A “Sports Stars” magazine from 1952 that I recently picked up in a flea market in Lambertville, NJ took me on an unexpected trip back to when college football was king and pro football was something you might have watched to kill a Sunday afternoon. Ironic, too, because the NFL is getting set to celebrate its 100th season (a bit of a stretch I think) but let’s look at the football landscape 67 years ago.
The cover boy for the magazine was Southern Methodist University halfback Val Joe Walker. He was a handsome kid, made for magazine covers and he was drafted in 1952 in the seventh round by the New York Giants but never played for them. His career included four seasons with the Packers and one with the 49ers. In those five seasons as a defensive back he had 17 interceptions and one touchdown. He passed on Christmas Day 2013.
Other names you might recognize locally and who were pictured in the magazine were Villanova’s Gene Filipski, Penn’s Eddie Bell, Frank McPhee of Princeton, Harry Agganis of Boston U. (who would later play baseball for the Boston Red Sox), Tom Bell of Army and Frank Brady of Navy.
The year 1952 was the beginning of the end of the road for any Ivy League team expecting to play a big time schedule. That was the year that the Ivy League academicians decided to de-emphasize football and abandon spring practice. Penn (the Quakers would tie national power Notre Dame 7-7 and beat Princeton, but end up 4-3-2) , Princeton (the Tigers would go 8-1 in ’52 and be rated 18th in the AP poll) and Navy were still seen as Eastern powerhouses but the end was coming. The pundits saw the Eastern powers as Princeton (a perfect 9-0 in ’51), Penn, Navy, Cornell, Holy Cross, Penn State (they’d go 7-2-1), Syracuse, Pitt, Villanova (the Wildcats would be 7-1-1), Yale, Boston College and Fordham. Temple was 2-7-1 in 1952. In those days a nine-or-ten-game-schedule was the norm, heck some schools played just eight (Villanova was 5-3 in ’51, that same year Temple was 6-4).
As a kid my father took me to Franklin Field to see his alma mater take on the best of the college grid teams. By the time I got to high school and worked Saturdays as an usher for the Penn games other colleges were regularly handing them their heads. On Saturday afternoons Penn would play before 65,000-plus fans while Temple and Villanova would also draw nice crowds. In North Philly the Eagles played at Shibe Park and were thrilled to get 30,000 fans.
The NFL back in 1920 was limited to the Midwest and was pretty much a semi-pro operation. The better college players shunned the league and it wasn’t until 1939 when a Heisman Trophy winner finally signed with an NFL team. People looked down on the league and even when it expanded East it ended up fielding teams in Frankford (a part of Philadelphia) and Pottsville. The league had challengers and the All-America Conference boasted teams out west as well. There were teams like the Boston Yanks, the New York Yanks, the Boston Redskins, the original Baltimore Colts, the woeful Dallas Texans and many more. They all either moved, merged or simply went away. This is part of a 100 year celebration?
The good college players had three year careers (freshmen usually had their own teams) and they did it for the pride they felt for their alma mater. And then TV changed everything and playing for more than a fishcake made an NFL career something college players aspired to. At some point college football became the NFL’s minor league.
For the fun of it, let’s check some of the local college schedules for 1952. Penn, coached by George Munger, opened with Notre Dame on September 27 and besides the usual Ivy rivals they also played Navy, Penn State, Georgia and Army. Villanova, coached by Art Raimo opened with Kentucky on September 20 and also played Clemson, Wake Forest and Xavier. On October 31 they had a date with the Parris Island Marines. Al Kawal’s Temple Owls opened with Penn State on September 20 and also played power houses Syracuse, Holy Cross and NYU. Rip Engle’s Penn State College Nittany Lions played Temple, Penn, Purdue, William and Mary. Michigan State, Pitt and other strong foes.
There were 12 teams in the NFL in 1952 playing in two divisions. Cleveland won the American Conference with an 8-4 record, the Eagles and Giants tied for second at 5-7. In the National Conference the Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions tied at 9-3, the San Francisco 49’ers were third at 7-5. The Lions beat the Browns in the Championship game. The Dallas Texans, formerly the New York Yanks finished 1-11 and were, indeed, finished. In fact they were so bad that the league bought back the franchise and they played out the last half of the season based in Hershey PA. The league was not yet the be all and end all of football – yet.
I am an Eagles fan, have been since the late '40s when my Uncle would take me to games, but I’d much rather watch a good area college football game on a Saturday afternoon and, for me, watching the so called college football powerhouses play, well I’m simply not interested.
Listen to Ted Taylor on WRDV FM (89.3)Tuesdays from 8 AM to Noon and Wednesdays from 10 pm – 1 am or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org