The First Star
Red Grange and the Barnstorming Tour That Launched the NFL
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About the author
Lars Anderson is a Sports Illustrated staff writer and a weekly columnist for the magazine's website, SI.com. A graduate of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, Anderson is also the author of Carlisle vs. Army and The All Americans. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama.
From the Hardcover edition.
In The First Star, acclaimed sports writer Lars Anderson recounts the thrilling story of Harold "Red" Grange, the Galloping Ghost of the gridiron, and the wild barnstorming tour that earned professional football a place in the American sporting firmament.
Red Grange's on-field exploits at the University of Illinois, so vividly depicted in print by the likes of Grantland Rice and Damon Runyan, had already earned him a stature equal to that of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and other titans of American sports' golden age. Then, in November 1925, Grange made the fateful decision to parlay his fame in pro ball, at the time regarded as inferior to the "purer" college game.
Grange signed on with the dapper theater impresario and promoter C. C. Pyle, who had courted him with the promise of instant wealth and fame. Teaming with George Halas, the hard-nosed entrepreneurial boss of the cash-strapped Chicago Bears NFL franchise, Pyle and Grange crafted an audacious plan: a series of seventeen matches against pro teams and college "all-star" squads–an entire season's worth of games crammed into six punishing weeks that would forever change sports in America.
With an unerring eye, Anderson evocatively captures the full scope of this frenetic Jazz Age spectacle. Night after night, the Bears squared off against a galaxy of legends–Jim Thorpe, George "Wildcat" Wilson, the "Four Horsemen of Notre Dame": Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller, and Layden–while entertaining immense crowds. Grange's name alone could cause makeshift stadiums to rise overnight, as occurred in Coral Gables, Florida, for a Bears game against a squad of college stars. Facing constant physical punishment and nonstop attention from autograph hounds, gamblers, showgirls, and headhunting defensive backs, Grange nevertheless thrilled audiences with epic scoring runs and late-game heroics.
Grange's tour alone did not account for the rise of the NFL, but in bringing star power to fans nationwide, Grange set the pro game on a course for dominance. A real-life story chock-full of timeless athletic feats and overnight fortunes, of speakeasies and public spectacles, The First Star is both an engrossing sports yarn and a meticulous cultural narrative of America in the age of Gatsby.
From the Hardcover edition.
An ambitious plan
Carrying a polished walking stick, he strode through the chill of the Chicago night, moving under the bright lights of the Madison Street marquee of the Morrison Hotel. He pushed through the lobby doors, a Lucky Strike cigarette dangling from his thin lips, and passed the marble front desk and richly paneled walls that rose twenty-eight feet. The plush high-rise hotel was the center of Chicago's business and social life, housing the Boston Oyster House restaurant and Terrace Garden dinner theater. Now, on the evening of November 22, 1925, this forty-five-year-old man had his own business to take care of.
He reached the elevator. After making sure he wasn't being followed, he stepped inside. He wore a black overcoat, a double-breasted charcoal-gray suit, spats, a silk tie with a diamond pin, and a fine derby hat. With his dapper outfit reflecting in the mirrors of the elevator's three walls, he told the red-capped operator that he needed to go to the seventeenth floor. The sparkling golden doors shut.
The man had a thin, neatly manicured mustache. His dark but graying hair, which was immaculately trimmed nearly every day, was slicked back with pomade. He cut the figure of a smooth, fast-talking salesman, which he was. As the elevator rose through the skeleton of the forty-five-story hotel, he puffed on his Lucky and stood by the mirrored wall in silent contemplation. His mind was afire with possibilities, because he believed he was on the cusp of making history, of negotiating a deal that would change forever the landscape of professional football in America.
The elevator doors slid open, and Charles C. Pyle stepped forward, a rippling line of smoke rising from the red-orange ember of his cigarette. He looked to his left, to his right. No reporters. Walking down the thickly carpeted hallway, he stopped in front of room number 1739, where he'd been told the clandestine meeting would take place. He rapped his fist on the door. Moments later it swung open. Pyle walked inside, his chest thrust forward as usual, and extended his hand to the man he was meeting for the first time.
Outside the windows of the newly opened hotel, darkness fell and a bitterly cold winter's night enveloped the city. Pyle shed his overcoat and settled into a high-backed chair at a table, and took measure of the man that sat opposite him: George Stanley Halas, the head coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, a National Football League franchise that was on the verge of bankruptcy, just like nearly every other team in the NFL. Pyle, the son of a preacher, was blessed with a golden smile and a silver tongue. He could talk to anybody about anything—and he also could convince anybody to do most anything. For a few minutes, the two made small talk.
Lighting another Lucky and drawing long on it, Pyle finally launched into the subject he had come to discuss: money. Pyle, the first agent in football history, wanted to broker a deal for his client, a football player who had just dropped out of the University of Illinois and who days earlier Pyle had boldly promised to make the richest young athlete in America. Not only that, but Pyle had guaranteed that he could turn him into someone as famous as baseball's Babe Ruth, as beloved as the thoroughbred Man o' War, as iconic as pugilist Jack Dempsey. The young man's name was Harold E. "Red" Grange, and Pyle had an ambitious plan for him: He was going to make him the NFL's first star.
