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History Lesson: Professional Football in Columbus

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: Professional Football in Columbus
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The Columbus Panhandles, circa 1915 — courtesy CML – Joe Carr is Back Row far left

While the leaves are turning and falling throughout Columbus, the obsession and fervor with the OSU gridiron rises again, like a seasonal scarlet phoenix. Trips, parties, business deals and even weddings are scheduled, postponed and rescheduled depending on what team is battling the Buckeyes and the only two questions most commonly uttered are “where?” and “at what time?”. It seemed a natural to write about the men of the Scarlet and Gray, but then it dawned on me that we have another terrific football story in town that doesn’t get nearly as much play. But let’s start at the beginning and that does include our beloved Bucks.

Many may believe that the Ohio State University was founded in 1871 upon a football field – but the seeds of this sport weren’t successfully planted until 1890 when the men of the old North Dorm organized a rag-tag team and played their first winning game against Ohio Wesleyan up in Delaware with a winning score of 20-14.

By 1894 football began to gain some ground in the Capital City with teams being fielded by the Ohio Medical College (a fore-runner of OSU Hospitals), the Columbus Barracks and the 17th Regiment, both affiliated with the troops stationed at the time at Fort Hayes.

During the 1890s, the sport-to-follow was baseball – and if you asked most folks at Broad & High about this new game called ‘Football’, the most likely response may have been a blank stare in return. However, that was all about to change – specifically at the Northeastern corner of 16 East Broad Street.

Built in 1900 by the Packard Firm, the New Hayden Building – as opposed to the old Hayden Building next door at 20 East Broad – was one of Columbus’ very first skyscrapers. The AIA Guide to Columbus Architecture tells us that the Hayden Building topped out at twelve stories and was considered a true skyscraper due to its steel frame, which supported the floors and roof and allowed much more window space than the Hayden Bank Building next door, which was built with masonry.

The “new” Hayden Building proudly displayed its own monogram – capital ‘H’s carved from terra-cotta – in honor of owner Peter Hayden. Glancing up today, if you look closely, you may be able to discern some of the initials. Legendary Columbus architect Frank Packard occupied the 12th floor penthouse for many years and in the 1940’s, Marzetti’s Restaurant opened operations on the first floor before going into the Salad Dressing business as a full-time venture.

Joe Carr — photo courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame

Another Columbus visionary by the name of Joe F. Carr took up residence in the New Hayden in 1922. Born-at-home in 1879 in the Irish Broadway neighborhood along Mount Vernon Avenue to a prominent Irish-Catholic family, Joe was what anyone would refer to as ‘a real sports nut’.

According to Chris Willis, author of the Joe Carr biography, Joe grew up playing sandlot baseball and came to know future Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Quinn and owner Joe Drury from those childhood games.

By 1900, Joe had become the Assistant Sports Editor of the Ohio State Journal while continuing to work as a machinist in the Pennsylvania Rail Road Stations (PRR) Shops known as the “Panhandles”. (It is unclear if he worked directly with President Bush’s Great-Grandfather Prescott Bush in those shops, but it is known that the elder Bush also worked as a master mechanic there from 1891 until 1899 and was often a referee for football games in town.) While Joe was organizing a Panhandles baseball team at this time, he heard rumors that a new football team was planned to take shape, as well.

PRR Shops — photo by Gene Wells for the Columbus Dispatch 1955

That team that grew out of these plans was a ‘family affair’ – specifically, the Nessers – as it included five brothers from the same named family – John, Phil, Ted, Frank & Al Nesser. These brothers would play and practice at the railroad yards during their lunch-hour, according to Willis in his book, “The Columbus Panhandles the Toughest Team in the National Football League 1900 – 1922”.

The Panhandles shops had fielded a team since as early as 1900, but in 1907 Joe Carr took on the role as their manager and found additional players from the PRR to round out the team. He scheduled six games for them in 1907 with four of them played on the road. This was the great advantage of a railroad team – ease of transportation.

The team worked at the yard from 7:00am-4:00pm Monday through Friday and from 7:00am – noon on Saturday, when they would board the train and travel to the games destination which was being held on that Sunday.

