The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire

Image of The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire
Release Date: 
October 9, 2018
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

“a very accomplished piece of sport history and a very good read for any fan of the game.”

Five NFL owners are the focal point for John Eisenberg’s The League. George Halas, the driving force of the Chicago Bears was a key figure in the formation of the National Football League at the Hupmobile Showroom in Canton, Ohio, in 1920. The four other owners came to the NFL in the early 1930s. As a group these five owners were rivals but were also the key figures in taking the NFL to the dominant position in now holds in American sport.

Tim Mara, a New York bookmaker, purchased the New York Giants in the summer of 1925. At the time his interest in professional football could best be described as none. George Preston Marshall, who operated a group of laundries in Washington, D.C., entered the NFL in 1931 when he invested $7500 to purchase an NFL franchise in Boston.

Of these five team owners, only Bert Bell came from some degree of wealth. He was the younger of two sons of one of Philadelphia’s prominent families. He lived the life of a playboy, a lifestyle that often tempted his father to disinherit him. He gambled his way through his father’s money, while developing a fondness for the race track, second only to his love of college football.

In the early 1930s Bell became interested in the Philadelphia Yellow Jackets, a struggling NFL team. Against his father’s wishes, he led a group of investors that purchased the team.

The fifth of these NFL leaders was Art Rooney who came out of an immigrant Roman Catholic working-class family in Pittsburgh. The Rooney family owned a semi-pro football team in the city, where Art was an owner, coach, and halfback. He and his brother were the proprietor of Dan Rooney’s Bar and Café, one of many centers of bookmaking activity in Pittsburgh. It was here that Art Rooney learned this trade. It was at horse tracks that Art made the money that he invested in bookmaking. In 1933 he purchased an NFL franchise for Pittsburgh.  

These five men provide the anchor for John Eisenberg’s well-written history of the rise and success of the National Football League. Much of the focus is on the thirties and forties, as it should be. It was in those two decades of struggle that the five owners held the NFL together and built a very strong base for future success. At times their teams were fierce rivals. In league matters the five always placed the interests of the NFL over their own.

The struggles were many. For each owner some of were personal, while others related to their team and the league. The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression challenged the creative powers of those running the NFL. The thirties was also the decade when segregation came to the league, the style of play changed dramatically, and the draft of college players was instituted.

The forties were marked by World War II and the dislocations it visited on the players and on at least one of the five rivals, George Halas who entered the Navy. Coming out of the war the All-America Football Conference challenged the dominance of the NFL. The new technology of television, inhibited during the war, now burst on to the scene. It was television, and the ability of the NFL to adjust to and exploit it, that was one of the keys to the NFL’s ultimate dominance of the American sports scene.

The desegregation of American life that began in the late 1940s made its mark on the NFL. It was, however, not until the coming of the American Football League in the 1960s that the NFL accepted the idea of desegregation on more than a token scale.

Eisenberg recounts many of these major developments in the NFL, and the leadership roles of the rivals. Generally they agreed on the major issue, with the exception of George Preston Marshall resisted some of the changes, especially the desegregation of his team. Eisenberg has a good eye and ear for the appropriate and amusing anecdote, which enlivens the narrative.

There are small errors and disputable interpretations as one would expect in a work of this scale. Eisenberg repeats the myth that Teddy Roosevelt threatened to abolish football, an idea that simply refuses to die. He also uses the term “integration” when in point of fact “desegregation” is more accurate and appropriate for the NFL and many other institutions in American life.

In the end, however, this is a very accomplished piece of sport history and a very good read for any fan of the game.