Like all originals in business, the underworld, and sports, Grange already had a nickname: the Galloping Ghost. It was a lyrical, apt sobriquet, because it instantly conveyed what made him so special on the football field—how, from his halfback position, he ran with a never-before-seen mixture of speed and power and elusiveness; how he seemed to see holes in the line before they actually opened; how he threw thunderbolts with his stiff arm at defenders who tried to take him down; how his hips swiveled in a flourish to sidestep and juke defenders and leave them lying on the ground along his zigzag trail; how he made them feel as if they were trying to corral a phantom.
Grange, age twenty-two, even looked somewhat ghostlike. Standing five foot nine and weighing 170 pounds, Grange had deep-set, haunting gray eyes. It was as if a shadow were always falling over his eyes, yet when he gazed at you, those same eyes projected such a liquid intensity—a narrow beam of brightness—that it made people feel like he was looking through them, not at them. He was classically handsome: His nose was straight and powerful; his lips were full, a little like those of a poster girl but slightly downturned in a continual frown; and his jaw was square and rock solid, like that of a Roman centurion. Everything about Grange—from his angular features to his granite-sturdy build that had been sculpted by hauling one-hundred-pound blocks of ice in his youth—suggested fitness and hard work.
Short film clips of Grange's games at the University of Illinois were frequently shown in movie houses across the country before the feature show. There on the big screens, in black and white, moving at sixteen to eighteen frames a second, audiences saw the feats of Ruth, Dempsey, and Man o' War. But in the closing days of 1925—the high point of the golden age of sports in America—it was Grange who especially held moviegoers and sports fans spellbound.
By '25, nearly three-fourths of Americans went to movie houses at least once a week, and what played on the big screen greatly shaped popular culture. Sitting in the cool darkness of "picture palaces"—as the most grandiose theaters were called—moviegoers from New York to Los Angeles marveled at Grange's exploits. Watching him perform up on the flickering screen, audiences were mesmerized by his improbably fluid shifts and feints, by his jazzlike improvisation on the field, by his absurdly long touchdown runs. The fluttering clips even made Grange look more spectacular than he was in real life, because their herky-jerky nature created the illusion that he moved faster than he really was; the illusion that maybe he actually was a ghost.
Grange particularly captured the hearts and hopes of fans in the lower classes of society and those who had been away overseas. Thousands of immigrants who came to America in the 1890s and those who had endured the battles of world war were now flocking in droves to the fields of sport. The economy was booming, jobs were plentiful, and people who had struggled to make ends meet just a few years earlier now had "extra" money for the first time. Transportation was affordable. Model Ts rolled off the Ford assembly line at a rate of one every ten seconds and cost only $290. People had more leisure time, too, as most Americans no longer had to work seven days a week. Boxing was immensely popular with ethnic fighters generating pride among new ?Irish-?Americans, German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Jewish Americans. Baseball also flourished. Tickets were cheap, and many of its stars, like Ruth, looked and acted like nine-to-five guys getting dirt underneath their fingernails while making a living.
But many in the lower and middle classes had viewed football—both the college and pro games—differently. In the early 1920s, college football was considered by the lower classes to be a snooty game played by rich kids from the East Coast in front of rich girls waving pom-poms. It was a sport dominated by the likes of Harvard and Yale and Penn, and sports fans across the middle and lower classes of America struggled to identify with any of the players on those elite teams. But soon that dynamic would change. Soon one of their own would rise and charge the imaginations of farmers and factory workers and foot patrolmen all across the country.
Professional football in 1925 was a game largely managed by low-level hustlers looking to make a quick dollar, and it attracted little public interest. Its franchises were located mostly in out-of-the-way towns like Pottsville, Providence, Rock Island, and Green Bay. On a good day, an NFL game would draw a few hundred people; on a bad day, only a few dozen curious spectators gathered along fence lines or in rickety bleachers.
The league had been created five years earlier during a meeting in August 1920. Called by Jim Thorpe, who was the league's first president, the meeting of sixteen men took place in Ralph Hay's Jordan and Hupmobile showroom, a car dealership in Canton, Ohio. When they emerged from the showroom, the American Professional Football Association had been formed. Two years later, at the prompting of Halas, it was renamed the National Football League. This was a misnomer, because the league had no teams west of Chicago or south of Washington, DC, but Halas wanted a more regal-sounding name in order to give the league additional legitimacy.
In the league's first few seasons, more than twenty franchises folded. Most players held full-time jobs outside of football and had trouble fitting in time to practice. A few who had special and rare skills, like kickers or speedy halfbacks, offered their services to the highest bidder and floated among teams, sometimes earning as much as $100 a game. But others were paid far less—and less frequently too—and often failed to show up for the weekend contests. Even coaches sometimes were absent at kickoff, and nearly all the contests had the unorganized feel of a pickup game at the local park or on a pasturelike field. Not surprisingly, the press largely ignored the fledgling league. Sometimes there was a paragraph or two of coverage on page three of the sports section, but often there was no mention of NFL action. That all changed, though, in the fall of 1925 when Grange became the first college player to quit school early in the hopes of turning pro.
