On Thursday, Nov. 15, 1906, operatives of the Central Union Telephone Company began stringing wire around Mahaffey Park in Canton, Ohio, preparing a little trial in turn-of-the-century technology. The idea was, a Central Union agent would stride up and down the stadium's sideline the next day, telegraphing accounts of the action between the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers to newspaper offices throughout the country. This experiment took into account two national preoccupations: the fascination with anything modern—especially electrical—and professional football.
This is an article from the Feb. 6, 2012 issue
This would be the first of two games (with a third if required) to decide the championship of the world. Pro football had been slow to gain favor, being alternately deadly and dull, but by 1906 it had grown into a fairly important pastime, especially in the hinterlands of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The bigger cities, with grander ideas of themselves, clung to the more refined entertainments, such as opera and baseball, leaving football to the blue-collar towns, where few felt the need to apologize for their tastes in recreation.
Still, even city sophisticates were beginning to take notice of this new phenomenon. Grantland Rice, sporting editor of the Cleveland News, had been obliged to divert his attention from second baseman Nap Lajoie's comparatively balletic Cleveland Naps to account for the popularity of football skirmishes, a kind of choreographed mayhem. Rice was particularly attuned to the heated rivalry to the south, in Stark County, where football had been fully professionalized and was being played with eye-opening zeal.
Had Rice understood that the 1906 championship series had been developed as a civic comeuppance, a way to indulge a municipal grudge, he might have been more careful with his mythologizing. For that matter, he might have guessed how this would end. But like everybody else, he was caught up in the excitement of the new, however unholy. And so Rice wrote, "The coming conflict between Massillon and Canton furnishes a climax of a rivalry as full of romance and interest as the pipe dreams of the old troubadours, or the epics which the late Mr. Homer dumped upon an unsuspecting public."
By Friday, Nov. 16, the hubbub had grown quite fantastic, with both towns in a fever, and all of northeastern Ohio—if not the entire state and maybe even the country—focused on the spectacle in Canton. After all, these games had been years in the making, with a steady escalation of payrolls and the stockpiling of the country's athletic talents. Almost every football player of note had been lured to Stark County. Massillon had acquired the standout Notre Dame fullback Red Salmon and three quarters of the University of Wisconsin's backfield. It got the country's top quarterback, Peggy Parratt. The great Bob Shiring anchored Massillon's line beside 6'4", 240-pound Tiny Maxwell. On the Canton line were Otis Lansom, the All-America from Penn, and Purdue's Herman Kerchoffe. Both rosters, in fact, were stuffed with former All-Americas, men who perhaps couldn't have placed Canton or Massillon on a map until that season but who nonetheless were playing for its glory, and maybe something else.
This was only incidentally the invention of professional football as we know it. That was an unintended response, a by-product of civic pride and municipal ambition. Nobody had set out to create it; there was no template, no plan, no great strategy. But here you had it, all in one place at one time, the source materials for a national pastime: boosterism, big money, powerful business forces colluding behind closed doors with city government, the flexibility of the media, the response to a growing need for entertainment, the acknowledgment that athletic heroes would be the new cultural currency (and would learn to exploit it for their own good), the idea that a city's status was somehow bound up in athletic achievement. These were the beginnings of pro football, anticipating the excitement, tomfoolery and shenanigans that might someday (who knew?) preoccupy a country.
Other, more distant towns could conduct friendly competitions and settle their lighthearted grudges in the spirit of good fun. But Canton and Massillon were too close together to operate free of friction.
Three years earlier, the cocky city editor of the Massillon Gleaner, Ed Stewart (who at the time was the Massillon Tigers' quarterback), had convened 35 of the city's business leaders at the Sailer Hotel with a vague idea for gaining civic satisfaction. Theirs was not only the natural resentment of a put-upon citizenry, hardworking people always in Canton's shadow no matter what they did; it was also the resentment of gamblers whose pockets were annually lightened by the obligation of boosterism. The Massillon-Canton football games, so one-sided in the bigger town's favor, came to represent a tax on Massillon's faithful, who were obliged to bet on their Tigers no matter what their prospects.
