Wrigley Field, Chicago, December 1937. A fight breaks out in the NFL Championship Game between the Bears and the Redskins. George Preston Marshall, Redskins owner, takes to the field – not to help break up the fight but to join in. He ends up face-to-face with George Halas, who owns the Bears, and the pair almost come to blows. Here’s how John Eisenberg finishes the story:
When tempers finally cooled, Marshall returned to his box. His wife was livid. “That man Halas is positively revolting!” Corinne Griffith sputtered.
Marshall roared back at her, actually shaking a finger under her nose. “Don’t you dare say anything against Halas! He’s my best friend!”
As well as being a brilliant moment of comedy, the story helps explain a significant factor in the NFL’s eventual success. The owners of the clubs that made up the struggling league were vicious competitors on the field but staunch allies off it. It’s a theme that runs through Eisenberg’s book, The League, which examines the early decades of the NFL through the careers of five key figures who helped to shape it.
Further reading: John Eisenberg interview
The five include Halas and Marshall, plus Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants, Art Rooney, owner of the Steelers, and Bert Bell, co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and later NFL commissioner. From today’s perspective, it’s easy to believe that the NFL’s success was inevitable but success was by no means certain. In fact, the league that is such a money-making juggernaut today was frequently on the brink of disaster in its early days.
Eisenberg, a longtime journalist and author, whose football titles include That First Season, about Vince Lombardi and the Packers, and Ten-Gallon War, about the Cowboys-Texans rivalry in the 1960s, shows how those five key figures formed a core that kept the NFL together during its first decades.
They kept putting money in, propping up their teams when fans weren’t coming and, in the case of Halas, even once giving his players IOUs when he couldn’t pay them. That stubbornness was critical. They didn’t just believe they had a product that fans would eventually want, they also simply loved their game.
But there was more to the league’s success. Eisenberg explains how the owners continually tweaked the rules to make the game more exciting. Once they stopped following the rules of the college game, the NFL began to differentiate itself and build a following in its own right.
In that sense, says Eisenberg, this is a business book as much as a sports book. But it also documents the league’s path through a succession of social factors that shaped mid-20th Century America. The Depression, for example, hit even the rich owners and made it harder for fans to afford tickets, while The Second World War saw many players join the armed forces, leaving the NFL struggling to field teams.
The League struggled with racism, too. Marshall was an unapologetic racist and even more enlightened owners, such as Rooney, tolerated a league that excluded black players between 1933 and 1946. The colour bar was broken only because the Rams, relocating from Cleveland to Los Angeles, wanted to lease the taxpayer-funded Memorial Coliseum and were only permitted to do so if they promised not to exclude black players.
The league’s racial tensions continue today, of course, but in different ways. In fact, many of the themes Eisenberg sets out are still present in today’s league. For example, he explains how the draft was instituted not only as a way to distribute talent but also to keep player wages down. A player’s rights were owned by the team that drafted him and he could either agree terms with them or not play football. It’s a position that is echoed in today’s NFL whenever a player holds out rather than sign a franchise tag.
The league’s control over players was threatened by the emergence of the AAFC, a rival pro league which was driving wages up by bidding against the NFL for players. It’s a theme that would emerge again, first with the AFL in the 1960s and later in the 1980s with the USFL. In 1949, the NFL owners negotiated a merger, bringing into the league the Cleveland Browns, whose coach, Paul Brown, would be a major force for innovation in pro football.
The Browns had dominated the AAFC but the NFL owners assumed they would struggle in the older league. They did not. The Browns contested the first six Championship Games after, winning three.
The League ends with the 1958 NFL Championship Game – widely viewed as the birth of the modern NFL – though the epilogue takes us forward to the final years of Eisenberg’s five key figures.
A good historian always finds the parallels with the modern day and that’s what Eisenberg does here. I started this book unsure about how interested I was in the lives of five early NFL team owners but I found myself captivated by these men, their actions and their decisions. Though it’s a book set mostly in meeting rooms, it’s certainly not dry. It’s full of extraordinary and often very funny stories – for example, Pirates coach Johnny Blood forgetting that his team has a game and going to watch the Bears instead.
Eisenberg has described The League as a prequel of sorts to America’s Game and it fulfills that role very well indeed.
Photo: Erik Drost