Popalis Family History
1925 Pottsville Maroons
"The Pottsville Maroons ... won the title then lost it, not on the field but by orders of league president Joe Carr."
--- The Encyclopedia of Football
"No team has ever been robbed of a championship quite like the Maroons."
--- Profiles in Pennsylvania Sports
"One of the greatest injustices in NFL history had been perpetrated."
--- Journal of Sports History
THE DISCARDED CHAMPIONSHIP
By Joe Horrigan, Bob Braunwart, & Bob Carroll
The National Football League isn't welcome in Pottsville,
Pennsylvania. Not unless it sends back that championship it stole from the
little coal city's beloved Maroons more than 60 years ago.
Pottsville is not completely alone in its outrage. Every couple of years
-- just when the rest of the football world is about to forget -- somebody
writes an article called "The Stolen Championship" or "The Tragedy of
Pottsville" or "The Anthracite Antic", and the whole story -- or rather,
Pottsville's version of it -- returns like those onions you had for lunch.
There hasn't been an NFL franchise in Pottsville since Hoover was
President, Prohibition was the law, and a kid reporter named John O'Hara
covered the Maroons for the local Journal.
But O'Hara, who achieved worldwide fame with Appointment in
Samarra, Butterfield 8, and a dozen other bestselling novels remained a
Maroons' fan all his life. Pottsville's population today is down about 20%
from the 25,000 of those days when the Maroons were as good as it got in
pro football. Only a few remain who actually saw the team in action, but later
generations know the story. And demand their championship pennant.
As an attraction for infrequent tourists, the pleasant little town on the
southern tip of the anthracite region boasts a 60-foot statue of Henry Clay.
But, unlike that great advocate of compromise, local football zealots still
hope that someday the NFL will blush with shame and surrender
unconditionally -- just up and admit it played Pottsville fast and loose back
Hell will sooner sprout icicles.
THE MAROONS JOIN THE NFL
Most of the events of this story happened in 1925, but to set the
Like most wide spots in the American road, Pottsville fielded a town
grid team before World War I, but when the boys came back from Over
There, some of them got serious about football. The local miners took pride
in their semi-pro team. They filled little Minersville Park for home games,
though newspaper stories of the day indicate they didn't always pay to get
in. The fence was equally easy to go over or under.
Miners in neighboring coal communities Shenandoah, Coaldale,
Gilberton, and Mount Carmel where they were also playing a stronger brand
of football, were just as proud of their grid teams and not reluctant to put
their money where their mouths were. Betting was an important element in
firing fan loyalty. Predictably, things escalated as teams began to load up
with imported professional talent.
The whole eastern Pennsylvania-New Jersey area underwent a pro
football explosion in the early 1920's, with particularly strong teams in
Philadelphia and Atlantic City. The quality of football was arguably on a par
with the midwest-centered NFL. Pottsville's team held its own against the
best of them.
In 1924, team manager Dr. J.G. Striegel decided to spruce up his
charges. He called Joseph Zacko, owner of a local sporting goods store,
and placed an order for 25 matching jerseys. "The color isn't important."
When Zacko delivered 25 maroon-colored jerseys, the team gained a
The Maroons also gained some NFL enmity when they signed several
NFL stars, including future Hall of Fame tackle Wilbur Henry, a clear
indication the coal region was paying major league salaries. Fielding a
powerful lineup, Pottsville rolled through a 12-1-1 season to win the
Anthracite League championship. The only loss came in the season finale
when they were upset, 10-7, by a touring NFL team.
NFL President Joe Carr was not pleased to see stars like Henry
deserting the league to play for an independent coal region team, but there
wasn't much he could do about it unless Pottsville joined the league. A suit
filed by Henry's former NFL team was thrown out on a technicality by a
Dr. Striegel believed his team equal to any in the world, and Carr
encouraged him to prove it in the NFL. At the league's August (1925)
meeting, Striegel paid a $500 application fee, posted a $1,200 guarantee,
and received a franchise for Pottsville in the National Football League.
Dr. Striegel, now owner as well as manager, set to work assembling
a strong squad for the Maroons' first NFL season.