Stewart's plan called for a capital investment in the supplementing of homegrown talent. All teams of the day, though nominally amateur and steadfastly local, had a ringer or two, and Massillon would not have been the first team to seek advantage through an extra $50 or so. But no team had yet been purpose-built, as this one would be, designed for mercenary warfare. It would be a gang of hired guns.
As this athletic underclass—football vagabonds alert to income possibilities—began to settle in Massillon, the level of play there rose dramatically. Such total disregard for the game's amateur ideals did not go without comment. In Akron, home of the reigning Ohio League champions, the Beacon Journal wrote: "Since the fact has leaked out that Massillon has employed a number of outsiders to play on the 'Massillon' team in their efforts to wrest the state championship from Akron, it is noticeable that little has been said by the Massillon men about the 'amateur' football players of the place." But Massillon's results were largely beyond editorial carping.
As Stewart recruited talent, raided rosters and outbid all rivals (some Massillon reserves were getting as much as $120 a game), the checkbook Tigers became a football juggernaut. Never mind Akron, which Massillon beat 12--0 for the Ohio championship in 1903 (inciting a small riot when Akron fans took affront to the Tigers' halftime ceremony, a fresh idea at the time, and routed the Massillon Military Band and accompanying fans with sticks and stones). How about Canton? Stewart's pay-for-play experiment immediately paid off on that front too: The Tigers reversed their fortunes with a surprising 16--0 victory over their rivals. Bets on that game ranged from $5 all the way up to $200, and it was believed that Tigers backers had reaped at least $1,000 in wagers, their capital investment now looking like a reasonable expense.
Canton reacted predictably: Its business leaders too provided the wherewithal to compete for talent. By 1905 Canton had narrowed the gap; management had poached seven players from Akron and had hired two running backs from the University of Michigan's "point-a-minute" backfield. Going into the Massillon game that year, Canton had outscored opponents by a 409--0 margin in its first six games. But a surprising loss to Latrobe, in which Canton captain and coach Bill Laub broke his leg, inspired panic. For the Massillon game, Canton brought in former Penn great Charles (Blondy) Wallace as coach—the onetime All-America could still play tackle if he had to—and Wallace hired three new linemen as well as Michigan's All-America back, Willie Heston, perhaps the most famous player in the land. Heston, who had worked Canton and Massillon against each other in negotiations, was to be paid $600 for the single assignment.
Still the Tigers, led by Salmon (who was earning $1,500 for a three-game stint), maintained their superiority, although the edge was now razor thin. Playing on the grounds of the new State Hospital (Massillon, offered a choice of state charters, felt the mental health business would be more reliable than college education), the Tigers prevailed 14--4. The Canton Morning News observed that Canton bettors were "$20,000 in the soup at Massillon" and were to be "found at the leading bars lined three deep trying to drown their sorrows."
The 1906 season, then, boiled down to a single game. Canton and Massillon worked through their schedules as if the games were mere warmups, visiting massacres upon undermanned teams throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania. Both the Bulldogs and the Tigers, after even more roster maneuverings, boasted of payrolls in the $9,000 range. Nobody could compete with them. Massillon outscored its opponents 438--0 and Canton its foes by 285--0.
So here we were, on a pleasant November day—"bright sunshine flooding the field, in the air a touch of winter," according to one newspaper—with something of importance about to unfold at Mahaffey Park. Stores had closed, factories shut down, schools let out. Some 8,000 fans were expected for a game between the two finest football teams in the land, and many of them were utilizing that other great fascination of the age: modern transportation. Of the many trolleys, autos and buggies pressed into service—several strings of Akron streetcars had been brought south to meet the demands of Massillon's travelers—not a few failed. Headlines of the day often featured train catastrophes: The rails widened and trains shot into fields, locomotives plunged into rivers, switchmen were decapitated beneath wheels; the sheer variety of personal disaster, man fighting technology to a standstill, was amazing. But on Nov. 15, except for a streetcar jumping the tracks on West Tuscarawas, the main drag connecting the two cities, and a few power outages that "impeded the arrival of the Massillon delegation considerably," according to the Massillon Independent, all the failures were of a category of inconvenience. (The only injury of note was suffered by H.C. Eyman, superintendent of the Massillon State Hospital, who was wary of faddish conveyances and suffered appropriately for it: He was kicked by his own horse on the way to the game.)
