Talegating: History of the NFL Draft, Part 1

As we prepare for the upcoming draft, it's worth looking back to discover the history of the event, which is intricately tied to the birth and development of the league, and its attempts to deal with salaries, eligibility and team building. Over the next several weeks, I'm going to offer a partial history of the patterns and practices of the NFL Draft that will touch on those issues, as well as those of the practice of scouting, team success and even the beginnings of the computer age, each of which has played its own role in the history of the league. Come along with me as I stroll back into the past, to a time before the Great Depression, when an organization changed its name and became a national institution that would endure, flourish and grow over the next 90-plus years into the remarkable entity we know as the National Football League.

Football in the 1920s

Although games were played before then, the birth of the entity that we call the National Football League truly took place in 1920, in a Jordan and Hupmobile dealership showroom in Canton, Ohio. At that time, the owners and officers of the American Professional Football Association were called to a meeting by then-president (a term that would be changed to 'commissioner' in the 40s) Jim Thorpe. Sixteen men attended that seminal meeting, and the basis for the NFL was launched on that August and august day in 1920. A year later, the league would elect a tireless promoter by the name of Joe F. Carr. Carr was exactly what the league needed at that time, a hard-working man who believed in the things he promoted as their first commissioner. That dedication to promoting the new association would become essential, because the league would fold a total of 35 franchises over the next 10 seasons.

In 1922, the American Professional Football Association changed its name to the National Football League. Even back then, teams were beginning to grapple with the issues of how to deal with eligibility and finding players while keeping salaries low enough to permit the nascent teams to be viable. In January of that year, John Clair of the Acme Packing Company (which would become the Green Bay Packers) withdrew from the league after admitting to signing and using players who still had college eligibility left during the 1921 season. Curly Lambeau would buy the franchise and restore it, but he too had problems with the rules regarding stealing players or negotiating inappropriately. So did George Halas and the Bears (which had been the Decatur Stanleys before Halas brought them to Chicago and renamed them the Bears) and the Portsmouth Ohio Spartans, all of whom would pay fines of $1,000 each in 1931 for infractions related to eligibility.

The league also had a bookmaker by the name of Tim Mara, who purchased the New York Giants for a then-record $2,500. With unusual civic pride, Mara would announce that any team from NY had to be worth at least that much. It was, however, the league's first official involvement with gambling, and it wouldn't be its last. However - early in the next decade, the issue of how to negotiate with players was going to take a new and unexpected turn. 

Into the 1930s

It was in the first years of the 1930s that our country would change as never before. No, not the Great Depression - it was at the beginning of that decade that a man by the name of De Benneville 'Bert' Bell bought the Philadelphia Eagles. This was a second connection with gambling - Bell had met a future crony by the name of Art Rooney at a horse track in the late 1920s, and that meeting brought together two friends who would forever change the future of football as a national sport. The two purchased franchises in 1933, with Bell taking the Frankford Yellow Jackets and naming them the Eagles, inspired by the representation on the National Recovery Act logo. Rooney chose to go with the name Pittsburgh Pirates (it was common practice at the time for NFL teams to adopt the name of their city's baseball club), but he changed the name to the Steelers prior to the 1940 season.

Bell's co-owner Lud Wray would be the team's first coach, with Bell taking on both complete ownership and the coaching after three seasons. Bell had played football in college, and felt that he knew enough about the game to coach. He was more than mildly obsessed with football; in addition to coaching, Bell was acting as promoter, general manager, ticket salesman and jack of all trades. He wasn't a good coach, but he was dedicated. On his honeymoon, while walking the Jersey shore at night with his new bride, she took a moment to gaze upward and said, in effect, "Oh, look at that moon!" Bell glanced up and sighed, "Honey, I wish I had a punter that could kick that high."

The Philly club would not get off to a rousing start - the Eagles had ten sub-.500 seasons in a row, including going 2-9 in 1934 under Wray's coaching. Seeing that the winners seemed to grow fat on players who happily signed up to play for them and that the losers kept on losing, Bell came up with a new concept. Bert went to the other teams in the league with a proposal during the first half of 1935 and suggested something unique:  a reverse-finish draft. 

Although this had never been done before in professional sports, to his surprise he found that his proposal was unanimously accepted. Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants, and George Halas, owner of the Chicago team, had both won championships with their squads, but they saw the value of two things - and both were financial. First, both men saw that having competitive teams would bring more fans into the stadiums; poor teams could get a bump in attendance from having famous college players join the clubs. Second, the draft would prevent teams from fighting with each other over college players, since only one team would be able to negotiate with the player, keeping salaries lower. Better teams, such as Halas' Bears and Mara's Giants didn't worry about the reverse finish but they appreciated the cost savings. Everyone seemed to win. The proposal passed and on February 8, 1936, the first NFL Draft was held in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Philadelphia, PA.

The first draft was 'only' nine rounds. Its format was simple, by modern standards - 90 player names were placed on a board, and the teams took turns placing their names next to a player until 81 were picked. Due to the poor salaries of that era (stars such as Bronco Nagurski made only about $400 per game), only 31 of those players would be signed. Among those who refused were Jay Newanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner, and a defensive end from Alabama by the name of Paul 'Bear' Bryant. Bell's team drafted nine players, and didn't manage to sign one. He did trade the rights to Newanger to Halas, but the Bears' owner didn't have any better luck getting the player to sign. Newanger became a sports reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and then a businessman. 

A tenth round would be added the next season (and a tenth team, the Cleveland Rams, would also join the league in 1937). More rounds would follow over time until a maximum of 30 rounds were held during the mid-1940s and 1950s. Other changes, including a predraft 'bonus pick' that would fall to a single team by lottery would be added and later discarded (in 1957, future HOFer Paul Hornung would be such a bonus pick). Back at that time, no scouting was involved - teams usually chose their players by picking them out of college football publications. Street and Smith's would be a popular choice.

Keep in mind that at this time in the league's history, players often worked a day job before showing up to play on Sundays. The nature of the league was at times haphazard, in fact. Art Rooney's head coach, a man with the appropriate name of Johnny Blood, once missed a game, simply forgetting that it was on the schedule. Pay was low, popularity was gaining only slowly and with the Great Depression's effect on the US, times - both for the country and the teams alike, were hard.

The end of that decade, though, saw the seeds being sown for vast changes in the way that the NFL would operate. The sudden death of Joe Carr in 1939 left a wide hole at league president, and the league brought in the former owner of the Dayton franchise, Carl 'Scummy' Storck. Storck was ineffectual, and after two seasons, he resigned due to 'health reasons'. The league was getting applications for additional franchises, but the current owners wanted to keep the league smaller and confined to east of the Mississippi River. Those events set the stage for the immense changes that the league would go through in the 1940s - we'll pick up the story there next week.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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