Nearly 100 years ago, on November 25th, 1920, the biggest, most important professional football game that no one knows about took place in Chicago. The American Professional Football Association may have been officially founded at a car dealership in Canton, Ohio in September 1920, but by all rights, the Windy City was its hub.
After all, this was a league made up of teams from Midwestern cities, and there was none bigger than Chicago, which had two franchises: the Chicago Tigers from the North Side and the Racine Cardinals – so named because they played in Normal Park, off Racine Avenue – from the South. They were competing in the same league, for the same fans and most importantly, the same dollars. But while Chicago was big, it wasn’t that big, they felt. So despite a 0-0 tie in their first matchup in front of 10,000 fans, the Tigers and Cardinals decided that one of them had to go. Their second meeting would carry with it greater stakes that moving up or down in the standings: The loser would have to fold their franchise.
Not even finish the season. Just pack up and go home. On Thanksgiving Day, no less. Great story, right? You bet – if it were true.
“It’s an urban legend,” says Ken Crippen, a football historian and former executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. “The Tigers were not a good team and they faced a lot of financial struggles – there was no way they could compete with the Cardinals. The Tigers folded because they couldn’t stay afloat financially, not because of the outcome of a game.”
The Tigers and Cardinals did play for a second time that season, but not on Thanksgiving Day – it was actually on November 7 – and certainly not for the loser-goes-home stakes that have been attached to the game. It was another showdown at Cubs Park (now known as Wrigley Field), where the Cardinals won, 6-3. Quarterback Paddy Driscoll scored the game’s only touchdown, on a 40-yard run, this time in front of a crowd of 7,000.
So why write a story about a game that wasn’t? Because sometimes finding out how an urban legend began is better than the urban legend itself. No one – even the historians – seems to know for sure where this tall tale got its start. Crippen has a theory that perhaps the story emerged from a promoter trying to drum up interest for a game involving a 2-1-1 team and a 1-2-1 team.
There was very little media coverage of the APFA at the time, with college football being the dominant fall sport. Box scores in the newspapers were generally the only record of a game. In fact, the write up of the second meeting in the November 8 edition of The Chicago Daily Tribune was a small, un-bylined story on page 15, totaling 217 words. So if the legend of Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien challenging Tigers owner Guil Falcon to a winner-take-all duel wasn’t true, there wasn’t anyone around to dispute it. Or care.
There is also another line of thought – and a more plausible one: Like Crippen says, the Tigers were going bankrupt and needed an excuse when they didn’t return for the 1921 season.
“The directions that both teams were going in were pretty clear, even in 1920,” says Joe Horrigan, executive vice president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the sport’s foremost historian. “So when they played that game, I’m sure there was talk that, ‘Only one team is going to make it in this town,’ and all of that, but I think it was just one of those things where one team wins and the other loses; it’s easy to think one won’t survive. And the Tigers were going broke anyway.”
The lie though has continued to live on even as the decades have passed.
Go to the Wikipedia page about the history of the NFL on Thanksgiving and you’ll find it listed as the first notable game. Go to the Tigers’ Wikipedia page and it’s there, too. (Though both pages denote its urban legend status.) There are articles written about it, regurgitating the lie to future generations. Even crazier? On the team history page of the Arizona Cardinals – descendants of the Racine/Chicago/St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals – on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s own website, the loser-leaves-town challenge is woven in with the real history of the club.
“I think it has to do more with people looking back,” Horrigan says of the myth’s continued growth. “That these were two teams that played each other, one team won and the following year, the other team was gone. I think that’s where it came from. Sort of a ‘Two-plus-two-equals-three’ equation.”