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Pottsville Maroons Historical Marker
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Name:
Pottsville Maroons

Region:
Poconos / Endless Mountains

County:
Schuylkill

Marker Location:
North Center Street, Pottsville

Dedication Date:
December 10, 1999

Behind the Marker

Pottsville Maroons team photo
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Pottsville Maroons team photo, 1924.
If the November 1925, signing of the great Illinois running back markerRed Grange presaged the NFL's center-stage future in the nation's sporting consciousness, the events of December remain a vivid reminder of how much of a sideshow major-league pro football could be, on the field and off, in its wild-and-wooly first decade. On December 6, in the snows of Chicago, the powerful Pottsville Maroons picked apart the Chicago–later St. Louis, now Arizona–Cardinals 21-7 in a collision of gridiron titans billed as the league's championship. Within six days, the title was nullified in a series of controversial management maneuvers still debated today.

Looking back from a twenty-first-century perspective, the real head-scratcher might be how Pottsville, a mining and textile town northeast of Harrisburg and the smallest ever to host an NFL franchise, wound up in the league to begin with. The answer reveals much about both Pottsville and the NFL in the 1920s.

Advertisement for game between the Pottsville Maroons and Bethlehem Bears, December 1926.
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Advertisement for game between the Pottsville Maroons and Bethlehem Bears, December...
With the college game still very much king, pro football had a hardscrabble quality reflective of both the players and fans drawn to it, and such towns as Pottsville–and the whole of Pennsylvania's coal country, really–coalesced into the ideal crucible beyond the ivied walls of academe. From the late nineteenth century on, amateur and semi-professional coal town teams found sponsorship from their towns, local businesses, and even volunteer fire companies. They packed the stands with passionate fans; a good team was an immeasurable source of pride. It helped forge a unified community from a diverse ethnic stew.

At first, these teams drew players strictly from the local talent pool, but as competition heated up on the field, the off-the-field competition heated up, too, and teams stocked rosters with paid players, mostly former college stars from elsewhere. By the early 1920s, Pottsville's mix of locals and professionals was easily the strongest in the region. In 1925, team owner John Striegel, a surgeon who had played football growing up in Pottsville and then at Penn, decided to test his eleven on the biggest stage possible: the fledgling 20-team NFL.

After paying the $500 franchise fee and an additional $1,200 guarantee to the league raised by the community, Striegel called local sporting goods owner Joe Zacko with news that he needed twenty-five jerseys. Zacko asked what color; Striegel didn't care. When Zacko delivered twenty-five in burgundy, the Maroons became a literal reality.

Frankford Yellowjackets 1926 team photo.
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Frankford Yellowjackets 1926 team photo.
Stiegel paid his players well–they earned more in a week than most of the miners rooting them on could earn in a month–and his team became virtually unstoppable. Led by Coach Dick Rauch, an avid ornithologist and football visionary– he pioneered a wishbone-line offense, daily practices, the taxi squad, and the screen pass– they won nine of their first eleven games, six by shutouts, including whitewashes of the Canton Bulldogs and Green Bay Packers, two of the league's founding clubs. As the season rolled on, they even avenged their losses with lopsided routs, including a 49-0 shellacking of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, precursors of the Eagles.

The Maroons were so popular that 10,000, many in their Sunday best, showed for games at Minersville Park, which only seated 5,000. "Every time the Maroons played," recalled one resident, "it was like a holiday in Pottsville. These guys were folk heroes." And about to be world champions.

By the end of November, with the season over, the Maroons, at 9-2, and the 9-1-1 Cardinals were clearly the class of the league, alone at the top of the standings. But their schedules had not crossed. Realizing there was money to be made, Chicago challenged the Maroons to a hastily organized showdown on December 6, which journalists immediately dubbed "the NFL championship." Hundreds of locals went west to root the Maroons on. Thousands more tried crowding into the Pottsville's Hippodrome Theatre where the game's progress, wired over telegraph, was charted, play-by-play, by cutouts moved across a screen.

The Pottsville faithful were not disappointed. "In the face of a driving attack by the Eastern eleven," wrote the Chicago Tribune, "the Cardinals curled up and were smeared in the snow on the gridiron at Comiskey Park yesterday, 21-7." When the victorious Maroons returned home by train that night, they arrived marker to a celebration.

Newspaper article, Philadelphia Public Ledger and North American, "Pottsville Tumbles Four Horsemen by 9-7," December 23, 1925.
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"Pottsville Tumbles Four Horsemen by 9-7," Philadelphia Public Ledger and North...
The joy, however, was short-lived. The following week, the new champs, in need of a cash infusion, planned to take on a team of Notre Dame All-Stars, featuring the famed Four Horsemen backfield, in an exhibition at Philadelphia's Shibe Park. Given the Irish's 10-0 mark that season, the game was billed the "Greatest Football Game Ever Seen in the East." Anticipation was fevered.

But there was a problem with the site of the game. Philadelphia sat within Frankford's home region, and the team's owner, still reeling from the November drubbing, protested to the league's commissioner, Joe Carr, that Pottsville was preparing to encroach on his territorial rights. The commissioner agreed.

The game went on anyway. At halftime, Striegel was handed a telegram from Carr fining the Maroons $500 and suspending the team from the league, making them ineligible for the title they had just won. Spurred on by the news, the Maroons played on, and played fiercely. Down a point with less than a minute to go, they kicked a 30-yard field goal to upset college's best team 9-7.marker It was a defining moment for the professional game.

Instead of celebrating it, however, the league voted to strip the Maroons of their title and anoint the Cardinals instead. Chicago's owner wanted no part of the proceedings. Still, the Cardinals name remains in the championship record book.

The Maroons returned to the league's graces for 1926, but it wasn't the same, for many of the best players had moved on. Still, the team went 10-2. They fell to a mediocre 5-8 in 1927, and a miserable 2-8 in 1928, before moving to Boston for a year, and then folding.

But the Maroons" story wasn't over. Several players went on to remarkable post-football careers–their upward mobility unstained by a stint in the rowdy world of early professional football–ranging from the president of A and P, the nationwide food chain, to an executive with Chrysler, to the dean of American League umpires. Rauch put his knowledge of birds to use by exploring the Antarctic for the government.

And through the years, Pottsville residents have tried to petition the league either to reverse the 1925 decision or at least name their Maroons co-champions. Despite the long-time backing of Bears" founder George Halas, and, more recently, Steelers owner Dan Rooney, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, the marker Pennsylvania General Assembly, and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the NFL's other owners, led, not surprisingly, by the Cardinals, continue to vote it down.

"It's not right," Rooney said with obvious frustration. "When you talk about the birthplace of professional football, you're talking about Pennsylvania, you're talking about the Maroons." And about a team that should not be dismissed. "The Pottsville Maroons were the most ferocious and most respected players I ever faced," Red Grange once told a gathering of the football faithful in his hometown of Forksville. "You know, I always believed the Maroons won the NFL championship in 1925…but were robbed of the honor."

To this day, more than just Pottsville agrees.
 
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