ALL THOSE A.F.L.'S: N.F.L. COMPETITORS, 1935-41
By Bob Braunwart
Between 1935 and 1941 there were five (or four, or three, depending on what you count as a new league and what as a merger) professional football leagues in competition with the N.F.L. which had some not totally illegitimate claim to major-league status. The American Football Leagues of 1936-37 and 1940-41 are given the most credence. There was also an avowed minor professional league, the American Association, which included a number of N.F.L. farm clubs. And, in addition, several relatively strong teams played one or more of these years as independents, scheduling games with N.F.L. teams, A.F.L. teams, and other independents. There was also expansion in the National Football League during this period, with the Cleveland Rams entering the fold in 1937.
The account which follows is tentative in spots because newspaper coverage of the various leagues and seasons was highly uneven. Nevertheless, it represents the best information and speculations I have been able to come up with.
The Mid-West Football League was established in 1935 with George J. Heitzler as president and James C. Hogan as Secretary- Treasurer. They were to retain those positions through the 1939 season. Three teams finished in a tie for first place at the end of the 1935 season -- the Louisville Tanks, Cincinnati Models and Indianapolis Indians. There were no playoffs.
I do not know the other members of the league or the final standings in 1935, but this must certainly have been a minor, regional league. It will figure more prominently, however, later in this account.
The M.W.F.L. continued in 1936, with the Louisville Tanks, coached by Harry M. Reed and with William H. Goepper as business manager, the undisputed champions. Again, there were no playoffs.
Also this season the second (after a 1926 attempt, which was unrelated) American Football League was formed. The standings in 1936 were:
Boston Shamrocks 8 3 0 .727 133 97 Cleveland Rams 5 2 2 .714 123 77 New York Yankees 5 3 2 .625 75 74 Pittsburgh Americans 3 2 1 .600 78 65 Syracuse/Rochester Braves 1 6 0 .143 41 113 Rochester/Brooklyn Tigers 0 6 1 .000 58 82
This is one of the leagues usually recognized as "major", and game results were well reported in the New York Times. Nevertheless, both attendance and finances must have been troublesome, because the league appears to have been not particularly successful.
The Brooklyn Tigers were "moved from Rochester at the start of the season", according to the Times. Shortly after an October 25 game at Boston the Syracuse Braves moved to Rochester, hoping (no doubt) for improved attendance. Apparently they did no better there because they played only one more game (at Rochester) before disbanding. Then after a November 8 game at Cleveland, the Brooklyn team -- which had apparently played in Rochester in 1935 -- decided to move back. They finished the season there, losing to Boston and Cleveland in home games.
This would be confusing enough, but some modern publications have made matters even worse. In some listings of the standings, the two lowest finishing teams are given as the Rochester Tigers (with the Braves' W-L-T record) and the Brooklyn Tigers (with the Tigers' record. I don't know precisely what sort of confusion this is; there was a team called the Rochester Tigers both in 1935 and for the final two games of 1936 (the same team, in fact), but it never played any of the Syracuse/Rochester Braves' games for them.
Roger Treat (who, incidentally, does not make the error referred to above) lists the A.F.L. head coaches and rosters, and as far as I have been able to determine, these are accurate. There were no playoffs in 1936, and the Boston Shamrocks won the championship outright on standings. As far as I am aware, no American professional football league adopted any sort of playoff system before 1939, except for the N.F.L. and its affiliated minor league, the American Association.
A few other notes on the 1936 A.F.L. season: Boston played at Fenway Park, New York at Randall's Island and Yankee Stadium, and Brooklyn at Ebbets Field. Ken Strong played for the Yankees in 1936 and 1937.
Exhibition results of interest in 1936 include:
* * * *
In 1937 the Louisville Tanks again won the M.W.F.L. championship, with the same coach and business manager, but I do not have the standings.
The 1937 A.F.L. standings were:
Los Angeles Bulldogs 8 0 0 1.000 219 69 Rochester Tigers 3 3 1 .500 94 115 Cincinnati Bengals 2 3 2 .400 102 89 New York Yankees 2 3 1 .400 57 115 Boston Shamrocks 2 5 0 .286 76 98 Pittsburgh Americans 0 3 0 .000 7 69
The Bulldogs were the first West Coast professional football team in a coast-to-coast league which did not play all its games on the road. The final three games of the season were played in Gilmore Stadium, Los Angeles. The team had played as independents in 1936. The Shamrocks were owned by Bill Scully. The Rochester Tigers were (presumably) the same team that had moved there from Brooklyn the previous season. In 1937 the N.F.L. admitted the Cleveland Rams. Four of the players (according to Treat) were the same.
Here are some 1937 exhibition results:
By 1938 the second A.F.L. had folded, although some of its teams continued to play as independents. The Mid-West Football League continued play but changed its name to the "American Professional Football League", since that name was currently vacant. The 1938 A.P.F.L. standings are listed below.
