The Game That Was: An Illustrated History of the Tumultuous Early Days of Pro Football
by Myron Cope
Copyrights 1970, 1974
Publisher: Thomas Y. Crowell Company
Summary: The Game That Was is a good oral history of what pro football was like “back in the day.” It’s quick reading that offers some good anecdotes, but the chapters are of varying quality.
Review: Lawrence Ritter’s classic The Glory of Their Times (about the early days of pro baseball) inspired Myron Cope (1929-2008) to track down some of the NFL’s former stars and record their recollections. Cope, the longtime voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers, allows each man to tell his story in his own words.
Even diehard fans will be amazed at what things were like back in the 1920s. Players were paid so little that they not only had offseason jobs, they also worked at “real jobs” during the season. The book offers valuable insight into how pro football has changed and into the men who made it happen.
My favorite chapter concerns Ole Haugsrud who, in 1926, bought an NFL franchise (the Duluth Eskimos) for $1. The team’s four owners were mired in debt and offered to give Haugsrud the team; the dollar was just to make the transaction legal. Haugsrud describes how the Eskimos played 29 games in 1926; ten were exhibitions and only two were home games, as the team spent the rest of the season barnstorming through the U.S. After several relocations, the Duluth Eskimos are now the Washington Redskins and the team’s value has appreciated a bit since 1926.
The book’s final chapter, on Chicago Bears founder George Halas, is also excellent. By the time of his 1969 interview, Halas had been an NFL player, coach, and owner over 50 years. (An interesting guy, he also played major league baseball for the New York Yankees in 1919). Halas’ unique history allowed him to take a broad view of the changes in the NFL over the years. He recounts how, in 1920, the representatives of eleven midwestern football clubs met at a Canton, Ohio, car dealership. They agreed to form what they first called the American Professional Football Association. Halas wryly notes that each of the eleven agreed to pay $1,000 “for the privilege of losing money” (p. 237).
For all that changed in the NFL, some things are constants. Red Grange notes of the 1920s NFL stars –
You read about Joe Namath today! Well, shucks, drinking and sex were not just recently invented, you know. We had a lot guys that were better swingers than Namath will ever be. They found places in New York that he hasn’t located yet (p. 42).
Cope includes some great material on the history of black players in the NFL. Unlike baseball, pro football had black players at its beginnings. For instance, Paul Robeson, later a famous actor, played pro ball while he attended law school at Columbia University. However, as the league grew an unspoken “gentleman’s agreement” gradually took hold and there were no black players by the 1930s.
Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns changed this in 1946 when he signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis. In their interviews with Cope, these two men present contrasting views of pro football. Motley was the League’s first black star, but at the time of his interview he was angry at the Browns for not hiring him as a scout after he retired. Willis is more positive about his experience and says “I think it is accurate to say that Paul Brown was the Branch Rickey of professional football” (p. 221).
Given our focus race in the U.S. and Jackie Robinson’s fame for integrating baseball, it amazes me that the story of black football players is so seldom told. Perhaps it is too complicated in that you cannot point to one player as “the very first” to break the color line.
While I enjoyed The League That Was, I can’t give it more than 6.5 out of 10. The book contains many “flat” chapters that just don’t have much interesting material. A lot the interviews run together and make the same point – at one time, the league had little money and was – in many ways – a small-time affair.
A Few Final Words…
Of the men interviewed for this book, I believe that only one (former Philadelphia Eagle Steve Van Buren) is still alive. That fact gives these stories a poignant quality, reminding that reader that the book recounts a world that is gone forever. While not a perfect book, The Game That Was contains some good stories that football fans will enjoy.