He'd lost Henry and other "jumpers" back to other NFL teams, but he
signed the Stein brothers, Herb and Russ, to hold down center and one
tackle position. Both had been college All-Americas and continued their
excellent play through several pro seasons. Russ Hathaway, a huge veteran
and one of the best, lined up as the second tackle. Duke Osborn, who
excelled while using a baseball cap for a helmet, and Frank Racis, with no
college experience but lots of talent, took over the guard spots.
Joining holdovers Tony Latone and Barney Wentz in the backfield
were breakaway threat Hoot Flanagan, former Army great Walter French,
and a clever quarterback from Lafayette, Jack Ernst. Latone has been
compared with Nagurski as a plunger and the others all could fly. Ernst was
a feared passer.
Another former Army man, end Eddie Doyle was a fine player who,
during World War II, would become the first American killed in the landings
in North Africa.
Topping this collection of stars was Charlie Berry, possibly the best
athlete on the team. After a spectacular athletic career at Lafayette College,
he signed both pro baseball and pro football contracts. A catcher, he played
11 years of major league baseball and then spent 17 seasons as an
outstanding American League umpire. On the gridiron, his defensive work
would have made him a star, but he was even better known as a dangerous
pass receiver. Moreover, he ranked with the best placekickers in the land.
To coach his awesome collection of stars, Striegel signed Dick
Rauch, "one of the handsomest men I ever saw," according to O'Hara. More
to the point, Rauch had been an assistant to respected Dick Harlow at
Colgate University -- impressive credentials for an NFL coach in the '20s.
Most leaders around the league were little more than on-field captains.
Striegel insisted that all Maroons players must live in Pottsville during
the season -- it was common for players of the time to "job in" for weekend
games -- and this allowed Rauch to practice his team daily. Only a few other
NFL teams were able to do that.
All this talent cost money. Players were paid by the game, and
though modern players might leave tips as large as most 1925 salaries, the
money wasn't bad for those days. As Russ Hathaway pointed out many
years later: "I was getting $100 a game; the local miners didn't make that in
a month. I was doing pretty well!"
Dr. Striegel's payroll had bulged in 1924; in 1925 it exploded. He was
gambling that the Maroons' share for road games would make up for the
meager receipts even a sell-out at little Minersville Park would bring.
After a tune-up victory over a non-league foe, the Maroons
entertained Buffalo and blasted the Bisons, 28-0, for their first NFL victory.
Unaccountably, they went flat the following week and the Providence Steam
Roller, another team new to the NFL, topped them 6-0.
The Maroons righted themselves and for the next five Sundays were
unscored upon while showing an unstoppable offense. Included in the five
victories was a revenge, 34-0, win at Providence.
Just as Pottsville's miners were beginning to think about a
championship, the team was upset by the Frankford Yellow Jackets, 20-0.
Frankford was a Philadelphia suburb -- a mere 90 miles east of Pottsville --
and the Jackets played all home games on Saturdays because Pennsylvania
Blue Laws prohibited Sunday football in the City of Brotherly Love. This was
one of the reasons Pottsville had been granted an NFL franchise despite the
tiny capacity of Minersville Park. Most NFL teams at that time were in the
midwest, but a club's traveling expenses could be offset by playing back-to-back games at
Frankford on Saturday and Pottsville on Sunday.
The win over the Maroons put Frankford out front as the top NFL
eastern team. It also was the first step on the road to the "Stolen
Championship." Flushed with victory, the Jacket leaders signed a contract
with Frank Schumann, a Philadelphia promoter, wherein the leading eastern
team would play a group of former Notre Dame stars at Shibe Park in
December. In 1925, Notre Dame ranked second only to Red Grange as a
football attraction. Naturally, the Jackets assumed they would continue as
the eastern leader.
The day after losing at Frankford, Pottsville returned to friendly
Minersville Park and got back on track with a tough win against Rochester.
Two weeks later, after a couple more victories, the Maroons got their
revenge. They ambushed Frankford at Minersville and humiliated them, 49-0.
Suddenly -- rather shockingly -- the Maroons supplanted the Yellow
Jackets as tops in the east. Actually, many in Pottsville considered their
team, with its sparkling 9-2-0 record, the best in the world.
