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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."