repeated as champions in 1930. The original plan for the charity game was for the Giants to play the current Notre Dame team, but Coach Rockne was concerned about the impact of cross-country travel via rail on his team, as their season concluded at USC on December 7. His contingency plan was brilliant and more alluring to the public – an all-star team comprised of Notre Dame Alumni.
Rockne assembled the legendary Four Horsemen (Elmer Layden, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, Harry Stuhldreher); five of the Seven Mules (Adam Walsh, Joe Bach, Rip Miller, Noble Kizer, Ed Hunsinger); Jack Chevigny from the 1928 team; seven members from the 1929 national champions (Jack Cannon, John Law, Tim Moynihan, Ted Twomey, Joe Vezie, John Gebert, Jack Elder); Bucky O’Connor, Frank Carideo from the current 1930 team;, and two former Notre Dame players with NFL experience, Hunk Anderson and Glenn Carberry.
Although the Four Horsemen were by far the main attraction, the undercard billing was compelling. The press debated who the better tailback was, Carideo, who Rockne touted as “the best passer alive” or Friedman. Unlike many college coaches, Rockne was not opposed to football being a profession. He himself had played several years in the APFA/NFL predecessor Ohio League, which included a championship with the 1915 Massilon Tigers and legendary contests against Jim Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs. But that did not mean Rockne did not believe college football was the superior brand, and he was not shy about public boasting either.
However, Rockne appeared to waver after committing to the game with the Giants. Just days after the acceptance, rumors circled that he was reconsidering and was privately concerned that he may have put himself into a potentially regretful position. Public outcry over this wavering demanded Rockne’s assurance that he and his all-star team make an appearance. The New York Times ran a story every day leading up to the game describing the unprecedented ticket demand for a Giants-All Stars match-up, which was to be paired with the Army-Navy game to be played at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Charles Stoneham, owner of the baseball Giants, donated the use of the stadium so all the proceeds would be used for the unemployment fund.
While Rockne may have been concerned about suffering personal embarrassment, the risk undertaken by the Giants was far more significant. They would be representing the institution of professional football as a whole. A loss to the college players could realistically damage the NFL’s public perception permanently. Mara and March received telegrams from owners and executives around the league offering their best wishes for success.
Rockne may have only had limited time to get his group ready, but he made the most of it and drilled his group hard. Gathering in South Bend on the Tuesday prior to the game in New York, Crowley said later that the two practices left him “stiffer and more sore than in all the years I played regularly lumped together.” Rockne explained, “At first I thought these fellows might not be able to put up a good game after several years’ layoff. But when I got to South Bend on Wednesday I found them a little older but was pleasantly surprised to see the way they handled the ball. This is not going to be merely a spectacle but a real game.”
The New York press covered the lead-up to the game daily, and the public’s anticipation grew to a near fever pitch. Both games that weekend were sold out in advance. The anticipation was just as fervent in South Bend. Over 1,500 alumni from Northern Illinois and the greater Chicago area had a police-escorted parade and reception with the All-Star team, as well as with the returning 1930 National Champions who had defeated USC 27-0.
The welcome mat would reach all the way East too. A reception and gala dinner with Mayor Walker was planned for the All Stars upon their arrival in the Big Apple. Rockne telegrammed Walker to confirm plans, as well as notify the fans in New York that he and his boys were confident: “We don’t expect to have our season’s winning record broken by your team of Giants.”
Rockne and his team arrived on Saturday morning and were paraded by a police escort from Grand Central Terminal to City Hall where the New York City Police Band and hundreds of devotees from the Notre Dame fan clubs of New York and New Jersey greeted their heroes enthusiastically. All of the local radio stations broadcast the reception, and Rockne, Mara and Walker were interviewed live on national radio.
Rockne held a closed practice inside the Polo Grounds, and insisted that all the Giants office personnel be prohibited from having any view of the field while the Notre Dame team went through their final drills. Rockne told the press afterward, “We have several surprises for the Giants and we don’t want to spoil any of them.” Rockne and Mayor Walker walked across the Harlem River to Yankee Stadium and watched Army defeat Navy 6-0. Mayor Walker was also scheduled to have dinner with Rockne and the All Stars the evening after the game versus the Giants on Sunday at the Vanderbilt Hotel with the local Notre Dame fan clubs.
