New York welcomed Red Grange with open arms during his tour
Excerpt from The First Star, a book about Red Grange's barnstorming tour of NFL
New York Giants wanted to sign Grange, but got next best thing: an exhibition
Fans, including Babe Ruth, flocked to Polo Grounds to see the Galloping Ghost
Excerpted from The First Star by Lars Anderson Copyright © 2009 by Lars Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Minutes after playing in Illinois' final game of the 1925 season, Harold "Red" Grange stunned reporters, his teammates, and fans by announcing that he was dropping out of school to become a professional football player. Days later, Grange joined the Chicago Bears and embarked on a 19-game, 66-day barnstorming tour across the country that had been organized by C.C. Pyle, the first agent in pro football history who had signed Grange to a multi-year contract.
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.