COMMENTARY | Growing up in Ohio, my family moved from town to town. I spent a great deal of time in north central Ohio. I had family in Canton, which is now the home of the Football Hall of Fame. The Hall opened on September 7, 1963. I began my quest to find out why Canton was chosen to be the site for such an honor several years ago. The older residents, as always, were a great source of information.
Ohio was a hotbed for football. The Massillon Tigers had dominated the Ohio league for years. The areas other major city decided it was time to end the Tigers dominance. The Canton Bulldogs began play in 1903. They joined the Ohio League in 1905. The Bulldogs finished second to Massillon that year. The 1906 season would see the first controversy for professional sports. The Bulldogs again finished second to Massillon. The two teams played a two game series for the championship. The first game was won by Canton while the second game was won by Massillon. The games resulted in the first gambling scandal in professional sports history. Some of the Massillon players were accused of throwing the first game while Canton Coach Blondy Wallace was the one accused in the second game. This would go on to destroy football in Ohio for the next four years. The league wouldn’t resume play until 1911.
In 1911 the Bulldogs were reborn. 1915-1917 saw Canton win three straight championships. 1915 had been the turning point for the franchise. The team signed the man that many consider to be the greatest athlete in the world: Jim Thorpe. Thorpe agreed to play for $250 a game. The team went on to beat Massillon in the championship game 6-0 on two Thorpe field goals. Thorpe took over as Player/coach from 1916 to 1920. No football was played in 1918 due to WWI. The Bulldogs won their third championship in 1919.
In 1920 a meeting was held in Canton. A new professional football league was formed at this meeting. It was called the APFA (American Professional Football Association). This league would later become the NFL. Canton and Massillon were founding members, although Massillon would never play a game in the new league. The Akron Pros would go on to win the leagues first title as Canton finished 8th with a 7-4-2 record. Thorpe left the team after the 1920 season to become the leagues first President. He was replaced by Coach Cap Edwards who guided the team to a 4th place finish at 5-2-3.
The league changed their name in 1922 to the NFL (National Football League). Canton won the first NFL Championship in 1922 with a 10-0-2 record. They followed that up with another undefeated championship in 1923 going 11-0-1. Although they were Champions, the team was bleeding money. They had lost $13,000 that season. The team was sold to Samuel Deutsch, who owned the Cleveland Indians football team, for $2,500. He moved the team to Cleveland where they won the 1924 Championship as the Cleveland Bulldogs.
Deutsch attempted to sell the team and couldn’t find a buyer, so he mothballed the franchise. A group of Canton Investors came together and repurchased the team for $3,000 The 1925 season saw the return of the Canton Bulldogs but their days would be numbered. The team finished in 11th Place at 4-4-0. The next year the team would finish in 20th place at 1-9-3. Prior to the 1927 season the league voted to drop 12 teams including Canton.
A rich history had been established between Canton and the NFL. When they went to pick a city for the Hall of Fame, what better city could have been chosen? Canton was the city that the NFL was born in. They were also the first Champions under the NFL banner. The Hall stands as a gem in the cities rich history. The battles on the gridiron still ring out to this day, only at a different level. Two of the great high school powers in the State of Ohio meet each year to battle for dominance of their region. The faces have changed, but the history still rings out as the Massillon Tigers battle the Canton McKinley Bulldogs.