New York welcomed Red Grange with open arms during his tour
Minutes after playing in Illinois' final game of the 1925 season,
Professional football in 1925 was struggling. More than 20 franchises had folded in the previous four years. Most players held fulltime jobs outside of football and had trouble fitting in time to practice. On a good day an NFL game would draw a few hundred people; on a bad day, only few dozen curious spectators gathered along fence lines or in rickety bleachers.
The press largely ignored the fledgling league, which had been created in 1920. Sometimes there was a paragraph or two of coverage on page three of the sports section, but often there was no mention of NFL action. That all changed, though, in late fall of 1925 when Grange, the most famous football player of his day who was called the "Galloping Ghost" by admiring reporters, became the first college player to quit school early and turn pro.
What follows is an excerpt from Lars Anderson's new book, The First Star: Red Grange and the Barnstorming Tour that Launched the NFL. Here Grange and the Bears are in the middle of the tour and are about to play the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in the most important game in NFL history at the time.
The game between the Bears and the Giants had been announced two weeks prior to Grange's arrival in the city, and ticket sales were brisk in the days leading up to kickoff. Months earlier, New York Giants owner Tim Mara, realizing Grange's potential star power -- and his ability to lure fans to the stands -- had traveled by rail to Champaign, Ill., to meet with Grange, then a halfback for the Fighting Illini. Mara offered Grange a contract to play for the Giants. Grange turned him down, because Pyle had already secured a secret deal for him with Halas and the Bears. But the trip wasn't a total washout for Mara. Before he arrived back home in New York, he sent a telegram to his family, cryptically writing that the visit with Grange was "partially successful."
Mara was desperate -- his first-year NFL team was hemorrhaging money. Working as a legal bookmaker, Mara had paid $500 to purchase the one-year-old New York franchise. Most of the other 20 teams in the NFL were located in or around the Ohio Valley, and East Coast fans were slow to embrace the professional game. Already about $45,000 in debt, Mara was in a financial sinkhole. And with every passing day he began to believe that pro football wasn't economically sustainable, even in the nation's biggest city. The proof was in his ledger sheet.
When the Giants played a home game, most of the 55,987 seats in the bleachers at the Polo Grounds were empty. The top crowds reached about 20,000, but many didn't pay admission. The Giants frequently handed out free tickets; Tim Mara's son, Wellington, often stuffed his pockets full of tickets to hand out to his friends in grammar school.
The sporting public in New York simply wasn't drawn to professional football like it was to Major League Baseball, and especially to its beloved New York Yankees. Even though the Yankees had just finished 30 games behind the pennant-winning Washington Nationals -- the Yanks' season had been lost because a "stomach ache" kept Babe Ruth out of the lineup for two months -- baseball fans still filled up the newly built Yankee Stadium, the sparkling cathedral in the South Bronx that had opened two years earlier in 1923. Attendance at the Giants games was discouraging, and so was New York governor Al Smith, who told Mara to cut his losses. During one Sunday supper earlier that fall, Smith told Mara, "This pro football will never amount to anything. Get rid of that team."
Mara knew he had to do something drastic, something unprecedented to save pro football in New York. That was why he went to Illinois to see Grange. When he returned to New York, he told his family that while he didn't sign Grange to a contract, he did the next best thing: He convinced Pyle and Halas to bring Grange to New York for an exhibition game. Mara hoped that 50,000 curious people would flood into the Polo Grounds to see what this Red Grange lad was all about.
The sun dawned gold over Manhattan, a glorious winter morning. Grange rose from his bed at the Astor Hotel. After eating a breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast and orange juice with his teammates -- their normal morning fare on the tour -- Grange and the Bears rode the subway uptown to 155th and Eighth Avenue, home of the Polo Grounds.
Grange ambled off the train in his easy, graceful gait. Within minutes of leaving the subway station with his teammates just before noon on December 6, 1925, fans quickly recognized the Galloping Ghost, whose picture had appeared almost daily in the New York papers during the past week. Now here he was, finally, in living color, and the mere sight of the Ghost strolling toward the stadium caused women to shriek and grown men to charge at him with a pen and paper, hoping for an autograph -- the same response that Babe Ruth prompted from his starry-eyed fans.
Surrounded by a special detail of 50 police officers, Grange entered the stadium and ducked into the locker room. Mayor Walker had assigned the extra police to Grange because he feared for the redhead's safety. In the days before the game sportswriters in New York had written glowing biographical pieces about how he'd risen from the wheat fields of the Middle America to become the finest football player in the nation's history, and the last thing Mayor Walker wanted was a mob of fans to encircle the fresh-faced running back or cause him injury in any way. To prevent this, the mayor beefed up security for Grange, giving him more protection than even President Calvin Coolidge enjoyed when he visited New York. The demand for tickets was unlike any in the NFL's brief history. As soon as Pyle had scheduled the game two weeks earlier, he wired the news to all of the newspapers in New York, informing their editors that Red Grange would be playing in a game at the Polo Grounds on Dec. 7, 1925 against the New York Giants. The following day the news appeared in all of the major New York City dailies with accompanying photographs of Grange and stories of his feats, causing an immediate a surge in ticket sales, just as Pyle had hoped.
