THE PITTSBURGH STARS
The early days of professional football were unpredictable and precarious as teams came and went. Finances were also risky and with just the telephone or telegram for quick communication, organising a schedule would always be a challenge.
Just as there were rival leagues at professional football’s inception, baseball also fought its own war of supremacy at the beginning of the twentieth century. One battlefield in the conflict between the National and American Leagues was in Philadelphia where the two baseball teams, the Athletics and the Phillies, decided to form professional football teams.
Phillies owner John Rogers began by taking control of the "Philadelphia Football Club" team and renaming them the Philadelphia Phillies. The Athletics owner, Ben Shibe, followed suit with a team named the Philadelphia Athletics which not only fielded local football players but made up the team with several baseball players. He appointed his baseball manager Connie Mack as the team's general manager and named former Penn player, Charles "Blondy" Wallace as the team's coach.
Rogers and Shibe knew that in order to lay claim to a "World Championship", they needed to have a team from Pittsburgh in the new league. At the time, Pittsburgh was the focal point of football. They called on pro football promoter Dave Berry, the former manager of football's first fully professional team, the Latrobe Athletic Association, to raise a Pittsburgh-based team to join them.
Berry achieved too much success with his team in Homestead and had frightened away any real opposition so the call from Philadelphia was gratefully received. He took the train to the city of brotherly love to meet with the two fractious Philadelphia owners and agreed to join the new league. Due to the animosity between Rodgers and Shibe, Berry was elected as league president.
The Pittsburgh Stars joined the two Philadelphia teams in August 1902 in the first attempt at a pro football league they called the National Football League. The Stars were rumoured to have been sponsored by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The new team was made up of many former Homestead Library & Athletic Club stars, suggesting that William Temple Chase, who funded Homestead, also contributed to the Stars.
The original intent was to include teams from New York, Boston and Chicago and for the schedule to begin in October. Charles E. Comiskey from Chicago was listed as an original member on the executive committee.
With the announcement of the league in early September, Berry remarked, “In Chicago and Philadelphia we have two of the greatest ball cities in the country and Pittsburgh is coming to the front. In Chicago we have not yet secured the players, but we have the grounds and will soon have one of the best teams there under a well-known man. We will play eight games in each city during the season.”
Berry hired Willis R. Richardson as coach. A former Brown University All-American who had quarterbacked the great Homestead team of the previous year. Richardson, who earned his All-American status by running 103 yards for a touchdown against Princeton, was confirmed as quarterback ensuring former Homestead teammates would follow him in joining the team.
With so many players from the Homestead All-Stars associated with the new Pittsburgh team they became to be known as the “Stars.” The Pittsburgh Press reported at the end of September that the new uniforms had arrived and they were beauties in scarlet and white.
By the end of September when the schedule had to be produced, the league had wilted to just the three Pennsylvania teams. The other teams were unable to get a sufficient number of players together.
Arthur Poe, who played with the Homestead eleven the previous season, joined the Stars just before the championship season began. The Daily Post highlighted Poe as one of the fastest players in the country and also one of the brainiest.
The two Philadelphia teams kicked off the league on October 18 with the Athletics scoring as the result of a fumble after their opponents had held them on the 2-yard line. The Athletics won 6-0.
PITTSBURG STARS LEAGUE DEBUT
Pittsburgh’s first league game was played in the Colosseum on November 4th and was described as the first championship game of the professional league in the city. With no rival professional circuit, the newspapers felt justified in promoting the league's games as part of a championship series.
The Philadelphia team is made up exclusively of former stars of the college gridiron. The men are big and powerful, the five players in the line, exclusive of the ends, weighing more than a thousand pounds.
The team is captained by Bert Kennedy, formerly of the University of Pennsylvania. Kennedy is a pupil of George Woodruff, one of the greatest masters of strategic attack the game ever knew. Kennedy plays quarterback and is rated among the best in that position.
The Pittsburgh Daily Post game report of the Stars 18-0 victory was very lengthy and this is just part of it:
The visitors were outplayed all around. They could do nothing either on the defensive or the offensive with Captain Richardson’s cohorts. In the second half they had the ball on the Pittsburg’s 15-yard line and this is the nearest they came to the goal line.
