History has a way of forgetting things if people don’t remain vigilant. On a Monday Night Football game in the 2004 season Al Michaels and John Madden were shown a caption depicting the three teams in NFL history to have given up the most safeties in a season. Top of the list was the Pottsville Maroons. At that point neither Madden nor Michaels had the slightest idea who the Maroons were – and neither did most of the football world – but by the end of the broadcast, they had managed to show a map of the US labelling Pottsville, and to run off a little bit of information about the former juggernaut team of the 20s. Within an hour of the game, the pottsvillemaroons.com website had collapsed due to the volume of traffic it received.
Now the story of the Pottsville Maroons and their stolen 1925 Championship is known by more people, but still not enough, so here’s a little refresher course.
As far as most football fans are concerned, the only things to have come out of the 1920s NFL were Red Grange, George Halas, and the Green Bay Packers, everything else just gets lost in a blur of black and white grainy video and odd looking footage. That decade left the NFL so much more however, but now the NFL has forgotten its pioneers. Not just men who endured pain unimaginable to players today, men who were treated for any injury with fingers of whiskey, who were fighting just to stay out of the death sentence that was the coal mines in the 1920s, but also teams and accomplishments that made the NFL what it is today.
The Pottsville Maroons are a forgotten icon, a team from the anthracite leagues that took on the NFL and won, and in doing so became the most dominant team ever assembled. After blitzing the NFL, the Maroons took on the invincible Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and a College All Star team, and emerged victorious, giving the NFL legitimacy that it had never had before. This is a team that earned the right to be remembered, and recognised for what it achieved.
So why did such a great team, one that the Galloping Ghost himself deemed the greatest the game had ever known, pass into football obscurity?
They got screwed, that’s how.
In 1925, the Maroons entered the NFL on the back of a 1924 season spent dominating the Anthracite League, and with a roster full of new talent. They began to dominate the NFL in the same way, annihilating their first 7 opponents by a combined score of 179-6, eventually compiling a 10-2 record by the season’s end, including a 21-7 victory over the Chicago Cardinals, in what was viewed as the Championship game. Fresh from their success, they challenged the legendary Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, and won. In that era the professional game was seen as the poor little sibling to college football, and most experts believed that the professional players that could beat Notre Dame had not yet been born.
Pottsville was then suspended and stripped of its NFL Championship for violating the territory of another team during the Notre Dame game.
The game against the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, and their assembled college all-star side was termed the ‘Greatest Football Game Ever Seen’, and the victory gave the NFL a respect and legitimacy that it was never able to achieve before the Maroons came along. The professional game had long been seen as an exercise in ‘paid punting’, and it wasn’t until the Maroons showed up in 1925 with an expansive, balanced, offense that people really began to pay any attention to it. The Maroons had dashed the idea that the college game was superior to the pros, pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sporting history, and started the NFL on its journey to become America’s game. And how did the league repay them? By suspending them and taking away their title. “They won the championship in 1925 but were robbed of the honour by some misguided judgement,” said Red Grange years later.
The Pottsville Maroons weren’t just dominant in 1925, they were innovators too. They were the first team to insist that players lived in the town during the season, so that they could attend regular practices, and so could develop a bigger and more diverse playbook. While the Maroons were doing this, the rest of the league’s players would travel for miles to meet up with their teams on game day and just ad-lib things as they went. They were also one of the first teams to fully exploit the forward pass, as well as the first to develop what we now know as the screen pass. While the rest of the league was executing the same line plunge every play, the Maroons were attacking people through the air, and racking up the scores. In 1925 alone the Maroons outscored their opponents by a combined figure of 333-52. In their 12 games in the 1925 NFL season, the Maroons only conceded points in 6 of them, and only conceded more than 7 points on just 1 occasion, their loss to Frankford, which they later avenged with a 49-0 trampling. By the start of week 5, the Maroons had yet to allow a single rushing first down!
This wasn’t just a good team, this was a team known as “the perfect football machine”.
