Review of War Football

Serb, Chris. War Football: World War I and the Birth of the NFL. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Pp. xviii, 275. Appendices, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

In War Football, Chris Serb not only makes a strong case that football played during The Great War “created an environment where professional football could finally succeed on a large scale” (172), but also crafts one of the more complete records of the game as it was played at various stateside training camps.

To open his consideration of the effect that World War I had on football, Serb reproduces “War Football,” a New York Times article from 1919 that discussed the manner in which the war had transformed college football from the province of mainly northeastern universities to a national game. During the war, military teams exposed millions of soldiers and fans to a game that many had only read about before the conflict.

Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Before the outbreak of hostilities, the public held professional football in low regard. It was a game played by anonymous working-class ruffians who broke the Sabbath to pound on each other in front of sparse crowds. In his first chapter, Serb argues that Bob Zuppke, who coached Illinois to four national championships, planted the seed for professional football in the mind of one of his players, George Halas, who would go on to a hall-of-fame career with the National Football League (NFL). When Zuppke handed out awards following the 1917 season, he posited to his assembled players, “Why is that just when you players are beginning to know something about football after three years (freshmen were ineligible in the NCAA until 1972), I lose you – and you stop playing? It makes no sense. Football is the only sport that ends a man’s career just when it should be beginning” (4).

According to Serb, and also to Halas’ later recollection, Zuppke’s speech resonated with the future hall of famer. During his military service, he played for the Great Lakes Naval Station, winning the MVP award in the 1919 Rose Bowl. Despite having graduated with a degree in civil engineering before serving in the United States Navy in 1918 and then securing a postwar position in his field, he found that he found that the call of the gridiron, which had been reinforced during the war, was too strong to resist.

Men such as Halas, whose football career ended as the American war effort was ramping up, found a new lease on their football lives through the efforts of men like Walter Camp, the subject for Serb’s second chapter. Camp feared that the war would spell the end of college football, as many teams lost most of their experienced players to military service. Camp, who is widely regarded as the father of American football, served as the athletic director for the Navy during the war. He thus was in a good position to help save the game he created. His contention that football was the sport most closely aligned with warfare and, in turn, that it should be used by the military to train the millions of draftees aided in the creation of the service football program, which shifted focus from the college game to the military version.

Serb’s next eleven chapters make up what is perhaps the most valuable contribution of War Football. Each chapter explores the exploits of a particular military camp’s football team, as well as the all-star college players and coaches that led them. Among these are Clinton “Cupid” Black, a second-team All American guard at Yale, who captained the Boston Navy Yard to a 4-1 record in 1917 (Chapter 3). Serb also wrote about the football contributions of Omar Bradley (Chapter 10) and Dwight Eisenhower (Chapter 11), men who would not distinguish themselves during the first half of the world war, but who would lead armies during the second half.

Chapter 5, “Camp Sherman’s March Through Ohio” (Chapter 5), is the most important in proving Serb’s thesis. In 1917, Camp Sherman, located in Chillicothe, Ohio, played a promotional tour of games to raise money for the 83rd Division Welfare Fund. The tour was the brainchild of Nelson “Bud” Talbott, who had captained Yale and later coached the semi-professional Dayton Triangles. The team went 6-2 during their tour, but, more importantly, brought in over $150,000 ($3 million today according to the author). The tour showed that the public would pay money to see teams stocked with former college stars playing the game (41).

Finally, in Chapter 14, the players/soldiers made it “over there.” In Serb’s counting, around 150 players died as a result of combat during the war. Of the 121 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded during the war, “at least ten” former football players earned the nation’s highest military honor, three of them posthumously (124).

After the war, as some American servicemen remained in France or occupied Germany, the American Expeditionary Force decided to keep their troops away from the lures of drinking, sex, and gambling by holding the InterAllied Games, which featured a number of sports. These military games pitted soldiers and sailors against their peers from other units, as well as against their opposite numbers from the other victorious armies. Because no other nations played football, the football contests were all-American struggles. After a hotly contested, and sometimes controversial, elimination process, the 89th Division played the 26th Division for the championship at Paris. The 89th Division, made up of players from Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, defeated the 26th Division, made up of players largely from Texas and Oklahoma 14-6. While behind at half time, the 89th got a boost when General Frank Winn, their commanding officer, ordered them to “take this game,” and they did (142).

