Pro football Hall went too far west

Pittsburgh, Latrobe were considered before Canton

The success of this past weekend’s Blair County Sports Hall of Fame festivities prompted me to think about sports hall of fames in general.

They are unique institutions that have the capacity to bring a community together.

Some of the large halls of fame have become legendary. If you mention Cooperstown, Canton, or Springfield, connections are easily made to Major League Baseball, professional football, and the NBA by any sports fan.

Today marks the 53rd anniversary of the NFL’s decision to locate the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

My first visit to Canton was to see the 1991 induction ceremonies.

On that warm, sunny day, I saw Altoona-born and Chicago Bears standout Stan Jones, who was raised in Harrisburg, enshrined alongside NFL legends Earl Campbell, John Hannah, Jan Stenerud, and Tex Schramm.

I talked to numerous people, including an elderly gentleman who served as a regular volunteer for these induction ceremonies. He told me that if Canton did not act aggressively in the early 1960s, the hall of fame might have been located in western Pennsylvania. My research later confirmed the accuracy of his story.

Although Canton may seem like a natural location today, nearby Latrobe and later Pittsburgh were seen as front-runners to be hosts during the 1940s and 1950s.

The NFL’s first meeting was held in 1920 at a Canton-based Hupmobile car dealership, but western Pennsylvania was considered the birthplace of professional football, with Ohio and New York teams soon following the model established by Pittsburgh area squads.

For many decades, John Brailler, a quarterback for a powerful Latrobe team, was believed to be the first professional football player ever, earning a mere $10 per game.

Interestingly, to seal the deal, an assortment of cakes was reportedly added to his compensation. Brallier began playing for Latrobe in 1895, with his second paid game against a team from Altoona.

However, by 1960, evidence emerged that William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, a Yale standout, was America’s first true professional football player. He received $500 to play for the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in 1892, nearly $13,000 in today’s dollars. Both situations gave western Pennsylvania the potential to credibly serve as host to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Surprisingly, in 1947, the league even gave Latrobe permission to act upon this idea, but nothing substantial ever unfolded.

Canton moved forward with their plans in spite of this. Understanding that tangible action would be required to sway NFL executives, in 1961 the small Ohio city raised an impressive $378,026 for construction, or about $2.7 million today.

At the time, the NFL was on less than certain financial footing. It was not as popular as baseball and the faced competition from college football and the upstart rival AFL.

Just five years earlier, league broadcasts were carried by the now defunct DuMont Network. Absent a funded proposal from western Pennsylvania, on April 27, 1961, the Canton plan gained NFL approval. Ground was broken in 1962, and the hall then opened in 1963.

It is hard to imagine a hall of fame facility located in Latrobe or Pittsburgh, but when Canton agreed to step up with their investment, the city was rewarded with what would become millions in annual tourist revenue. Eight years ago, an independent research firm calculated that induction weekend alone brought $26.7 million into Stark County, Ohio.

Blair County has one of the best county-based hall of fame organizations anywhere. Saturday night’s induction ceremony is evidence of that. However, our nearby neighbors to the west lost out on an amazing hall of fame opportunity on this very day 53 years ago.

Trumpbour is an associate professor of communications at Penn State Altoona.