When the pro football teams from Green Bay and Minneapolis first met, Babe Ruth had just broken baseball’s career home run record of 137, a brand-new Ford Model T cost $325, and the Star Tribune’s very own legendary Sid Hartman was a toddler of 19 months.
The date was Oct. 23, 1921 and …
Can’t be. The Vikings weren’t born until 1961. Right?
Correct. But here’s the kicker: The Vikings aren’t Minneapolis’ first NFL team. They aren’t even No. 2 in the state. They were predated by a Minneapolis team called the Marines (1921-24) and Red Jackets (1929-30); and a Duluth team called the Kelleys (1923-25) and Eskimos (1926-27).
“The ’20s are my favorite NFL decade because there are so many good stories,” said Joe Horrigan, executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “It was such a tumultuous time as the league’s first decade. And Minnesota was a part of that.”
The American Professional Football Association began in 1920 and changed its name to the National Football League in 1922. Until 1921, the Marines were a successful semipro team formed in 1905, when they played in the 115-pound weight class and were stocked mostly with teenagers from neighborhoods surrounding the current site of U.S. Bank Stadium, the site of Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4.
The Marines and Red Jackets posted a 6-33-4 NFL record while going 0-27-3 on the road, including the aforementioned loss in the Packers’ first league game. Duluth fared better, going 16-20-3 while creating one of the league’s legendary tales in 1926.
That’s the year manager Ole Haugsrud and coach Dewey Scanlon bought the Kelleys from the players for $1, signed wildly popular Stanford All-America fullback Ernie Nevers, changed the team’s name to the “Ernie Nevers’ Eskimos” and sent it on the road for a national barnstorming tour of 14 league games (6-5-3) and 15 exhibitions from Sept. 20 until Feb. 5, 1927.
Breaking color barriers
In 1920 — 27 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier — the APFA opened with Fritz Pollard playing tailback for the Akron (Ohio) Pros and Bobby Marshall, a 20th-century Minnesota sporting icon, playing end for the Rock Island (Ill.) Independents.
“Pollard became the key because he was the one that brought other black players in,” Horrigan said. “He kind of bounced around from city to city, as a lot of pros did in the day, and he knew where black players could or should play.”
Pollard also became the NFL’s first black coach and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. His legacy lives on through the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes equal opportunity hiring in the NFL.
Marshall, the grandson of Virginia slaves, was born in Milwaukee on March 12, 1880, to Richard Marshall, an African-American, and Symantha Gillespie, a woman of German Jewish heritage. They moved north to Minneapolis, where Bobby became the University of Minnesota’s first African-American in football, baseball, hockey and the school of law.
He graduated in 1907 and practiced law downtown while becoming a local semipro football star. He joined the Minneapolis Marines in 1916, but was one of many standout players who moved on to Rock Island after World War I and a flu epidemic shut down independent football for the 1918 season.
Marshall was 40 by the time he joined Rock Island for one season (4-2-1). His second and final NFL season, according to “The Football Encyclopedia,” came five years later in Duluth (0-3).
Technically, Marshall was the first African-American to play in league history. Marshall’s Independents debuted with a 45-0 victory over the Muncie Flyers on Oct. 3, 1920, while Pollard’s Pros opened a week later by beating the Columbus Panhandles 37-0.
“My grandfather dealt with racism, but his feeling until the day he died [in 1958] was to stress education first,” said Bill Marshall, 67, who lives in the Twin Cities. “He took the general attitude about race and racism that these were by and large ignorant people. His feeling was people would have to respect you if you were educated.”
Ole’s grand investment
Standings in the 1920s are littered with small-town teams that popped up and disappeared. For example, the Oorang Indians from Marion, Ohio, existed for 20 games, all on the road (4-16), in 1922-23.
Formed as an advertising gimmick to promote Oorang Dog Kennels, every player was a Native American, led by Jim Thorpe, the legendary former Canton Bulldog who also was APFA league president in 1920.
The decade also featured the only midgame coaching change in league history. In 1921, Rock Island tackle Frank Coughlin was ousted as coach by teammates during a game. He was replaced by tailback Jimmy Conzelman, who didn’t learn of his promotion until a substitute entered the game and told him he was the new coach.
Meanwhile, in Duluth, M.C. Gebert, the owner of the Kelley-Duluth Hardware Store, lasted only one season as an NFL owner. His Kelleys went 4-3, but Gebert sold the team to his players.
The players owned the team in 1924 (5-1) and 1925 (0-3), but were facing tremendous debt from low attendance because of the harsh winters and Athletic Park, their dilapidated stadium.
“Ole Haugsrud steps in and buys the team for $1 and assumes the debt,” Horrigan said. “He also knows that he’s a close friend of Ernie Nevers. Next to Red Grange, Nevers was the best-known player of the time.”
