August 27, 2014

Cleveland A.C.: Pioneer Team in Pro Football?

This article was written by Tod Gladen and was originally published in The Coffin Corner in 1989. The Coffin Corner is the official magazine of the Professional Football Researchers Association. Visit PFRA’s website to learn how to become a member today!

This is a rather bold headline for a team that’s largely forgotten today. Its accomplishments on or off the playing field are left out of the history books. No articles are written proclaiming its merits. It was a team that did little of any importance or interest.

So why in 1989, almost a hundred years later, is there a sudden interest in this faceless team? Why is there a sudden rush to the microfilm readers and boxes of old documents for a team that disbanded years ago?

The answer is simple. The Cleveland Athletic Club may fall into that important “Historical First” category. The Cleveland A.C. may be the first team that we can prove paid some of its players to play.

The current accepted first pro player was Pudge Heffelfinger, who got $500 (a rather large amount in those days) to play one game for the Allegheny Athletic Association on November 12, 1892. If the Cleveland report is true, the players for the C.A.C. were paid to play a few weeks prior to Pudge’s big payday.

Soon maybe the city of Cleveland can tout itself as the home of professional football as well as rivers that catch fire, Superman and rock ‘n’ roll.

That day, however, is probably some time off. It will take a lot of work to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the C.A.C paid its players. Knowing and proving are two different things.

The club no doubt paid its players under the table. This was a fairly common practice. Everybody did it to preserve their amateur status so they could play college teams. In the 1890s there were very few football programs available, and to be banned from playing any of them could force a team to disband for a lack of opponents.

What brought the Cleveland team into limelight is an out-of-town newspaper article written in 1892 and accidentally discovered recently. The paper was the Ohio State Journal, the Republican paper in Columbus, and a pretty good one too. This was the same paper that Joe Carr, commissioner of the NFL from 1921-39, later worked on.

The best paper in Columbus for local sports was its competitor, the Democratic Columbus Press, but what the Ohio State Journal lacked in local coverage it made up in national coverage. Some of the teams that the paper regularly covered were the Chicago Athletic Association, the Duquesne Country and Athletic Club, the Homestead Library team, the Maryland A.C. and the Massillon Athletic Club, a forerunner of the powerful Massillon Tigers. Sometimes when the paper had enough material, it would group them in a section under the heading “Professional Football”–a practice unusual for the 1890s.

The article that’s drawing current attention was a report of a game between the Cleveland A.C. and Dayton on November 19, 1892. The team from Dayton was listed just like that–as “Dayton,” with no other name of affiliation. The game was played in Dayton in utterly awful conditions. The paper said, “Five hundred football enthusiasts waded through seven inches of slush…to witness the game…The visitors won by a score of 10 to 0.”

What makes the article interesting is what comes next: “The Clevelanders are the champions of Ohio. Their club consists of many professionals.”

The article implies that the players have been professionals for some time. But professional what? The context is about the quality of the players, because right after that the article says Dayton brought in two Yale varsity boys to play for them. The logical assumption is that the quoted reference means the Cleveland team consists mostly of professional football players.

Is the paper saying that the players are professional in their field of work, or professional in being paid to play football? Many of the players on the team were veterans from college varsity football teams. Would a newspaper in 1892 use the term “professional” for their off-field work?

Whatever the truth, it will be some time before we can determine whether the Cleveland Athletic Club was a pro team or not.

For the record, here’s the complete article as it appeared in the Ohio State Journal of November 20, 1892:

Dayton Defeated by Cleveland
DAYTON, OHIO, NOVEMBER 19–Five hundred football enthusiasts waded through seven inches of slush at the Athletic park this afternoon to witness the game between the Cleveland Athletic club and the Dayton eleven. The game was stiffly contested and was a pretty exhibition of skill, strength and science. The visitors won by a score of 10 to 0 after a hard fight.

The Clevelanders are the champions of Ohio. Their club consists of many professionals. The Dayton aggregation was strengthened by two Yale varsity boys. The local club was outweighted 16 pounds per man in the rush line, and this in the main accounts for the score.

A singular fact was that at the end of each thirty-minute half the Daytons had the ball within a few feet of the goal.

The C.A.C. made and kicked a good game in the first half, but did not succeed in kicking it in the last.

On Thanksgiving day the Otterbein winning club will buck the center with the Dayton in this city. If the weather is in any way agreeable, 5000 spectators will be in attendance. Fashionable tally-ho parties will swell the crowd.

