Professional Baseball and Football: A Close Relationship

This article was written by Brian McKenna

This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)

The National Football League and baseball have enjoyed a close relationship from the beginning. To capitalize on the popularity of baseball, pro football teams have, at times, adopted major league names: Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants, New York Yankees, and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Jets picked their name to rhyme with the Mets when they moved into Shea Stadium. Similarly, the Chicago Bears chose their moniker to draw a link with the local Cubs. Boston owner George Preston Marshall rented Braves Field, so he took on their name. It wasn’t until he moved the club to Fenway Park that he changed the nickname to Redskins. A closer relationship unfolds with a study of the men who played both games.

The Hall of Famers

In 1919, George Halas, a former football star at the University of Illinois, played five games in right field for the New York Yankees. The following year, Babe Ruth would occupy that slot and Halas would be among the original contingent to form the American Professional Football Association, which in 1922 would be renamed the National Football League. By ’22, Halas had assumed ownership of the Decatur Staleys, moved them to Chicago, and changed their moniker to the Bears. He would play for, manage, and administer the team until his death in 1983, the only man associated with the NFL throughout its first 50 years.

Halas is one of eight NFL Hall of Famers tied to major league baseball. The others include Red Badgro, Paddy Driscoll, Cal Hubbard, Greasy Neale, Ernie Nevers, Ace Parker, and Jim Thorpe. Badgro sandwiched a NFL  career  around two seasons as a part-time outfielder for the St. Louis Browns in 1929-30. Driscoll’s 13 games with the Chicago Cubs in 1917 ended his amateur career as a star halfback and kicker at Northwestern University. Three years later, Driscoll became a charter member of the NFL as quarterback and halfback for the Staleys and Chicago Cardinals.

Cal Hubbard was a star end, tackle, and lineback­er for Centenary College in Louisiana and Geneva College in Pennsylvania, earning All-American rec­ognition in 1926. The following year he turned pro, signed with the New York Giants, and helped them win the NFL championship. Halas, for one, claimed that Hubbard was the best lineman he ever saw, cer­tainly the most feared of his era.

During the off-season, Hubbard began umpiring in the minors and was promoted to the American League in 1936. While hunting birds after the 1951 baseball season, Hubbard was struck in the eye with a shotgun pellet. The injury forced his retirement; though, he stayed as a supervisor until 1970. Hubbard is the only man concurrently enshrined in the Baseball, College Football, and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

Greasy Neale starred in baseball, football, and bas­ketball at West Virginia’s Wesleyan College. He joined the Cincinnati Reds in 1916 and later starred in the infamous 1919 World Series, hitting .357. Football was his calling, though. While still playing baseball, Neale played football professionally and coached at Washington and Jefferson, a small Pennsylvania college that attained substantial national recognition and a Rose Bowl berth under Neale’s guidance. The longtime college coach joined the NFL with the Eagles in 1941 and won the NFL championship in 1948 and ’49.

Ernie Nevers’ first major league hit came off fire­baller Walter Johnson; however, he is best known in baseball for giving up two home runs to Babe Ruth during the famed 1927 season. A 6-12 record and 4.64 ERA did not distinguish Nevers on the ball field. The gridiron was another matter. He was recognized by Pop Warner as the finest football player he ever coached, much to the dismay of Jim Thorpe fans.

Nevers’ reputation was made in a hard-fought contest against Knute Rockne’s Four Horseman of Notre Dame in the 1925 Rose Bowl, though his Stanford team lost 27-10. Missing most of the season with two broken ankles, Nevers taped up to compete in all 60 minutes of the game.

After turning pro, Nevers became a storied full­ back with the Duluth Eskimos and Chicago Cardinals in the NFL during 1926-31. On Thanksgiving Day 1929 Nevers executed perhaps the finest individual performance in NFL history. He scored all the points for the Cardinals in a 40-6 rout over the Chicago Bears. Nevers rushed for six touchdowns and kicked four extra points. To date, no one has surpassed his point total; it is the NFL’s oldest surviving significant record.

Ace Parker hit a pinch home run in his first at­ bat in the bigs for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1937. Playing baseball and football full-time, the infielder decided to concentrate on football in ’39, though he did sneak away during the spring and summer to swing a bat in the minors through 1952.

Jim Thorpe is generally regarded as the finest male athlete of the 20th century. He initially gained fame as a two-time All-American halfback at the Carlisle Indian School. At the. 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, he won the pentathlon and decathlon, a feat no other iron man has duplicated. Unfortunately, the Amateur Athletic Union stripped his medals and amateur status in early 1913 after it was discovered that Thorpe had played Class-D baseball in 1909-10.