As might be expected at so rough-and-tumble an event, the fans were less inclined to be restrained by good manners and more likely to exhibit a kind of rowdiness. The game also served as a kind of assembly for Stark County's association of pickpockets, or "dips." Diamond studs went missing, purses disappeared, empty wallets littered the aisles.
The cacophony was impressive as well. The Massillon Military Band had been playing since 1:20 p.m., well before the 3 o'clock kickoff, and Tigers fans, "agleam in purple and gold," followed along with songs that had been printed in local papers. Canton rooters, on the opposite side of the field, got busy as well, "singing with much feeling and volume, if not clarity of tone," according to the Canton Repository. The two sides hurled chants back and forth across the field. A man wearing Massillon colors who had attached a Tigers pennant to his cane chose the wrong seating section and was beaten by Canton fans when he gave forth Tigers yells.
Finally, minutes before kickoff, the teams took the field. The sight of the Bulldogs, in their barber-pole red-and-white hosiery, was so stirring that a fan was moved to gush, "the triumphal return of the Caesars was a cortege in comparison." It was finally happening. The Central Union man stood at the ready.
In 1906 football was less a sport than a form of lightly regulated combat. The snap announced not so much the start of play as a call to arms; bare-knuckle slugging along the line of scrimmage was part of the attraction. Here is a passage from a contemporary game story in the Cambria Freeman of Ebensburg, Pa.: "Football makes a good fight all right, but it is like a three-ring circus. There is too much to it. The inability of the spectator to keep track of the blows struck is extremely annoying. If a man is to be smashed in the mouth, the trick should be turned in full view of the audience."
The game so rewarded brute force—close formations and momentum plays were the rule—that it resembled a battle royale far more than did rugby, its presumed ancestor. From a spectator's point of view football really was a three-ring circus, without the possibility of acrobatics or any finesse. Just a bunch of men crashing into each other, tussling, falling down. It was almost too primitive to take seriously. When a British journalist, Charles Emerson Cook of Strand Magazine, visited America in 1897 for an update on the young country's recreations, he was quite pleased to report on the unbridled savagery of this new game: "It was so easy, you know, to deposit your foot upon an opponent's neck and seriously injure him with brutal nails."
In 1905, 18 men died playing football and hundreds more were seriously injured, some of them paralyzed at the point of a flying wedge, a medieval formation that promised a certain kind of gladiatorial excitement. There was a growing outcry, especially in the bigger cities and certain universities, and even calls for the sport's abolition. President Theodore Roosevelt, supposedly horrified by a picture of a bloodied Tiny Maxwell (no such picture has ever been reproduced), threatened to ban the game by presidential order. The rules were changed in January 1906 to open up the game with the forward pass, but football remained as coarse and violent as ever.
Still, there was no denying the game's appeal, however guilty. The bravado, the physicality—the game was purely American. In a way a game like football, because it was especially unredeeming, was a proof of progress. Nothing affirms the status of a nation-state more than its ability to waste time.
This was a golden age, after all, a turning point, a goodbye to the barbaric conditions of the 1800s, a hello to a fine and civilized time ahead. There was still plenty of brutality to go around (those damn trains!), but it was only intermittent, to the point that it was newsworthy. Now that there was some small promise of living to the weekend (and now that there was a weekend), there was a growing demand for amusement. Tenors, comics, lecturers, physicians demonstrating X-rays—the trains were full of these traveling crowd-pleasers, and they stopped off in Canton and Massillon.
Professional football was played coast-to-coast but without the organization of major league baseball. It was still a nascent sport, piggybacking the college game, and was hardly tracking national attention, except when it was especially revolting. At the beginning of the century it had been little more than community intramurals, its popularity a local phenomenon. Attempts to organize it more fully in cities were fitful and unsuccessful. (The National Football League, hatched in Philadelphia in 1902, almost immediately dissolved for lack of funds, and a six-day football tournament held that December at Madison Square Garden was a flop.) It could not compete for newspaper space with even, say, harness racing.
Smaller towns, however, especially in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio, were less discriminate when it came to leisure pursuits. So it was here that the game germinated, mostly unnoticed until the rest of the country awakened to its possibilities.
