Monday, November 13, 2017
November 13, 2017: AthleteStudying: Pudge Heffelfinger
[November 12th marked the 125th anniversary of the signing of America’s first professional football player, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pudge and other groundbreaking professional athletes, leading up to a weekend post on Trump and sports!]
On how a groundbreaking athlete reveals three sides to the development of football and professional sports in America.
1) College vs. pros: The two central realities of football in the late 19th century are roughly equally hard to believe in our 21st century moment: that college football was pretty much the only game in town; and that the center of the college football universe were Ivy League institutions like Harvard and Yale. But those were the pigskin realities, and the legendary Yale career of Pudge Heffelfinger exemplifies them quite nicely. Heffelfinger was a three-time All-American at defensive guard during his four years at Yale (the 1888 to 1891 seasons), and he (under legendary coach Walter Camp) led at least two of those teams (1888 and 1891) to undefeated seasons. The 1888 team, moreover, also gave up precisely no points on the season, outscoring its thirteen opponents 698 to 0 (for an average victory of 53.7 to 0). Few if any sports teams, from any era or at any level, have equaled the success of that Ivy League football squad, and Heffelfinger helps us remember that striking fact and moment.
2) Haphazard growth: Professional sports were beginning to emerge in that same late 19th century moment; but, especially when compared with the juggernauts that our major sports organizations now seem to be, they did so in piecemeal and haphazard fashion. Heffelfinger’s historic paycheck embodies that randomness quite precisely—in the 1960s, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, alerted by a rediscovered item from Pittsburgh newspapers, recovered a long-lost page from the account ledger of the Allegheny Athletic Association. The page revealed that Heffelfinger had been paid both a $25 salary and a $500 “game performance bonus” by Allegheny to play in a game on November 12th, 1892. It appears that he was the only player paid to appear in that game; over the next few years, six other players would be paid, some for individual games and some on salary for entire seasons. Such was the individualized and haphazard nature of “professional” sports in the 1890s, and the first step toward the sports and cultural behemoth that is the 21st century National Football League.
3) Organization and Publicity: By the mid-20th century, both football in general and professional football in particular had become far more organized and wide-ranging, and in his final role in football (after a few years of coaching at various universities) Pudge Heffelfinger likewise exemplified that new era. Between 1935 and 1950, he compiled and authored Heffelfinger’s Football Facts, an annual publication that featured statistics and schedules for both college and pro teams. This periodical, one of the first of the now-ubiquitous annuals published for every major sport, did more than just reflect football’s growth and popularity, though—it also helped contribute to those trends, using the name and identity of this iconic early star to publicize and sell the sport to familiar and new audiences alike. One more side to the profession and business of sports that Pudge Heffelfinger embodies and helps us remember.
Next AthleteStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other athletes or related histories you’d highlight?