The New York Times game day preview backed Rockne’s proclamations, “As to the game itself it promises to be one of the best, with the edge by no means favoring Friedman’s highly competent performers.” That afternoon the Polo Grounds was a house with divided loyalty. The grandstands behind the Giants side of the field were decorated with red and blue bunting while the Notre Dame side was augmented with navy blue and yellow. Pre-game ceremonies included marching bands from NYU and the Police Brigade and Rifle Guard playing “Victory March” (Notre Dame’s Fight Song) and “The Sidewalks of New York” over and over as the Polo Grounds seats filled. More than half of those in attendance were there to cheer on Rockne’s team.
As the two teams stepped onto the field for warmups, Rockne surveyed the competition. Acknowledging the Giants outweighed the All Stars by an average of 60 pounds per man; he approached Friedman and bargained, “We’ve got a lot of boys who think they’re football players. They may have a lot to learn today. How about some concessions?” The two bartered and agreed upon free substitution and shortened 12:30 quarters. Rockne returned to his team and attempted to buoy their confidence, “The Giants are heavy but slow. Go out there, score two or three quick touchdowns, and then defend. Don’t get hurt.”
The Giants size, strength and toughness was obvious to all. The one area that was grossly overlooked was their motivation and resolve. The Giants were sick and tired of hearing about the All Stars and how professional football was second rate. They had something to prove and they did it from snap-to-whistle on every play right from the opening kickoff.
On the first play from scrimmage, 170 pound Law lined up across from the 240 pound Owen. Law turned to referee Tom Thorp and asked, “Can you tell me sir, how much time is left?” Notre Dame was knocked backward on the first three plays, the last of which was finished in the end zone for a safety. The Giants had a 2-0 lead before the game was two minutes old and Rockne’s team finished the quarter with -12 yards from scrimmage. The beating only got worse from there.
The New York Times game summary was a complete reversal from its preview the day before: “From start to finish the Giants had the South Benders utterly at their mercy.” Friedman put the game on ice for New York with two touchdowns in the second period. The first touchdown was a short plunge by Friedman. The second an impressive 20-yard rush that was set up by a brilliant play fake. Friedman read the defense at the line, dropped pack and pump-faked, which opened the center of the defense. He ran through the hole in the line, stepped around or through four tacklers and trucked Carideo on his way into the end zone. Referee Tom Thorpe said, “That was one of the finest calls and executions I’ve ever seen.” Friedman’s placement made the score 15-0.
During the action there were some memorable exchanges between the elevens. During the second quarter, Kizer told Walsh, “I’m going to pull out on this play and take the inside back on pass defense. So cover me here.” Walsh exclaimed, “What? And leave me here all alone? Not on your life!” On the snap, both players vacated their positions and sprinted for the bench. Crowley said, “They weren’t scared, they were smart, that’s all.”
Stuhldreher had an encounter with Butch Gibson. “He really smothered me, but he was a gentleman. He helped scrape the dirt off me and checked for broken bones. ‘I want to ask you something,’ he said. ‘I went to a small school called Grove City. You went to a big one, Notre Dame. Now do you know which one played better football?’ I couldn’t do anything but agree with him. I was afraid not to for fear that I’d get him even angrier. As it was, he got me many more times in the game.”
The All Stars managed one first down, which came on a 12-yard run by Enright, and their furthest advance was to their own 49-yard line. At halftime Rockne sought relief for his battered team. He approached March and said, “I came here to help with a charity and at a lot of trouble. You’re making us look bad. Slow up, will you? I don’t want to go home and be laughed at. Lay off next half.” The Giants subbed out most of their starters for the second half, except for Turtle Campbell. How much drop off there was is debatable.
Consider that the second half replacement for Friedman at tailback was Moran, who was a catalyst for New York late in the season. Cagle, billed as the Giants next great star and the Army player who ignited Rockne’s 1928 “Win One for the Gipper” speech, subbed for Tiny Feather at half back. Burnett, the Giants third highest scorer, subbed for Sedbrook. The Giants had a deep bench and had many players were eager to step in and take their shots at the All Stars.
