Pro Football Its Ups and Downs

Several efforts to publicize professional football were launched in the 1930s – Joe Carr, President of the NFL, had made arrangements for publication of both a “National League Football Guide and Rule Book” and a “Who’s Who in Major League Football” magazine in 1935. But the year before Dr. Harry March of the New York Giants published “Pro Football Its Ups and Downs, a “Light-hearted History of the Post-Graduate Game.” Doc March had put together the meeting between Carr and Tim Mara that resulted in the New York Giants NFL franchise being established in New York in 1925. He served as Secretary to the Giants from 1925 – 1928, and as President until 1933. Certain facts in the book have been proven wrong, but it stands as the first attempt to tell the story of professional football and contains many wonderful early team photographs. Also, from a collector’s point of view, many copies have great autographs – either they were owned by players and management or given as gifts.

Here’s an ad for the book on a page of a 1934 Giants game program.

This is a letter from March to Lud Wray with March’s view on how the sales of the book are going on book letterhead

An inscription from Mel Hein to John Kieran, sportswriter for the New York Times

This copy is inscribed by Joe Carr to Dr. J. B. Eckstrom, former coach of Ohio State

Here’s one inscribed to my father.

This copy was signed by almost the entire Detroit Lions team

Another copy was owned by William Alfs, President of the Detroit Lions

This copy was owned by NFL player Harvey Levy, who corrected the spelling of his name in the text

And this copy was boldly inscribed by Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers

From page 133 of the book – Dr. March on the right as Tim Mara presents Mayor James Walker with a check for the proceeds of a game between the Giants and the Notre Dame All Stars in December 1930 to benefit the Mayor’s Unemployment Fund

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The 1926 NFL Championship

Before 1933, the NFL championship was determined by the best winning percentage of league games. This created some problems in prior years when schedules were not set in stone and games could be added at the end of the season. In 1925 the Chicago Cardinals added a few games against a Milwaukee Badgers team that was so weak they had to recruit high school players to finish the season – that and the suspension of the Pottsville Maroons for playing an exhibition game in Philadelphia made for a very controversial championship. In 1926 there was no major controversy and the championship was won by the Frankford Yellow Jackets. This was my father’s rookie year, and he was the leading scorer for the team before being sidelined for a few games with an injury.

Coming into December, Frankford had was 12 – 1 -1 and the Chicago Bears were 11 – 0 – 1 so the December 4 games between these two league leaders was looked upon as the championship game, even though several more games remained on the schedule which could have altered the outcome.

Frankford beat the Bears 7 to 6 and went for a win and a tie in their last two games, giving them a 14 – 1- 2 record over the second place Bears at 12 – 1- 3. For winning the championship each team member was given an engraved watch.

Also the team was treated to an evening at the Allegheny Theatre to see the new Hollywood block-buster “One Minute to Play” starring Red Grange.  What a night!

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Election Day in Buffalo 1929

In 1929 the New York Giants traveled to Buffalo for an Election Day game against the Bisons. This post shows the announcement of the game in the program from the Sunday prior, plus a flyer that was distributed to drum up attendance for the Election Day game – with Music to Enliven the Occasion. I was especially interested in their description of my father – “Happy ” they called him – of the Carnegie Tech “Wonder” Eleven. My father did play for Carnegie in 1922, but most of his football career was at Grinnell College. Maybe they were thinking of the 1926 Carnegie squad. In 1926, the 6–2 Carnegie Tech football team shut out Knute Rockne’s undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish 19–0 at Forbes Field. It would be the only loss for the Irish all season and only the second time they allowed a touchdown that season. The game was ranked the fourth-greatest upset in college football history by ESPN. But, in 1922 Notre Dame beat Carnegie 19 – 0. No wonder there. It was, however, the first game where the Notre Dame backfield, later immortalized as the Four Horsemen, lined up together in a game.