Great Forgotten Ends of the 1930′s

This article was written by Stan Grosshandler and was originally published in The Coffin Corner in 1993. The Coffin Corner is the official magazine of the Professional Football Researchers Association. Visit PFRA’s website to learn how to become a member today!

There was once a position called END!

The end played on both sides of the line of scrimmage; therefore, there was a left end and a right end. There were no split ends, tight ends, wide receivers, flankers, wide outs, or anything else.

There were just plain ENDS!

Now end was a very difficult position to play. You had to catch passes all over the field, block a tackle who vastly outweighed you, and stop end sweeps by throwing yourself into an interference that consisted of two running guards built like tanks and a pretty hefty blocking back built like a bull.

You were expected to play sixty minutes, which often meant you had to chase a pass the length of the field, then block that monster in front of you, and next go on defense and break up the interference. Some days it was just plain hell!

Four ends from the 1930′s, Don Hutson, Red Badgro, Bill Hewitt, and Wayne Millner are honored in the Hall of Fame. A fifth, Ray Flaherty, is in the Pro Football Hall for his coaching success, but was a very good end as a player.

During the early years of the NFL, George Halas, an old right end himself, did a pretty good job of collecting most of the talent. Besides Hewitt, he had Luke Johnsos, Bill Karr, Eggs Manske, Dick Plasman, and George Wilson.

Johnsos and Karr played the right side opposite Hewitt. With the Bears from 1929 through 1936, Luke had a career total of 87 receptions and 19 TDs. He served as co-head coach during Halas’ tour in the Navy during World War II. Bill Karr played from 1933 through 1938, scoring 18 TDs on a career total of only 48 receptions.

Eggs Manske studied law before joining the Eagles in 1935. He became a Bear in 1937, went to Pittsburgh the next season, and returned to Bears in 1939. Dick Plasman also joined the Bears in 1937. Known as the last player to play without a head gear, Dick took off two years for military service, returned in 1944 and then played for the Cards in 1946 and 1947. He played both defensive end and tackle with the Cards.

A long time Bear (1937-1946), George Wilson is best remembered as the man who with one block took out Jimmy Johnston and Ed Justice enabling Bill Osmanski to score the first six points of the great 73-0 rout of the Redskins in the 1940 championship game. Considered one of the great tacticians of the game, George coached the Lions from 1957 through 1964 and the Dolphins from 1966 to 1969. He also put in one season in the National Basketball League (1939-40).

The Packers, one of the early teams to have a potent passing attack, had Lavie Dilweg from 1927 through 1934 and Milt Gantenbein who arrived for a ten-year stay in 1931. A fine blocker, Gantenbein was “the other end” to Don Hutson at Green Bay, just as Bear Bryant had been at Alabama.

Joe Carter was one of the better, and lesser known ends of the early days. He played for the Eagles from 1933 through 1940, the Packers in 1942, spent 1943 in service and then two more seasons as a Brooklyn Dodger and Chicago Cardinal. In 1934, Joe tied with Red Badgro for most receptions in the league with 16.

Gaynell Tinsley, a highly touted All-American from LSU, hit the NFL in 1937 as a Cardinal. With his LSU passer, Pat Coffee, Tinsley gained a record 675 yards on receptions as he caught 36 passes and scored five touchdowns. On December 5th, he caught a 97 yard pass from Coffee that is still among the longest in history. The following season against the Rams, he took a 98 yarder from Doug Russell. This was the only TD he scored all season. Tinsley did not play the 1939 season. After a dispute over his salary, he decided to become a high-school coach; however, he returned for the 1940 campaign, his last. In only three seasons, he caught 93 passes for 1,356 yards.

Jim Benton was another high profile collegian when he joined the Cleveland Rams in 1938. At Arkansas, he had teamed with Jack Robbins and Dwight Sloan to make the Razorbacks the best passing team in the nation. Benton sat out the 1941 season, returned in 1942, was loaned to the Bears for 1943, returned to the Rams in 1944 and then moved to Los Angeles with the team, retiring after the 1947 season. Jim led the league in touchdowns by receivers in 1939, was the total yard leader in both 1945 and 1946; also leading in receptions the latter year. His 303 yards in a single game against Detroit in 1945 remains the third best single day achievement on record.

