Friday, October 10, 2008

Canton vs. Masillon, 1906

The image above is a detail from a panoramic photo taken at a game between the Massillon Tigers and Canton Athletic Club on November 24, 1906. Note the grid lines on the field, which run from both side-to-side and end-to-end. My small version of the photo doesn't do it justice. If you click through to the Library of Congress website, you can see the full image. It's rich with detail, and it also captures an historic game in the tumultuous pre-NFL world of pro football.

Historian Bob Carroll describes the image in an article at the website of the Pro Football Researcher's Association. (note: link is to a pdf)

The Haines Photo Co. of Conneaut photographed the asylum grounds in the midst of play. The view shows the 110-yard field lined off with the peculiar lengthwise lines five yards apart parallel to the sidelines that, together with the normal yard markings, turned gridirons into huge green checkerboards from 1906 to 1910. (The extra lines were used to judge the legality of forward passes, which had to cross the line of scrimmage five yards out from where the ball was put in play.) At either end of the field, American flags crown each upright of the goal posts. On the Massillon side, the open bleachers overflow except for a small section down near one end zone, where a skinned baseball diamond is visible. Across the field, there's no room left in the smaller Canton bleacher section, and spectators stand three deep behind the bench and from end zone to end zone. Perched on the outfield wall are hundreds more. Even the streetcars parked outside the wall have fans on the roofs. In the mid-background, brooding over all, is the state hospital.

The two teams were bitter rivals. They were arguably the best two teams of the era, located just 15 miles apart, and they were constantly fighting for the services of the game's best players. Both were spending lavishly to bring in ringers from out of town. A series of intense negotiations resulted in an agreement for the teams to meet two times, first in Canton on November 16 and a week later in Massillon. The much anticipated first game went to Canton by a score of 10-5. Carroll describes the hub-bub the game created:

No pro game had ever received such press coverage. The Bell Telephone company even had men stationed in the grounds observing. As fast as a play was made, it was telegraphed to all the large cities in the country.

Things were much testier by the following week. There had been a war of words in the press, and a disagreement over which ball to use nearly kept the game from getting underway. Massillon won the hard-fought rematch 13-6.

The evening after the game, a brawl erupted among Canton players during dinner at their hotel. It later came out that some thought the game had been fixed. The play-calling strategy of player-coach Blondy Wallace was the focus of suspicion, but as the scandal grew, a number of contradictory allegations came out. One story suggested that Canton players had bet large amounts of money on themselves to win, and then Massillon players had been approached and asked to fix the game, to lose on purpose in exchange for a share of the wager's proceeds. Charges and accusations were levied back and forth for weeks, and while there was never any definitive answer as to what happened, the scandal engulfed both teams and forced them to fold.