Three times Philadelphia tried to kick goals from the field, but each trial ended in a failure. The Quakers fought heroically, but to no purpose.
For Pittsburg, McChesney, Ellis and Schrontz were the bright stars. McChesney made three big runs that enthused the spectators. He dashed away for 22, 29 and 35 yards and made the Colosseum ring with cheers. His dash of 35 yards ended in a touchdown. The hole through which he shot was made by Shirring and Lawler and was large enough to pass a train of cars.
Ellis was always in the thickest of the fight and a hard fight it was. He never failed to make a gain. He also made a dash of 16 yards for a touchdown.
Schrontz played his position to perfection. He tackled fiercely and surely, but his running under punts was one of the great features of the game. He was always on his man and never missed a single chance. It did not take the Quakers very long to discover that it was useless to try his side of the line.
Three days later, the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette described how a big crowd of admirers were at the local passenger station to give a rousing sendoff for the players as they travelled to Philadelphia for the following day's game.
Before they left, the Stars practice had been fast and an hour spent playing basketball to provide excellent fitness and endurance.
That stamina wasn’t enough for the Stars as they developed fumblitis before the crowd of 4,000 in Columbia ball park where they lost 10-11 to the Athletics. The game was described by the Pittsburgh Daily Post as a grand contest and one that will be remembered by those who were present.
Pittsburg played the Athletics off their feet in the first half and Captain Wallace’s men could do absolutely nothing against the stonewall defense of the visitors, making only one first down. But on the exchange of punts, the Athletics gained considerably. McNulty, the new halfback, gave an excellent exhibition of kicking and it no doubt saved at least one more score.
The Stars scored two touchdowns in the first half to take a 10-5 lead at halftime. McChesney returned a punt for the first Stars touchdown and Kirkhoff added another as they took a 10-5 half time lead. A Pittsburg fumble set up Philadelphia’s touchdown.
More Pittsburg fumbles in the second half turned the game around for the Athletics as they came back to take the 11-10 victory.
On November 22 the Athletics beat Pittsburg by a score of 11 to 0 before a crowd of about 3,000. Neither side scored in the first half which lasted 30 minutes, but the Phillies made two touchdowns in the second period of 25 minutes, from which Roller kicked one goal. Roller also tried to for a field goal from placement from the 17-yard line in the second half, but the kick was blocked.
Promoted by the Pittsburg Daily Post as the greatest game of the season, the Athletics went to Pittsburgh to play pro football’s first Thanksgivings game.
With the Athletics leading the professional championship, a win for them would seal their crown as champions. Philadelphia’s Connie Mack was supremely confident of a win and believed his team only had to take to the field to roll up a score against his Pittsburg rivals.
The kickoff was delayed because of monetary challenges that were commonplace in the early days. Guaranteed $2,000, the Athletics manager Connie Mack decided there would be insufficient receipts to cover that guarantee so refused to take his players onto the field until he received assurances he would receive the money.
The President of the Carnegie Steel Company, who was watching from a box, agreed to cover the money and the game went ahead in the mud to a scoreless finish.
The only photo I could find of the Pittsburg Stars
Following the game that produced no result, an unscheduled final game was to be played and the build up by the newspapers was enthusiastic as usual.
The championship of the NFL will practically be decided Saturday when the Athletics and Pittsburg face each other. The decisive defeat of the Phillies by Pittsburg has put them out of the running and it’s now up to the Athletics to put a quietus on the Smokey City players.
The game only attracted 2,000 to the Colosseum to see the 11-0 defeat of the Athletics, with the Daily Post saying the game was worthy of 20,000 spectators.
The Post reported two halves of twenty five minutes. The Stars were so dominant that in the second half their opponents only once managed to get into Stars’ territory. The fans who stayed until the end were treated to a sensational burst of two touchdowns in two and a half minutes.
