In Friday’s paper, I wrote about all the NFL teams that brought the U.S. game to Canada in the ’50s and ’60s by playing exhibitions against CFL clubs. I did this, of course, because the Redskins are headed to Toronto this weekend to take on the Bills, who have been scheduling one game a year at Rogers Centre, home of the Blue Jays.
The thing is, the NFL wasn’t the first American league to take its product to Canada. In 1926, more than two decades before the Giants trekked to Ottawa to face the CFL’s Rough Riders, a team headlined by Red Grange, the famed “Galloping Ghost,” went to Toronto to bang helmets with another U.S. club, the Los Angeles Wildcats.
The league was the American Football League – the first AFL, which sprang up that year to compete against the NFL. Grange played for the New York Yankees, because, well, why not put the biggest name in the biggest city? The Wildcats, meanwhile, were what was known as a road team. They played all their games away from home. (It would have been too costly, after all, for clubs to go to L.A.)
Years ago, I interviewed one of the Wildcats – John Vesser, an end out of Idaho. He told me the club did its preseason training in Excelsior Springs, Mo., “a health resort,” then headquartered in New York at the Sherman Square Hotel on 42nd Street. The players, he said, often received their pay in $1 bills, straight from the box office, and played plenty of poker when they weren’t going to Broadway shows or movies.
“One of the boys on our team, Waldo Erickson, would lose about $10 or $15 on poker every night,” he said. “The other players would say, ‘Waldo, how can you keep losing that much?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, if I got a date it would cost me $15, and I’d rather play cards.’”
(Another boy on the team was Ray Flaherty, who would later coach the Redskins to two titles en route to the Hall of Fame.)
In that era, it wasn’t unusual for clubs to play back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday. The Yankees and Wildcats both did that weekend. The Yankees beat the Brooklyn Horsemen 21-13 at Yankee Stadium, then took an overnight train to Toronto. The Wildcats played a 3-3 tie against the Chicago Bulls, then hopped in Pullman cars themselves.
A crowd of 10,000 showed up at Maple Leaf Stadium to watch Grange’s team whip L.A. 28-0. Red broke a 70-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, so the fans went home happy. All they were playing in Canada in 1926, by the way, was rugby; the CFL was still years off. At any rate, American football made its debut in the Great White North that day, Nov. 8, 1926.
Vesser: “The only thing I remember about that game is that it was on a Sunday, and everything in Canada was closed up tight. There wasn’t anything open. It was very strange, because American cities at that time were all pretty busy on Sunday.”
Eighty-five years later, the Redskins and Bills expect to draw a slightly larger gathering. As celebrated as today’s players are, though, none of them has a movie out, as Grange did that season. (“One Minute to Play,” it was called.) None has a candy bar named after him, either. Pro football was still quite small in the mid-’20s, but Red was larger than life.