The National Football League (NFL) began in 1920, but the New York Football Giants did not join the league until 1925. They were one of the first large city teams and played in the 14-year-old Polo Grounds with a seating capacity of 70,000.
Not that the club needed that much space for patrons. At the time, all any sports fan cared about was major league baseball and college football.
Professional sports develop enormous benefits from star athletes. They became all of our heroes. And the more heroes a team (or sport) employs, the more folks want to buy a ticket and see them play in a live environment.
In the 1920s, the University of Illinois was considered big-time college football. During the years 1923-1925, Red Grange was the most famous of them all. He had appeared on the cover of Time and graced the pages of the New Yorker, Collier’s and several other national publications.
During this time period, most great college football stars didn’t even consider a career in pro football and would instead immediately enter the business world. It was not considered an acceptable occupation because of the violence; whereas college football was tied to school spirit and viewed as inspiring and with more intensity, loyalty and honor than pro football. Even Grange’s father spoke in the Chicago Tribune about Grange not playing professionally. But Grange thought pro football was the avenue for him — and that he could make good money doing it.
Red Grange was the most watched, photographed and celebrated player in the nation. His nickname was the “Galloping Ghost.”
The NFL in those days was devoid of any draft so teams put together rosters as they saw fit. This meant, as soon as the college football season had concluded, any player could sign with any NFL club.
Grange hired an agent by the name of C.C. Pyle. Even until the 1960s hardly any players engaged personal agents so this fact was an oddity. But Pyle was a shrewd man with lofty goals for his client. This was a time when most players only made $100-150 a game while the true stars made as much as $500 a game. Grange signed with the Chicago Bears for half of all the gate receipts, a very uncommon arrangement. What was more unusual was that Grange had not yet graduated from Illinois. The result of that action created a sacred agreement between the pros and the college game by not signing college players with a year of eligibility left. Even today, the NFL and colleges collaborate on when a player can leave school and become a pro. This protects the school most of all, and their investment in the players as well as probable higher attendance.
The Bears were set to go on a barnstorming national tour with Grange as the feature. In his first game with the Bears against the crosstown Chicago Cardinals, a gate of 10,000 was expected although 20,000 tickets were printed. Over 39,000 fans jammed the turnstiles.
In the Giants maiden season of 1925, the club struggled financially. After the first 13 contests, the team was an astounding 10-3-0 including an eight-game win streak (although two games were against non-league clubs). But crowds at the Polo Grounds hovered around 10,000-20,000 per game; with as many as 5,000 tickets given away just to expose the New York audience to the pro game. Ticket prices were soon slashed to get folks into the stadium.
When Giants’ owner Tim Mara parlayed his $500 for the new team, he didn’t know a touchdown from an open field tackle. He soon discovered that a professional sports franchise would be more costly than he would ever expect. It cost the club $4,000 a week just to break even. The Giants were soon over $40,000 in debt — and the season wasn’t even over yet with four games remaining. And to make matters worse, three of those games were on the road which resulted in travel costs, hotel bills, meals and the visitor’s gate cut of 40% instead of the home team’s 60 percent. A close friend of Mara’s suggested he sell the team before it got worse and his losses increased.
Game number 14 on December 6 was a home game – against the Bears. The Grange-led Bears.
The Bears were also a very good team coming into the Giants game with an 8-2-3 record which included eight shutouts (all three ties finished 0-0). The contest was set to become a showcase for the NFL. At a time when one or two local newspaper men would cover each game, on this day over 100 reporters requested submission to the game from almost every Eastern city and several from the Midwest. The New York Times ran front page coverage in the days leading up to game time. The coverage was not centered so much on two good clubs going head-to-head as it was that Grange was coming to town.
New York City was enthusiastic in anticipation. Mara was nervous and hopeful for a good crowd.
On game day, 70,000 people filled the stadium with an additional 3,000 standing-room-only – all paying customers. It was reported that over 20,000 fans were turned away. Even though the Bears won, 19-7, the home crowd was rewarded with a good game, which included a Grange 35-yard interception for a touchdown.
The contest set a pro football record for attendance. More importantly, it wiped out the debt and put the Giants in the black over $18,000. The Times headline the following day publicized “70,000 See Grange in Pro Debut Here.” Writer Allison Danzig wrote, “There were thousands in that tremendous assemblage who probably never saw a game before, who did not have the slightest idea of what the proceedings were all about. They knew only that Grange was out there on the field among the twenty-two young warriors clad in moleskins and they watched to see what were the things he did and how he did them to differentiate him from the twenty-one others and win him such renown.”
When the NFL season was finished in the middle of December, the Bears went on their tour and played nine games in 25 days from Florida to Louisiana to California to Seattle.
From a small Midwestern town to a big city stadium, a red-haired teenager took New York by storm – and saved the New York Football Giants forever. Two seasons later, the Giants would capture their first of eight NFL titles.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association