So on October 13, 1907 the Panhandles under manager Carr played their first game in front of a crowd of 400. The Columbus Dispatch said of that game:

“Manager Carr’s Panhandle football team opened its season yesterday at Driving Park defeating the Columbias 38 to 0. The Nesser boys were in evidence during the game, Frank getting 3 of 7 touchdowns. Lack of accurate knowledge of signals on the part of the railroaders made their play less smooth than it would have otherwise been.”

The Nessers were Carr’s big draw. Whether at-home or on the road, against the Dayton Triangles or Canton Bulldogs, those guys had a legitimate and real following. When playing against the Fort Wayne team, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette of 1915 wrote:

“The Columbus outfit is headed by the Nesser Brothers. Big Huskies who are easily the equal of the best football players turned out by the biggest universities in the country.”

Knute Rockne once said of them, “Getting hit by a Nesser is like falling off a moving train.”

Nesser Brothers — courtesy CML from L R Ted, John, Phil, Al, Frank, and Fred

So with a traveling team and the star-power of the Nesser Brothers – Carr was becoming a recognized leader in the early professional sport. The Portsmouth Times reported on January 9, 1920 that:

“Carr is now in conference with J. F. Mullaney, football promoter in the Southern Ohio City in an effort to draw up plans for the proposed league. According to reports, cities to be included in the league would be Columbus, Cleveland, Canton, Akron, Dayton, Toledo, Massillon, Cincinnati, and Fort Wayne.”

This would lead to the formation of the American Professional Football League (APFA) in Canton, Ohio. The first head was former Canton Bulldog great Jim Thorpe. Other teams in the early league included the ‘Buffalo All-Americans’ and the ‘Chicago Tigers’.

The Panhandles ‘held their own’ and Carr continued to lead the crusade to get football ensconced in the pantheon of American Sports.

In Columbus, this was pretty easy to do with the frenzy caused by local star Chic Harley and his nearly undefeated Buckeyes – losing only once in Chic’s career during the final game against Illinois. So much excitement was generated at the time that OSU President Oxley Thompson and businessman Robert Lazarus led the building campaign for a new stadium to be built near the banks of the Olentangy River. It would come to be known as “the-house-that-Chic-built” or alternately – “The Horse-Shoe” – alluding to its original open-ended “U” form that allowed for track and field events as well as football.

In 1921, Jim Thorpe stepped down as President of the APFA and the leaders asked Joe Carr to take up the helm. He enthusiastically agreed and went on to state it was, “just a matter of time before professional football was as popular as baseball.” As excitement and interest grew and developed, twenty-one teams joined the league that season, including teams from Louisville & Green Bay.

16 East Broad — Photo courtesy Columbus Historical Society

In 1922 the APFA changes its name to the National Football League (NFL) and Carr opened up offices on the 11th floor of 16 East Broad, thus establishing Columbus as the first home of the NFL! This same year saw the completion of the afore-mentioned Ohio Stadium and was also the year the NFL placed a ban on college men playing in the league.

In 1923, due to a lousy record of 1-21-0 since beginning league play in 1920, lack of funds and the retirement of 3 of the Nessers (Ted, Phil and 47 year old John) the oldest team in the NFL – the Columbus Panhandles – disbands.

Joe Carr would go on to recruit teams from New York City (Giants) Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Detroit. In 1933 he wrote the rules that separated and distinguished college and professional football from each other. In 1935 he authored the NFL’s first record-book and in 1936 he created the first NFL draft.

On May 20, 1939 he suffered a heart attack at home on Bryden Road in Columbus.

From 1939 -1946, the NFL MVP Trophy was named in his honor. Additionally, from 1925 – 1928 he was President of the American Basketball League and from 1926 – 1931 was President of the Columbus Senators baseball team. In 1963 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Chris Willis argues that Joe Carr is the man who built the National Football League. Given all that I now know about this true sports aficionado, I cannot argue with him.

Special thanks to Chris Willis, head of the Research Library of the NFL for his love of Columbus Football and his prolific writings on the subject. He is author of “Old Leather”, “The Columbus Panhandles” and “Joe F Carr, The Man Who Built The National Football League” all by Scarecrow Press.

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