John McGraw stepped in and signed the Olympian to a three-year contract with the New York Giants in February 1913. Retiring with a career .252 batting average over six seasons, Thorpe’s baseball highlight may have come with the winning hit against Hippo Vaughn in the 10th inning of the famous double no­ hit game on May 2, 1917.

Thorpe helped reorganize the Canton Bulldogs in 1915, beginning his professional football career. In the years prior to the development of the NFL, Thorpe enjoyed his most productive seasons on the gridiron. He could do everything well: run, pass, kick, catch, and tackle. Thorpe is credited by many with reviving the pro game and almost single-handedly improving its financial future.

Thorpe later served as figurehead president of the American Professional Football Association. The fledgling league used his popularity to gain credibil­ity. During the 1920s Thorpe wore the uniform of eight different teams.

NFL Players and Officials

In all, 68 men have donned the uniforms of MLB and the NFL, plus one that played strictly in the AFL. Of those, Brian Jordan has played significantly more baseball games than the rest and, conversely, Deion Sanders has done the same between the goal posts. Vic Janowicz became the first Heisman Trophy winner to play in the majors in 1953, after signing a bonus contract with the Pittsburgh. After 83 games and a .214 batting average, Janowicz left the Pirates in ’54 to join the Washington Redskins. His football career was over two years later after a near-fatal auto accident during training camp.

Hugo Bezdek is the only man to manage in MLB and coach in the NFL. Bezdek, who never played base­ ball but did work as a scout on the West Coast and as Pittsburgh’s business manager, was hired by Barney Dreyfuss to manage the Pirates during 1917-19. Tom Brown, who appeared with the 1963 Senators, was the first major leaguer to play in the Super Bowl. The defensive back helped the Packers take the first two. Across the line that first championship game was run­ning back Mike Garrett with Kansas City. Garrett, the 1965 Heisman Trophy winner, became a huge feather in the American Football League’s cap when he signed with the Chiefs for five years and $450,000. When his contract expired, Garrett left football to join the Pittsburgh Pirates organization but quit after being traded to the Padres, never reaching the bigs.

Charlie Dressen, Bo Jackson, and Deion Sanders are among the bigger names to play in both pro leagues. Manager Dressen won 1,008 games in 16 sea­sons with five different major league clubs, including two pennants with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952-53. He also played quarterback for two NFL teams in 1920-23.

Bo Jackson was one of the premier athletes of the 20th century. In 1985 he won the Heisman Trophy as a running back for Auburn University, rushing for 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was named MVP in both the 1983 Sugar Bowl and 1984 Liberty Bowl. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made him the #1 pick in the NFL draft in 1986, but Jackson opted to sign a $7 million deal with the Kansas City Royals instead. Then Bo announced his intention to play football as well and signed with the Los Angeles Raiders.

As a testament to his skills, Jackson was the first man to play in both the All-Star and Pro Bowl Games. On a routine tackle during a 1991 playoff game, Jackson suffered a career-ending injury that required hip-replacement surgery. He was able to return to baseball in 1993, becoming the first professional ath­lete to compete with an artificial hip.

Sanders was drafted by the Kansas City Royals out of high school but chose Florida State University instead. There he starred in baseball, football, and track and field, qualifying for the 1988 Olympic trials as a sprinter. As one of the top defensive backs in the country, Sanders was named All-American twice.

In 1988 Sanders was selected by the Yankees in the amateur draft. The NFL Atlanta Falcons drafted him the following year. He played both sports for eight years, then retired from baseball. In September 1989 Sanders became the first athlete to hit a home run and score a touchdown for major league teams in the same week. Sanders earned two Super Bowl rings in the 1990s, becoming the first man to play in both the Super Bowl and the World Series. Sanders is recog­nized as one of the all-time great cornerbacks.

Others of note include Carroll Hardy, the only man to pinch-hit for Ted Williams. It happened in 1960 after Williams fouled a ball off his foot. Hinkey Haines played 28 games in the outfield for the Yankees’ first world championship team in 1923 and two games in the World Series. A running back out of Penn State, Haines led the league in touchdowns for the champion New York Giants in 1927.

Minor league legend Ox Eckhardt played fullback  for  the   Giants   during the 1928 season. He  left the  gridiron  for the promise  of a  baseball  career. Though he had only two brief stays in the majors, Eckhardt  batted  .367 in 14  seasons  in  the minors. From 1925 to 1940, he collected nearly 2,800 hits and five batting titles.