Long lines stretched around the stadium as the gates opened at 11:30 a.m. The sky had now turned overcast, and a gentle mist fell. But this didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd. Men in bowler hats and rain slickers eagerly pushed through the turnstiles and the stadium was more than three-quarters full by noon, two hours before kickoff. Hundreds of kids sneaked through a hole in the wooden fence that encircled the Polo Grounds; scores of adults merely climbed over it. Hundreds of fans, without seats, loitered in the aisles; perhaps a thousand more stood on the rafters. And nearly 5,000 people who couldn't get tickets gathered on the jagged cliff of Coogan's Bluff, which overlooked the bathtub-shaped stadium. Gene Tunney, the heavyweight boxer, stood among that mass of people. By 1 p.m. an estimated 70,000 people had a view of the grassy field.
Up in the wooden press box, more than 100 reporters, the most ever to cover a NFL game, hunched over their typewriters. Dozens of radio reporters clenched their microphones. Grantland Rice and Damyon Runyon eagerly awaited the arrival of Grange at the Polo Grounds. Neither believed that the NFL would ever succeed in New York, but with each passing moment, with every seat being filled, with the mounting anticipation in the air, their opinions were being altered. An hour before kickoff, the crowd was larger than any other in professional football history. Even before Grange appeared on the grass, there was a steady rumble of excitement that arose throughout the entire stadium and drifted up into the cold sky.
Babe Ruth took his seat at midfield. Then, at 1:15, the Chicago Bears jogged out of the locker room and onto the slick playing surface. Suddenly there was No. 77, his red hair blowing in the cool breeze, his orange leather helmet tucked under his arm. Every set of eyes at the Polo Grounds followed Grange, carefully watching him, studying him as if he was the latest version of the Model-T. More than a dozen photographers rushed at Grange, capturing his every move, his every flick of the wrist as he tossed a football to a teammate. Ruth was flabbergasted at the star treatment the photographers gave Grange -- and miffed that the glow of celebrity was being redirected from him onto the Galloping Ghost. "I'll have to sue that Bum," Ruth joked to one of his friends sitting nearby. "They're my photographers!"
Like his teammate's, Grange's No. 77 jersey was still unwashed, muddy, and damp from the previous day's game in Philadelphia. And even though cuts and bruises dotted Grange's body like some sort of skin disease, he moved effortlessly through the team's orchestrated exercise routine as the fans looked on. At every game on the tour thousands had arrived early simply to see Grange warm up, just as fans would gather to watch Babe Ruth take batting practice. This was part of Grange's powerful allure, making the ordinary -- simply running down the field and faking out an imaginary defender -- look extraordinary. He didn't awe crowds with his raw power or his brute force like Ruth did whenever he blasted a moon-shot over the outfield fence during batting practice. Rather, it was Grange's fluidity, his ability to almost dance on the field, that captivated all those who watched him go through his pre-game routine of running, passing, and catching the ball.
When Grange peered up into the stands at the admiring fans, he noticed something unusual about this New York crowd. Besides working-class men, he saw scores of high-society women decked out in long-flowing dresses, fur coats, and white gloves, sitting next to their husbands in three-piece suits, dark overcoats, and bowler hats. They were the kind of highbrow crowd that attended Saturday night Broadway shows: doctors, lawyers, even Wall Street businessmen all settled into their seats to take in the spectacle.
From the time he broke on the national scene at Illinois, Grange had appealed to a vast audience. But never before had so many from the upper-crust gathered to see him play. This added to the already high stakes of the game: If Grange could dazzle them, he could extend the appeal of the NFL to an audience the league had never before reached. The well-heeled were giving the NFL a chance because the coming of Grange to New York was the showcase sporting event of the season, the hottest ticket in town.
His pregame warm-ups complete, Grange retreated into the locker room along with his teammates to receive final instructions from Halas. Dozens of photographers trailed behind Grange as he jogged across the field. Even though he'd yet to run a single play, the crowd gave him a small ovation.
Following Grange into the bowels of the Polo Grounds, Halas and Pyle were already feeling a sense of relief, of triumph. Their dream of conquering New York was unfolding before their eyes, in real time. Weeks of planning and arm-twisting and deal-making had made this event possible, and now Halas and Pyle experienced a sense of vindication and accomplishment. They each had their own reasons for wanting to make it in New York -- Halas knew it was the key to gaining nation-wide credibility; Pyle knew it was the key to unlocking a vault of cash -- and both viewed this game as the most important of the tour. Now that it was here, they were as excited as everyone in the crowd. Their New York moment had arrived.