Here’s the November 3 program cover, announcement, and flyer



And here is the cover and roster from the Giants at Bisons game two days later






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The Sneakers Game 1934

When I was growing up there were two Giants football games that my father would talk about – games he watched from the stands. One was the game on Dec. 7, 1941, Giants vs. Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds – Pearl Harbor Day. The other was the 1934 NFL Championship Game, Giants vs. Chicago Bears, also at the Polo Grounds. The 1934 game has gone down in football history as “The Sneakers Game” because the Giants came out in the second half wearing basketball sneakers instead of football cleats and this gave them better footing on the frozen field. They won the game over the favored Bears 30 – 13.  I have always been on the lookout for anything related to the Sneakers Game and last week added a ticket stub to the game program, a letter from Ray Flaherty about the sneakers, and the watch fob given to Steve Owen as coach of the Championship team. I suspect somewhere out there is another kind of gameday program, just a single sheet folded cardboard line-up that was often sold for 10 cents.  Patience is a virtue!

1934 Championship Game Stub

1934 1


Flaherty Sneakers 1

Flaherty Sneakers 2



34-1a 34-2a


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Football Matchbooks

In 1933 the Diamond Match Company introduced a set of matchbooks with photographs of professional and college football players on the front and a brief bio on the back. These were sold two to a pack for a penny in vending machines. My interest in collecting began with a search for the 1933 matchbook that pictured my father. Football sets were issued from 1933 to 1938 by Diamond, but among the hardest to find are the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers players in the 1934 set. This full matchbook of Bill Hewitt is a rare example of a 1934 Bears cover –

Hewitt front Hewitt back


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A Most Amazing Story

This wire photo is from November 28, 1937 and shows Mario (Moots) Tonelli crossing the goal line giving Notre Dame a 13-6 win over Southern California. While that was a memorable event, it set the stage for what might be the most amazing football story every told (thanks to the Notre Dame News, Aug. 19, 2002)

Tonelli 1937 ND vs SC

Fast forward five years, to April 9, 1942, on the Bataan Peninsula, Philippine Islands. Columns of gaunt, stubble-bearded American prisoners of war, flanked by Japanese troops brandishing bayonets, weave along a jungle road under a blistering sun. Through the dusty haze, Sgt. Mario Tonelli sees a macabre trophy, a mutilated human head bobbing on a spear, as Japanese cavalrymen gallop past.

’’We’re in trouble,’’ Tonelli whispers.

Instinctively, Tonelli buckles his steel helmet, ready for action. But there will be no fourth-quarter Hollywood heroics on the Bataan Death March.

Unlike thousands of other young soldiers, Tonelli’s tale doesn’t end in a shallow, unmarked jungle grave. Perhaps it’s fate. Or destiny.


Motts Tonelli, 86, was a survivor long before the millennial trend of reality television popularized the term. The yellowed newspaper clippings in the laminated scrapbooks spread across the kitchen table in his suburban Chicago home are proof.

And for the former football star and war hero, it’s been that way since the beginning. At 6, he suffered third-degree burns on 80% of his body when a trash incinerator toppled onto him.

Tonelli’s immigrant father, Celi, a former quarry laborer in northern Italy, stonewalled a doctor’s notion that his son might never walk again. He fastened four wheels to a door and taught his first U.S.-born offspring how to move about using his arms. Within months Tonelli was back on his feet, and by 1935 he was the pride of Chicago’s prestigious DePaul Academy, a prep standout in football, basketball and track.

Dozens of colleges courted him. After a whirlwind recruiting trip, he was sold on Southern California. But his mother, Lavinea, after a visit from Notre Dame coach Elmer Layden and a priest fluent in Italian, decided otherwise.

’’You’re going to Notre Dame,‘’ she said. ’’It’s a Catholic school, and you won’t be far from home.‘’ ’’And that was it,’’ Tonelli says, laughing.

Tonelli spent three years with the Fighting Irish varsity, leading Notre Dame to the brink of a national championship in 1938. Following the College All-Star Game in 1939, he received his gold class ring, on the underside of which he had his initials and graduation date M.G.T. ’39 engraved. He wore the ring proudly during a stint as an assistant coach at Providence College in 1939 and one season of pro football with the Chicago Cardinals in 1940.

In early 1941 Motts joined the Army and was assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment in Manila. Although the ‘’Pearl of the Orient’’ was a prewar paradise of sun-drenched tropical beauty and cold San Miguel beers, Tonelli hoped to fulfill his one-year commitment and return to his new wife, Mary, and the Cardinals by the 1942 season.

