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Did a baseball team win the first U.S. pro soccer league title?

May 24, 2012|By Brian Cronin

BASEBALL/SOCCER URBAN LEGEND: The first American professional soccer league championship was won by a moonlighting baseball team.

While individual players had been paid for games going as far back as 1892, it was not until the early 20th Century that there was the first attempt to form an actual professional football league.

The National Football League (not to be confused with the modern NFL) formed (and disbanded) in 1902. It would not be until the American Professional Football Assn. formed in 1920 (which changed its name to the NFL in 1922) that a truly organized professional football league existed in America.

In 1898, the first professional basketball league was formed. Dubbed the National Basketball League, it had six teams in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It lasted until 1904, the same year that the first professional hockey league was formed on the border of the United States and Canada. The International Professional Hockey League lasted just three years, but it inspired amateur clubs in Canada to go pro, as well, and within a few years there were professional hockey leagues all across Canada.

I mention all of these leagues because of a fascinating aspect of professional sports history in the United States. Obviously, professional baseball predated all of these leagues (professional baseball was pretty much the first professional sports league in the world). However, so did professional soccer! The first professional soccer league (do note that the term "soccer" was not used in the U.S. at this point in time. It was called football instead, as it is still referred to as all over the world. I'll use the terms interchangeably in the piece) formed in 1894.

I received a question about this league the other week. Reader Justine wrote in to ask "I was just reading a book about baseball history. Is it true that the first professional soccer championship was won by a moonlighting baseball team?" I'll let you know, Justine (and the rest of you, as well, of course), as we examine the fascinating first (and last) season of the American League of Professional Football (ALPF).

A longstanding tradition in the world of professional sports has been the desire by the owners of sports arenas, stadiums and parks to get more out of their property. After all, if your stadium is sitting there empty, you're still paying for the property while not making any money off of it. As I've written about in a past Sports Legends Revealed (which you can read here), it was this desire to find other revenue streams for their hockey arenas that led the owners of a group of Northewast arena owners to form first the Ice Capades and then later, the National Basketball Assn. This was the same logic employed by six owners from the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs (also known as the National League, which still exists today as one-half of Major League Baseball) when they decided to form a football league to keep their parks occupied after the baseball season.

The six clubs were the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Beaneaters, New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators. Four of these six teams still exist today in one form or another (the Bridegrooms are today's Dodgers, the Beanaters are today's Braves and the Giants and the Phillies still have their same name). The league was promoted in many ways as an extension of professional baseball. The six football teams were named the same as the baseball clubs.

The president of the new league was Arthur A. Irwin, the manager of the Phillies. The managers of the other clubs were all nominally named the coaches of their respective new teams. In addition, part of the promotion for this new league was that baseball players would be on the teams. That novelty, though, never really followed through. There might have been one or two baseball players on five of the six teams, but only the Phillies (presumably because their manager was the President of the football league) actually played a goodly amount of baseball players on their team (unsurprisingly, the Phillies finished next to last in the league). One of the players was Sam Thompson, who would go on to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

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