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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles

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 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.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6