Both the Giants and Redskins were dominant in the 1930′s and each had notable ends. Jim Poole stood out at left end from 1937 until he went into the service in 1942. He played briefly for the Cards in 1945 but returned to the Giants for the 1945 and 1946 seasons. His teammate Jim Lee Howell started in 1937, went to the service for three seasons, and upon returning in 1946 played through 1948. He later coached the Giants for seven seasons.

Charlie Malone joined the 1934 Boston Braves and went with the team to Washington. He did not play in 1941, returned the next year and then entered the service. Bob McChesney also joined the club in Boston and played until 1943 when he went into the service. He never returned to the NFL.

The classic example of a great forgotten end who played with a forgotten team is Perry Schwartz of the late and lamented Brooklyn Dodgers. Starring on both offense and defense from 1938 through 1942, he then lost three seasons to military service before returning to play for the 1946 New York Yankees of the AAFC.

While the stats in the following table may not look impressive, it should be noted the most pass attempts in 1937 were made by the “pass happy” Redskins, a total of 222. The best completion percentage that year was 44.6%. The fewest attempts in 1991 were 414 and no team had a completion percentage below 50.5%.

Jim Benton
Cleveland 1938-40, 1942, 1944-45; Chicago Bears 1943; Los Angeles 1946-47
(288 rec., 4801 yards, 45 TDs)

Joe Carter
Philadelphia 1933-40 Green Bay 1942; Military 1943; Brooklyn 1944; Chicago Cards 1945
(132 rec., 1989 yards, 22 TDs)

Lavie Dilweg
Milwaukee 1926; Green Bay 1927-34
(Unofficial: 126 rec., 2,053 yards, 12 TDs)

Milt Gantenbein
Green Bay 1931-40
(1932-40: 77 rec., 1299 yards, 8 TDs)

Jim Lee Howell
New York Giants 1937-42, Military 1943-44; New York Giants 1946-48
(61 rec., 921 yards, 7 TDs)

Luke Johnsos
Chicago Bears 1929-36
(1932-36: 58 rec., 985 yards, 20 TDs)

Bill Karr
Chicago Bears 1933-38
(48 rec., 1032 yards, 18 TDs)

Charles Malone
Boston 1934-36; Washington 1942; Military 1943
(137 rec., 1932 yards, 13 TDs)

Eggs Manske
Philadelphia 1935-36; Chicago Bears 1938-40; Pittsburgh 1938
(70 rec., 1467 yards, 11 TDs)

Bob McChesney
Boston 1936; Washington 1937-42; Military 1943-45
(59 rec., 679 yards, 7 TDs)

Dick Plasman
Chicago Bears 1937-41, 1944; Military 1942-44; Chicago Cards 1946-47
(56 rec., 1083 yards, 7 TDs)

Jim Poole
New York Giants 1937-41; 1945-46; Military 1942-44; Chicago Cards 1945
(65 rec., 895 yards, 13 TDs)

Perry Schwartz
Brooklyn 1938-42; Military 1943-45; NY Yankees AAFC 1946
(105 rec., 1696 yards, 10 TDs)

Gaynell Tinsley
Chicago Cards 1937-38, 1940
(93 rec., 1356 yards, 7 TDs)

George Wilson
Chicago Bears 1937-46
(111 rec., 1342 yards, 15 TDs)

 

Ed Sprinkle

This article was written by Bob Carroll and was originally published in The Coffin Corner in 1990. The Coffin Corner is the official magazine of the Professional Football Researchers Association. Visit PFRA’s website to learn how to become a member today!

Ed Sprinkle, outstanding Chicago Bears defensive end, helped call attention to NFL defensive players during his 12-year career with his no-holds-barred play. Although characterized as “The Meanest Man in Football” in one national magazine article, the controversial Sprinkle was also termed a “fine gentleman” by teammates. In the 1950s, Bears coach George Halas said he was “the greatest pass-rusher I’ve ever seen” and “a rough, tough ballplayer, but not a dirty one.”

The son of a Texas farmer, Sprinkle won three letters in football and two in basketball and was All-Border Conference while at Hardin-Simmons in the early 1940s. While attending the U.S. Naval Academy, he was all-Eastern in 1943.

Star Chicago center Bulldog Turner recommended him to the Bears, and he joined the team as a 188-pound guard in 1944. By 1946, his 6’1″ frame had filled out to 206 pounds and he was moved to end. At first, he played both defense and offense — he caught 32 passes for 451 yards and seven touchdowns during his career — but his ability to rush opponents’ passers soon made him a defensive specialist.