But, out in Chicago, Chris O'Brien's Cardinals (now the Arizona
Cardinals) were enjoying a rare good season. Led by their great triple-threat, halfback Paddy
Driscoll, the Cards stood at 9-1-1, leaving the
Maroons a half game behind in the NFL standings. It seemed a game
between the two would settle the 1925 championship.
O'Brien and Striegel scheduled the battle for Sunday, December 6,
at Chicago's Comiskey Park.
THE POTTSVILLE VERSION
It is at this point -- the week before and the week following the
Cardinals-Maroons game -- that the "Pottsville version" and the facts begin
to diverge. The differences are sometimes subtle and, for the most part,
based on an insufficient knowledge of the way things were in 1925.
Nevertheless, the sum total is to make the "Pottsville version" as leaky as a
two- dollar dinghy.
Here is how they tell the story in Pottsville:
The Cardinals-Maroons game was billed as "a post-season affair to
settle without question the championship of the pro league."
An 18-degree temperature and driving snow held down the crowd at
Comiskey Park where the Cards were favored. Perhaps everyone in
Chicago underrated the invading Maroons. Few Chicagoans could have
found Pottsville on a map -- or could have found any reason to.
After a scoreless opening quarter, the Maroons began to roll. Paddy
Driscoll punted from behind his own goal line, and Jack Ernst returned it for
Pottsville to the Cardinal five. Barney Wentz punched across a touchdown
in three brutal plunges. Berry's conversion made it 7-0, Pottsville.
The Cardinals started a drive of their own after the kickoff, but Herb
Stein intercepted a Redbird pass at Pottsville's 38. On the next play,
Maroon halfback Hoot Flanagan suffered a broken collarbone and was
replaced by Walter French. The former Army star reeled off matching 30-yard dashes, scoring on
the second one. Berry again kicked true.
The game was as good as over. Chicago managed a touchdown
before halftime, but Pottsville's crunching rushing attack controlled the
second half. French, despite having his nose broken late in the game, led
the way as the Maroons triumphed, 21-7, and thus -- Pottsville claimed --
won the NFL 1925 championship.
The Pottsville Republican gleefully stated, "Chicago newspapermen
say the `Maroons are the greatest football team they have seen.'"
One week later at Philadelphia's Shibe Park, the Maroons played
another post-season game. This time they represented the NFL east against
the Notre Dame All-Stars, a team made up of former Notre Dame players,
including Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Elmer Layden, the
famed "Four Horsemen" who had led the Irish to a national title and a Rose
Bowl victory the season before.
Layden scored a first half touchdown for the Notre Damers, and
Crowley added the extra point. In the third quarter, Tony Latone took a
touchdown pass from Ernst, but the conversion was missed. The Irish led,
7-6, as time ran down in what Pottsville loyalists insist should be regarded
as the first Professional vs. College All-Star game. Then, in the closing
seconds, Charlie Berry stepped back to the 30-yard line and placekicked a
perfect field goal to give the Maroons a 9-7 win. From the Pottsville point of
view, their boys had beaten the best of the pro football and the best of
college football on consecutive weekends.
But, the victory at Shibe Park was pyrric, at best.
Shibe Park was located within the "market" (to use the current term)
of the Frankford Yellow Jackets. According to Pottsville, the Jackets -- who'd
entered the NFL in 1924 -- were bitter rivals of the Maroons. The teams had
been staging no-holds-barred battles since before either joined the league.
Therefore, Frankford officials maliciously protested the game as a violation
of their territorial rights.
Although the protest came both after the official end of the season
and after the game with the Notre Dame stars had been played, league
president Carr spitefully upheld Frankford and ordered the Maroons stripped
of their championship. Most dastardly of all, this came after the league had
given verbal permission to the Maroons to go ahead with the game!
In order to "fix up" the official standings, Carr ordered Chris O'Brien's
Chicago Cardinals to play two extra games against teams that had already
disbanded for the year. This was hurriedly done. The Cards, naturally, won
both games easily to go a half game ahead in the standings and finish as the
On Wednesday evening, December 16, 1925 -- four days after the
victory over the Notre Dame All-Stars -- 300 loyal Maroons fans gathered at
Pottsville's Necho Allen Hotel to declare their football team champions of the
world and brood about the chicanery of the NFL. Joe Zacko presented each
player with a tiny gold football, engraved with an assertion of the
championship the league denied them.
