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In Search of the Brooklyn Gridiron

Dec 5, 2010 4:29 PM | 0 comments

Footbal Try-outs at Boys High School, 1951

Having watched a lot of football in my formative years, particularly as a college student, I am always in search of local football stories.  Yes, we have two professional teams to root for here in New York.  Yet, sometimes the distance to New Jersey takes away that "hometown" feel - hence my desire to search for traces of actual Brooklyn ball in our collection.  (I should take a moment to note that not everyone feels as I do.  For my neighbors who honor every Giants game with a party and backyard BBQ, the NJ/NY divide is no such hurdle.) 

The early origins of any sport are difficult to determine.  The term football was used in the 19th century to describe all variations of rugby, soccer or any other game that involved throwing and kicking.  An image in our collection from the 1870s entitled "Football in Fort Greene Park" could depict any manner of football play.  Is the dark spot just above the trees a ball or a smudge?  Are these boys playing football as we know it or some other variation?

Football in Fort Greene Park

Football history tells us that by the 1870s, colleges were working on a set of official rules that would become our current interpretation of the game, but it took some time to catch on nationally.  In 1871, the Eagle described one version of a pick-up football game in which the teams "failed to observe any system of either attack or defense, and hence the games were nothing more than scrimmages in which those who could stand the most punishment had the best chance of winning." (ouch!) 

In 1884, the Crescent Athletic Club of Brooklyn was founded as a "football club."  It took another two years for the organization to include other sports (the club remained open until bankruptcy in 1939).  The Crescent Athletic Club became one of the leaders of Brooklyn football.  The Crescent team faced other clubs around the city and even hosted visiting games, such as the Yale Freshman versus the Brooklyn Hills match in 1886. Crescent Football Team, 1884 Crescent Champions for 1891 of the Amateur Football Union

It didn't take much longer for football to enter Brooklyn schools.  In the early 1900s, we start to see images of Boys High School, Pratt Institute and Brooklyn Prep teams in uniforms that are slightly more official than their athletic club counterparts.  Many of Brooklyn's student athletes went on to play outside of the borough, including two brothers from Troy Avenue in the 1940s.  Joseph and George Paterno, sons of Angelo and Florence, were recruited from Brooklyn Prep to play at Brown University. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1947

While George became the head coach at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, Joe moved to Central Pennsylvania to work his way up to the head coaching position at Penn State University--a job he is still hesitant to relinquish after 61 seasons and 400 victories

Gambling Card, 1949With sports in schools, came controversy.  In 1949, the Eagle published this image of a gambling card used during high school football games across New York City for "fans who want to back their choices with hard cash."  In 1950-51, a strike by the Public Schools Athletic League Coaches Assocation put all school sports, including football, on hold for 18 months while coaches (who were also teachers) negotiated a raise with the Board of Education.  The end of the strike, according to the Eagle, was a "dream-come-true" to student athletes, who saw football and other sports as adding "zest and spice to everyday classroom routines." 

Believe it or not, Brooklyn even dabbled in the professional arena.  During the periods of 1930-43, 1946-48 and 1966, the Brooklyn Football Dodgers were the official professional football team of the borough.  The team played for various leagues, including the NFL, and played in multiple venues, including Ebbets Field.  Although not nearly as well known (or as successful) as their baseball counterparts, the football Dodgers' claim to fame was none other than Jackie Robinson.  The great baseball player served as the general manager for the Football Dodgers for one terribly unsuccessful season in 1966. 

The Football Dodgers' star player Ace Parker, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1939

The football Dodgers did make one notable contribution to the sport; their battle against the Philadelphia Eagles at Ebbets Field on October 22, 1939 was the first professional football game to be televised.  According to an article in Football Digest, an estimated 1,000 television sets tuned into the game in New York City. However, most people in the stadium, including star player Ace Parker (pictured), had no idea they were making history.