Formation of the American Professional Football Association

Professional football took a giant stride forward with the formation of the American Professional Football Association. The new league established a set of rules that encouraged fair competition and laid the groundwork for football’s growth as a popular and financially successful American sport.

Summary of Event

Professional football originated in the 1890’s, and the first professional football league was organized in 1902. Many considered the teams in the Ohio League (formed in 1904) to be the center of organized football. The sport continued to spread, but three major problems began to afflict its early teams: rising salaries often led to financial losses; players jumped from one team to another, a practice that contributed to escalating salaries; and college players often used assumed names to moonlight on professional teams. Sports;football
Football;American Professional Football Association
American Professional Football Association
National Football League
[kw]Formation of the American Professional Football Association (Aug. 20-Sept. 17, 1920)
[kw]American Professional Football Association, Formation of the (Aug. 20-Sept. 17, 1920)
[kw]Professional Football Association, Formation of the American (Aug. 20-Sept. 17, 1920)
[kw]Football Association, Formation of the American Professional (Aug. 20-Sept. 17, 1920)
Football;American Professional Football Association
American Professional Football Association
National Football League
[g]United States;Aug. 20-Sept. 17, 1920: Formation of the American Professional Football Association[05150]
[c]Sports;Aug. 20-Sept. 17, 1920: Formation of the American Professional Football Association[05150]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 20-Sept. 17, 1920: Formation of the American Professional Football Association[05150]
Hay, Ralph E.
Thorpe, Jim
Halas, George
Staley, Augustus Eugene
Carr, Joseph F.

In order to address these problems, seven men associated with the Ohio League met on August 20, 1920, at the Hupmobile auto agency in the Odd Fellows Building in Canton, Ohio. The owner of the agency, Ralph E. Hay, sold the popular, modestly priced automobile built by the Hupp Motor Company, but he also owned the Canton Bulldogs, the strongest team in the league. Hay was joined at the meeting by his star player and coach, Jim Thorpe, who had been an All-American at Carlisle Indian School and had triumphed over his competitors in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics. The other attendees represented teams from Akron, Dayton, and Cleveland. Teams from Buffalo and Rochester, New York, and Hammond, Indiana, also sent letters supporting creation of a new league that would solve the teams’ financial and personnel problems. The league was tentatively called the American Professional Football Conference.

At the first meeting, participants agreed that Hay would invite all of the professional teams in the country to attend a second session at which specific organizational rules would be determined.

The second meeting occurred at Hay’s Hupmobile agency on September 17. Joining the original participants were representatives from professional teams in Rochester, New York; Hammond and Muncie, Indiana; Rock Island and Decatur, Illinois; and Massillon, Ohio. Also represented were the Racine Cardinals, a Chicago team named after the street on which they played but in some accounts misidentified in the meeting minutes (recorded by Art Ranney of Akron, Ohio) as a team based in Racine, Wisconsin.

In addition to Hay and Thorpe, another important figure present at the September gathering was George Halas, who played for and coached the Decatur Staleys. The Staleys were named after Augustus Eugene Staley, who owned the Decatur-based A. E. Staley Manufacturing Company, which pioneered the practice of crushing soybeans to produce oil and meal. Staley had hired Halas to work at his factory and coach his factory team, but in 1921, Staley turned the club over to Halas, who moved it to Chicago and renamed the team the Chicago Bears at the beginning of the 1923 season.

The meeting’s participants sat on running boards and automobile fenders while they negotiated the terms of their agreement. To cool off, they drank beer from buckets. Perhaps partly because of the uncomfortable setting, the group produced quick results. A new name was adopted for the league: the American Professional Football Association (APFA), which was changed to the National Football League (NFL) after the 1921 season. Although Hay was the group’s initial choice for president, he declined, and the group settled on Jim Thorpe, whose fame and ability to attract publicity helped the fledgling organization get started.

The members of the new league agreed to raise football’s standards, to eliminate bidding against one another for players, and to cooperate in scheduling games. They also agreed not to sign players who were still in college. Thorpe quickly proved to be far more interested in playing than in being an administrator, and after one year a new league president was chosen: Joe Carr, an Ohio journalist who also owned a team, the Columbus Panhandles. Thorpe, however, fulfilled his duties as president, and his presence helped the league increase its visibility. Members were asked to pay a modest $100 entry fee, but apparently the fees were never collected.

The immediate result of the organizing efforts was the creation of a league with fourteen teams, not including Massillon, which decided not to join, but including four other teams not present at the September meeting. The entire roster for the inaugural 1920 season consisted of the Akron Professionals, the Buffalo All-Americans, the Canton Bulldogs, the Chicago (previously Racine) Cardinals, the Chicago Tigers, the Cleveland Tigers, the Columbus Panhandles, the Dayton Triangles, the Decatur Staleys, the Detroit Heralds, the Hammond Pros, the Muncie Flyers, the Rochester Kodaks, and the Rock Island Independents. The Decatur Staleys had a record of ten wins, one loss, and two ties, but many of their games were against teams not in the league and therefore did not count for the final standings. Consequently, the owners decided to award the league championship to Akron, which won eight and tied three games without a loss.

The league’s first season proved difficult. Teams struggled financially, and several disbanded before the year ended. In addition, not every team played by the rules. The Decatur Staleys, for example, recruited the Cardinals’ player-coach, Paddy Driscoll, to help them compete with Akron. The new AFPA president, Joe Carr, brought both managerial and motivational skills to his position and helped the league move forward: Soon, the group had adopted a league constitution, agreed to territorial rights, restricted player movements, and expanded its membership to include new teams such as the Green Bay Packers.


The founding of the American Professional Football Association began the development of one of the most popular and lucrative sports in the United States. Renamed the National Football League in 1922, the organization’s popularity steadily grew. Two of the original teams remain members of the NFL today: The Racine Cardinals are now the Arizona Cardinals, and the Decatur Staleys are now the Chicago Bears.

George Halas, affectionately known as “Papa Bear,” remained owner of the Bears until his death in 1983. The Packers joined the league in its second season, and under coach Vince Lombardi in the 1960’s they became one of the most successful and legendary sports teams in American history. In 1925, Tim Mara and Billy Gibson purchased a New York team and joined the National Football League as the New York Giants, a team that continued to be run by the Mara family into the twenty-first century. In that same year, Harold “Red” Grange, a star halfback from the University of Illinois, joined the Chicago Bears and helped to make the NFL an exciting part of the Roaring Twenties. Football’s enormous popularity continued to be evident in the huge numbers of people who watched the Super Bowl each year and in the attendance records—which recorded approximately two hundred thousand visitors per year—at the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Sports;football
Football;American Professional Football Association
American Professional Football Association
National Football League

Further Reading

  • Carroll, Bob, Michael Gershman, David Neft, and John Thorn, eds. Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. Includes chapters on the history of the National Football League, team histories, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with individual players’ statistics and other information.
  • Cope, Myron. The Game That Was: The Early Days of Pro Football. New York: World, 1970. An insider’s look at the early days and growth of professional football by the longtime broadcaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
  • Halas, George, Gwen Morgan, and Arthur Veysey. Halas/by Halas: The Autobiography of George Halas. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979. An autobiography of one of the founding fathers of the American Professional Football Association.
  • MacCambridge, Michael. America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation. New York: Random House, 2004. Examines the development of professional football and its development as an important part of American society.
  • Neft, David S., Richard M. Cohen, and Rick Korch. The Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of Professional Football from 1892 to the Present. Rev. ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. The value of the volume is enhanced by its year-by-year organization and inclusion of every professional game from 1920 to 1990.

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