A PETITION REJECTED
Although shorn of most of its outrage, that is the story as told by
Pottsville for more than 60 years. If consistency is a virtue, the little town
belongs with the saints. However, "consistency" and "accuracy" are two very
different words ending in "y." The Pottsville version also ends with a "why."
After all these years, WHY has the NFL refused to right such an apparently
It certainly wasn't because Pottsville suffered in silence.
Walter S. Farquhar, longtime sports editor of the Pottsville Republican
and patron saint of the "Pottsville version," repeated the story annually on
his newspaper's pages for nearly three decades. Outside writers, looking for
a little controversy to spice up a column, never found a lack of quotable, irate
witnesses in Pottsville. The town's discontent blazed intermittently, but it
In 1962, some 37 years after the event, the Pottsville story again
gained national attention when former Maroon fans made their most
determined assault on the NFL.
Dick McCann, the first director of the new Pro Football Hall of Fame
in Canton, Ohio, was searching for significant football artifacts when he ran
into Joe Zacko, still owner of Zacko's Sporting Goods, the original outfitter
of the Maroons team. For years Zacko had been carrying the torch for his
old gridiron heroes, and telling his story to anyone with time enough to hear
it. He found McCann an eager listener, especially after he presented the
director with some Pottsville football mementos. Encouraged by McCann,
a committee, chaired by Zacko, requested and was granted an opportunity
to present the Pottsville case to the NFL owners at their January 1963
In a letter to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, the committee stated,
"On behalf of the citizens of Schuylkill County, we kindly request your
consideration for action on the part of the National Football League to
correct the 1925 championship records." The committee's petition further
stated that the "erroneous action" taken by the league was the result of an
invalid protest filed by the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Three reasons for
invalidity were given:
1. The Pottsville Maroons had verbal permission from Joseph Carr,
President of the NFL, who later refused to confirm this
authorization although several men offer testimony to this fact
2. The game was played after the close of the NFL season and
under the rules of the period it is certainly questionable that NFL
jurisdiction should have extended beyond the playing date,
December 6, 1925.
3. Since the game with Notre Dame was an exhibition event, it
certainly could not affect the league standing and, if a penalty
were required, it should not have been greater than a monetary
As an added incentive toward justice, the Pottsville contingent
dangled a choice item of memorabilia before the NFL -- the very shoe with
which Charlie Berry kicked the winning field goal against the Notre Dame
stars. In effect, no championship -- no shoe.
The Pottsville petition was referred to a three-man committee,
consisting of Jack Mara of the New York Giants, Art Rooney of the
Pittsburgh Steelers, and Frank McNamee of the Philadelphia Eagles, for
further study. Four months later at the May league meeting, the committee
made its report. After listening to the findings and recommendations, the
league owners voted 12-2 in favor of leaving the standings as they were.
How could the NFL be so heartless!
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME THAT WASN'T
To understand what really happened in 1925, you must know a little
more about the time than what Pottsville tells. Additionally, you must keep
the chronology of events carefully in mind. Let's start with November 26 --
On that snowy Thursday, Harold "Red" Grange turned pro, and
everything in professional football went slightly askew. He joined the
Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field for their battle with the Cardinals. Paddy
Driscoll's magnificent punting kept the redhead at bay all afternoon, and the
game ended in a scoreless tie, the deadlock that kept the Cards a half game
ahead of Pottsville in the standings at the time.
The most significant aspect of Grange's debut was that more than
36,000 people -- the largest crowd ever to witness a pro football game up to
that time -- braved the snow to see Grange in action. Although the Bears
made out like bandits, Cardinal Boss Chris O'Brien, who was losing money
with a better team, had opted before the game for the standard guarantee,
$1,200, instead of a share of the gate.
On Sunday, November 29, while Pottsville pummeled Frankford at
Minersville, the league-leading Cardinals edged Rock Island, 7- 0, before a
meager crowd. Meanwhile, a full 20,000 turned out to see Grange lead the
also-ran Bears over the so-so Columbus Tigers. Clearly, the name of the
game had changed. For the time being, championships could take a back
seat while everyone scrambled to get rich by playing the Fabulous Redhead.
