The Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio, mainly because the National League was founded there, as the American Professional Football Association, in 1920. But the location can also be considered a tribute to the Canton Bulldogs, the first really professional football team.
The Canton Athletic Club was organized in November of 1904 to operate baseball and football teams, but the emphasis was on football and the goal was to beat the Massillon Tigers, who had won two straight Ohio championships.
To bolster its 1905 team, Canton hired seven players away from the Akron AC, including player-coach Bill Laub. For the game against Massillon, they added even more outside players, including halfback Willie Heston. A three-time All-American, Heston had scored somewhere between 90 and 100 touchdowns for the University of Michigan. Reportedly, he was paid $600 for that one game, but Massillon held him in check and won again, 14-4.
Sometime during the 1906 season, the Canton team became known as the Bulldogs. The squad had been further improved through the addition of four former Massillon players. There were two Canton-Massillon games that year, eight days apart. The Bulldogs won the first game, at Canton, but lost the second, and Massillon again claimed the Ohio championship.
Shortly afterward, the Massillon newspaper reported that Canton coach Blondy Wallace had tried to bribe some Massillon players to throw the game. When that failed, the story continued, Wallace had decided to throw the game the other way. The report was probably groundless, but it helped to kill football in both Canton and Massillon for some years. An even bigger factor may have been the amount of money the team spent on players.
In 1911, a new team, called the Canton Professionals, was organized. Despite the name, it was made up entirely of local players and the pay was undoubtedly small. But that began to change in 1915. Massillon made the first move to strengthen its team, hiring several players away from the Akron Pros and Canton followed suit by signing most of the other Akron players. Jack Cusack, who had become manager of the Canton team, also restored the old Bulldog name.
As the first of two Canton-Massillon games approached, Cusack scored a major coup by signing the great Jim Thorpe for $250 a game. However, Thorpe played only sparingly in the first game, at Massillon, and the Tigers won, 16-0. For the second game, Thorpe took over as coach, played the entire game, and kicked two field goals in a 6-0 win.
Canton became much stronger in 1916, when Cusack brought in a number of players to complement Thorpe. The Bulldogs went undefeated, beat Massillon 24-0, and were generally recognized as the professional champions, not just of Ohio, but of the country.
While other professional teams of the era hired top players mainly for big games, Cusack had put together a relatively stable squad that included several former All-Americans. He was able to do it because Thorpe was such a drawing card. Attendance had averaged about 1,500 a game before Thorpe's signing. Afterward, crowds generally ranged from 6,000 to 8,000, which was the capacity of Canton's League Park.
In 1917, the Bulldogs won their first eight games, including a 14-3 win at Massillon. However, they lost the rematch at Canton, 6-0. Most teams, including Canton and Massillon, sat out the 1918 season because of World War I and the influenza epidemic. In the meantime, Cusack left Canton for the oil business in Oklahoma and Ralph Hay took command of the team.
Hay, a successful auto dealer, kept Cusack's team pretty much intact in 1919 and the Bulldogs rolled on. They were tied by Hammond, 3-3, but made up for that by winning a rematch, 7-0. Both games were played in Chicago at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field, by crowds of 10,000 or more. Canton was once again proclaimed pro football's world champion team after edging Massillon, 3-0, on Thorpe's late field goal.
But pro football, as it existed then, was in serious trouble. Trying to catch up to the Canton Bulldogs, other teams were spending more money than they could afford. They were also stealing players from one another, which drove salaries even higher.
Ralph Hay's auto showroom was the setting for two meetings, in August and September of 1920, at which the American Professional Football Association was organized. Hay was probably the instigator and Jim Thorpe of the Bulldogs was named the APFA's first president, solely because he was the most famous name in the game.
In the APFA, Hay and the Bulldogs probably found the competition somewhat tougher than expected. Canton had a respectable 9-5-4 record over the next two seasons. The APFA became the NFL in 1922 and Hay hired Guy Chamberlin as Canton's player-coach. Chamberlin was an outstanding end who's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player, but he must have been a pretty good coach with an eye for talent.
Chamberlin rebuilt the Bulldogs into a championship team. He kept just five players from the 1921 squad, added a mixture of rookies and veterans, and Canton rolled to 10-0-2 record. Chamberlin himself was a major addition, as a player. The Bulldogs were trailing the Chicago Cardinals, 3-0, in the fourth quarter of their game at Canton when Chamberlin blocked a punt to set up the go-ahead touchdown. Then he returned two interceptions for TDs to give the Bulldogs a 20-3 win. That team remained pretty much intact in 1923. The result was another undefeated season (11-0-1) and another NFL championship.
But the players who won the championships were too expensive for Canton. Reportedly, the team lost about $13,000 in 1923 and the Canton Athletic Company sold the franchise to Cleveland promoter Sam Deutsch for $2,500 in August of 1924. Deutsch already owned the NFL's Cleveland Indians. He added seven players from Canton, renamed his team the Bulldogs, and they won the 1924 championship. Guy Chamberlin was also player-coach of the Cleveland Bulldogs, so he became the first to coach NFL champions in three consecutive years.
Deutsch then sold the franchise back to a group of Canton investors for $3,000 and the Canton Bulldogs were back in the NFL, along with the Cleveland Bulldogs. Canton was a respectable 4-4-0 in 1925 and a woeful 1-9-3 in 1926.
Before the 1927, the league decided to purge itself of some of the weaker franchise. Twelve teams were jettisoned, including the Canton Bulldogs and three other charter members of the APFA.
Pro Football Hall of Famers
Wilbur "Pete" Henry
William "Link" Lyman
Year W L T Finish Coach
1920 7 4 2 8th Jim Thorpe
1921 5 2 3 4th Cap Edwards
1922 10 0 2 1st Guy Chamberlin
1923 11 0 1 1st Guy Chamberlin
1924 did not play
1925 4 4 0 11th Harry Robb
1926 1 9 3 20th Harry Robb, Pete Henry
Totals 38 19 11