October 9, 1926: Red Grange returns to Boston with upstart pro football league
Less than a year after Red Grange and the Chicago Bears debuted professional football in Boston, Beantown had its own professional franchise. Once again Grange was on the gridiron at Braves Field for one of the city’s singular sporting events.
Credit for Boston’s entry into the professional ranks belonged to Grange’s business partner, Charlie Pyle. After the 1925 season, which had proved wildly successful financially not only for Grange and Pyle, but also for the Bears, Pyle had approached the Bears’ co-owners, George Halas and George Sternaman,1 and asked for an ownership stake in the team. Without Grange, Pyle reasoned, the Bears would be hard pressed to repeat that financial success; and without a greater share of the financial bonanza, Grange wouldn’t play for the Bears. Halas and Sternaman said no.
Next, Pyle approached the National Football League and asked the league to allow him to put a team in New York, build it around Grange, and call the team the Yankees. The NFL, too, said no.2
So Pyle decided to launch his own league, to compete head-to-head with the NFL. He called it the American Professional Football League (more commonly referred to as the AFL). The 1926 season would be the league’s inaugural and, as it turned out, its only season in existence.
As president of the new league, Pyle hired, for a yearly salary of $25,000, former Princeton All-American Big Bill Edwards. Pyle retained controlling interest in the AFL, and placed teams in eight cities: the Los Angeles Wildcats, a traveling team in which Pyle retained a 50-50 split; the Chicago Bulls; the Rock Island (Illinois) Independents,3 the Cleveland Panthers; the Brooklyn Horsemen; the New York Yankees, which Pyle and Grange each held equally; the Newark (New Jersey) Bears; the Philadelphia Quakers; and the Boston Bulldogs. The Bulldogs would play their home games at Braves Field.
The Bulldogs’ coach was Charles Herbert “Herb” Treat. He came to his position with a significant scholastic pedigree. Treat had been a member of the 1922 Princeton team dubbed by sportswriter Grantland Rice as a “team of destiny”4 when, on October 28, 1922, in Chicago, Princeton’s defense had staged a gritty fourth-quarter, fourth-down goal-line stand to defeat the powerful University of Chicago Maroons, and their legendary head coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, 21-18, thereby preserving what became an undefeated 8-0 season (accomplished when the Tigers later beat Harvard and Yale to win the Big Three championship). At the conclusion of that season, Treat was named a consensus All-American.5
That Treat’s body of work encompassed one of the most renowned defensive plays in Princeton history was significant, because four years after that thrilling defensive stand at Chicago, the new Bulldogs coach helmed a professional team strong on defense but woefully inadequate on the opposite side of the ball. On September 22 Boston began its competitive season with an impressive 22-0 exhibition victory over the semipro Abington Old Town squad; but only once over the course of their regular season would the Bulldogs again come remotely close to such an offensive output.
The Bulldogs’ regular season began on October 3, 1926, at Newark’s David’s Stadium. In what was a harbinger of things to come for the league, only an estimated 1,000 fans were in attendance as the Bulldogs defeated the Bears, 3-0. Six days later Boston opened its home schedule, as the powerful New York Yankees and their superstar, Red Grange, visited Braves Field. This time, both the size of the crowd and the result were decidedly different.
Saturday, October 9, 1926, marked the inaugural home game by a Boston professional football team. As the Bulldogs warmed up on the Braves Field gridiron before a crowd estimated at between 10,000 and 12,000,6 the players undoubtedly must have been aware of the level of competition they were up against that day. Indeed, the following day the Boston Globe said it was “doubtful if a more powerful football team than the New York Yankees ever came to Boston. The line, composed of the biggest men playing football, was utterly impregnable, hard charging and savage in both attack and defense”; their “teamwork was precise,” their “interference fast-moving and solid.” In contrast, the Herald said of the home team, “Boston showed good condition and admirable gameness everywhere.”7 In truth, if Boston was not the equal in talent of the football Yankees that day, neither were they vastly inferior. As it turned out, the Bulldogs more than held their own.
With AFL President Edwards in attendance (he sat on the Boston side during the first half, and the New York side in the second), as well as future light-heavyweight boxing champion Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom,8 in town to fight Tiger Flowers, the blueprint for the game was drawn right from the start. At the outset a Boston fumble was recovered by the Yankees at the Bulldogs’ 26, and for the rest of the afternoon Boston dug in their heels and tried to withstand the superior Yankees attack. Although there was no scoring in the first quarter, New York several times drove deep into Boston territory, only to have the Bulldogs stop the vaunted Yankees backfield. Finally, as the clock ran down and the period ended, New York was poised for the first score of the afternoon.
If Grange was the Yankees’ biggest star, on this day it was his running mate who stole the show. In 1979 Eddie Tryon, from Medford, Massachusetts, just five miles northwest of Boston, was inducted into the Colgate University athletics Hall of Honor. From 1922 to 1925 Tryon had starred as a runner for the Maroon (now the Raiders); in his freshman season Tryon finished second in the East in scoring, and in his senior season led the nation and was named an All-American. Now, at Braves Field, as Grange and Tryon led New York down the field with crafty running, they advanced the ball to the Boston 21, as the first quarter ended.