New York’s second team continued to play both brilliantly and brutally. A 30-yard pass from Moran to Campbell, followed by Moran’s placement, closed the scoring while defensively Notre Dame was kept off of the board. The final score was a resounding 22-0. Statistically it was worse. The Giants had eight first downs to Notre Dame’s one and outgained the All Stars 138 yards to 34. Notre Dame failed to complete a pass in nine attempts, with two intercepted. They also lost a fumble. After the game, Rockne told his team, “That was the greatest football machine I ever saw. I’m glad none of you got hurt.”
The game summaries were almost apologetic toward Rockne and his team. Readers were reminded that the game was played for charity ($115,153 was raised and put directly into the city’s fund for the unemployed) and that the All Stars had been assembled on short notice and had minimal practice time to get ready. The Giants were a practiced and battle-hardened unit, ready for full contact while many of the Notre Dame team had spent the season scattered around the country in coaching positions.
Stuhldreher said, “It wasn’t much of a football game. Rock had the idea that we could beat the pros, and I guess he sort of got carried away in the pregame publicity. But we did drum up a real good crowd for the game, and that was great…except that he got the Giants sore at us. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that opening kickoff. Layden caught the ball and was belted by all 11 Giants. They really whammed him. He staggered to his feet, took a dazed look at me in the huddle, shook his head, and asked, ‘Is this game over yet?’”
A Victory for All
The reverberations from Giants victory were profound; nobody ever accused “post graduate” football as being inferior again. Although some fans continued to begrudge the pros, this contest can be marked as the starting point where the general public began to turn to the NFL as the favored version of the game. Press coverage for professional football began to be displayed on an equal plane with college football over the course of the decade. Football stadia began to see larger crowds on Sundays rather than Saturdays. The transition was slow, but it was steady, and by the end of World War II, the NFL had expanded coast-to-coast and was cultivating a national market via the new medium of television. College football experienced little growth and its attraction remained largely regional.
The Giants-All Stars game was the last Rockne coached. He was killed in a plane crash in Kansas on March 31, 1931. He remains a coaching legend, having pioneered and popularized the early passing game. His 0.881 winning percentage remains the highest of college coaches who have stood on the sideline for at least 100 games.
March turned over his interest in the Giants as Tim Mara handed the duties to his sons Jack (President) and Wellington (Secretary). Friedman was originally offered the head-coaching position of the Giants, but that offer was pulled when Friedman demanded an ownership interest in the team. After an injury plagued 1931 season, which included double-duty as head coach for Yale University, Friedman moved on to Brooklyn as player-coach of the Dodgers.
Tim Mara then offered the job to Owen, who was initially reluctant (he suggested Guy Chamberlain to Mara first) but ultimately accepted the role. Still with a lingering dissatisfaction of the late season swoon and ugly departure of Andrews, Mara wanted more than anything a strong, reliable man in charge who was able to withstand hard times. He said, “What I needed was a man’s man. What I wanted was a man who could manage other men, a man other men would respect. What I got was even more than I bargained for.”
Owen was the Giants steward for 23 seasons. He spanned the stretch when the NFL stabilized itself through the depression, tread water through World War II, transitioned from the Single Wing to the T-Formation, survived competition from the rival AAFC, overtook college football and closed the gap with major league baseball. Under his guidance, the Giants emerged as the NFL’s flagship franchise. They appeared in a league-high eight championships in that time. Owen and his Giants won two of those championships in memorable fashion on their home field in front of appreciative crowds. In both NFL Championship Games, in 1934 versus the Bears and 1938 versus the Packers, the league standard for championship-game attendance was set.
The legacy of the win over the Notre Dame All Stars cannot be overstated. The Giants’ home attendance for league games in 1930 was 16,000. It jumped to just over 24,000 the next season in 1931, despite the fact that team’s fortunes declined. The 1931 Giants finished 7-6-1 and were never a factor in the league race for first place. Changes took place after a losing season in 1932. The Giants built a new team. And the NFL created its own rules manual which intentionally differentiated it from the college game. The NFL realigned into two divisions and installed a post-season championship game that generated new fan interest. Prosperity that seemed unimaginable at the start of the decade was about to become unavoidable.