Monday, February 07, 2011

75 years ago: Iowans in first NFL draft

Trivia question: Which state had two of its natives picked in the first four selections of the first National Football League draft?

Answer: With one of my current book projects being a biography of Jay Berwanger, a native of Dubuque, you shouldn't be surprised that the answer is Iowa. The other player? Read on.

The National Football League draft was the brainchild of Bert Bell, owner of the lowly Philadelphia Eagles.

Bell had a tough time getting his peers to go along. It took some arm-twisting by George Halas of the Chicago Bears on Tom Mara of the New York Giants for the draft to the owners’ approval in May 1935, effective with the 1936 season. Fatigue and alcohol also might have influenced the decision. League meetings were loosely run nocturnal affairs, where drink was plentiful and sleep was scarce, and that played into the hands of Bell, a sober “nighttime” person.

After establishment of a draft, Bell’s 1935 Philadelphia Eagles finished 2-9, edging the Boston Redskins (2-8-1) for worst record in the league. That dubious honor gave Bell the first pick in the first draft.

The rule called for teams to enter the names of players eligible for the NFL for the first time on a board posted in the meeting room. Then, the team with the worst record in 1935 received the first selection. The selections continued with teams picking, worst to first, until all the names on the board were selected or rejected.

League owners convened the weekend of February 8-9, 1936, at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia. The hotel was owned by Bell’s father, Cromwell, and Bert had served as its manager in addition to playing and coaching football.

1 Philadelphia Eagles: Jay Berwanger B Chicago
2 Boston Redskins: Riley Smith B Alabama
3 Pittsburgh Pirates: Bill Shakespeare B Notre Dame
4 Brooklyn Dodgers: Dick Crayne B Iowa
5 Chicago Cardinals: Jim Lawrence B TCU
6 Chicago Bears: Joe Stydahar T West Virginia
7 Green Bay Packers: Russ Letlow G San Francisco
8 Detroit Lions: Sid Wagner G Michigan State
9 New York Giants: Art Lewis T Ohio U.

Philadelphia almost immediately traded the rights to Berwanger to the Chicago Bears, but Halas failed to convince him to join the professional ranks.

Trivia answer: Crayne, who was a native of Fairfield, Iowa. When he and Berwanger were high school seniors (Class of 1932), University of Iowa boosters hoped that both Crayne and Berwanger would play for the Hawkeyes. However, they chose different schools.

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