The 1920 Hammond Pros (Photo source: NFL.com)
role in the founding of the
National Football League
By WES LUKOSHUS
Chair, Steering Committee
Hammond Sports Hall of Fame
When families and football fans gathered around dinner tables
and wide screen TVs Thanksgiving Day, 2019, presumably, there
was plenty for which to be thankful.
Indeed, Thanksgiving 2019 provided a noteworthy reason for thanks,
appreciation and reflection by National Football League fans
across northwest Indiana and, particularly, the city of Hammond.
The reason? It was 100 years prior to Thanksgiving, 2019 that, according to documented accounts, the NFL "unofficially" may have been conceived. On that 1919 day of thanks, a professional
football game was played in Chicago between teams from Hammond
and Canton, Ohio.
12,000 fans came to watch
Back in the day, American football’s national popularity
resonated at the collegiate level. But when a throng of 12,000
fans delayed their turkey dinner to take in the tussle between
the Hammond Pros and the highly-respected Canton Bulldogs, there
were those who became persuaded that the time for major league
professional football in the United States had come.
The 1919 Canton Bulldogs that took the field in Chicago that
November day was a formidable foe that had competed in the highly-respected
Ohio League since the 1910s. The Hammond Pros of 1919 was an
independent, traveling outfit that is documented to have compiled
a record of 4 victories, 2 defeats & 3 ties that year.
George Halas played
Included on the Hammond roster was a wide receiver named George
Halas, who would leave the Pros the following year to suit up
with the Decatur Staleys, which eventually became the Chicago
My research was unable to uncover facts and statistics regarding
the outcome of that Hammond-Canton encounter, but the 12,000
attending fans arguably was the game’s most compelling
In no small way, the relative size of such an audience for a
professional football game on Thanksgiving Day provided significant
proverbial turkey to chew on. Subsequently, according to the
book, “America’s Game: The NFL at 100,” a
letter written by Halas to the owner of the Canton Bulldogs
led to an initial meeting in August, 1920 to explore formation
of an encompassing professional football league.
Hammond Pros, an NFL charter member
A subsequent meeting took place a month later, Sept. 17, 1920,
attended by team owners/representatives from some of the most
respected professional football organizations in the Midwest
and New York.
The Hammond Pros and its owner, Dr. Alva Young, took a seat
at that meeting, from which was born the American Professional
Football Association (APFA)—renamed the National Football
League two years later. At the meeting, the Hammond Pros became
an NFL charter member and its owner, Young, an NFL founder.
The league began play that very autumn!
As described in “America’s Game…,” the
newly-organized NFL was a far cry from today’s high octane,
highly-branded operation. Teams did their own scheduling with
no apparent regard for consistency relative to number of games
Hammond Pros went 2-5 in 1st season
During that premiere APFA/NFL season of 1920, the Hammond Pros
compiled a 2-5 record after having joined other charter franchises
from Akron, Canton (OH), Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Muncie,
Detroit, Buffalo (NY), Rochester (NY), Chicago, Rock Island,
Racine and Halas’ Decatur Staleys.
The APFA/NFL came out of its entry gate featuring such headline
players as Jim Thorpe and Fritz Pollard. Thorpe, a former all-purpose
college sensation at tiny Carlisle (Pa.) Indian Industrial School
who also won unparalleled Olympic gold medals in the 1912 decathlon
and pentathlon events and competed in major league baseball,
played for the Canton Bulldogs. To help build league credibility,
he was named the new league’s first president.
Pollard was an Ivy League collegiate running back star at Brown
University and just the second African-American named to the
Walter Camp Collegiate All-America team. The Chicago native
would go on to become one of the great pioneers of American
Fritz Pollard & the Pros
His professional football legacy and that of the Hammond Pros
intersected when he played for and coached the Pros for part
of the 1925 season.
During the APFA/NFL’s debut campaign, Pollard, a marked
man racially on and off the field, demonstrated elusiveness
and toughness to lead his Akron Pros to the league’s initial
championship, defeating Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs and Halas’
Decatur Staleys twice each.
When he added co-coaching to his responsibilities with Akron
in 1921, Pollard earned historical distinction as the NFL’s
first African-American head coach. He also was the first African-American
named to the National College Football Hall of Fame (1954) and
was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
7-year Hammond NFL run ends in 1926
As for the Hammond Pros, there would be no league titles or
anything close in their relatively short NFL history. Competing
by and large as a semi-pro team comprised of local players who
fit football around other jobs, they compiled just a 5-26-4
record during their seven-year existence (1920-26).
As a franchise without a home, Hammond played virtually all
its home games in Chicago at a Wrigley Field known back in the
day as Cubs Park. The end for the Pros and Hammond’s NFL
affiliation occurred when the rival American Football League
folded its operation after the 1926 season. The action prompted
an NFL strategic decision of addition by subtraction—eliminating
smaller franchises and travel teams to become a leaner, more
financially secure organization of 12 members.
One last legacy note of significance regarding the Hammond Pros:
six of the nine African-American players who competed in the
NFL during the Hammond franchise’s 1920-26 existence played
for the Pros.