Reserve catcher Charlie Berry played 11 sea­sons in the American League  from 1925 to 1938. He also played in the NFL for two seasons with the Pottsville Maroons in 1925-26. Berry later umpired in the American League for 21 years and refereed in the NFL for 24 seasons. He was the head lines­man during the famous 1958 championship game. Syracuse University fullback Ron Luciano made the Detroit Lions roster in 1959-60, but never made it off the injured reserve list.

Dusty Boggess umpired in the National League from 1944 to 1962. He also refereed over 500 games in the NFL and scouted for the Steelers. Fellow umpire Frank Umont was a tackle for the New York Giants in 1943-45. Longtime umpire, farm director, and general manager Billy Evans joined the Cleveland Rams as general manager in 1941. Umpire Jim McKean played at quarterback and kicker in the Canadian Football League.

Catcher Mike Wilson appeared in five games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1921. He also donned foot­ ball gear professionally prior to the existence of the NFL. Later, Wilson became an assistant to NFL Commissioner Bert Bell and supervisor of officials. Red Kellett played nine games in the infield for the Red Sox in 1934. In 1953 he was hired as general manager by the Baltimore Colts. From there until his retirement in late 1966, Kellett build one of the powerhouses of the NFL.

Negro Leagues

Jackie Robinson’s UCLA teammate Kenny Washington and Woody Strode beat Robinson to the bigs when they joined the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. The NFL had not fielded an African American player since 1933. Three Negro Leaguers, Bobby Marshall, Sol Butler, and Joe Lillard, played during the early years of the NFL.

Bobby Marshall played first base and managed in the Negro Leagues in 1909-11. At 40 years old in 1920 the former University of Minnesota star joined Rhode Island in the NFL. Playing end, he reappeared in the league for three games with Duluth in 1925.

Pitcher Sol Butler appeared in a few games for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1925, posting a 1-0 record. The back out of Dubuque played 23 games in the NFL during 1923-26, rushing for a pair of touchdowns.

Pitcher-outfielder Joe Lillard toiled on the dia­mond from 1932 to 1937 with the Chicago American Giants, among others. During the off-season in 1932 and 33, Lillard played for the Chicago Cardinals as a halfback, punt returner, and kicker. As roster sizes shrank during the Depression, Lillard and Pittsburgh Pirates tackle Ray Kemp would be the last African Americans in the NFL until after World War II.

Jackie Robinson played professional football in the Pacific Coast Football League in 1941 and ’44 with the Los Angeles Bulldogs. The PCFL was a place African Americans found work waiting for the NFL to inte­grate. Robinson’s teammate with the Bulldogs, Ziggy Marcell, also played in the Negro Leagues.

Early Professional Football

Professional football initially developed from a rivalry among Pittsburgh area clubs in the 1890s. However, the first major hotbed was in Ohio at the end of the decade. The four-way antagonism between Latrobe, Canton, Massillon, and Greensburg later spurred the development of the modern game.

Ed Abbaticchio played fullback for Latrobe in 1895-1900. He is reputed to be the first to boot a spiral punt. Since baseball bred a much more hospi­table lifestyle, Abby played 28 games at third base for the Phillies in 1897-98 and was later picked up by the Boston Braves in 1903. Ballplayer and future presi­dent of the Players’ Fraternity, Dave Fultz, also played pro football in Pittsburgh at the tum of the century.

Dave Berry, one of football’s foremost coaches and promoters, formed the Latrobe, Pennsylvania, team in 1895. Suffering financial hardship, Berry encour­aged Phillies owner John Rogers to form a football team in 1902 to create a rivalry. This was during the NL’s war against the upstart AL, a battle which was especially acrimonious in Philadelphia due to the loss of Napoleon Lajoie, Bill Bernard, Chick Fraser, and Elmer Flick to the crosstown Athletics.

A’s owner, Ben Shibe, wasn’t about to be outdone. He recruited his manager, Connie Mack, and famed University of Pennsylvania tackle Blondy Wallace to build a better team. A couple more clubs signed up and the first professional football league was established, called the National Football League. The league folded after only one season when the Athletics pulled out after losing $4,000. However, it did make an impact. During the season the aptly named Philadelphia Athletics won the first professional football night game, under a crude lighting system aligned along the sidelines. Christy Mathewson, a former halfback at Bucknell, played punter for the Pittsburgh All-Stars, and it is unclear whether guard Rube Waddell saw action, though he did suit up for the A’s. Fred Crolius, on loan from the Pirates, was a teammate of Mathewson.

