If the National Football League is now a mammoth billion-dollar enterprise, it was certainly born into more humble circumstances. Indeed, it began in 1920 in an automobile showroom in Canton, Ohio, when a car dealer called together some owners of teams, mostly in the Midwest, to form a league. Unlike the lavish boardrooms in which NFL owners meet today, on this occasion the owners sat on the running boards of cars in the showroom and drank beer from buckets. A membership fee of $100 was set, but no one came up with any money. (As one of those present, George Halas, the legendary owner of the Chicago Bears, said, "I doubt that there was a hundred bucks in the room.") From such modest beginnings, pro football became far and away the most popular spectator sport in America.
In Pigskin, Robert W. Peterson presents a lively and informative overview of the early years of pro football--from the late 1880s to the beginning of the television era. Peterson describes the colorful beginnings of the pro game and its outstanding teams (the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants, the Chicago Bears, the Baltimore Colts), and the great games they played. Profiles of the most famous players of the era--including Pudge Heffelfinger (the first certifiable professional), Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, and Fritz Pollard (the NFL's first black star)--bring the history of the game to life. Peterson also takes us back to the roots of the pro game, showing how professionalism began when some stars for Yale, Harvard, and Princeton took money--under the table, of course--for their services to alma mater. By 1895, the money makers--still unacknowledged--had moved to amateur athletic associations in western Pennsylvania and subsequently into Ohio.
After the NFL formed in 1920, pro football's popularity grew gradually but steadily. It burst into national prominence with the Bears-Redskins championship game of 1940. As one sportswriter put it: "The weather was perfect. So were the Bears." The final score was 73-0. Peterson shows how, after World War II, the newly-created All America Football Conference challenged the NFL. Though dominated by a gritty Cleveland team, the AAFC was never viewed by NFL teams as much of a threat. That is, not until 1950 when the two leagues merged, bringing about the Cleveland Browns-Philadelphia Eagles game in which the Browns buried the Eagles 35-10.
An elegy to a time when, for many players, the game was at least as important as the money it brought them (which wasn't much), Pigskin takes readers up to the 1958 championship game when the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in overtime. By that time, the great popularity of the game had moved from newspapers and radio to television, and pro football had finally arrived as a major sport.
Veteran magazine writer and author of two previous books on sports history, Only the Ball Was White and Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years, Peterson weaves oral history, analysis and anecdote into a play-by-play history of the game from 1920 to the 1958 championship contest between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. In those four decades, the old power game gradually changed into one of strategy and skill. It was a transformation that greatly increased football's appeal as a spectator sport, until, as the 1958 game showed, it became inextricably bound up with the new medium of television. Improvements in the game included the advent of forward passing, the change in the shape of the ball in 1933 (the new form, as Peterson points out, is "a passer-friendly ball, but it ended the drop-kick era because the sharper point caused an erratic rebound from the ground") and the institution of the T-formation: "The overall purpose of the T-formation with man in motion was to emphasize speed and deception rather than power." According to Peterson, "During its first forty-odd years, professional football was the raggedy step-child of the glamorous college game," but the NFL started to come into its own in the late '20s and early '30s with the competent and likable New York Giants and the Notre Dame All-Stars, the latter coached by the famed Knute Rockne. Peterson highlights the careers of pivotal individuals of the early pro game such as Chicago Bears coach and owner George Halas and former Olympian and first president of the American Football Association (which would, in 1922, change its name to the NFL), Jim Thorpe. Also mentioned are John V. McNally (aka John Blood), Bulldog Turner and Paul Brown, the great first coach of the eponymous Cleveland Browns. For the genuine football aficionado interested in such esoteric particulars as the origins of the draw play, or for the curious bystander intrigued with the seemingly elusive intricacies of the sport, Pigskin is an engaging and detailed chronicle.