In Tryon’s Hall of Honor biography on the Colgate website is written: Tryon “once piled up five touchdowns in a gorgeous exhibition of broken field running against Ohio State in 1923.”9 As the second quarter began this day at Braves Field, Tryon likely harkened back to that earlier day, for on the first play of the quarter he took a handoff and, as reported the next day by the Boston Herald, “shot through a quick opening inside of tackle and was under full headway before anyone could lay a hand on him. … He traveled like a veering bullet as he cut through the secondary defense … was hit on the three yard line [which] carried his feet out from under him, but threw himself over the line for the first touchdown.”10 In an alternate and perhaps even more descriptive account of the touchdown, the Globe reported that, Tryon “banged through the line, reversed field, shook off several tacklers and dove across the line with several tacklers hanging on.” Tryon then kicked the extra point. The Yankees led, 7-0.
There would be one final Yankees score before the game was through, but none for Boston. Try as they might, the Bulldogs failed to mount any semblance of an offense, missing their lone field-goal try and not generating even a single first down the entire game.11 They almost scored on a kickoff return in the third quarter, but runner Joe McGlone slipped on the baseball basepath and fell short of the goal. Of the Bulldogs defense, though, Boston fans could be proud. Indicative of the kind of intensity Boston’s defenders brought to the field was this effort: As New York’s Pooley Hubert “was bowling up the field like an express freight,” Boston’s Al Pierotti,12 who eventually spent nine years in the NFL, “met him with one of the most jarring tackles we ever saw. The shock was like that of a train wreck, but both boys got up unhurt and Pooley held onto the ball.”13 So it went on this day for Boston.
In the fourth quarter, the Yankees scored on a two-yard pass from George Pease to Roy Baker. When the point-after kick was missed, the score was 13-0, and that’s how the game ended. In the end, opined the Globe, the “difference between the two teams was the greater speed and offensive power of the Yankees beating back an eleven that was entirely a defensive aggregation.”14
It was an apt description of the Bulldogs’ season. With a final record of 2-4, Boston was outscored 81-20 in league play15 and finished sixth among nine teams.16 (With poor attendance throughout the league, three of their road games were canceled.17) The following season, Pyle took his Yankees to the NFL and folded his league. It wasn’t until 1929 that Boston again hosted a professional team, when the NFL’s Pottsville (Pennsylvania) Maroons relocated to Boston for the 1929 season.
They played that lone NFL season as the Boston Bulldogs.
This article appeared in "Braves Field: Memorable Moments at Boston's Lost Diamond" (SABR, 2015), edited by Bill Nowlin and Bob Brady. To read more articles from this book, click here.
Morton, Ira, The Red Grange Story: An Autobiography, as told to Ira Morton (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1957 and 1981), Kindle edition, 72-75.
1 In Grange’s first game at Braves Field, with the Bears, the previous December, one of his Chicago teammates was quarterback, Joey Sternaman. Joey was the brother of Chicago Bears co-owner George "Dutch" Sternaman and was the owner, coach, and quarterback of the APFL’s Chicago Bulls.
2 Pyle had already taken out a five-year lease on Yankee Stadium when he made his demand for a New York franchise in the NFL. New York Giants owner Tim Mara, who personally disliked Pyle, opposed the request because Pyle and Grange were muscling in on his territory. See David S. Neft and Richard M. Cohen, The Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of Professional Football from 1892 to the Present (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 60.
3 Rock Island had jumped from the NFL to the AFL.
6 Football reporting of this period was often inaccurate with respect to attendance figures, as well as the play on the field and even the players themselves. While the Boston Herald reported the day after this game an estimated crowd of 10,000, the credible research website profootballarcnives.com lists that estimate at 12,000.
7 Boston Herald, October 10, 1926.
8 The Rosenbloom-Flowers fight took place on October 15 and Flowers lost by being disqualified on a foul in the ninth round at Mechanics Hall in Boston. Flowers was the reigning world middleweight champion at the time of the game (the first African American to capture that division's crown). Rosenbloom and Flowers are both members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
10 Boston Herald, October 10, 1926.
11 Boston Globe, October 10, 1926.
12 Al Pierotti, the Bulldogs’ center, was familiar with Braves Field. As a right-handed pitcher, he had made brief appearances on the mound for the Braves in 1920-21. As a football player, Pierotti had a nine-year NFL career, playing 48 games with seven teams.
13 Boston Herald, October 10, 1926.
14 Boston Globe, October 10, 1926.
15 Bulldogs tailback Bill "Crungy" Cronin of Boston College scored the team's only offensive touchdown ever during a 17-0 defeat of the Brooklyn Horsemen on October 17. He played for the 1927-29 Providence Steam Roller. Cronin played baseball for the Boston Braves during the 1928-31 seasons as a backup backstop.
16 The Bulldogs played only one other game at Braves Field. On October 16 they lost to the Los Angeles Wildcats, 21-0, before 2,000 fans. The Bulldogs never scored a point at Braves Field during the regular AFL season and were shut out in four of their six games overall (Neft and Cohen).
17 At the end of October, Newark and Cleveland folded. Brooklyn folded in early November, followed by Boston. Rock Island gave up in mid-November. At the end of the schedule in December, only New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and the traveling Los Angeles squad were still playing.