Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Tonawanda Kardex

In the modern-day NFL, it's easy to forget the league's roots; the years prior to the first Super Bowl are rarely brought up beyond vague references to leather helmets. It's often easy to forget any sports league's roots, in fact; the days before the league stabilized, expanded, and built the palatial stadiums they currently call home. It's easy to forget the sport's humble beginnings, when teams popped up anywhere that would have them, when games were played in less-than-ideal facilities more likely than not built for something else, when it was uncertain which teams would live and which teams would die, but it was certain that if the league wasn't careful, EVERY team would die. It often makes for some of the most fascinating stories any sport has to offer, as one can sit watching highly-trained athletes with highly specialized skills decked out in state-of-the-art equipment and marvel at how, many years ago, these same athletes would have been semi-random guys with day jobs trying to make do with whatever was handy that day.

I imagine part of the reason I take an interest in it is because, at least in the NFL's case, I'm in the catchment area of the last true callback to that era of the NFL, the Green Bay Packers- the last blue-collar, small-factory-town team. Other teams from that era exist, but the callback sputters out somehow for all but the Packers. The Chicago Bears are no longer the Decatur Staleys. The Detroit Lions are no longer the Portsmouth Spartans. The New York Giants are still the New York Giants, but... they're the New York Giants, not the Poughkeepsie Giants or the Utica Giants or the Syracuse Giants.

Most of the other teams from that era have simply died off. The graves of teams such as the Hammond Pros, Oorang Indians and Rock Island Independents go unmarked and unvisited, even teams that won titles such as the Providence Steam Roller and the Pottsville Maroons (whose title was later taken away and given to what are now the Arizona Cardinals, a transgression that Pottsville curses the owning Bidwell family for to this day). And even among these gravestones, there is one that is less loved than any other, seen only as a curiosity: the Tonawanda Kardex.

The official record will show the Kardex, otherwise known as the Lumbermen, as having lost one game in 1921, a road game, by the score of 45-0, and then folding. This is officially the shortest tenure in NFL history. In reality, it's a little more complicated than that.

Tonawanda, a suburb of Buffalo, first saw the All-Tonawanda All-Stars in 1916, playing semi-pro ball at a high school field. Coached by Walter "Tam" Rose, the All-Stars played in the the New York Pro Football League, which would later merge with a like-minded league in Ohio to create the NFL. The All-Stars-slash-Lumbermen would win that league in their second season, 1917, defeating the Rochester Jeffersons in the final. 1919 brought a trip to the semifinals.

In 1920, New York and Ohio joined forces to create the American Professional Football League, which would later be renamed the NFL. The Lumbermen were not part of the inaugural class, but would play a mixture of teams that were and teams that weren't. They went 7-1, including a 14-3 win over the Jeffersons on Thanksgiving (which, by the way, was the first year of the NFL Thanksgiving tradition.)

In 1921, however, the league worked to keep league teams from playing non-league teams. Tonawanda decided to take the plunge- it only cost $50 to join.

There were, however, two changes made. They were renamed the Tonawanda Kardex, after sponsor Rand Kardex, an company that six years later would become Remington Rand, the company that created UNIVAC. The other change was that the Kardex would be a traveling team. If they were going pro, the Kardex needed money, and Tonawanda, New York was not the place to go look for money. They wouldn't be the only such team; the Buffalo News reported at the time that there would be "eight or ten such teams to do the touring to the big cities where the dough lies."

First, though, was a tuneup against the Syracuse Pros, who were themselves in what would be their only pro season, and who Tonawanda had previously done well against. Syracuse would have won the game, but a last-second touchdown reception was pulled back on a holding call. The game ended a scoreless tie, contributing to Syracuse's professional lifetime record of 0-2-1, but not counted in Tonawanda's record. Next was supposed to be a game against the amateur Rochester Scalpers, but the game was cancelled. Instead, the Kardex would begin their professional career against the Rochester Jeffersons, who they knew they could take.

They couldn't. The Jeffersons crushed them 45-0, the worst defeat the Kardex had ever suffered. No further details on the game are available.

The writing was on the wall. The Kardex were not up to professional standards and they knew it, folding with only the one game on their record. The Professional Football Researchers Association shows they couldn't find any more opponents to play, but that was probably fine by them. The next season, the franchise fee rose from $50 to $1,000, but the PFRA figured the Kardex "wouldn't have operated had the guarantee been 10 cents."

Buffalo had another team in that era, but it was so haphazard and chaotic that Wikipedia is left calling it "Buffalo (1920s NFL teams)". And with this team and the Kardex, Buffalo's illustrious life of professional football was underway.

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