Those plans were irrevocably altered in the early morning hours of Dec. 8, 1941, when Tonelli was roused from his bunk near Clark Field by an air-raid siren. At 0230 hours, a frantic trans-Pacific message had crackled over the airwaves: ‘’Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!’’

After the initial lightning thrusts of the Japanese crippled the Philippines-based U.S. Far East Air Force and Asiatic Fleet, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered about 15,000 American military personnel and 90,000 Filipino troops to retreat into Bataan, a steamy jungle realm of rice paddies, nipa (Asiatic palm tree) huts and colossal volcanoes, to fight a delaying action and wait for reinforcements.

But with the War Department’s mandate from the White House to defeat Adolf Hitler first, these ill-prepared, inexperienced troops, captured with little food and obsolete weapons, would be sacrificed to buy time for their countrymen. As a result, historians nicknamed the gallant stand on Bataan the ‘’Alamo of the Pacific.’’

With an empty canteen, Tonelli began the 65-mile march near Mariveles, a port on Bataan’s southern tip. Through dust clouds, he spotted artesian wells bubbling with cold spring water, but he dared not stop: The Japanese savagely executed all who strayed from the march. At dusk, the parched prisoners improvised by spreading their shirts on the ground to collect the dew.

‘’When morning came, we’d wring them out for something to drink,’’ Tonelli recalls.

At dawn, cracks of rifle fire echoed throughout the hills. Some guards pumped bullets into those unable to continue; others delivered death with samurai swords.

Sympathetic Filipino civilians caught throwing food or flashing the ‘’V for victory’’ sign in the direction of the haggard Americans were rewarded likewise.

Japanese tanks often swerved in deliberate attempts to run over wounded GIs lying on litters.

Tonelli was reflecting on his relative mortality when approached by a guard plundering the possessions of the weary, sunburned prisoners. He demanded Tonelli’s Notre Dame ring, and Tonelli refused. The guard reached for his sword.

‘’Give it to him,’’ yelled a nearby prisoner. ’’It’s not worth dying for.’’

Reluctantly, Tonelli surrendered the ring. A few minutes later, a Japanese officer appeared.

‘’Did one of my men take something from you?’’ he asked in perfect English.

‘’Yes,’’ Tonelli replied. ‘’My school ring.’’

‘’Here,’’ said the officer, pressing the ring into Tonelli’s callused, grimy hand. ‘’Hide it somewhere. You may not get it back next time.’’

The act left Tonelli speechless. ‘’I was educated in America,’’ the officer explained. ‘’At the University of Southern California. I know a little about the famous Notre Dame football team. In fact, I watched you beat USC in 1937. I know how much this ring means to you, so I wanted to get it back to you.’’

The surreal encounter ended, and the gridiron and battlefield rivals headed their separate ways.

‘’I always thought that someday he’d try to look me up,‘’ Tonelli says. ’’I guess he probably didn’t make it through the war.’’

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Steve Owen

Five years ago I wrote an article about Steve Owen for Gridiron Greats magazine (Steve Owen)  I’ll begin this post with the same paragraph: I remember Steve Owen as a very big man. Of course, I was just a kid tagging along with my father to a Giants practice at the Polo Grounds and I was surrounded by big men – men who liked to leave a dent when they shook your hand.

Since that article was written I’ve added three significant Steve Owen items to the collection.  The first is a photo of Steve and his wife and my father the night before Steve’s last game as head coach of the New York Giants.  Steve is holding the ball from the famous “Sneakers” game when the Giants beat the Chicago Bears on the frozen Polo Grounds to win the 1934 NFL Championship
Dad and Steve Owen 1953


Dad and Steve Owen 1953 caption

This picture was taken when I was 7 years old, so that view looking up at my father is very familiar to me.

The next year Steve was among many sports celebrities who gathered at Toots Shor’s restaurant on October 3, 1954 for what was originally planned to be a celebration of the publication of The Tumult and the Shouting by famed sportswriter Grantland Rice.  Rice, however, had died before the book was published and so the celebration became a memorial.  This is Steve’s copy of Rice’s book from that night, inscribed to him by Earle Greasy Neale, sportswriter Frank Graham, Ken Strong, and Elmer Layden.