When the Giants ran onto the field, a roar thundered from the crowd, causing the creaky stadium to shake. Mara followed his team out of the locker room and let his eyes fall over the more-than-capacity crowd. Tears welled. He had hoped that this Grange game would generate interest, but he never thought the city would embrace the game like this; his wildest dreams just didn't stretch that far. He was overcome by the moment. "My worries," the joyous Mara told a friend, "are over."
Just after 2 p.m., under a still-falling mist, the two teams lined up for the opening kickoff. The crowd rose to its feet when Grange took his position as the Chicago's deep man at the Bears' 5-yard line, ready to receive the kick. Grange and his teammates had played four games already on this cross-country tour, but they'd never seen a stadium so crammed full of onlookers, a stadium so full of exhilaration, a crowd so full-throated with exuberance. The biggest crowd they had played in front of was 36,000 at Cubs Park in Chicago for Grange's first game as a Bear, but that was nothing like this. The Bears were only 11 days into their barnstorming trip across the United States, but now, here in gray New York, the players and Halas and Pyle were quickly realizing that this tour could turn out to be the 66 days that might just save pro football in America.
The Giants Babe Parnell, using a straight-on approach, booted the ball high into the wintry sky. It traveled through the soft mist and landed in Grange's outstretched arms on the 20-yard line. He darted up the field. In just four steps, he reached full speed -- another of his athletic gifts. Making one cut, then two, he sidestepped a defender. The crowd thundered as Grange blazed across the field. But just as he was about to break away for a long run, he was tackled at the 32-yard-line by a Giant defender.
At the start of the fourth Grange was on the sideline with the score Chicago 12, New York 7. It was now late afternoon. Though the skies were overcast, the sinking sun floated on the horizon, bathing the Manhattan skyline in a pinkish glow. The shadows of the Polo Grounds stretched across the field, and the temperature dropped into the 20s, as fans huddled tighter in their raccoon coats and topcoats and workaday jackets. Everyone in the stadium was restless. They had come to see Grange play, not to see him sit on the bench, and they wanted to experience with their own eyes the athletic splendor they knew he was capable of producing.
Then, at just past 4:30 on this raw December day, Grange rose from the bench. His simple act of standing seemed to send an electric jolt crackling throughout the stands, as nearly everyone in the stadium jumped to their feet. When Grange jogged onto the field, they came to a fever. But Grange was oblivious to it all. He didn't look up into the stands or raise a hand to his fans; he just jogged into the huddle, joining his Bears teammates, who were now on defense.
After the teams exchanged punts, Grange lined up in his defensive back position. Only a few minutes remained in the game, but the stands were still packed with people hoping to see Grange do something unforgettable. On second down deep in their own territory, the Giants called a pass play in their huddle. The teams lined up, facing each other across the line of scrimmage. New York quarterback Hinkey Haines, a former Penn State player, yelled, "Hike!" and was snapped the ball. He dropped back several steps, giving his ends time to run down the field. As several Bear defenders charged at him, Haines heaved a pass toward the south sideline in the direction of a New York end -- and of Grange.
The ball hissed through the twilight. Grange anticipated the throw, and the moment the football left Haines' hand, Grange cut in front of the Giants end. Grange then leapt in the air and snatched the ball cleanly out of the air at New York's 30-yard line and tucked the ball under his arm. The crowd rose.
He sprinted down the sideline, running past his Chicago Bear teammates who leapt off their bench as he approached, past the photographers that lined the field. Grange dodged one tackler, stiff-armed another. Then he busted into the open field. Nothing between him and the goal line.
This was the moment everyone at the Polo Grounds had talked about for days, had anticipated and imagined, the moment they had been waiting for since the opening kickoff. Grange crossed the 10-yard-line, the five. It looked so natural, the way he ran, like a bounding deer. If Grange was born to do one thing, it was this: to run with a football in his arms.
He single-handedly was changing the way the football was played. With Grange, the game was no longer a plodding, straight-ahead battle of brute strength, no longer a game that resembled rugby-style scrums where men pushed and shoved each other backward and forward. With Grange, the game gained a second dimension, one that was orchestral, lyrical, elegant. He was helping to make football truly appeal to the masses. And this unexpected play from Grange illustrated why the NFL could matter, why there could be a place for the professional game on the America's sporting landscape.
Grange galloped across the goal line, scoring his first touchdown of the game. He simply dropped the ball to the ground and trotted back to his position along the line for the extra point try. Sternaman's boot put the ball through the uprights. Minutes later the final whistle blew. The scoreboard read: Chicago 19, New York 7.