After a chapter that explores the postwar boom in college football that saw the erection of massive stadiums in what Benjamin Rader called sport’s “cathedral age,” Serb reiterates his contention that the war led to the rise of the NFL. Although he recognizes that professional football was becoming more popular before the war, he argues that the pros suffered from a lack of organization, a dearth of known players, and negative public perceptions. He makes a persuasive case that the taste for gridiron glory that was extended for many former college stars during the war, along with the athletic networks that they formed in the various training camps, set the stage for a postwar surge in professional football’s popularity.

Talbott, the force behind the 1917 Camp Sherman tour, returned to coaching the semi-professional Dayton Triangles before deciding to go all-out professional. He then recruited several of his former soldiers to play in Dayton. According to the author, in 1920, the first year of the American Professional Football Association (APFA), which changed its name to the NFL in 1922, “at least one third” of players and coaches “had participated in war football.” Furthermore, “More than 240 war football players would participate in the early years of the NFL,” (156).

Aside from his statistical breakdown, Serb also argues that the participation of so many war football players and coaches reformed the image of the NFL. They brought legitimacy to the game. The sport further gained a, sometimes still tenuous, foothold in the public imagination due to major newspapers that, after covering training camp football during the war, now gave more column inches to professional football. Because of the inclusion of so many war football players, Serb asserts that, “The pro game finally had the organization, legitimacy, and substance that lacked in the prewar years” (172).

Serb closes out his narrative where it started, with George Halas. Finding his life as a civil engineer unfulfilling, Halas went to work as plant director –– and athletic director –– for the A.E. Staley Company. In his capacity of company AD, Halas asked for and received permission to recruit athletes he had known during the war. When he wrote a letter to Ralph Hay, the owner of the Canton Bulldogs, to set up a game, Halas mentioned the need for a “top-flight pro league,” (170). Hay thought the same. Along with other Midwest team owners, they met at Hay’s Hupmobile dealership office and formed the APFA. In their first season, Halas’ team earned “nearly $40,000,” which was a massive increase over their 1919 profit of $2,000 (171). Investors saw the promise of making big money from the pro game, and despite some difficult times, the NFL was on its way.

Other authors have written about the military’s use of sport during World War I, such as S.W. Pope’s Patriotic Games: Sporting Traditions in the American Imagination, 1876-1926 (1997) and Wanda E. Wakefield’s Playing to Win: Sports and the American Military, 1898-1945 (1997). My Le Football: A History of American Football in France (2016) contains a chapter on the games played during the war and for the InterAllied Games. Fields of Friendly Strife: The Doughboys and Sailors of the WWI Rose Bowls (2017) by Timothy Brown also has extensive information on the camp football.

Where War Football shines, however, is in Serb’s connection of the football played by American servicemen during the war to the creation of the NFL. His Epilogue chronicles the careers of war football players and coaches who did not continue playing after the war. He also includes three appendices that include lists of War Football Players, All-Service Teams (1917-1919), and War Football Records.

Described as an “independent journalist,” Serb relies mostly on newspaper accounts to craft his narrative. However, he missed a few sources that might have strengthened his work. In the official report of the InterAllied Games, Major George Wythe reported that 743,696 servicemen played in the football portion of the games, while another 3,745,738 watched the games.[1] Those numbers could add some context to his contention that the war introduced many soldiers and sailors to a sport they had never seen before. The author does include several quotations from contemporaries, such as a quotation from Walter Camp who arguing that football was the best training for war. But, Serb did not find a New York Times article about AEF Commander John J. Pershing, who maintained that “soldiers should be prepared like a football team, ‘in which each man is trained to physical perfection under strict discipline, but is capable of brilliant individual action in a crisis.’”[2]

Those, however, are trifling omissions. With an engaging narrative that is accessible to a wide audience, Serb’s book should interest academics and general readers. It also would be a good read for undergraduate students in a football history course, as well as for those in a more general course on World War I.

War Football is well worth a read.

Russ Crawford is Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a history of women playing tackle football in the U.S. and around the world. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.

[1] Major George Wythe, The Inter-Allied Games: Paris 22nd June to 6th July, Paris: The Games Committee, p.36

[2] “Pershing Picks Type for National Army,” New York Times, August 8, 1917, 2

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