Pro football: from $25 franchises to gold-plated Super Bowl

Today we welcome Red Barber, dean of American sports broadcasters, to a monthly spot on this page. After today, his column will appear on the last Wednesday of each month. A hint of Barber's career emerges below. He can be heard Friday mornings on National Public Radio. One of his books, ``The Broadcasters,'' is scheduled for reissue in March. Super Bowl XX . . . the buildup, the money, the promotions, the parties, television. A nation waiting to see two sets of gladiators, each of whom is to receive either $36,000 for winning or $18,000 for losing. In the days of Rome, when it was Bread and the Circus, the gladiators were fortunate to escape with their lives. Today it is Beer, Circus, and so much money.

As I write this, I think back to five men in an automobile agency in Canton, Ohio, in 1919, to a young player named George Halas, to a football star of national acclaim, Red Grange, to the Depression when the dollar was hard, and hard to come by, to a man who ran a laundry in Washington, George Preston Marshall, to a slaughter in Washington in 1940, to the first pro football game that went into sudden death and excited a national television audience in 1958.

From 1895, professional football teams in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York flourished. There were no schedules, few rules, little money. After their games on Saturday, college players -- including some of the top stars -- would play pro games under assumed names on Sunday.

The early hotbed of pro football was the rivalry in Ohio between Canton and Massillon. The great Jim Thorpe played for Canton. There was no league. The teams played when they could schedule a game somewhere against someone. Much of the money came from passing the hat. No question, these old-time players played because they loved the game with its challenges.

The five pioneers of the National Football League were Frank Neid of Akron, Ralph Hays of Canton, in whose automobile agency the meeting was held, Joe Carr of Columbus, Carl Storck of Dayton, and Leo Lyons of Rochester, N.Y. It was in July 1919. No man could have had any idea of what they were setting in motion. A franchise cost $25. (NBC paid the NFL $17 million for the rights to telecast Super Bowl XX from New Orleans Sunday, and has sold out its commercial time for $27.5 million.) The name in 1919 was the American Professional Football Association. Two years later the name became what it is today -- the NFL.

The Decatur Staleys joined the league in 1920. Their coach, and also end, was George Halas, fresh from playing under Bob Zuppke at Illinois. Halas began building and believing. More than any man, the NFL is indebted to him. He kept the faith in the early, desperate years of changing teams, of trying to convince people of the worth, honesty, and superior skills of the pros. Halas bought the Decatur franchise in 1922, moved it to Chicago, and renamed his team the Bears. His master stroke was signing Red Grange, who had excited the nation with his running at Illinois, after the college season of 1925.

For the 1925 pro season, Tim Mara had paid $500 for the New York Giants franchise. His friends thought he was crazy to waste his money. For the early games at the Polo Grounds, Mara used to give tickets away so there would be people in the stands. When Grange came in with the Bears, the paid attendance was some 73,000. Pro football had turned the corner.

George Preston Marshall put a team in Boston in 1933. Marshall owned a laundry in Washington, and after four poor seasons he moved his team there. He signed Sammy Baugh in 1937, and the former Texas Christian University star changed football with his deadly, accurate passing.

Marshall suggested the NFL be divided into two divisions, with a championship game to be played between the winners. No one had thought of that, but that simple arrangement laid the foundations for the Super Bowls.

The first title game was played in 1933 at Chicago between the Bears and the New York Giants. The Bears, with Halas coaching, won 23-21. It was an exciting game, with some great players such as Bronco Nagurski for the Bears and Ken Strong for the Giants. The crowd was 26,000. Each Bear got $210.34, each Giant, $140.22.

The pinnacle for Halas came Dec. 8, 1940, at Washington. Three weeks before, Baugh and the Redskins had defeated the Bears 7-3. The Bears bitterly protested an official's decision that cost them the winning touchdown. George Preston Marshall loudly and publicly called the Bears ``crybabies,'' etc., etc., etc. Halas would take each newspaper clipping that Marshall inspired and post it on the locker room bulletin board.

The Redskins were favored, but the enraged Bears won by the incredible score of 73-0. Halas then was the only coach in pro ball to use the T formation -- the system that had the quarterback take the ball right from under the center. The T became it that very day. When you see a game today, you'll see the hand of George Halas.

I began broadcasting big-time college games in 1930 and kept at it through 1964 -- all over the country as director of sports for CBS -- a Sugar Bowl, two Rose Bowls, eight Orange Bowls. I did pro games from 1939 through 1946. I was the only announcer on Mutual Broadcasting (the first time a pro game went on coast-to-coast radio) in 1940 when Halas and his Bears changed football forever.

Now the money is so enormous that no one can correctly count the dollars involved as the modern-day Bears prepare to meet the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Television fees, ticket sales, travel and hotel and meals and parties. When you get into millions of dollars you lose realistic understanding.

And yet in the midst of all this extravagance, as a recent study by Harvard University points out, there are still serious hunger areas in many of our United States. Countless children cry themselves to sleep night after night because they are hungry. We are indeed a strange people. Beer and circuses.

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