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In Pottsville, Maroons are still champs

Sunday, November 16, 2003

By Bill Toland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

POTTSVILLE -- Come December, there is no such thing as Maroons-mania. There are no Maroons replica jerseys, no junior-size footballs stamped with the Maroons logo, no scalpers wrapped in bulky winter coats selling Maroons playoff tickets at $250 apiece.

But one December, 78 years ago, this old coal and textile town an hour northeast of Harrisburg was known for its glorious football team, alternately referred to as the Pottsville Maroons, for the color of their jerseys, and the Pennsylvania Miners, for the lifeblood of the region.

There are many romantics here who still believe the Maroons earned a National Football League championship on the field that year, only to have the title stripped away on a technicality.

Others say that the Maroons' owner, a surgeon named J.G. Striegel, forfeited the title when he played a nonsanctioned game against a team of Notre Dame all-stars, even after receiving stern warnings from the NFL's commissioner.

But make no mistake: There are far more in the former group than in the latter.

"I think there's a genuine sense that the people of Pottsville believed they were wronged somehow," said Mike Kimmel, a news staffer at Pottsville Broadcasting Co., a small radio partnership. "It's become almost folklore. Pottsville has their side, and the NFL has theirs."

It's a debate that, nearly eight decades after the fact, was revived this year when the NFL considered the issue of reopening the league's record books and returning the title to the Maroons.

Even Gov. Ed Rendell got involved, lobbying NFL owners and asking city and borough councils across the state to lobby the league to restore the Maroons' title in time for Pottsville's bicentennial celebration in 2006.

In Pottsville, there was a major push led by Mayor John D.W. Reiley. The owner of a local embroidery shop made Maroons T-shirts and distributed them to residents. In its front window, a video store advertised that it had the official Maroons documentary, "Old Leather," in stock.

The Schuylkill County town of 15,000 or so even has a board, the Pottsville Maroons Memorial Committee, whose job it is to keep alive the spirit of Pottsville's only big-league sports franchise.

But NFL owners weren't a bit sympathetic, voting 30-2 last month against opening the 1925 files and taking the title away from Chicago's old Cardinals franchise, which now plays in Arizona. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney and Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie cast the only "yes" votes.

Even though the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame will give Pottsville a recognition next summer, when the Daniel Reeves Pioneer Award is conferred upon the town and its defunct team, that's little consolation for those who dreamed of having their town recognized as an NFL champion.

Steelers President Art Rooney II said the team wanted the league to look at the issue more carefully than it did and consider doing more to recognize the Maroons, including considering naming them co-champions. (The Steelers, by the way, didn't appear until 1933.)

"I think it is nice they are being recognized," Rooney said. "We're for recognizing them. We're just saying this doesn't go far enough."

The team's supporters weren't pleased.

"They're disappointed," Reiley said. "When you lose 30-2, that really takes the wind out of your sails." The town, spurred by lawyers offering to work for free, briefly considered legal action, but, "We don't want to be that adversarial," the mayor said.

Many, like Reiley, hold onto hope. A few, Kimmel said, kind of wish the whole thing would go away. "Some people are, like, 'Get it over with.' "

In the end, this isn't just about football. It's about a bygone diligence, and the notion that the Pottsville 11, formerly a group of hardworking miners accustomed to playing on pickup teams, could compete with the best the NFL had to offer, if only for a season or two.

How the Maroons won it

CHICAGO -- The Pottsville Maroons yesterday won the National Professional Football championship of the United States here in defeating the Cardinals in a post-season game 21-7.

The victory was clean-cut, and gave the Pennsylvania Miners the right to the national title previously held by Cleveland.

Walter French was the chief source of grief for the Cardinals. He was here, there and everywhere, gaining yardage, breaking up Cardinal plays, bucking the line, putting over deadly passes, punting and running, displaying skill in every move.

-- Philadelphia's Public Ledger, Dec. 7, 1925

Chicago's famous wind whipped across Comiskey Park field that day, bringing snow squalls with it, but the weather wasn't enough to slow Walter French, a West Point graduate who played baseball for the Philadelphia Athletics during the summers. He led the Maroons to a victory against the Cardinals in a matchup that had been billed as a title game between the two top teams in the NFL.

The game was being billed as such, even though there was no NFL championship game in the 1920s. Teams were allowed to schedule games on the fly and, as in college football today, the league's championship results were often disputed -- there was great disagreement over which games counted toward "official" standings, which games were merely exhibitions and when the season actually ended.

To bring a bit of order to the situation, league owners decided in 1924 that the next year's title would be awarded to the team with the best winning percentage by Dec. 20. No head-to-head game was scheduled to settle the matter, but if teams wanted to play post-season contests for bragging rights, they were welcome to do so.

Enter the Maroons, whose 1925 season was their first in the NFL. Previously, the team had competed as an independent, semipro squad, in what was sometimes called the "Anthracite League," made up of teams from Eastern Pennsylvania mining towns.

The year before, Striegel, the Pottsville team's owner, had ordered new uniforms for his players. "The color isn't important," he reportedly told a sporting goods store manager, who delivered 25 maroon jerseys and spawned the team's nickname.