Sprinkle was probably the first player to achieve fame for his pass-rushing ability. During his dozen seasons with the Bears, all NFL teams switched to the T-formation, and a strong pass rush was essential to defend against the improved air attacks. Sprinkle became a feared blitzer because he was determined, extremely quick off the snap, and because, as a left-handed right end, he could handle most blockers with his stronger arm.

However, his notoriety also stemmed from his allegedly “dirty” play. He was accused of using his strong left arm in ways not sanctioned by the rules, of often delivering his best “shots” after the whistle had blown, and of occasionally using his cleats on opponents as though they were part of the turf. On the other hand, he was never suspended and was fined only a few times.

In 1987 he told an interviewer: “I think the article was a bum rap. I was about as aggressive as any football player that walked the field. If I had an opportunity to hit someone I hit them. I had a reputation with my teammates and [George] Halas as being the roughest player the Bears ever had. That doesn’t make me mean or dirty.”

“Every game I played was tough physically because I got hit so much.”

“We were meaner in the 1950s because there were fewer positions and we fought harder for them. It was a different era.”

“Once in a while there would be an isolated case where someone would pull a dirty stunt. But a guy wouldn’t have lasted very long if he were an out-and-out dirty player. The others would take care of him. They would call a play and try to bury him with six or eight guys, or hit him from the blind side. There were so many ways you could do it.”

Sprinkle was selected to play in four Pro Bowls, and named to several all-NFL teams, although the practice of naming offensive and defensive teams was not established until late in his career and such honors for ends usually went to pass catchers.

Following his pro career, Sprinkle entered business in the Chicago area.

 

ED SPRINKLE
Defensive End, Offensive End, Guard
Born: September 3, 1923, Tuscolo, TX
Height: 6'1"   Weight: 207
Colleges: Hardin-Simmons, U.S. Naval Academy
                         PASS RECEIVING
   YEAR  TEAM            LG     GM       NO   YDS    AVG   TD
   ----  -------------   --     --       --   ---   ----   --
   1944  Chicago Bears    N      9        -     -      -    -
   1945  Chicago Bears    N      6        -     -      -    -
   1946  Chicago Bears    N     11        7   124   17.7    2
   1947  Chicago Bears    N     12        4    43   10.8    0
   1948  Chicago Bears    N     10       10   132   13.2    3
   1949  Chicago Bears    N     12        4    69   17.3    0
   1950  Chicago Bears    N     12        4    70   17.5    0
   1951  Chicago Bears    N     12        2    11    5.5    1
   1952  Chicago Bears    N     12        1     2    2.0    1
   1953  Chicago Bears    N     12        -     -      -    -
   1954  Chicago Bears    N     12        -     -      -    -
   1955  Chicago Bears    N     12        -     -      -    -
                               ---       --   ---   ----   --
   12 Years                    132       32   451   14.1    7

 

NFL HONORS
1949  All-NFL 1st Team INS-defense; 2nd Team UP, NY News
1950  All-NFL 1st Team NY News-defense.  Pro Bowl
1951  All-NFL 2nd Team UP, NY News-defense.  Pro Bowl
1952  Pro Bowl
1954  Pro Bowl

 

Tony Latone: The Hero of Pottsville

This article was written by Joe Zagorski and was originally published in The Coffin Corner in 1987. The Coffin Corner is the official magazine of the Professional Football Researchers Association. Visit PFRA’s website to learn how to become a member today!

He came out of the coal mines to play pro football – a shy but rugged individual whose actions did his talking for him. He was a true-to-life hero in a town where heroism meant making it through a 12-hour work day in the mines. His name was Tony Latone.

During the 1920′s, Latone played for the Pottsville Maroons of the National Football League, competing against athletes who’d earned glittering reputations on college gridirons. Although he never attended college, Tony was considered one of the league’s top players.

Remembering the balding, Lithuanian-Italian fullback, the late George Halas claimed: “If Latone had gone to college and played college ball, he would certainly have been one of the greatest pro players of all time.”

In the Anthracite Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, mining provided rugged men in places like Pottsville, Frackville, and Shenandoah with a way to make a living. Pro football provided early century coal miners with a brief respite from their hard lives.

Like most of the men, Latone entered the mines not because he wanted to but because he had to. His father died when Tony was 11-years-old, leaving the Latone family without a breadwinner. Tony went to work in the mines immediately after his father’s death. The cold, the stench, and the pain crushed many; in Tony’s case it turned him into a strong man.