The Athletics muffed a punt to provide the Stars with outstanding field position. The Stars used Kirkhoff twice to punch the ball through the stiff Athletics defense. With just one down left (three downs to make five yards was the rule at the time),
Now the Pittsburgs fell back, formed a circle around Captain Richardson and listened eagerly to what he had to say. While the Stars had their heads together, Davidson, the visitor’s great fullback limped off the field with torn clothes and a muddy face.
Deems gleefully jumped into his place. Once more the Pittsburgs sent big Kirkhoff against the line. It cracked and crunched, piled up and when the referee separated the fallen players, the ball was one yard nearer the goal. The Athletics compelled the referee to take a line measurement to ascertain whether the Stars had made the distance. It was first down by half a foot.
The ball was now three yards from goal, and the spectators were shouting as they used to shout in the good old football days. On the sidelines the Athletics subs beseeched their companions to hold the Pittsburgs. The Pittsburgs jumped into their positions and every eye was on them.
Richardson sang out the signal. There was a quick movement on both sides and then Ellis was seen dashing against the Athletics left end. He cut through Baeder and Schafer like a streak and was over the line. Instantly, he was pounced upon by the visitors, but it was too late – the touchdown was scored.
Then the crowd broke loose. For the next few minutes more enthusiasm was launched than had been gathered at all previous games this season. People shouted, sang, screamed, threw up their hats and made other demonstrations that again reminded one of the good old days. Richardson kicked goal and there was another outburst of appreciation.
The score was now 6 to 0 in favor of Pittsburg and darkness began to settle on the field. A vigorous exchange of kicks now ensured. Captain Richardson was taking no chances and always returned the punts of Cure. Although the punts nearly all went to the Athletics 15-yard line, Cure’s became shorter and shorter.
Finally, from the Athletics 47-yard line, Richardson punted to the enemy’s 17-yard line. Here Baeder made a gallant effort to secure the ball, but instead muffed it, Arthur Poe dashing along on a dead run. He came so fast he was unable to drop on the ball. He did the next best thing, gave it a kick. Off went the ball at a merry bound over the goal line. Art Miller, the Indian, who had taken McChesney’s place a little earlier in the game flew over the ball and fell over it for a touchdown.
Another tremendous outburst greeted the feat. Half the spectators did not understand the play, but when they saw Richardson getting ready to kick goal they knew the Stars had scored another touchdown. Richardson failed at goal making the score 11 to 0, the whistle blew and the game was over.
So was the 1902 NFL season with its first champions.
All three teams claimed the pro championship for the year, but the league president, Dave Berry, named the Stars the champions on the basis of their late-season win over the Athletics.
PITTSBURGH STARS ARE THE CHAMPIONS
Richardson’s Stars Have Scored More Points Than Quaker City Elevens
Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette report of November 30 1902
The victory scored yesterday on the muddy field by the Pittsburgh Stars meant a great deal to the team as by virtue of the eleven points scored, manager David J. Berry now lays claim to the professional championship. In the five games played with the two Philadelphia elevens, the Pittsburgh giants of the gridiron have scored 39 points to 22 for the combined Quakers.
There have been five games played, two with the Nationals and three with the Athletics and with each Pittsburgh has broken even on victories and defeats against each team. However, having scored 21 to 11 against the Athletics and 18 to 11 against the Phillies. In every game played, the victory remained on the home ground.
The first National Football League results in order of being played.
Athletics 6 Phillies 0
Athletics 0 Phillies 17
Athletics 17 Phillies 5
Stars 18 Phillies 0
Stars 10 Athletics 11
Stars 0 Phillies 11
Stars 0 Athletics 0
Stars 11 Athletics 0
Author’s note: researching the early days of football is a tricky pastime. The labour of love can be a frustrating hobby when there are duplicate team names (in baseball and football and in newspapers) and different spellings to confuse the pursuit of fact.
I attempted to provide a flavour of authenticity in my article by committing, for me, a major crime by misspelling Pittsburgh and also Colosseum. Every mention of the city that gave birth to professional football in at the beginning of the twentieth century called it “Pittsburg” (except for the Weekly Gazette) and Wikipedia suggests the stadium was renamed the Coliseum, but the newspapers of the time spelt it as I have penned it.