David Fleming, Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team ans the Stolen 1925 Championship (ESPN Books, 2007)

In its early years, the National Football League had a lot less structure to it than it has now. Teams came and went, and several small towns across the country were represented by teams trying to compete on the same stage with teams from the big cities. In 1925, professional football had about the same credibility that professional wrestling has now, and most people assumed it would be decades before a professional team could compete with the well-organized and well-coached elite college teams. But a team from the league's smallest city, Pottsville, in the heart of the coal mining region of Pennsylvania, changed the way the country looked at professional football -- but was deprived of what it had earned on the field because it violated a rule the league had never bothered to write down. In his book Breaker Boys, ESPN's David Fleming tells the story of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons.

For the sake of disclosure, Pottsville happens to be my mother's hometown. The landmarks and streets that Fleming mentions are all familiar to me, and when he talks about the Catholic church that shares its foundation with Yuengling brewery, he's talking about the place where my parents married. Somehow, I was totally unaware of the Maroons or their remarkable story until I found out about Fleming's book. Naturally, Fleming's suggestion that Pottsville was the home of the NFL's first great team was more than enough to get my attention.

Fleming begins the story with an introduction to the characters that populated the Pottsville Maroons. Running back Tony Latone, for example, learned life's hard lessons working in the mines from a very early age, but he also learned how to make heavy, resistant masses bend to his will through the force of his powerful legs. Predictably, a story about a team in the freewheeling Roaring Twenties needs an owner that's both assertive and at least marginally shady, and out of central casting comes Dr. John G. Striegel. His Maroons had dominated local semi-pro leagues in Pennsylvania in the early part of the decade, but Striegel's ambitions reached higher than that. He wanted entry into the NFL, and would stop at nothing to not only get in, but win when he got there. When he scouted other teams and saw a player he liked, he recruited him the old-fashioned way: he offered the player more money than he could reasonably refuse. Striegel first got the NFL's attention by grabbing two prominent players from the folding NFL franchise in Canton, despite NFL president Joe Carr's desire to send them to the Cleveland franchise. Then he snatched two lineman from the Frankford Yellow Jackets (Frankford is an area in Philadelphia, and the franchise eventually became the Philadelphia Eagles) before their owner, Shep Royle, could re-sign them for the 1925 season. Remarkably, Striegel had managed to make enemies of the two most powerful people in the NFL before the Maroons had even joined the league. But he had the money to buy in, and Carr accepted the Maroons' entry figuring that teams traveling to the east coast could stop in Pottsville on the way back and pick up an easy paycheck, along with an easy win.

The league underestimated Striegel and the Maroons enormously. Despite an early loss in bad weather that threatened to bankrupt the team, the Maroons' combination of hired hands and local players toughened by years in the mines blew away some of the league's storied franchises, including Curly Lambeau's Green Bay Packers. While they lost in Philadelphia to Royle's Yellow Jackets, the rematch in Pottsville turned into a devastating rout, with the Maroons winning 49-0. This victory was very significant for two reasons. First, it gave the Maroons, at 10-2, the best record in the eastern half of the league. The best team in the west, the Chicago Cardinals, were eager to host the Maroons in a winner-take-all showdown. Although the league did not have an official championship game at the time, the media certainly described the Pottsville/Chicago match-up in that manner.

The other reason the Frankford game was important concerned a barnstorming team consisting of graduated members of the 1924 collegiate champion team from the University of Notre Dame. College football was already a big part of the national sports consciousness in 1925, and nowhere was it bigger than at Notre Dame. The barnstorming team included the legendary Four Horsemen, four backs still highly revered today on the campus at South Bend. The Notre Dame All-Stars booked a stadium in Philadelphia for a match between the Pottsville/Frankford winner. Royle was as ecstatic and enthusiastic as Striegel -- before the game. If losing made Royle jealous, being humiliated made him angry. As Pottsville moved on to play Chicago, Royle filed a protest with the league, on the grounds that the Maroons were about to violate an accepted but unwritten rule in the league by playing a game within twenty miles of another team's home stadium. (Apparently this rule did not affect the Chicago Cardinals or their crosstown rivals, the George Halas-led Chicago Bears.)

The issue became serious for the league when Pottsville went into Chicago and dispatched the Cardinals with a convincing 21-7 win. The sports press across the country were quick to proclaim the Maroons as the NFL's champion, and trumpeted the upcoming showdown with the Four Horsemen as a major event. Carr tried to stop Striegel from playing the game, and warned him that there would be consequences. Striegel persisted, partly because he didn't think the league's ruling would survive a legal challenge, partly because he had lost money on the team and couldn't resist the huge paycheck that came with this game, and partly because he hated backing down from challenges, on the field or off. Despite the dire consequences, the game went on. The Notre Dame All-Stars dominated the first half, but only had a 7-0 lead to show for it. Then the Maroons dug down, and wound up winning the game 9-7 on a last-second field goal.

The Maroons' victory did for the NFL what Joe Namath and the Jets would do for the AFL by winning Super Bowl III in 1969. The league now had the credibility to exist on an equal standing with the college game. But Pottsvile and its team reaped none of the rewards. The team was stripped of its title, and only existed for a few years after that. The 1925 championship was unofficially given to the Cardinals. Their owner at the time did not accept it, but the Bidwell family that bought the Cardinals from him has controlled the team through moves first to St. Louis and then to Arizona. As 1925 is one of only two championships the Cardinals have ever won, the Bidwells have squelched all attempts by the league to give the Maroons proper acknowledgment.

Fleming's writing is concise and easily readable. Regardless of the town in question, the story is gripping and compelling, and all Fleming had to do with it was report it as it happened. My one critique of the book is that Fleming hints that the league wanted to rid itself of the small-town teams, but doesn't go into enough detail about it or explain why that would be the case, or why one of those teams, the Green Bay Packers, managed to survive.

Anybody interested in the early history of the NFL will enjoy Breaker Boys. Of course, if you have any connection to Pottsvile, the book is required reading. As for Fleming making the case that the 1925 championship rightly belonged to Pottsville, well, I can hardly be objective. I do think that a league that doesn't have a problem awarding Coach of the Year to a man who was caught cheating can afford to give Pottsvile and the Maroons more recognition than they have.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

David Fleming

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