Pennsylvania clubs may have established the first professional football league in 1902, but the true development of the pro game grew out of an Ohio rivalry between Massillon and Canton which began in earnest the following year. Charlie Moran, for­mally a college standout, took over the reins of the Massillon Tigers as player-coach in 1905. In 1927 he also led the Frankford Yellow Jackets in the NFL. Moran umpired in the National League for 23 years between 1918 and 1939 after brief stints as both ends of the battery for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1903 and ’08. Fellow umpire Cy Riger lined up at right tackle for the pioneering Tigers in 1903.

Charlie Follis, a catcher for three seasons with the  Cuban Giants, joined the Shelby football club of the Ohio League, where he played beside and later against Branch Rickey. On September 15, 1904, with Shelby the halfback became the first African American to officially sign a professional football contract.

Here, an interesting chain developed which linked integration in both professional football and base­ball. Follis, the first African American professional football player, was a teammate of Rickey, who hired the first acknowledged African American profession­al baseball player in organized baseball in the 20th century, Jackie Robinson. Robinson, in turn, was a UCLA teammate of Kenny Washington, who, along with Woody Strode, reintegrated the NFL in 1946.

American Football League, 1926

In 1925 George Halas signed running back Red Grange to a Bears contract and began barnstorming. Their trip throughout the country helped popularize the sport. Grange’s agent, C.C. Pyle, saw an opportu­nity to showcase his star and formed the short-lived American Football League. Major leaguers Garland Buckeye, Johnny Mohardt, and Al Pierotti played in the AFL.

All-American Football Conference, 1946-1949

The administration of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the AAFC was run, at various times, by baseball men William Cox, former Phillies owner; Branch Rickey; and Freddie Fitzsimmons. Rickey added Pepper Martin to the roster after seeing him fooling around kicking a foot­ball. The 44-year-old Martin was suc­cessful during the preseason but devel­oped an injury and never played during the season despite the team’s hopes.

Hall of Farner Ace Parker played in the AAFC, as did Pete Layden and fullback Jim Castiglia. In 1948-49 tailback Herman Wedemeyer played for the Los Angeles Dons and Baltimore Colts. He then played baseball for the PCL San Francisco Seals’ farm club in Salt Lake City in 1950. Wedemeyer went on to serve in the Hawaiian state con­gress and found a recurring role on the tele­vision show Hawaii Five-O.

American Football League, 1960-69

Tom Yewcic played quarterback, halfback, and punter for the Boston Patriots during 1961-66. Prior to that, he played a game at catcher for the Detroit Tigers in June 1957. AFL founder Lamar Hunt was a backer of Bill Shea’s aborted Continental League.

The Minor Leagues

Yankees power-hitting prospect Ken Strong suffered a career-ending wrist injury in 1931. He originally broke the bone against the center-field fence making a catch, but it was misdiagnosed as a sprain. After the season, a doctor performed surgery on his right wrist but removed the wrong bone. Strong had lost the flex­ibility needed to play baseball. On 1930 he went deep four times on June 8 in an Eastern League game and set the season mark with 41 round trips while also batting .373 and knocking in 130 runners.

The 200-pounder had starred at New York University during their successful 1926-28 cam­paigns. Strong returned to football and became a Hall of Fame halfback and kicker for the Staten Island Stapletons and New York Giants.

Other NFL Hall of Famers to play in the minor leagues are Sammy Baugh, John Elway, Joe Guyon, Don Hutson, Bobby Layne, Art Rooney and Charlie Trippi. Canadian Football League Hall of Farner Lionel Conacher also played in the minors.

Among the recent NFL men to have played in the minors you’ll recognize Cedric Benson, Bubby Brister, Isaac Byrd, Quincy Carter, Elway, Kay-Jay Harris, Doug Johnson, John Lynch, Mewelde Moore, Vernand Morency, Jay Schroeder, Akili Smith, Chris Weinke, and Ricky Williams.

Baseball and football share a common link at the executive level as well. Joe Carr, Bob Howsam, and Edward Bennett Williams are among the many that have helped shape both industries. Future profes­sional athletes tend to excel at many sports before they focus on their career path. Many baseball men shined on the gridiron in college and found a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame or local galler­ies, such as Charlie Caldwell, Chuck Essegian, Bob Harvey, Jackie Jensen, Dutch Meyer, Homer Norton, and Jack Thornton, to name a few. For these reasons the two sports will always share a bond. There are sure to be many more in the future, some learning their trade as you read.

BRIAN McKENNA grew up and lives in Baltimore. A lifelong baseball fan, his first book Early Exits: The Premature Ending of Baseball Careers, will soon be released from Scarecrow Press.



Special thanks to Mark Ford of the Professional Football Researchers Association for finding many of my errors and sparking the thought process.



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