“That’s how Tony got his strength,” said Russ Zacko, the son of the Maroons’ number one fan and the one who supplied the uniforms that gave the team its name. “He was a slaypicker in the mines, and let me tell you, that was one tough job. He developed his legs by pushing locies (shuttle cars) up a slope.”

Latone’s matchless leg-driving power was best exhibited on the football field as a run-blocker. From the old single wing formation, Latone moved defensive linemen and opened holes for Maroon teammates like Carl Beck and Walter French. Pro football games in the rugged coal region were won with brute force.

While the hard-hitting Latone excelled in the physical aspects of the gridiron, he was not known for his cerebral accomplishments.

“Tony wasn’t too bright,” said Zacko. “He only had a fifth-grade education. There was always talk going on about Tony’s not being too smart.”

One story came about because Tony was always paid in cash, a common occurrence for oro players of the day.

“One day,” remembers Zacko, “several players found some money on the bench. They asked Tony, and he said it was his. `What are you doing, Tony?’ one of the players asked. `Why don’t you get yourself a checking account?’”

“Tony didn’t understand how a checking account worked and didn’t want to get one. But because the other players kept bugging him about it, he eventually gave in and got one.”

“A week later, the players found his checkbook lying on the bench, and every check in the book was signed. Tony had signed each and every check. He’d go into a place and ask the clerk, ‘What do I owe you?’ Then he would fill in the amount on the check because his name was already on it.”

On a typical autumn Sunday, more than just Latone’s name was on the minds of his opponents. Few thought the 5-11, 190-pounder lacked any ‘smarts’ on a football field. Forearm shivers, crunching blocks, and those hard-driving legs made him famous in Schuylkill County while the Maroons were still an independent team.

In 1925, the Maroons joined the NFL. Tony contributed eight touchdowns to a memorable season in which the powerful Pottsville attack led the league with 270 points. When the Maroons defeated the Chicago Cardinals in December, they believed they’d won the NFL championship.

On December 12, Latone and his teammates faced the Notre Dame All-Stars, a squad made up of former Fighting Irish luminaries including the Four Horsemen: Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden. A sparse crowd of 8,000 turned out at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.

“We always felt,” said Stuhldreher later, “that Latone was just about as rugged a football player as anyone would want to see, and on that day, Tony turned out to be a one-man gang.”

Tony was the driving force behind the Maroon attack. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Maroons trailing 7-6, his plunges brought several first downs in Pottsville’s “game drive.” Charlie Berry’s field goal gave the Maroons a 9-7 win.

The “Notre Dame Game” was played against league wishes in the territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, resulting in a suspension for the Maroons, one that cost them the championship. But despite the controversy that surfaced, the victory was perhaps the proudest moment in Maroon football history. Latone continued with the Maroons through 1928, then went with the franchise to Boston in 1929. His last NFL season was with Providence in 1930.

Many years later, at a banquet in Williamsport, Pa., Red Grange had these words to say about Latone:

“Tony was one hell broth of a rugged coal miner, and for my money, he was the most football player I have ever seen. I simply cannot imagine anyone who could equal that power-play fullback whose leg drive was so unbelievably potent he simply knocked the linemen kicking.”

Following his playing days, Latone moved to Michigan and went into business with former Maroon teammate Frank Bucher. For many years, he’d sit in the stands at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, watching a modern brand of football and no doubt recalling the glory days when he was the one carrying the pigskin.

Walter Farquhar, the dean of Pottsville sportswriters, summed up Latone’s career: “Because he was a non-collegian and because pro ball was then young and primitively guided, the greater part of the football world will always be ignorant of his true worth.”

Pottsville certainly wasn’t.

                      RUSHING (Unofficial)
                    ----COMPLETE GAMES----   INCOMPLETE GM
                     CG  ATT  YDS  AVG  TD   IG  AT YDS TD
------------------   --  ---  ---  ---  --   --  -- --- --
1925 Pottsville  N   11  138  540  3.9   5    1  12  53  2
1926 Pottsville  N   12  144  578  4.0   4    -   -   -  -
1927 Pottsville  N   12  136  407  3.0   0    -   -   -  -
1928 Pottsville  N    9  164  482  2.9   2    1   2   8  1
1929 Boston      N    2   41  132  3.2   2    6  40 165  7
1930 Providence  N    3   46  223  4.8   2    8  21  60  1
                     --  ---  ---  ---  --   --  -- --- --
6 years              49  669 2362  3.5  15   16  75 286 11