A rare slice of NFL history in its infancy will be up for grabs during Heritage Auctions’ current catalog auction, which takes place May 17-18 in Dallas.
A program from an Oct. 24, 1920, game between the host Rock Island Independents and the Racine Cardinals shows the National Football League during its first season, when a loose confederation of teams combined to form the American Professional Football Association.
Rock Island, Illinois, is part of the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa that straddle the Mississippi River. Quick, now — name the other three cities. Most people can guess Moline and Davenport, but few remember Bettendorf. But in 1920, Bettendorf was a small town, so the area was known as the Tri-Cities area of northwestern Illinois and southeastern Iowa.
The Cardinals already were establishing themselves as a wandering franchise, foreshadowing later moves to St. Louis and Arizona. In 1920, the Cardinals were alternately listed as being from Racine, Wisconsin, and Chicago; the Daily Times of Davenport, Iowa, in its preview, noted that “Tomorrow’s game at Douglas Park against the Racine or Chicago Cardinals, as they are now known,” was a big game for the Independents, who were 3-1 but had suffered their first loss a week earlier, falling 7-0 to the Decatur Staleys. The touchdown by the Staleys marked the first points scored against the Independents all season, as they had scored 48, 45 and 26 points in three shutout wins to open the year.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, were 1-0-1, opening the season with a scoreless tie against the Chicago Tigers and then pummeling the Moline Universal Tractors 33-0. The Cardinals were led by quarterback John “Paddy” Driscoll, who “runs like a 12-pound jack rabbit and hits the line like a two-ton truck,” according to the Daily Times.
The program offered by Heritage Auctions is a rarity because there are so few that still exist from the 1920s. Heritage is touting it as the oldest known APFA program. The card is red and measures 5½ inches by 3½ inches. It includes the team rosters for both squads and is topped by an advertisement for dancing at the local Coliseum. There are check marks next to the names of the Rock Island players who played in the game, with some other writing at the bottom of the program.
The game seemed to have more importance in Iowa. In an advertisement that anchored the bottom right corner of the Daily Times sports page, fans were asked, “Well, Who Is Going To Win This Time?” The game preview merited a banner headline in the Daily Times sports page on Oct. 23, with a subhead that warned “Independent Players Fight for Grid Lives; Defeat Will Mean Blue Slip Distribution.” Meanwhile, The Chicago Daily Tribune blithely devoted a paragraph about the upcoming game in its Oct. 19, 1920, edition.
Apparently, the threat of unemployment was a motivating factor for the Independents, who won 7-0 before a hometown crowd of 4,000 fans. Iowa native Sid Nichols, stepping in for an injured Rube Ursella at quarterback, threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to fullback Arnie Wyman early in the second quarter. Nichols also kicked the extra point.
Driscoll missed two dropkick attempts, and the Cardinals’ best chance to tie came in the final moments, when Driscoll completed passes of 22 and 10 yards to the Rock Island 24. On the next play, Driscoll threw a pass that Lenny Sachs caught at the 5-yard-line, but he fumbled and Rock Island’s Ray “Waddy” Kuehl recovered just short of the goal line.
It was the first loss of the season for the Cardinals. Both teams would finish at 6-2-2 and tied for fourth place in the league, which had 14 franchises during the season.
Driscoll was the Cardinals’ coach during the franchise’s first three seasons, going 17-8-4. Driscoll also coached the Chicago Bears for two seasons, leading them to the Western Conference title with a 9-2-1 mark in 1956 before losing 47-7 to the New York Giants in the NFL title game. He went 14-9-1 overall.
In 1965, Driscoll would become the third quarterback to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, following Dutch Clark (1963) and Jimmy Conzelman (1964). Driscoll passed for 18 touchdowns and ran for 25 during an era where the forward pass was rare. He also caught four TD passes. Driscoll died in Chicago in 1968 at the age of 73.
Nichols went on to coach college football, piloting Occidental College in Los Angeles from 1923 to 1925 and compiling a 13-10 record. Among his coaching victories was a 20-6 win against UCLA in his debut season. In 1926 he returned to the gridiron as an assistant with the Hollywood Generals of the Coast League, but by 1930 he was a salesman at an auto agency in Los Angeles and had become a manager by 1940. He remained in the auto industry in southern California for many years and died in 1971.
The opening bid for the program offered by Heritage Auctions is $2,500; with a buyer’s premium, that works out to $3,000 for starters. If there is a reserve on this lot, Heritage Auctions will post it on May 10.