Early NFL rival pushed envelope -- but to Halas

November 21, 1999|By John Steadman

It's not exactly the same as finding buried treasure, but some of the city's early football past has been discovered in a Baltimore basement. The correspondence describes how efforts were made to start a rival to the National Football League in 1935.

The most surprising twist to the episode is that a man writing a scripted outline from Cincinnati, intended for a Baltimore recipient, somehow sent the letter to the upstart league's foremost rival, George Halas, owner, general manager and coach of the Chicago Bears.

So Halas had knowledge of the full game plan before the new league even inflated the football. What was intended to be a secret transaction was embarrassingly sent to Halas, the most influential of NFL owners.

Confidential talks had been ensuing among cities interested in forming the new league. The creation, comprising Baltimore, Buffalo, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Rochester and Kansas City, would be called the American League.

The would-be owner of the Cincinnati franchise, Dana King, wrote one letter to interested parties in Baltimore, detailing the new league's game plan. At the same time, he was writing a letter to Halas on a different topic. But he put the letters in the wrong envelopes, so the message intended for Baltimore instead went to Chicago and the grand plan was exposed -- not to the country at large but certainly to Halas, ostensibly the leader of the opposition.

The man who mixed up the envelopes learned of the blunder when the Baltimore associate wrote to tell him he had mistakenly received a letter that was addressed to Halas. But the more important message, direct from Cincinnati, never got to Baltimore. It was not intercepted by Halas but merely hand-delivered by the post office.

Finding the historic link to the past was the work of Jonathan Hollands, a Marine for seven years but now a salesman for the Ricoh Corp., who, as a military historian, was searching for some war-era magazines in the basement of his fiancee's house.

Louise Reilly is the great-granddaughter of Dr. Francis King, a Baltimore dentist who died in 1939, but not before attempting to whet Baltimore's taste for pro football.

Dr. King had scheduled an exhibition game between the semipro Washington Federals and the Bears at Oriole Park in 1935, only two days after they had played the Eagles in Philadelphia. The Bears received a $2,000 guarantee and the Federals $600.

The profit for Dr. King, by the time he paid off his expenses and worked endless hours putting the details together -- including buying a football for $8 -- was the grand total of $99.08, a woeful disappointment. The Baltimore News-Post helped with the promotion and got $27.66 to add to its Christmas fund to help the poor.

Halas, in his own handwriting, requested Dr. King put him in touch with Baltimore hotels so he could arrange the overnight trip. "There are about 30 in our party and the usual rates we receive are $1.25 per person for two men to a room with twin beds and a bath," was his specific need.

In the Bears' lineup were such future Hall of Famers as Bronko Nagurski, Bill Hewitt, George Musso, the coach himself and such other prominent players as Keith Molesworth, coach of the Colts in 1953; Gene Ronzani, "Automatic Jack" Manders, Luke Johnsos, Bernie Masterson, Ray Richards and Beattie Feathers.

Halas himself, virtually a one-man band in what was a formative era of the NFL, personally sent the roster list and jersey numbers to William Baskerville, editor and then publisher of the News-Post. Another example of the extremes Halas would go to help the NFL cause.

The exhibition drew an estimated 3,000 spectators and a gross gate of $3,463. Dr. King was a remarkable accountant and presented an impeccable record of monies spent -- including the $8 for the all-white football (remember, it was a night game) that the Bears and Federals were to use. It cost $175 to rent the park, $100 for game officials and 1 percent of the gate receipts, $34.63, which had to be paid the NFL. Other expenditures were four water buckets, costing 92 cents, and tickets printed at a cost of $51.46.

Despite the fact that the event never threatened to be a sellout, Dr. King went on with his work to try to get Baltimore into a new league that was forming on a confidential basis. Little did anyone realize that the owner of the Cincinnati club was going to become confused and send the wrong letter to Halas, giving him the league's entire game plan.

There wasn't much money in pro football in the mid-1930s and the league scraped to make ends meet. Dr. King, unfortunately, never saw any of his dreams come true, but the organizational venture continued on.

After Dr. King's death, Alexander Randall, with offices in the Court Square Building, took over quarterbacking the Baltimore effort. But with war clouds all over Europe and men being called for military duty, the hoped-for league decided to shut down its plans.

This put Baltimore's adventure on hold, although James J. Lacy Sr., owner of the Lacy foundry, was on record as a franchise applicant.

But nothing evolved, considering the wartime mood of the country and how the NFL was fighting to keep from going under.

It remained this way until 1947, when Bob Rodenberg, the father of football in Baltimore, breathed life into an All-America Football Conference franchise that had become defunct in Miami. He called the new team the Colts.

Jonathan Hollands, by finding the documents, provided another chapter in the Baltimore football escapade that at the time read more the part of fiction -- except it's true.

It all began with the well-intentioned Dr. King endeavoring to bring a team to Baltimore. His letters are his football legacy.

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