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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

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 in 1925.

Hell will sooner sprout icicles.


Most of the events of this story happened in 1925, but to set the scene ....

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 nickname.

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 Pennsylvania judge.

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.


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 "synthetic champion."

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.


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 obvious wrong?

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 smoldered always.

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 meeting.

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 today.

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 fine.

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!


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 -- Thanksgiving Day.

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.


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