SI Vault
February 06, 2012
A century ago two Ohio powers, Canton and Massillon, battled for supremacy of professional football. Back then the game was a cross between a three-ring circus and trench warfare, and the players were team-switching mercenaries. The championship series might even have been fixed
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February 06, 2012

The First Super Bowl

A century ago two Ohio powers, Canton and Massillon, battled for supremacy of professional football. Back then the game was a cross between a three-ring circus and trench warfare, and the players were team-switching mercenaries. The championship series might even have been fixed

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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.

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