In 1925, anticipating that pro football was about to become a profitable concern, Striegel jumped from the Anthracite League to the NFL, which cost him $1,700 in franchise fees.

He then set about complementing his roster of rugged miners with professional players and former college standouts.

The Maroons rolled through the season, posting shutout after shutout in the town's tiny Minersville Park, where a shopping center stands today. When December came around, the Maroons, with a 9-2 record, were just a half-game behind the mighty Chicago Cardinals, who were 9-1-1.

On Dec. 6, the game between Chicago and Pottsville was being touted as the championship matchup, even with two weeks left in the 1925 season.

The Chicago Tribune, as well as Cardinals Manager Chris O'Brien, had a lot to do with that.

Backed by the Tribune, O'Brien promoted the upcoming clash as the world's championship. The paper said: "The game is assuming the proportions of a pro football World Series," referring the baseball championship that was born two decades earlier.

But the Dec. 6 game, a cold, snowy affair, didn't end as the Chicagoans had hoped, with the Maroons' determined running game overpowering the Cardinals' normally stingy defense.

How the Maroons lost it

In Pottsville, this is where the storybook season ought to have ended. In some respects, it did. For a few years, the Pottsville players wore jackets that said "World Champions 1925," and the same retailer who provided the maroon jerseys presented each player with gold, engraved "championship" footballs. On Dec. 16, hundreds of Maroons fans gathered at the town's Necho Allen Hotel to celebrate the title.

But the team's actions over the next two weeks would result in Chicago being declared the league's champs.

"A lot of times, [Pottsville fans] don't recognize the truth, or aren't given the truth," said Bob Carroll, executive director of the Pro Football Researchers Association, based in Irwin. "They'll say things like, 'Pottsville won the championship, but had it taken away.' You just can't make that argument, because it never happened."

Here is what happened: In the chaotic weeks between Dec. 6 and Dec. 20, the Chicago Cardinals, hoping to outflank the Maroons and boost the team's winning percentage, scheduled a couple of games against inferior opponents, the Milwaukee Badgers and the Hammond (Ind.) Pros.

The Badgers, like the Pros, had already disbanded for the season -- teams had the option of doing this after Dec. 6 -- and couldn't field a full team. Determined that the game would go on, the Cardinals recruited several high school players to suit up for the Badgers, who fell to the Cardinals, 59-0, Dec. 10.

The Maroons, meanwhile, scheduled a Dec. 12 game against a team of Notre Dame all-stars that included the famed Four Horsemen, and the game was played in Philadelphia's Shibe Park, not Pottsville.

By playing in Philadelphia, the Maroons were violating territory agreements drawn up by the NFL. Philadelphia was in a chunk of Pennsylvania already claimed as home by the Frankford Yellow Jackets. The Frankford squad, after hearing of the planned Notre Dame contest, filed a protest with the NFL.

Striegel, Pottsville's owner, said all along that the game was sanctioned by the NFL and that he had received permission to play in Philadelphia from an NFL secretary. But league President Joe Carr had the final say, and on several occasions, he threatened the Pottsville team with suspension from the league if the game took place.

Pottsville played the game anyway and won, 9-7, on a last-minute field goal. Carr made good on his threats, and when the game ended, he sent a telegram to Striegel, telling him the Maroons would be fined, tossed from the league and stripped of their franchise. They'd also have to cancel the remaining game on their schedule, against the Providence Steam Roller.

The team also was ruled ineligible for the league title, which was eventually awarded to the Cardinals. The Cardinals, meanwhile, were fined for loading the December schedule with patsies, and one Cardinals player, Art Folz, was banned for life because he recruited the four high school players.

It's a question that bothers Pottsville folks to this day: If the Cardinals could be punished for violating league rules, but still be eligible for the title, why couldn't the same be said of the Maroons?

"The Cardinals didn't defy the league," Carroll said. "Pottsville did. It was a great team, but the owner made a mistake."

The Pottsville team was reinstated by the NFL in July 1926, largely because the NFL didn't want to lose Pottsville's skilled group of players to an upstart rival organization. In 1926, the Maroons went 10-2-2, and were again one of the league's top draws.

But in 1927, many of the team's star players defected for bigger paychecks, and the team went 5-8. The next year, the Maroons' record dropped to 2-8. After that, Striegel abandoned Pottsville in favor of Boston, renamed his team the Bulldogs, then folded for good after one season there.

So there hasn't been pro football in Pottsville since Coolidge was president, yet the debate continues to simmer, boiling over occasionally. Every so many years, Pottsville resuscitates the old arguments about its right to a championship

"People want to believe what their grandfathers tell them," Carroll said. "Never underestimate the ability of people to delude themselves."

Come 2006, Pottsville's bicentennial year, the Maroons' "championship" season will have spent 81 years in the rear view mirror. Yet there's a good chance that, for many more decades, a handful of folks here will continue to talk about Ernst, French and the Stein brothers the way Pittsburghers still talk about the winning days of Bradshaw, Greene and Lambert, even if they never saw them play.


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.

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