Modern Philly sports fans don’t have a monopoly on the belief that good things never happen here.
Before the Eagles, before the Super Bowl — even before helmets (somewhat) protected heads — Philadelphia had two professional football teams. One played in the Northeast and the other in South Philly. They were the Frankford Yellow Jackets of the NFL, the same league we watch today, and the Philadelphia Quakers of the AFL, an experiment started in 1926 by an excessively rich sports promoter.
That year, both teams won national championships. Yet somehow, by the end of the season, disappointment lingered. In other words, this city’s sports lovers have been suffering forever — even when times were good.
This is the story of how Philadelphia managed to win two football championships in the same year and still not feel like winners.
The toast of Frankford
While the 1920s were roaring, the NFL was all the rage in Northeast Philly.
The Frankford Athletic Association’s team, the Yellow Jackets, joined the league in 1924, giving the East Coast its first reliably good NFL contender to match the strengths of clubs like the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears and the Canton Bulldogs (from Ohio).
Instead of playing in the heart of the city, they made their home a few blocks away from the second-to-last stop on the El. Frankford Stadium was built on the corner of Frankford and Devereaux (close to Chickie’s & Pete’s and Grey Lodge Pub) at a cost of $100,000.
Most NFL games were on Sundays, but Pennsylvania’s blue laws prevented that here. So the Yellow Jackets played on Saturdays at home, and then often traveled by train the next day to New York, Detroit or another city for a Sunday game. Despite the Saturday schedule, and even competing against concurrent college football games (which in those days attracted six-figure crowds), Frankford would fill its 9,000-seat stadium on a regular basis. For away games in NYC, up to 500 fans would often pack into a reserved train to support the team.
All that to say, the Yellow Jackets were extremely popular. Their attendance was among the highest in the NFL.
Players made about $75 to $100 a game, and became an integral part of the community. (One business on Frankford Avenue was even called Yellow Jackets Restaurant.) Most team members lived in a boarding house in the neighborhood, and worked day jobs in Frankford.
Mike Moran, whose father Hap Moran starred as a Yellow Jackets halfback, recalled his father talking about working at a country club.
“Members would set him up to play, and they would bet on him playing golf,” Mike said about his dad. “He was a really good golfer.”
Enter the Quakers
By 1926, the Yellow Jackets were easily the best performing team in the league.
Team president Shep Royle had lured coach Guy Chamberlin from Canton to work as a player-coach. Chamberlin had previously led Canton to the NFL championship and was an All-American at Nebraska. The Jackets’ backfield featured Moran along with Houston Stockton, who had come all the way from Gonzaga University in Washington, as well as a 5’5” player named “Two Bits” Homan.
The only star they were missing that season was Bull Behman, who’d jumped ship to join a startup franchise called the Philadelphia Quakers.
The Quakers played in the American Football League along with eight other teams. Mogul C.C. Pyle founded the league after a split-title controversy in the NFL in 1925, and his league was volatile even by 1920s standards: Two of the eight teams folded in the middle of the season.
Still, the Quakers attracted plenty of fans of their own. Philadelphia was hosting the Sesquicentennial fair, and the team reveled in the celebratory atmosphere, playing most of their home games at a stadium on the South Philly fairgrounds where they attracted as many as 40,000 spectators.
By mid-November, it became apparent the two Philadelphia teams might win their respective leagues.
Inquirer sports writer Gordon Mackay wrote a long column stressing the need for the two teams to play for a real championship, either at Shibe Park in North Philly or “in the bowl of the Badlands of South Philadelphia.” (Yes, he called South Philly “the Badlands.”)
Overall, fans were pumped. They continued to go to Yellow Jackets and Quakers games, despite weather that, as The Philadelphia Record put it, made “everybody hope for a steam heater or a little nip.”
“Perhaps never in the football history of this city,” wrote Mackay, “has a family quarrel loomed so prominently.”
Two leagues, never to meet
Problem was, talk of a culminating battle was only a tease. The two teams were never scheduled to play each other.
The Quakers played out the rest of their season, defeating the New York Yankees in their final game 13-7 on Nov. 27 and clinching the AFL title. Next to the game story, the Inky featured an illustration of a giant Quaker holding a champions wreath and muttering, “Now that I’ve got it, what am I going to do with it?” Next to him was the phrase “The Empty Title.”
(Right, less than 24 hours after a championship win, the local media was already complaining. This was Philly, after all.)
Bob Folwell, the Quakers’ coach, thought only of the Yellow Jackets. He issued a challenge immediately after the game.
The next weekend, the Yellow Jackets played the game hyped as the NFL championship. They beat the Chicago Bears in Frankford 7-6, winning on a 45-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter from Stockton to Homan. The championship story shared space with yet another ultimatum from Folwell, who was quoted as saying, “We stand ready to play the Jackets anytime or anywhere they wish.” He suggested the date of Dec. 18.
If all this excitement had been heeded, Philadelphia could have been the site of the most epic battle in professional football history to that point, an unofficial first Super Bowl. But the game never happened.
Holding a grudge to the grave
Ostensibly, the refusal came from NFL president Joe Carr, who refused to grant permission for NFL teams to play the Quakers. But nobody really cared what he said (not entirely unlike Roger Goodell today).
The Yellow Jackets’ reticence to take on the challenge was likely more due to anger at the Quakers for stealing away Bull Behman.
So instead, they finished their championship year tying the Pottsville Maroons on Dec. 18. The Quakers found an NFL challenger in the New York Giants. On Dec. 12, they lost at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds in a blinding snowstorm.
Nothing good came for either team after the that season. The AFL folded, so the Quakers didn’t have a chance. In 1927, Frankford finished seventh, spurring their star coach, Chamberlin, and several top players like Moran to leave for other teams. At least one fan tried to convince Moran to stay, penning him a letter that read, “Please don’t disappoint us.” The team never won another title before they went out business in 1931 during the Great Depression.
Even worse, the absence of a Frankford vs. Philadelphia matchup has let some false history be spread.
The history book Pro Football Championships Before the Super Bowl: A Year-by-Year History, 1926-1965 describes the 1926 championship — the first ever — as that game the Quakers lost to the Giants, even though the Giants had finished far behind the Yellow Jackets. The New York team, of course, won that game 31-0.
Mike Moran couldn’t believe it. So what did he do? The only thing a good Philadelphia sports fan would. Throw some shade.
“I dissed this,” he said of the specious book, “on Amazon.”