As football as an entertainment became increasingly important, so did the men who played it. That certain players were being slipped something out of the gate receipts was no longer a secret. It was still a scandal, just not a secret. The Pittsburgh Press, for example, reported in 1905 that Walter East, a prized end on the Western University of Pennsylvania football team, would not return because "he is not a fit man for a college team for he has been receiving pay for years." East, the paper went on to say, had even demanded a bonus to return to the college club but was "curtly turned down." Peggy Parratt, who was a star quarterback at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, was turned out about the same time. He had been playing under center for Case on Saturdays and then, wearing a funny-looking helmet and noseguard, playing defense (as Jimmy Murphy) for the nearby Shelby Athletic Club on Sundays.
But there was another category of men, grown men who didn't have to flirt with rules of college eligibility. These were migrants of a sort—past collegiate stars, perhaps, or maybe just hardened factory workers—who shopped their athletic skills and vicious temperaments to the highest bidder. They traveled throughout the land, crossing from sport to sport, as sensitive to the seasonal marketplace as farmworkers. Christy Mathewson might pitch for the New York Giants during the summer, but he was not above making a buck as a punter and fullback for the Pittsburgh Stars in the fall.
The names weren't always so famous, inasmuch as skill at football was only partly a requirement for success at it. Among these athletic vagrants were talented players, for sure, but the most prized at the professional level were often simply the biggest and meanest. Heft was extremely important, but even more valuable was the ability to mix it up, to give and take. The game, rule changes aside, remained borderline assault and battery.
The hardscrabble Nesser brothers, boilermakers in the sense that they made boilers (none of them matriculated at Purdue), might have been the most violent men to ever strap on leather helmets (on those occasions that they wore helmets). They showed up all over Ohio, dispensing brutality at the slightest promise of payment, numb to the idea of pain. Knute Rockne said that getting hit by a Nesser was "like falling off a moving train." But it was the brothers' ability—maybe eagerness would be a better word—to take a blow and keep coming that gave opponents pause.
This was a game, remember, that did not insult masculine sensibilities with much protective equipment. Even among this fraternity, though, the Nessers constituted a frightening species. It was said that the seven football-playing brothers did not have three good ribs among them, and that a doctor finally refused to work on Ted's nose, it had been broken so many times. After the eighth repair he refrained from further reconstruction, saying, "What's the point?" Of course 23-year-old Ted, 5'10" and 230 pounds, might have been a special case, even among the Nessers. He once played a game with bones sticking out of his arm.
The Nessers, and many more men just like them, circulated throughout the Midwest now, an affront to amateur ideals but pretty damn fun to watch. They popped up for a game and then moved on, their transience almost adding to their violent appeal. Who were these characters? They just came, arriving on one train or another.
Canton and Massillon had been frantic in assembling as many of these heroes as possible for their 1906 season. It was a two-team competition, everybody else left to watch this wrangling. Massillon signed Maxwell and Parratt before the season began, as well as those three running backs from Wisconsin. The Tigers retained Ted Nesser too, and then outbid Canton for Walter East, the end who, it was reported, "ran like the wind." Canton's coach and manager, Blondy Wallace, smarting over a perception that he'd been outcoached in 1905, was not standing pat either. In a new kind of move that demonstrated just how fluid hometown rosters could be in this era, Wallace signed four of Massillon's starters. The reason, the Canton Morning News explained, was that the Tigers "cannot bring forth the proper amount of lucre."
A showdown between the two teams not only was expected but had become a financial necessity, their massive payrolls demanding a big-gate bonanza. Each new roster move—STEVENSON HERE! a headline might proclaim, or BOB SHIRING ARRIVES!—was a pointed reminder of the season-ending clash.
Through the first eight games of 1906, neither team allowed so much as a single point. Those matches were meaningless, almost incidental to the betting action. It was observed that a suspicious number of Canton plungers had peculiar access to the Massillon sideline ("a courtesy heretofore shown only to newspaper men," the Canton Daily News sniffed, its scribes elbowed out by gamblers), mingling with the players as if they were part of the team. It was rumored that the plungers planned to back Massillon against their home team, which might be prudent, but it still seemed brazen of them to flaunt it. Surely civic devotion should trump all.
