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Pro Football in Cincinnati Before the Present-Day Bengals

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First pro football team formed in 1910

Browns V Bengals

As any knowledgeable Cleveland fan can attest, former Browns’ head coach Paul Brown began the franchise known as the Cincinnati Bengals and currently play their home games at Paul Brown Stadium; and they are a bitter rival of the Browns just like any other club in the AFC Central Division.

But, did you know that the current Bengals team is the third pro football franchise to call themselves the “Bengals”? And that those three teams were not the first pro football teams to call the City of Cincinnati their home?

The National Football League (NFL) began as a unified professional football entity in 1920 with 14 clubs, five of which were based in the State of Ohio. However, from 1920-1921 the league was called the American Professional Football Association (APFA). American football came from the game of rugby which sprouted from the game of football, which is called soccer in North America. The official rules of soccer are known as “Association Football,” thus the relationship to American football is comparable.

So the fact that the American game took on the moniker “football” is simply the same game with new rules added and changes to the structure of the actual game. And if you notice, the word “Association” was used in the NFL’s beginnings. Soccer plays with 11 men on the field and American football simply followed suit. Soccer uses kickoffs and yellow and red flags/cards and so does its American football grandson.

Cincinnati Celts

In the second year of existence of the APFA, the Cincinnati Celts joined the infant league and played only one season. Originally formed in 1910, the Celts played in the loosely-formed Ohio League from 1910 through 1919 when the league ceased operations because of the formation of the APFA. The Ohio League was one of three operating leagues that are the precursor of the NFL.

While teams in Akron, Canton, and Massillon won numerous Ohio League championships, the Celts were never involved in the title game despite being in the league 10 years. The club was formed from members of the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio. The players themselves were rowdy and rough, and called themselves “a bunch of wild Irishmen.” Playing in the Ohio League was doable with costs, but when the best Ohio League clubs joined the APFA, the Celts could not afford the travel costs to cities like Rock Island or Buffalo, New York and Detroit, Michigan.

The 1921 APFA season increased to 21 franchises to which the Celts were one of the new entries. Although most clubs played an average of 11 games, the Celts only scheduled four league and two non-league contests and finished 3-3-0 overall but 1-3-0 in league play. All of their games were against Ohio squads or teams that were in nearby Indiana. Again, travel costs were the issue and all three losses were by an accumulated score of 117-0.

To say the least, the Celts were a minor league club in a major league environment. Plus, they had minimal funding and basically refused to play teams that required taking a train and staying overnight in a hotel. Before the 1922 season, the Celts withdrew from the league. They played two more games as an independent club before disbanding.

Cincinnati Reds

Throughout the ancient history of the NFL, clubs have called themselves the same team name as their baseball counterpart or something very similar. Throughout the early 1900s and into the 1930s, baseball was the king of sports and pro football was not a good gate attraction. So, team owners figured that fans of the city’s baseball team would become fans of the city’s football team. Giants, Dodgers, Yankees and Indians were some of the common team names along with teams with similar names: Cubs-Bears and Tigers-Lions, to name a few.

So, when another Cincinnati team joined the NFL in 1933 and called themselves the “Reds,” it was just a natural occurrence. As with most football teams, the Reds played their games at Crosley Field, home of the baseball Reds. It was owned by local coroner Scott Kearns, who was not wealthy but loved the game.

The NFL Reds were horrid and only lasted two seasons; well, most of two seasons.

The game of football in 1933 had changed little since the NFL began in 1920. For 1933, however, the owners wanted (and made) some changes to help the game become more spectator-friendly. For one, the goal posts were moved from the back line to the goal line in order to increase each game’s final score and the spectacle of high-flying kicked footballs. Hash marks were invented and marked on each field. Another rule allowed a player to get back up after being tackled and advance the ball unless he was physically held down for three seconds. Two divisions were installed along with a first-ever league championship game.

All of these rule changes helped the pro game become more vibrant on the offensive side of the ball – except in Cincinnati. After a 0-4 start, the club finished 3-6-1, scored only three points and was shut out five times. The Reds were a bad draw at the gate and Kearns could not get the local businessmen behind him to support the club.

The following season the club lost all eight games by an accumulated score of 243 to 10 including a 64-0 rout from the Philadelphia Eagles. This roster still holds the NFL record for allowing an average of 6.4 per opponent’s rushing attempt. The Reds were having issues meeting payroll, disbursing the visitor team’s guarantee and were behind in their league fees. So, after eight games the league suspended the franchise before their schedule was completed.