Grange jumped to the upstart rival AFL before the 1926 season. It was assumed Nevers would follow when he was offered the outrageous sum of $15,000.
But Nevers, who was from Willow River, Minn., gave Haugsrud, 27 at the time, the opportunity to match and give him a share of larger gate receipts. Haugsrud agreed, and the wild, short-lived existence of the traveling Eskimos began.
“Ole called them Ernie’s Eskimos because if you’re from Minnesota, you must be an Eskimo,” Horrigan said. “They wore those big, heavy coats.”
But the Eskimos played only one league game at home in 1926-27. In league play, they went 6-5-3 in 1926 and 1-8 with Nevers as player-coach in 1927.
Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice dubbed the Eskimos the “Iron Men from the North.” To afford Nevers’ salary, Haugsrud gutted the roster to as few as 15 players, although teammates Walt Kiesling and Johnny Blood McNally ended up alongside Nevers in the Hall of Fame. To everyone but Nevers, Haugsrud paid $75 for a win, $60 for a tie and $50 for a loss.
Haugsrud suspended play for the 1928 season, which owners were allowed to do at the time. In the process, the league discovered that Nevers’ contract was not with the team, but with Haugsrud for “personal services.” The league later outlawed personal services contracts.
Essentially, Nevers belonged to Haugsrud and could not play in 1928. Nevers pitched for the St. Louis Browns before going back to Stanford as an assistant coach under Pop Warner.
“By the time the 1929 season rolled around, the league wanted Nevers back,” Horrigan said. “Ole agreed to sell the team [and Nevers] back to the league in exchange for the option to buy 10 percent of any future NFL team that came to Minnesota.”
Nevers returned to the NFL as a Chicago Cardinal and still holds the single-game record for most points scored (40 on six touchdowns — also a league record — and four extra points on Nov. 28, 1929). McNally played for the Pottsville Maroons in 1928 before moving on to Green Bay and helping the Packers win their first four championships starting in 1929.
His golden opportunity finally arrived in 1960 when the NFL convinced the ownership group of Max Winter, H.P. Skoglund, Bill Boyer and Bernie Ridder to back out of its deal for an AFL team and join the NFL starting in 1961.
The league kept its promise to Haugsrud. So Ole paid $60,000 for 10 percent of the team that later would be named the Vikings. Haugsrud owned 10 percent of the team until his death in 1976.
Roaring ’20s ends
Minnesota’s 10-season run with the NFL from 1921 to ’30 started Oct. 2, 1921, with owners Val Ness and Johnny Dunn, a former player and future vice president of the NFL, sending the Marines and their star player-coach Rube Ursula to Chicago to play the Cardinals. They lost 20-0.
The Marines played only four league games that year, going 1-3 while posting a 5-3 mark against nonleague teams. The only league victory was a 28-0 shutout of Columbus at old Nicollet Park, the 4,000-seat home of baseball’s minor league Minneapolis Millers from 1896 to 1955.
“Joe Carr, who was president of the league at the time, had the very difficult task of finding teams to fill out the schedules of what they called their major teams,” Horrigan said. “So the league was planting a lot of franchises around the country. Joe actually was trying to create ‘A’ and ‘B’ leagues, with the ‘A’ teams being in big baseball cities that had stadiums.
“Teams like the Marines were good semipro teams. But they were cannon fodder for the major NFL teams that mostly stayed home. But they also would get good gates by playing those games.”
The Packers, some say, were on a trial basis when they joined the league in 1921. Some historians have suggested the Packers needed to beat the Marines in that first game to even stay in the league.
That might help explain the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s reaction to Curly Lambeau kicking the game-winning extra point in the come-from-behind victory. (Unfortunately for Minneapolis, the Marines and Red Jackets went a combined 0-8 against the Packers while being outscored 124-18.)
“Cushions went flying in the air while soaring hats were as thick as Green Bay flies on a July night,” the paper wrote. “Staid gray-haired businessmen jumped around like school kids and there was a continual din that could be heard blocks away. … It was the kind of game that will be talked about for years to come.”
Although the Marines were later resurrected as the Red Jackets, the end became obvious during the 1930 season. Beginning in November of that year, the team was so broke that it began sharing players with the Frankford Yellowjackets as the league office looked the other way.
Pennsylvania’s Sunday “Blue Laws,” designed to enforce religious practices, made this easier since the Yellowjackets played home games on Saturdays.
The Red Jackets finished 1-7-1. On Nov. 24, 1930, they played the Staten Island Stapletons on the road. They lost 34-0.
It was 31 years before Minneapolis participated in another NFL game. The Vikings upset the Bears 37-13 at Metropolitan Stadium on Sept. 17, 1961.