The huge amount of money involved was creating some concern. The impermanence of the players—which was the idea when Massillon began this vendetta—was now causing alarm. "It looks to the average fan as though it was a question only of money regardless of principle and contracts," the Daily News admitted after yet another Tiger had defected to Canton. Coupled with the gambling (one Cantonian was reported to have bet $1,500 on the Red and White), a lack of built-in loyalty among the players was enough to drive any number of conspiracy theories.
One rumor, that the two teams might arrange to split their two games to force a third payday, had enough circulation that none other than Stewart, the Tigers booster and Gleaner city editor, was forced to address it in his own paper. "It would be impossible to 'fix' the coming football game," he wrote. "It would mean that the [Massillon] management was rotten to the core, that the Canton management was hand-in-hand with such dishonesty, and that the forty or more players under contract to the two managements must be dishonest and minus all sense of honor."
Even with that assurance, there was no lack of intrigue. Wallace did his part to heighten it, whisking his Bulldogs off to Penn State for two weeks of clandestine (and expensive—another $2,300 on the Canton tab) training.
Massillon practiced at home, with somewhat more transparency but not without mystery. East was given his release without explanation, although the Canton papers suspected he had become a morale problem on a team riven by "factions" of "college stars and the graduates of the sandlots." But replacements seemed to be arriving on trains daily. Doc McChesney, who'd left the Tigers earlier in the season for his job at the steel mill, was back. Red Salmon, who'd been so effective for Massillon in the 1905 Canton game, was rumored to be returning. And Lansom, the Penn All-America, was coming back too. But reports that Kerchoffe, the 235-pound Boilermaker (the Purdue kind), was returning were false; heeding the call of lucre, he was practicing with the Canton squad at Penn State.
Meanwhile, Massillon manager Sherb Wightman had traveled to Chicago, where, according to reports, he unsuccessfully attempted to buy Alonzo Stagg's playbook.
There was nothing immediately suspicious about the outcome of the Nov. 16 game. It was certainly hard-fought, although perhaps not that entertaining—"Sensational in parts," reported the Cleveland News, "in others a pure farce." Canton's quarterback, little Jack Hayden, ran the team faultlessly, even drop-kicking a 33-yard field goal to give the Bulldogs a 4--0 lead at the half. Canton halfback Marshall Reynolds proved a clever runner, scoring his team's only touchdown ("an indescribable uproar" ensued), and his punting (at Penn he once booted an 80-yarder) kept the Tigers on their heels. Massillon mustered little offense and was often penalized (unfairly, the Massillon papers thought); several of its players, including Shiring, the captain, were put out of the game for "slugging." Mighty Massillon's only score in the 10--5 loss was a fumble return for a touchdown by the lumbering Maxwell (Canton players had thought the whistle had blown and just smiled at the play), after which the game was briefly delayed while players searched for the ball in the growing dusk. Referee Big Bill Edwards (who'd provided the game's most interesting action when he threw one of Wallace's water boys 10 yards, bucket and all, after he illegally tried to bring in a play) called the game just when, according to a headline in the next day's Massillon Independent, THE TIGERS WERE PLAYING THE CANTONS TO A STANDSTILL.
The Bulldogs had won the biggest game in professional football, and their fans were nearly riotous in their joy, clogging the streets, the town "turned tops-turvy by the hilarity of the team's supporters." It was further reported, perhaps more to the point, that as much as $10,000 had changed hands that afternoon.
It wasn't until eight days later, after Massillon had prevailed in the rematch (setting up a third game?), that all hell broke loose. Actually, the game itself was sufficient for most requirements of the phrase. Some 4,000 attended—"a long winding ribbon of traffic stretched over the 10 miles of yellow road to the asylum," said the Independent—to see the Tigers bounce back, 13--6, on their home field, presumably preserving their championship as well as causing another massive displacement of sums (not to mention a brawl at Canton's Courtland Hotel resulting in eight arrests). But then a strange and sensational headline appeared in Stewart's Gleaner: THEIR HONOR INVIOLATE—THE FAMOUS MASSILLON TIGERS OF 1906 COULD NOT BE BOUGHT OFF WITH A PRICE. What?