It was bought-out for $20,000 by an independent team called the St. Louis Gunners who had been playing other independent clubs along with some NFL teams for several years already. The Reds were moved to St. Louis who retained whatever talent there was, released the rest of the squad and played the final three games as the Gunners and promptly went 1-2-0.

Even after all these years, the Reds still hold the following NFL records: Fewest Points, Season: 37 (1933); Fewest Touchdowns, Season: 3 (1933); Fewest First Downs, Season: 51 (1933); Fewest Yards Gained, Season: 1,150 (1933); Fewest Passing Attempts, Season: 102 (1933); Fewest Passes Completions, Season: 25 (1933); Fewest Touchdowns Passing, Season: 0 (1933); Highest Opponent Average Gain Rushing, Season: 6.4: (1934).

Cincinnati Bengals I

There have been three franchises who have called themselves the Cincinnati Bengals. The first club joined the second rival of the NFL to call themselves the American Football League (AFL2). This league began in 1936 and was the first home of the Cleveland Rams (now Los Angeles Rams) and the very first West Coast pro football team the Los Angeles Bulldogs. The Bulldogs are also the first pro football team to finish their season with no losses and no ties.

The league was formed with 15 cities requesting submission from men who wanted to own an NFL team but were refuted. Eight teams were formed mainly by offering existing NFL players more money although later most of these agreements were not met and the initial season ended with only six clubs still playing.

The Bengals joined the league in 1937 with a roster comprised predominately of local athletes and owned by Hal Pennington. He had owned two minor league teams called the Cincinnati Models and the Cincinnati Blades before taking the reins of the Bengals in a league designed to take on the NFL.

They went 2-3-2 in league play and 1-1 against independent teams on their schedule. There was a lack of enthusiasm locally and the team played in front of moderate crowds. This kept the club from taking on a star player who may have been a good gate attraction. Rarely did the local paper even cover the team on road trips and was barely visible for home games before or after contests. The league folded shortly after their second year as two teams did not complete their season and the Rams were admitted into the NFL. Every team suffered major financial difficulties.

Cincinnati Bengals II

For the most part, the 1937 Bengals stayed intact and became an independent pro football team after they joined a regional minor league. After two seasons, they joined the third entity that called itself the AFL in 1940. Three teams, including the second Bengals, left their minor league confines along with three new clubs to form this new rival to the NFL. Most rosters were formed by the same old habits of raiding existing NFL rosters.

Playing with mostly local talent against teams that fielded former NFL players was certainly a disadvantage for the Bengals. They finished 1-7-0, with one game being a forfeit because their injury-riddled roster could not field a team. They averaged scoring only 6.6 points per game while giving up 187 total points.

After the Bengals went 1-5-2 in 1941, the league announced expansion despite relative success. When the United States became directly involved in World War II and a shortage of players was imminent in all professional sports who would join the Armed Forces overseas, the AFL3 announced a pause but never returned operations.

Cincinnati Bengals III

The final league that called itself the American Football League began in 1960 with eight franchises. When this league merged with the NFL beginning in 1970, it marked the first time a rival league did not have any clubs fold and in fact expanded by two teams. In 1967, the final rendition of the Cincinnati Bengals was born.

The Bengals were owned by former Browns legendary coach Paul Brown, an Ohio native. Brown had led the Browns to seven championships in two leagues plus had guided Ohio State to a national championship while as their head coach as well as four state championships at Massillon (Ohio) High School.

As early as 1963, Brown had inquired with the NFL about creating a new team but was told no new franchises were planned. He wanted an expansion team in another Ohio city and wished to remain in his home state. He looked at either Cincinnati (population 502,000) or Columbus (471,000).

The AFL had already expanded into Miami in 1965 and were considering adding a second expansion team. The league had a shortlist that included Atlanta, Seattle, Memphis and Cincinnati. Brown knew he wanted to coach again and make all the decisions regarding the team like he had in Cleveland. And he thought he wanted an ownership role.

After meeting with the Governor of Ohio, the AFL was very responsive to the idea of Coach Brown becoming a part of their league. But Brown thought the AFL was inferior football in regards to NFL talent. The timing was just right as both leagues announced a planned merger with every AFL team becoming a part of the new league. This appealed to Brown as he knew if he took on a new franchise in Cincinnati that in three short years he would once again become a part of the NFL landscape. He became the third largest investor of the new Bengals, their GM and head coach.

The name “Bengals” was chosen by Brown in order to provide a link to those past Bengals’ teams and professional football in Cincinnati.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.