There was no Super Bowl back in the 1920s, or even a playoff structure. Rather the NFL Champions came from essentially league play. When the Maroons crushed the Chicago Cardinals 21-6 late in the season, the national press hailed the Maroons as Champions, as did the town of Pottsville itself. As far as everybody was concerned, the NFL Championship had been decided in emphatic fashion by the Maroons victory. When the Maroons took on the Four Horsemen though their bitter local rivals, the Frankfort Yellowjackets, saw a chance to screw over Pottsville. They complained to the NFL commissioner, Joe Carr, that the game had violated their territory. Joe Carr himself was not a fan of the Maroons, having had previous altercations with their owner, Doc Striegel, and upheld the complaint. This all happened before the game itself, but Striegel had received permission from acting commissioner Jerry Corcoran via telephone before signing the contract to play the Four Horsemen, and so refused to back out of the game, and the check that would keep the team solvent.
Since he had received permission when he signed the contract, Striegel wanted the NFL to guarantee his cut of the contract if he pulled out, and when that guarantee wasn’t forthcoming, he decided to play the game. The NFL was never able to provide written evidence of the rule that the Maroons supposedly broke, and if the guilt was debatable, the punishment itself was disproportionate and draconian.
When the New England Patriots were found guilty of breaking an NFL rule in the Spygate saga – and gaining a competitive advantage by doing so – they were fined, and docked a draft pick. The Maroons were found guilty of simply playing a game in another team’s territory – a game that actually brought national publicity to the struggling league, catapulting their national profile ahead – and they were suspended as a franchise and stripped of their Championship.
Not only that, but in order to demote them in the league standings, it was arranged for the Chicago Cardinals to play 2 quick games against disbanded teams before the official end of the NFL season. The league actually went out of its way to rig the end of the season just to shaft the team and ensure they wouldn’t win the league they just dominated.
So hastily arranged were these games, that the two teams were unable to field full sides, let alone full-strength sides, and actually resorted to fielding High School kids – also against the NFL rules. When that news broke, the offending parties were all issued fines, and one of the games being stricken from the record, but nobody was banished from the league and no iron fist came slamming down. The Cardinals and Maroons finished the season tied in record, but because the Maroons had been suspended from the league, they were not eligible to be named Champion. Thus the same Chicago Cardinals that had only weeks ago been trounced by the Maroons, were given the title of NFL Champions.
Such was the injustice of the chain of events, the Chicago Cardinals to their credit refused to accept the Championship, saying that they could not accept a title that had not been won fairly on the field of play. John ‘Blood’ McNally, legendary Packers player and Hall of Famer, agreed with the stance saying “Championships are won on the field and Pottsville won it there in 1925. The Cardinals were defeated in an honest contest by Pottsville and should not claim a championship they did not win. I support the Maroons as the true champs of 1925.” After the fact, even commissioner Carr softened his stance on the issue, realising that the punishment for the Maroons for playing an exhibition game that brought great publicity to the league should not outweigh the punishment the Cardinals received for manipulating the standings by playing games against High School kids. Since the Cardinals would not accept the 1925 Championship, it was never officially awarded to anybody, and has remained removed from its true home of Pottsville for over 80 years. When the Cardinals were bought by Charles Bidwell in 1933, he claimed ownership of the stolen championship, kicking off what many claim to be a curse on the franchise ever since.
The NFL in 1925 was a league struggling just to maintain a foothold on the cliff, and as such it came down on the Maroons far too harshly, trying to maintain its authority, and crack down on teams that were harming the league. It is now almost 90 years later, and everybody can see this for what it is – bullshit – yet nobody will admit their mistake, and restore the 1925 Championship to the town that earned it on the field, and assembled one of the greatest teams ever to step on the gridiron. The NFL last addressed the issue as recently as 2003, but the league voted 30-2 to let sleeping dogs lie and maintain the injustice as long as it remained buried in the past. The smallest town in the NFL at the time won a league championship in their first year of trying, and were robbed by politics. Even if the NFL will never recognise the Pottsville Maroons as the 1925 champions, I think it’s worth tipping our hats to the 1925 NFL Champions, and a team of revolutionary pioneers that deserve rememberence.
For more on the Pottsville Maroons check out David Fleming’s book here !