Chicago Indians 5 1 0 .833 87 26 St. Louis Gunners 4 3 1 .571 31 73 Louisville Tanks 4 3 0 .571 67 40 Nashville Rebels 2 2 1 .500 46 61 Cincinnati Blades 3 5 0 .375 53 11 Dayton Rosies 1 5 0 .167 7 80
The W-L-T records above are those reported for the teams at the end of the the season. The points for and against, however, are tentative. I've checked newspapers for the entire season from every league city and from several other cities and there are still several unanswered questions. First, the Cincinnati team disappeared after winning their first three games. The Blades folded (for reasons which are not very clear) in early October, and the Cincinnati Bengals (of the 1937 A.F.L.) were asked to complete the Blades' schedule. (There really was an A.P.F.L. schedule, with dates and everything, antedating the start of the season.) The Bengals, who were playing as an independent pro team this year after the collapse of the previous year's A.F.L., declined, claiming prior scheduling commitments themselves.
Thereafter NONE of the newspapers mentioned ANY Cincinnati A.P.F.L. team. The most reasonable assumption (but we have no confirmation whatsoever) is that Cincinnati's five losses were by forfeit. The above final standings assume that the Blades lost each of their final five games 1-0.
An additional problem with the table is that four of the twenty league games resulted in scores that were reported differently in newspapers in different cities. The table involves our (fairly arbitrary) determination as to which reports were most trustworthy. Indeed, under one account Dayton ended the season with the truly bizarre record of 1-5-0, 1 PF, 80 PA.
At the conclusion of the regular season the A.P.F.L. adopted a "Shaughnessy-style" playoff, which involved elimination from playoff competition of all but the top four teams and pitting them first against third and second against fourth. In the event, Louisville defeated Chicago 13-0 and St. Louis eliminated Nashville 19-13. In the championship game December 4, Louisville won 3-0,making them champions of the M.W.F.L./A.P.F.L. four years in a row (counting the 1935 three-way tie).
A few other miscellaneous bits of information on this season are: The Louisville team was sponsored by the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Co. of the same city. The Chicago team was known as the "Indians," "Steelmen" and "Panthers," and was variously described as playing for Chicago, Calumet, Indiana Harbor, and East Chicago. There may have been more than one team involved, the league having found a replacement for a disbanded team that would assume the earlier team's won-lost record, but there is no hard evidence for this. Indeed, the Chicago Tribune never mentioned any of the local team's games except for the first.
Stan Mondala of Chicago won the 1938 scoring championship with seven touchdowns, four extra points and a field goal. "Cowboy" Bartlett of Louisville was the leading rusher with 375 yards. Dayton's Alex Rado was the leading passer (13 completions for 138 yards) and Rocky Reed won the receiving title (8 receptions good for 116 yards).
The 1937 A.F.L. Rochester Tigers and Pittsburgh Americans presumably disolved permanently. The New York Yankees appear in news stories in 1939, but what they were doing in 1938 (if anything), I have no idea. The Los Angeles Bulldogs, Cincinnati Bengals, and Boston Shamrocks, however, played the 1938 season as independent professional teams.
Among the independent teams the Cincinnati Bengals compiled a 7-2-1 record (these are all tentative -- some games may be missing), the Los Angeles Bulldogs were 5-2-2, and the Boston Shamrocks were 4-5-0. The latter team played two games in Boston and then went on a seven-game road trip which ended at Louisville November 6. There the Shamrocks lost a 34-0 contest with the Louisville Tanks and dissolved. Several of their players, including player-coach Joe Zapustas, stayed in Louisville to play with the Tanks.
Games this season involving A.P.F.L. or independent teams versus N.F.L. opponents included:
Chicago Bears 29, Chicago Indians 6
(It should be noted that the Bengals' 7-2-1 record included a 2-0-1 record versus N.F.L. teams. The Bulldogs were 2-1-2 against the N.F.L. and the Shamrocks were 0-1-0.)
In 1939 the A.P.F.L. (formerly the M.W.F.L.) continued play. The 1939 standings are listed below.
Los Angeles Bulldogs 7 1 0 .875 223 85 Cincinnati Bengals 6 2 0 .750 117 85 Columbus Bullies 9 4 0 .692 235 81 Chicago Indians 4 3 0 .571 55 51 St. Louis Gunners 5 6 0 .455 141 164 Dayton Bombers (Rosies) 2 5 0 .286 45 167 Kenosha Cardinals 2 7 0 .222 97 105 Louisville Tanks 2 9 0 .182 51 226
I have complete scores for this season, with a high degree of confidence. Note particularly that the Bulldogs and the Bengals, independent teams the previous season, finished 1-2 in 1939 after their admission to the A.P.F.L. Louisville, league champions the previous four years, finished dead last in 1939. Both Los Angeles and Cincinnati, let it be remembered, had played in the 1937 A.F.L. and the Bengals had been invited to join the American League in 1938.
The St. Louis team (for reasons that are not adequately reported) formally withdrew from the league after its eighth game, November 12 versus Cincinnati. The Gunners agreed, however, to play out the remainder of their A.P.F.L. schedule, and the league decided to count the remaining games (three of them) as league games, both for the Gunners and their opponents. Thus the Gunners' withdrawal before their final three games had no effect on the final standings.
