This Super Bowl weekend, we are looking back to a time when the NFL Championship was “won” by a team based just 30 miles away from Lebanon.
It was the twenties in America. A time when places like Frankford, Pottsville, and yes, Lebanon, were practically booming.
In 1924, former Penn football player and Pottsville surgeon John G. “Doc” Striegel purchased a semi-pro team that was competing in the Anthracite League. When that league collapsed after the 1924 season, Striegel paid a $500 franchise fee and an additional $1,200 guarantee (with some support from the community) and joined the national league, the NFL.
The Maroons were coached by Dick Rauch, a Harrisburg native and Penn State grad. Rauch imposed regular practices on the team and emphasized community engagement, insisting that players live locally.
The Maroons looked great in the 1925 season. As the end of the regular season was approaching, the team was tied with the Chicago Cardinals for the best record. Although the NFL didn’t have an official championship game at this time (team owners actually voted on the champion), a matchup between the two leading teams was scheduled for December 6 in Chicago.
According to histories of the event, Striegel thought that winning the game would give the league no choice but to name Pottsville as champions.
Striegel overplayed his hand, though. After the Chicago game, the Pottsville team had the option to play an exhibition match against the University of Notre Dame. The exhibition match was to be between the university and the winner of a November 29 game between Pottsville and the Frankford Yellow Jackets, which Pottsville won. After the Chicago game, Frankford Yellow Jackets owner H.S. Royle warned Striegel that if he went ahead with the game, planned to be held in Shibe Park, he would file a grievance with the NFL over home territory rights that he said gave Frankford a right-of-first-refusal to the game at Shibe.
Although Pottsville defeated the elite Notre Dame eleven, the NFL commissioner at the time upheld the home territories rule and suspended Pottsville and removed them from the NFL. The Chicago Cardinals did not accept the title at first, but a later owner would change course on that. Today though, the team typically refers to the championship as “disputed.”
The team was allowed to re-join the league for the 1926 season, but the championship was not revisited. The franchise was sold after the 1928 season and moved to Boston, where it folded after a year.
Pennsylvania notables including Dan Rooney, Jeff Lurie, and the General Assembly have all petitioned the league to either reverse the 1925 decision or name the Maroons co-champions. Lurie and Rooney were the lone “yes” votes in a 2003 vote by the league on reopening the 1925 files. Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell wanted the title restored in time for Pottsville’s 2006 bicentennial, and berated league owners after the vote with a letter that read in part, “I am closing with the wish that every NFL franchise except for the Eagles and the Steelers lose large quantities of money.”
For more on the Pottsville Maroons…