Pyle and Halas negotiated through the night, floating offers and counteroffers at each other in ping-pong fashion. Halas needed Grange, the college game's biggest draw, to save his franchise. Pyle needed Grange to fill his own bank account.
Pyle did most of the talking. He was the sports version of P. T. Barnum—a carnival barker and promoter who during his life would organize bicycle races, boxing matches, tennis matches, hockey games, and a cross-country foot race dubbed the "Bunion Derby." He even tried to sell the public on a newfangled idea of a domed sports stadium that featured a retractable roof, escalators, and magnifying glasses that could be cranked up and down in the seats farthest away from the field. His mind was a small factory that churned out ideas and schemes, as he was constantly dreaming up new ways to push along the boulder of evolution in the field of sports—with the hope, at the same time, of getting rich quick. But nothing would be more seminal in Pyle's career than what would transpire in this hotel suite.
The two went back and forth all night, arguing passionately about what Grange was worth. They took periodic breaks, each man smoking a cigarette and gazing out the windows at the city below, where the yellowish glow of the gaslit streetlamps threw circles of light onto the pavement. But neither man would budge. It was turning into a battle of wills.
As the first blush of sunlight filled the morning sky, sending shafts of winter light into the smoky room, the high-stakes negotiating finally wound down to its end. Soon the most important contract in the history of the NFL would be signed. Soon Halas would have his man. Soon Red Grange would be a Chicago Bear.
something not seen in football before
Thirteen months earlier...
The caravan of Model Ts snaked through the autumn dusk, their headlights forming a river of radiance against the night. The column of cars—there were hundreds of them—stretched for more than a mile and hummed along at forty miles per hour across the flats of the upper Midwest, cruising past the fields of wheat and corn that sandwiched the two-lane road of Highway 24. It was October 17, 1924, and thousands of fans and students from Ann Arbor, Michigan, were trekking 350 miles to Champaign, Illinois, on the eve of what was being hailed by many sportswriters as "the game of the century"— a term that had only recently been coined expressly for this University of Illinois–University of Michigan contest.
The previous season, the Fighting Illini and the Wolverines had tied for the Big Ten Conference Championship, but because of a scheduling quirk, the two teams didn't play each other. Many sportswriters crowned Illinois national champions and pegged Michigan as the number two team in the country in 1923. (The first formal poll rankings, conducted by the Helms Athletic Foundation, wouldn't be released until 1936.) The Wolverines hadn't been defeated in twenty games, and their 1924 team was widely considered one of the best teams in the fifty-year history of college football.
Illinois entered the game on a ten-game winning streak of its own—during which it outscored opponents 185 to 36—but was considered a slight underdog. The game attracted even more attention because the Fighting Illini were celebrating their homecoming, and on this day, Memorial Stadium was officially being dedicated to the 124 Illinoisans who had lost their lives in World War I.
The demand for tickets was unprecedented. Sixteen special trains of the Illinois Central Railroad left Chicago on the morning of the contest. Chicago radio station WGN dispatched announcer Quinn Ryan to Champaign to broadcast its first-ever football game. (Ryan had experience with live-event radio; that summer he covered the Scopes trial—the first live broadcast from a trial in U.S. history.)
WGN executives expected tens of thousands of people up and down the Midwest to gather around radios at high school football stadiums, gas stations, and in living rooms to listen to Ryan's play-by-play description of the events. And because of the dedication ceremony and the expected record crowd for an athletic contest in the Midwest, more regional newspapers than ever before sent reporters to cover the game. It was the college football event of the year, and even University of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne acknowledged it. "The eyes of the Middle West turn to Urbana [Champaign] Saturday for the llinois-Michigan game," he said. "The game is sure to be nip and tuck...[Michigan] will build a special defense for Grange and will stop him most of the afternoon. This lad is resourceful, though, and may pull one at any time."
Six days before kickoff, reporters asked legendary Michigan athletic director Fielding Yost (who was still in charge of the program, though the Wolverines were technically coached by George Little) about Grange. In the first three games of 1924, the Illinis' triple-threat tailback had been a running and passing machine, virtually unstoppable. In the season opener against the University of Nebraska, he played all sixty minutes—halfback on offense, defensive back on defense—and ran for 116 yards in addition to completing six passes for another 116 yards in Illinois's 9–6 win. A week later, in a tune-up game for Michigan against an overmatched Butler University team, Grange ran for 104 yards, passed for 30, and scored two touchdowns in the 33–0 victory—in just 14 minutes' playing time.
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
"The birth of pro football as an American fascination is brought to life vividly and definitively by Lars Anderson. It is hard to decide which is more impressive, his painstaking research into the inner lives of Red Grange, George Halas and CC Pyle, or his deft touch with the page-turning narrative. Oh, let's call it a tie."—John Eisenberg, author of That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory
"Thanks to careful research and clear prose, The First Star offers a stirring glimpse at a definitive moment—and three memorable men—from the history of American sport." —Gay Talese
From the Hardcover edition.