According to Stewart, who had held off on his journalistic obligations to satisfy the box-office requirements of the rematch, Canton's Wallace had attempted to orchestrate a fix of the first game. This was sensational stuff! Stewart wrote that Wallace, "backed by a crowd of gamblers who agreed to furnish $50,000 to be used for betting," had persuaded Massillon's East to try to turn some of the key Tigers, Shiring and Maxwell in particular, into participants in the scheme. When East was rebuffed, according to Stewart, he then offered $5,000 to Massillon managers, assuring them that he had once "framed" a game at Western University for which "no suspicion was attached to him, and that it would be just as easy to 'fix' the Canton-Massillon series."
It made sense, of course. In addition to providing a fortune to those who could be assured of the outcome, a fix would help produce a split and force a third game that might bolster the teams' depleted finances.
The two towns, the whole state, were in an uproar over these accusations. Nobody believed that this new sport of professional football was beyond reproach: The money involved, the characters who operated and played the game—well, it was asking for trouble. But this?
The evidence was persuasive enough, at least as it was presented in The Gleaner. East's strange dismissal right before the first game was now explained as a disciplinary move. Stewart had been alerted to East's offer by Shiring and Maxwell and had sent the villain packing. The plot had been nipped in the bud. It was all so plausible. Wallace, a hard-drinking womanizer, did not enjoy so wonderful a reputation that he was beyond suspicion. And anyway, with so much money now being leveraged on the fulcrum of football, far more moral men than Wallace and East might succumb to temptation.
And yet ... while there might have been a plot to fix the game, this wasn't it. In an equally sensational countercharge, East returned to clear his name and Wallace's. He had not been solicited by Wallace to throw the game, he told the Akron Beacon Journal. He had, in fact, been solicited by his very own Massillon coach, Sherb Wightman. He showed the paper a copy of a contract that promised him $4,000 to have the first Canton game thrown. Wightman's signature was on it.
This was an uproar that apparently had legs. Newspapers devoted considerable resources to the controversy, which was even more valuable to circulation than the actual game. There was story after story, on into the winter, the mystery getting more complicated edition by edition. Wightman did some furious explaining, saying he was, in fact, operating a sting. "When East first came to me with his scheme I reported his proposition to my employers and they told me to go ahead with it and see to what lengths East would go," he said, according to Cleveland's The Plain Dealer. "Consequently I strung them along until I had the signatures of East and Windsor [John Windsor, one of the owners of the Akron baseball team] down on paper. When that was done East was released, and it was seen that we gold-bricked them. Consequently the great plunging of the first game on the part of the bettors did not take place."
Stewart, for a newspaper man, was becoming extremely flexible when it came to facts. He backed this new and contradictory account entirely. And that, he believed, was that. It explained everything. Except why he made those initial charges of a fix by poor Wallace, of course.
The three competing accounts of what happened were never sorted out, and confusion ruled the day. Wallace filed a libel suit against The Gleaner but let it drop. And the newspapers moved on to other scandals without getting to the bottom of this one. Not even history can help. It is irrelevant to note that Wallace, later in his life, was convicted of income tax evasion. Nor does it tell us much that East got into some legal scrapes of his own before settling into a law practice in Akron. And the fact that Stewart drifted on to a series of college football jobs is hardly instructive. Nor is the fact that he was shot dead while leading deer hunters on his Texas ranch.
But here is what we know for sure: The scandal, heard far and wide (if not completely understood or investigated), killed professional football for a time. The Tigers and the Bulldogs organized a third game not to see who'd win but to raise funds for the players' train tickets out of town. It was a disaster; only 500 people showed up, and the match ended in a 5--5 tie. The teams were broke and, without any credibility, would remain so. Wallace, who had been promised a share of the receipts to coach, was left without a dollar, according to newspapers. The players were once more on their own, the appetite for their services severely diminished. They bummed passage back to factory jobs, still popping up at games here and there, of course, although athletic opportunity would never again present itself so generously during their careers.
The scandal was hard to prove and just as impossible to ignore. But, given enough time, it could be forgotten, maybe even forgiven. Anyway, how can you hold anybody responsible for a headlong rush into modernity, the idealization of vigor, the determination to be bigger and better and, of course, to have more fun?
In 1920 a group of enthusiasts got together and agreed to form something called the National Football League. It was an idea they hatched to graduate the game into a new era of professionalism and produce a satisfying spectacle or two. It was an idea whose time had come. They met in a Hupmobile showroom in Canton, not that far from Mahaffey Park. Just around the corner, really.