Owen Tumult

It’s interesting to note that Ken Strong wrote “Still My Coach”

Finally, this pendant was given to Steve and to the Giants players for winning the 1934 NFL Championship – the “Sneakers Game” mentioned above.  Steve had been Captain of the Giants when they won the 1927 NFL Championship in the days before the league was divided into two divisions and a playoff game established, but this was his first win as a coach and a unique piece of NFL history.

34 1


34 2

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1930 Giants vs. Notre Dame All Stars

In December 1930 the New York Giants played a benefit football game against a team of Notre Dame All Stars to raise money for the unemployed in New York City (see Giants vs. Notre Dame) The contest was also promoted as a opportunity to see if the nascent pro game was equal to the venerable and very popular college game. The Giants won the day 22 to 0.

At the end of last month I was able to acquire a football commemorating the game. I would guess it was signed at one of the dinners or other events prior the game (no score is recorded on the ball). I’ve been working on deciphering some of the signatures and figuring the affiliations of each signer, and here is what I’ve come up with so far. (ND after the name indicates Notre Dame and NYG is New York Giants)

1930 ball 1

Hunk Anderson ND, Dale Burnett NYG, Red Cagle NYG, Frank Cardieo ND, Jack Chevigny ND, Gene Edwards ND, Benny Friedman NYG, Butch Gibson NYG, Hal Hilpert NYG, Frank “Bill” Jones ND, Elmer Layden ND, Lou Little Offical, Tim Mara NYG, Joe Maxwell ND, Saul Meilziner NYG, Ed Thorpe Offical, Tom Thorpe Offical, Ted Twomey ND, Joe Vezie ND, James J. Walker Mayor of New York

1930 ball 2

Red Badgro NYG, Leo J. Bundy MLB Giants & Yankee’s legal counsel, Glenn Campbell NYG, Les Caywood NYG, Rudy Comstock NYG, Tiny Feather NYG, Mack Flenniken NYG, Len Grant NYG, J. A. Kavanaugh MLB Giants 1929, John Law ND, Jack Lenz Announcer at Yankee Stadium, Dr. Harry March NYG, Frank J. McCarthy ND ’25 lawyer later VP PRR, Hap Moran NYG, George Murtagh NYG, Bill Owen NYG, Steve Owen NYG, K. K. Rockne ND (faint), Len Sedbrooke NYG, Charles Stoneham MLB Giants owner, Joe Westoupal NYG, Oscar Wiberg NYG, Doug Wycoff NYG

1930 ball 3

Jack Hagerty NYG, Hinkey Haines NYG 1925-1927, Ken Strong SI Stapes

1930 ball 4

Hunk Anderson ND, Joe Bach ND, E. T.  Brannick MLB Giants front office press, Frank Collins ND, Dick Connell ND, Jim Crowley ND, John Gebert ND, Noble Kaizer ND, John Law ND, Elmer Layden ND, John McManmon ND, Don Miller ND, Rip Miller ND, Tim Moynihan ND, Joe Nash ND, Albert B. Nixon NYU Director of Athletics, Dick Stahlman NYG, Harry Stuhldreher ND, James J. Tierney MLB Giants secretary, Chile Walsh ND

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1929 Giants Schedule

In 1929 the Giants issued this schedule with Jack Hagerty on the front.  It measures 4.5″ by 6″ on card stock.  I’ve never seen one before but wondered if these were issued with different players featured on the front – would love to see any other examples if they are out there.1929 Schedule Hagerty1929 Schedule back

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Oorang Indians

In 1922 Jim Thorpe teamed up with the owner of an Airedale hunting dog kennel to create an all Native American football team – the Oorang Indians. Thorpe was a hunting buddy of Walter Lingo, whose Oorang Kennel was located in Marion, Ohio. The Pro Football Hall of Fame website says: “Entertainment, both prior to the games and during halftimes, was provided by the players and the Airedale dogs. There were shooting exhibitions with the dogs retrieving the targets. There were Indian dances and tomahawk and knife-throwing demonstrations.” Below is a 1922 press photo of Oorang players and an example of how such a photo was used in newspapers at the time –

1922 Oorang Indians


1922 Oorang Indians caption

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