December arrived and Grange departed Chicago with the Bears to
play seven road games in less than two weeks. During that time, his box
office magic would be unavailable to Chris O'Brien. The Cardinal owner
settled for the next-best choice and scheduled the Maroons for the first
Sunday of the month.
No doubt prompted by O'Brien, Chicago papers began hyperbolizing
the upcoming clash. The Tribune observed: "The game is assuming
proportions of a pro football world series." The next day it reported: "The
fans appear to have warmed to the spectacle of the two strongest pro teams
in the league battling for the title and the sale of seats at Spalding's 211
South State street yesterday was heavy." On December 5, the Trib
explained the significance of the game: "Manager O'Brien scheduled the
game as a post-season affair to settle without question the championship of
the pro league. The Cardinals could hang up their moleskins and quit as
champions, but Driscoll's men refuse to quit until they have had a chance at
the eastern champions."
The only problem with all this tub-thumping was that the game was for
the league LEADERSHIP rather than for the championship because it was
not a "post-season" game at all. As a matter of fact, the season had two
more weeks to go AFTER the Cards and Maroons met! This is possibly the
most important misunderstanding in Pottsville's version of the story.
To explain the mix-up which confused Pottsville, the Chicago Tribune,
and, perhaps at the time, even Chris O'Brien, we must take a quick tour
through the league's first five years. In both 1920 and 1921 (when the
league was called the American Professional Football Association), the
championship races ended in dispute, partly because of disagreement as to
what games to count and partly because no firm decision had been reached
as to when to stop playing. With the championship based on win-loss
percentage (there was no championship playoff scheduled until 1933), in
theory, a team could play right on through April, racking up wins until its
percentage topped its fellows. In 1922 and 1923, the Canton Bulldogs went
undefeated, thus avoiding any controversy. However, the NFL could not
expect an all-winning champion every year, and before the 1924 season
began, the owners decided the season should end on November 30 with the
team owning the best percentage at that time considered the champion. All
games played after that date were to be considered exhibitions.
Ironically, the proposal for this cutoff date was made by Chicago
Bears co-owner Dutch Sternaman, and a week into December the Bears
defeated the Cleveland Bulldogs, the team with the top percentage on
November 30. The Bears began calling themselves champions.
Nevertheless, at the league's January 1925 meeting, President Joe Carr,
backed by most of the league owners but bucking the powerful influence of
George Halas, ruled that the NFL had to follow its own rules. Cleveland was
declared the champion.
At this same meeting, a more realistic end date was agreed upon for
the 1925 season -- December 20.
At the August meeting -- the one at which Pottsville joined the league
-- a schedule of games was okayed. Most pro football histories indicate hit-or-miss scheduling in
the NFL's early years, but that is not precisely true.
By 1925, the league was able to put together a complete schedule up to a
point and publish it before the season began. But, and this no doubt added
to the confusion, the final listed games were on December 6. The idea was
that, by that date, all of the league's teams would fulfill their obligation to
play a required number of games (eight games against eight different clubs).
The poor draws that stood to lose their jerseys if they continued to play
among December's snowflakes could pack it in for the year. Those teams
that might still make money could schedule each other through December
20. The Cardinals-Maroons game, which was not on the original schedule,
was just such a game.
To help fans cope with this open-ended schedule, teams that
expected to take advantage of it sometimes published a note in their home
game programs similar to the one found in the Detroit Panther's program of
November 11: "All games played up to and including December 20 will count
in the League standings."
And that is the essential point. When the Maroons defeated the
Cardinals on December 6 and newspapers around the country rushed to
declare Pottsville the NFL Champions, they were a bit premature. The
Maroons had merely taken over the league lead. The season still had two
weeks to go. Anything could happen.
It nearly did.
Before those two critical weeks were over, events took place that
would cause one NFL team to be fined, one to be suspended, an owner to
be forced to sell his team, a player to be barred for life, and a controversy
begun that would last more than 60 years.
THE DISCARDED CHAMPIONSHIP - PART II
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