Wiki Wormhole: Ring in football season with Wikipedia's list of defunct NFL franchises

Wiki Wormhole: Ring in football season with Wikipedia's list of defunct NFL franchises

With over 4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you're throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or checking to see if your band name is already taken (strangely enough, there was another guy also named J. Geils). But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia's oddities in our 4,327,793-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Defunct NFL Franchises

What it’s about: The most popular and prosperous of all American sports leagues, the National Football League is not thought of as a fly-by-night operation. The league has expanded steadily throughout its history, and no franchise has folded since the Dallas Texans in 1952 (their only season, which saw them flee Dallas and play “home” games in Hershey, PA and Akron, OH). But the early years of the league saw many teams come and go (particularly when the league was still coalescing in the 1920s), and their often ignominious histories are collected here.

Strangest fact: The City of Tonawanda is a suburb just north of Buffalo, confusingly sandwiched between the Town of Tonawanda, and the City of North Tonawanda. Combined, the three Tonawandas have a population of about 120,000. But back in 1921, someone decided the City of Tonawanda was big enough to host an NFL franchise. The city had a small-time team in the New York Pro Football League from 1916-1919. That league, which stretched from Buffalo all the way to Rochester, was absorbed by the NFL in 1920. The NY Pro-turned-NFL teams would all fold within the decade, with the Buffalo All-Americans (also called the Bisons and the Rangers) lasting the longest (1929).

Tonawanda’s team, which had gone by All-Stars, Lumberjacks, and Lumbermen in the smaller league, were called the Kardex in the NFL, after the office supply company that sponsored the team. They had previously played their games at Tonawanda High School, but the NFL listed the nonexistent “Lumbermen Stadium” as their home venue. It didn’t matter that the stadium didn't exist, because the team never played a home game. The Kardex played two road games against non-NFL teams (one of which was a scoreless tie), before playing their first NFL game against fellow NY Pro converts the Rochester Jeffersons, losing 45-0. The loss was devastating enough that ownership decided they couldn’t compete in the big leagues, folding the team. The Kardex therefore have the distinction of the shortest tenure in the NFL, with a franchise record of 0-1. (Although two Ohio teams—1920's Massillon Tigers, and 1922's Youngstown Patricians both officially joined the league but never played a game)

Controversy: The page uses the phrase “it can be argued” a surprising number of times, as league records from the 1920s are less than complete. The biggest argument is probably over the Buffalo All-Americans, who have back-to-back rejected claims to the league title. Buffalo finished the 1920 season with a 9-1-1 record. The Akron Pros were technically undefeated at 8-0-3. Under modern rules, a tie is counted as half a win and half a loss, so both teams would have finished at 9.5-1.5. To further complicate matters, the Decatur Staleys were the league’s winningest team, at 10-1-2 (at the time, teams scheduled their own games, so there wasn’t a fixed length to the season). All three teams claimed at least a share of the title the title, but the league (then called the America Professional Football Association—it would become the NFL two years later) ruled in favor of Akron.

Smarting from the controversy, the league reorganized for the following season, with more consistent rules and official standings and with only in-league games counting (teams previously padded their records against semi-pro and barnstorming teams). The league’s membership fluctuated (the aforementioned Kardex joined and left, and the league picked up a previously unaffiliated team called the Green Bay Packers. Buffalo started off 6-0, as did the Staleys (who had moved to Chicago, and would eventually be renamed the Bears), before the two teams met in the Windy City where the All-Americans won 7-6. Chicago demanded a rematch, and Buffalo agreed, on the condition that it would be a post-season exhibition game that didn’t count towards the standings. However, the game ended up being scheduled for December 4, before the end of the season. After Chicago won, 10-7, they successfully petitioned the league to count the game in the standings. At season’s end, the Staleys sat atop the standings at 9-1-1, tied with Buffalo (at 9-1-2, but as the previous season had been established, ties didn’t count towards the standings). Rather than having the two teams share the title, the league announced its first-ever tiebreaker. In a rule that has since been struck from the books, if two teams play multiple times in a season, the final game between them would serve as the tiebreaker. So the second Buffalo-Chicago game—one that wasn’t supposed to count at all—actually counted for more, and handed the title to Chicago. Buffalo fans referred to the “Staley Swindle” for years afterwards, and the city would have the small consolation that their future championship losses would at least come honestly (other than that Stanley Cup against Dallas, which was absolute bullshit).

Thing we were happiest to learn: There were some great team names back in the 1920s. The very first NFL game (when it was still the APFA), saw the Dayton Triangles beat the Columbus Panhandles. Both Kenosha, WI and Pottsville, PA had teams called the Maroons; Racine had two different teams called the Legion and the Tornadoes. But our favorite is the Providence Steam Roller, who played their home games in a bicycle-racing stadium, once played four games in six days (they went 0-3-1), and were the last NFL Champion (1928) to no longer exist.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Long-suffering football fans in Detroit are longer-suffering than we realized. Three separate franchises set up shop in Detroit and then folded before the Portsmouth Spartans came to town in 1934 and renamed themselves the Lions. First was the Detroit Heralds, who played in the Ohio League for a decade despite being in Michigan, and started Detroit’s long tradition of Thanksgiving Day football in 1917. They joined the AFPA in 1920, but had financial problems after several games had to be cancelled due to weather. By the middle of the 1921 season, players were abandoning ship after not being paid, so the team folded at the end of the year.

In 1925, future Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman may have been the only NFL team owner ever to line up under center (he was also the head coach), and got the Detroit team off to an 8-1 start before a third-place finish. The following season didn’t go as well, and after a losing record, Conzelman took an offer from the Providence Steam Roller and let the team collapse in his wake. Then in 1928, the Cleveland Bulldogs folded, and their coach and several players set up shop in Detroit as the Wolverines, who finished in third place in their first season. It would be their last, as New York Giants owner Tim Mara bought the team, so he could trade himself QB Benny Friedman, and then discarded the rest.

Also noteworthy: The Orange (NJ) Tornadoes only played in the NFL from 1929-1930, but they existed in some form from 1887 until 1941, and then were resurrected from 1963-1971. The team started as an amateur squad (there were no pro teams in 1887), were an independent pro team from 1919 until 1929 when the team’s owner, a wholesale meat salesman named Piggy Simandl, brought the team to the NFL. After a 1930 season played in Newark that saw two coaching changes but only one win, they voluntarily left the league. The NFL ordered the team sold, but there were no takers. The team resurfaced in the minor league American Association, where they stayed until 1941, eventually becoming the Newark Bears. The team went on hiatus during WWII and never returned. But the AA was revived as the Atlantic Coast Football League in 1963, with the Newark Bears as a charter member. Two years later, after being turned down for an AFL franchise, the Bears joined the Continental Football League (“The Other CFL!”) and moved south to become the Orlando Panthers, where they stayed until that league folded in 1971, 84 years after the team began.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The article links to lists of defunct teams from the NBA and NHL, but for football fans, the most interesting story is that of two hybrid Steelers teams. During WWII, the NFL had lost so many players to military service that Pittsburgh merged their rosters with other teams—the Eagles in 1943, and the Chicago Cardinals in 1944. The first team was known as the Steagles, and the second by the incredibly catchy name Card-Pitt.

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