Exhibitions in 1939 included:
There was an organizational meeting in the spring of 1939 with representatives from Frankford, New York, Newark, Baltimore, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. At this meeting the reorganization of the 1936-37 A.F.L. was agreed upon. There followed a court battle with the ex-M.W.F.L. over the right to use the name, and when the new league actually began play in 1940 there were teams from both of the predecessor leagues. The 1940 standings are given below.
Columbus Bullies 8 1 1 .889 134 69 Milwaukee Chiefs 7 2 0 .778 180 59 Boston Bears 5 4 1 .556 120 79 New York Yankees 4 5 0 .444 138 138 Buffalo Indians 2 8 0 .200 45 138 Cincinnati Bengals 1 7 0 .125 53 187
The football encyclopedias recognize this as the third major American Football League, but it is probably more reasonable to think of it as a merger of the 1936-37 A.F.L. (which claimed to be reorganizing) and the 1938-39 A.P.F.L. (formerly the Mid-West Football League). New York and Cincinnati represented the former, and Columbus and Cincinnati the latter. The remainder were new teams. The other teams at the organizational meeting -- Newark, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Kansas City -- apparently dropped out. (It must be remarked that this is speculative, since we have not discovered the results of the lawsuit over the A.F.L. name.)
The Yankees this season were owned by Douglas Hertz. Los Angeles, the 1939 champions, dropped out of the league to begin play in the new Pacific Coast Professional Football League, which included teams from Hollywood, San Diego, Oakland and Phoenix. Apparently the Bulldogs had all along been successful in recruiting West Coast college talent. They survived at least until 1946 -- thus overlapping with the Rams and the Dons in Los Angeles -- but we do not have the P.C.P.F.L. standings for this interval.
The Yankees returned from Columbus November 21 by air, only four days after the Packers had become the first N.F.L. team to fly.
The St. Louis Gunners still existed in 1940 -- we have some exhibition results for them but no adequate explanation for their departure from the A.P.F.L. Another question: were these the same Gunners that played for St. Louis in the N.F.L. in 1934?
The Kenosha Cardinals were also playing independently. Someone named Lance is said to have reorganized a local sandlot team known as Coopers Cardinals in 1939 or 1940, and the team seemed to have a special relationship with the Green Bay Packers. The players included Johnny Blood (who also coached) and Beattie Feathers.
Interesting exhibition game results for 1940 include:
1941 was the second year for this version of the American Football League. The final standings for this season are given below.
Columbus Bullies 5 1 2 .833 142 55 New York Americans 5 2 1 .714 116 73 Milwaukee Chiefs 4 3 1 .571 105 84 Buffalo Tigers 2 6 0 .250 72 172 Cincinnati Bengals 1 5 2 .167 69 120
Boston was out and the Buffalo Indians were replaced by the Buffalo Tigers. (I do not know the relationship -- if any -- between the two Buffalo teams.) The New York Americans replaced the New York Yankees. A group headed by William D. Cox took over from Douglas Hertz, Yankees' owner in 1940. The new owners changed the team name to "Americans," whereupon Hertz started another team, which, of course, he named the "Yankees."
Hertz's new Yankees played a few games as an independent team, but in October they joined the American Association as a replacement for the Providence Steam Roller, which had folded. The A.A. was the minor league with N.F.L. farm clubs referred to in the introduction. The Yankees signed Joe Lillard and Hugh Walker, both blacks, this year.
The American Football League voted at the end of the 1940 season to "draft" fifty college players (by the league, not the individual teams). One of the inducements to sign with the A.F.L. was to offer prospective players a choice of teams within the league. I do not know whether this draft was ever held.
The Columbus Bullies won the A.F.L. championship and the Los Angeles Bulldogs the P.C.P.F.L. championship, both on standings. The Bullies then traveled to Los Angeles and lost 7-0 to the Bulldogs in what was billed as the championship of the small professional leagues.
Some exhibitions in 1941:
(The Winnipeg team, playing in the Western Interprovincial Football Union, was an amateur team.)
Beginning in 1936, the N.F.L. had an associated minor league, called the American Association, which included a varying membership of six to nine teams in the Northeast. Two of the more successful teams were the Jersey City Giants and the Newark Bears, which were farm clubs for the N.F.L. teams of the same names. We have the standings (but not the game results) for 1937-39.
The playoff history for this league is given below.
The Pacific Coast Professional Football League also played at least through the 1946 season. That year the Los Angeles Bulldogs won the Southern Division championship with a 9-2-1 record, and the Tacoma (Washington) Indians, a first-year team, won the Northern Division at 7-4-0. The Bulldogs won the championship game January 19 in Los Angeles by a score of 38-7. The Indians had disbanded a few weeks earlier, thinking their season was over, and had to bring their players back from as far away as Minnesota.
Other teams in the league in 1946 included the Hawaiian Warriors, Hollywood, San Diego,
San Francisco, Sacramento, Salt Lake City and Oakland. The Warriors were around at least
through 1948, when they played two exhibition games with the Los Angeles Rams.