George Halas started out playing on a Semi-Pro team called the Hammond Pros in 1919. Players like Jim Thorpe had similar starting points. A few people like Halas saw a future in something beyond college ball.
Some teams were purely amateur and others paid players, but at most, the paying clubs were what you might call industrial teams–those sponsored by some business–what we call semi-pro today. Teams would also come and go from one year to another. While fans might have a desire at times to claim a team’s existence way back in the past, often it is an argument that focuses around whether a team actually continued to exist every year with the same core group. For decades, football teams started and died. This continued way after the NFL got started.
Today, pro football history uses the point at which things got organized via the National Football League in 1920 to mark it’s beginnings. This was a point at which a league was formed, teams were asked to contribute to a central kitty, and the teams started to look at scheduling. The NFL was called the American Professional Football Association until 1922, when it’s name was changed to the National Football League.
The League still had a lot of work to do in 1920. For the next several years many teams came and went, scheduling was almost impossible, the rules needed refinement, and team financial stability was often in jeopardy. But in 1920, a group of men who had met in Canton were starting the season and were determined to make it all work out. Almost all had no idea of what they were in for!
Two teams started out in 1920 and continue to this day. One is called today the Arizona Cardinals — once located in St. Louis and before that located in Chicago–in an area around Racine Avenue on the south side of the city. If you thought it had its roots in Racine, Wisconsin you are not alone. There was even an NFL document that someone labeled incorrectly as Racine, Wisconsin. The other team called the Decatur Staleys, a year later becoming the Chicago Staleys and a year after that becoming the Chicago Bears. Halas organized and acquired players for the original Staleys, but the original owner, Augustus Staley transferred the company over to Halas before the 1921 season.
George Calhoun, a local newspaper man in Green Bay was a supporter of football in the late teens. A popular Green Bay athlete named Curly Lambeau joined up with a friend named Nate Abrams whose family owned a cattle business to play on a team called the Whales at the same time. The Whales were one of those teams that came and went. Abrams’s friend Frank Peck who owned Indian Packing Company was asked to sponsor the team in a semi-pro industrial team fashion. Calhoun started talking to Lambeau about how some people had met in Canton to create a new league that started play in 1920. Lambeau and his Whales sponsor, Frank Peck’s Indian Packing Company, merged and became the Acme Packing Company. Acme’s John Claire was persuaded to apply for franchise with the Canton group. Lambeau took a lead role in the team. Unfortunately, the “Packers” as they were starting to be called by Calhoun in the newspaper got themselves into trouble. Short on players or talent in 1921, they played some college players and were caught. This was a temptation not just for pro football, but had been problem in semi-pro baseball as well. Future NFL coach Weeb Ewbank was playing ball baseball on a semi-pro baseball team as Carl “Shorty” Thomas. Jim Thorpe would pay the ultimate price for a playing on a semi pro baseball team before his Olympic medals–and have his medals taken away only to be returned after his death.
Using college players was a big problem because many people at that time thought of the college game was the best that football had to offer. The pro game had little respect in those days and a negative start that might go unchecked could be a major problem. When many people thought of pro teams, they thought of gambling and vice. George Halas and the others felt like they had to do something to show their good faith. Thus they tore up the Green Bay franchise. Not one to be deterred, or perhaps encouraged to do so, Curly Lambeau got some money together and applied for a new franchise in his name. The NFL owners waited months perhaps to placate its critics. Shortly before the season started, the NFL rewarded Lambeau with a new franchise.
Lambeau did not have an easy time of it. With only one year under his belt as owner, Lambeau was over his head financially. Some local Green Bay people with financial resources bought the franchise via stock and let Curly run things for the next 25 years. Calhoun would sell the Packers in the newspaper as the forever underdog (which they certainly were in the first decade) and often overstate the skills of their foes. The press would also paint a picture of Green Bay as a small town team playing with the big boys–this continues to this day.
So when you see the 100 year anniversary of the NFL on uniforms, team web sites, etc., the only teams that go back that far are the Bears and Cardinals. The Packers were close.
Several teams such as the Canton Bulldogs have histories that went further back, but as what is deemed today as semi-pro games. Thorpe played on the Bulldogs back in 1915.
Pillars of the NFL (see products on this website) goes into the history of the league as it describes the football lives of the 10 greatest coaches in NFL history.