Book Review: The League

The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched A Sports Empire by John Eisenberg

John Eisenberg expertly tells us the origins of the National Football League. He introduces the men that launched the enterprise, their backgrounds and their personalities and how together they began the impossible task of making professional football American sports royalty.

Tim Mara, George Preston Marshall, George Halas, Art Rooney and Bert Bell were the men that first united in trying to make professional football work. When they launched the NFL in the Roaring 20s professional football scores didn’t even make the newspapers. Professional football was seen as a poisoning of the water for the college game. College football, which was wildly popular, was a process that carved youth into the type of man America needed. It taught lessons that were only relevant in an amateur status. To pay players would change the whole purpose and understanding of the game. But these 5 men saw it differently. Yes, baseball was king, but there was a place for professional football, they thought. Through their money, their tenacity and their business sense they carved out the NFL.

Eisenburg tells the stories of the original franchises. He introduces you to George Halas and his Bears in Chicago. They played in Wrigley Field and were named in honor of the Cubs whose field they leased. Tim Mara also named his professional football team after his local baseball team hoping to unite mentally with the fans a successful franchise with his burgeoning New York Giants.

Marshall was originally told he couldn’t open his franchise in his hometown of Washington D.C. and had to be in Boston. Like Mara and the Giants, he leased the local baseball teams park and called his team the Braves. He quickly grew tired of Boston’s less than enthusiastic take on professional football and moved his team to D.C. In the move he changed the name from the Braves to the Redskins to be able to hold on to his marketing and logo. In D.C., Marshall would imprint his personality on that team, making it a show, inviting all of the South to cheer for them and solidifying one of the most loyal fan bases in the NFL.

Art Rooney was a Pittsburgh kid. And he wanted to make a Pittsburgh team and so on the back of the Pirates he too had a football team named after the local baseball team. Eventually he would make a contest to rename the team to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers, that today are seen as a glamorous franchise with a rich history, went noncompetitive for the first 30 years of their existence. Rooney, who was a universally beloved figure in these early days, was not the football man of either Halas, Marshall or Mara. The Steelers spent the early years at the bottom of the barrel.

Bert Bell was the original owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, and like Rooney and the Steelers, they would live at the bottom of that totem pole for decades. Bell would make his biggest contribution as the third Commissioner of the NFL who saw the league through its war with the All American Football Conference, World War II, integration and the beginning of television.

Of course the Green Bay Packers and Curly Lambeau both occur regularly in this book. But since they, unlike the other franchises, are owned by the fans there was no brash owner to be highlighted and followed in Eisenberg’s history. But their legacy as one of the great NFL franchises is not lost in this book.

It was so interesting what the American sports scene looked like a hundred years ago. We talked about this in our review of Seabiscuit. The top sports were baseball, horse racing and boxing. Many of the owners made their fortunes on the horse track as either bookies (Mara) or gamblers (Rooney). Yet today horse racing is a niche sport that only gets attention 3 times a year. Yet the NFL would not exist without racing.

Even boxing has lost its glamour in the last 100 years. Art Rooney, the Steelers owner, made his career promoting boxing matches. And though baseball is still America’s past time, the NFL surpasses it in any objective standard of popularity now.

One reads this book and can’t help but think forward 100 years. Which sports will be niche and which minor sport will raise to the level of obsession?

We wrote extensively about the Cleveland Browns and Otto Graham and how good they were and how underrated they are viewed viewed in light of the modern Browns. This book added more evidence to our opinion. The All American Football Conference may not have been as good of a league as the NFL top to bottom. But their top was better than the NFL.

The AAFC was launched in anger at the NFL owners who were fractured and distracted during World War II. Art Ward was the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune and he wanted to take a team to LA. The NFL wouldn’t let him. So after the war with a handful of other NFL rejects he started his own league. Various other leagues had tried to challenge the NFL, but none had made it a full season. These failure themselves prove what effort and skill the NFL owners had to survive through the Great War, the Great Depression and the Second World War. But the AAFC wasn’t like those. It was backed by very wealthy people. Not something the NFL was originally full of.

In the AAFL the Browns were dominate. And many have dismissed their domination because it was an inferior league. But when the two merged 4 years later after both leagues had lost money, the Browns continued their domination. With Otto Graham and Jim Brown they won again and again in the NFL. The Cleveland Browns were legitimately the best team in football, both when they played in the AAFL and the NFL.

One of the joys of this book is reading about names of people that have become so synonymous with the NFL. Reading of Curly Lambeau who put the Green Bay Packers on the path to NFL greatness. Currently the Packers play at Lambeau field in honor of this man. Vince Lombardi is also in this book as a player and assistant coach.

Talk about a all-star coaching staff, the Giants hired head coach Jim Lee Howell in 1953. Howell was the first to hire a coach to only focus on the offense and another to run the defense. The first Offensive Coordinator ever was Vince Lombardi for the Giants. Tom Landry was the first ever Defensive Coordinator. Lombardi would go on to be the Packers head coach and cement his legacy as the greatest NFL coach (in the discussion for greatest coach of all time). Today all the teams play in the Super Bowl hoping to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Of course, Tom Landry had his own glamorous career with the Dallas Cowboys.

Sammy Baugh, another quarterback we have discussed here regularly as the GOAT, played during these years for Marshall’s Redskins. And the 1937 NFL Championship Game that made our Stories You Should Know is retold in this book as well.

This book gives a real appreciation and understanding of owning a football team. Though the game and revenue has changed drastically in the last 100 years, it is fascinating to look at the sport through the managements perspective. Most sports book are written about the athletes on the field or the coaches on the sideline. This look at the owners was unique and brought a completely different feel to the sport.

Many of the institutions and organization of the modern NFL came about it such organic ways. Through Eisenberg’s storytelling we find out why divisions were created. We learn about the formation of the NFL Championship game that would eventually become the Super Bowl.

The most amazing for a modern reader was the draft. It was proposed by Rooney of the lackluster Steelers in an attempt to become competitive. Prior to the draft each of the teams would try to recruit talent and it would drive up prices on players that was killing small teams who were rarely breaking even. The first draft in 1936 saw the Steelers get the first pick having been the worst team in the league. There were 8 rounds that year. Not a single one of the players the Steelers drafted played for them. In the early years of the NFL it wasn’t losing out to other teams that was the biggest obstacle, it was convincing good collegiate players to play professionally. This seems another world from today.

This is a great book for fans of the NFL and the early twentieth century. Eisenberg does a wonderful job helping the reader keep all of the owners straight. He is always dropping hints of who each of these men are and what you read about them last. He is a talented writer that leads the reader down the path that he has walked. At only 340 pages it was not over detailed but you didn’t leave feeling like you missed out on an important topic.

His story ends after the 1957 season. When 40 million viewers tune in to watch the Giants and the Colts play in the NFL Championship. Through the journey of this book you come to appreciate what a miracle and milestone that was. Now it seems like a pittance, but that was a crowning moment for a few men who believed they had something special.

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