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Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
Cold weather is upon us, and many NFL teams already have battled the elements as well as their opponents during the 2020 season. For some teams, weather is a non-factor, with 10 of the league’s 30 stadiums enclosed with a fixed or retractable roof.
While the Houston Astrodome was the first domed stadium in the NFL, hosting the Oilers from 1968 to 1996, it might surprise many to learn it didn’t host pro football’s first indoor game. In fact, pro football’s first indoor game was played 66 years prior to the opening of the Astrodome — in New York City.
In 1902, the manager of Madison Square Garden, a New York promoter named Tom O’Rourke, was looking for a way to fill his arena on New Year’s Day, 1903. He came up with the idea of playing a series of indoor football games, the winner of which, he declared, would be World Champion.
The best pro football teams in 1902 were the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Athletics, the Stars of Pittsburgh and the Watertown (N.Y.) Red and Blacks. Unfortunately for O’Rourke, he was unable to secure any of those teams for his hastily scheduled tournament.
He was, however, able to get players from both the Phillies and Athletics, who formed their own team. It became known as the “New York” team, headlined by three-time All-American end Charley Gelbert and tackle Blondy Wallace.
Other teams accepting O’Rourke’s invitation included the Orange (N.J.) Athletic Club, the Warlow Athletic Club (from New York), the New York Knickerbockers and the Syracuse Athletic Club.
O’Rourke promoted his tournament as pro football’s “World Series.” Thus, strictly speaking, America’s first “World Series” was, in fact, a pro football game. Ten months later, Major League Baseball adopted the moniker and played its first World Series game.
As the tournament drew near, O’Rourke needed to get the arena ready to host football games. This proved to be no easy task, as the transformation of Madison Square Garden was best described by The New York Times:
“The wooden flooring of the big garden was taken up, and the gridiron was laid out on the earthen surface, which proved to be rather too sticky and holding for fast work. The goal lines were seventy yards apart, and the width of the playing space was scarcely more than thirty-five yards.”
By that account the field, normally 110 yards in 1902, was reduced by more than a third. To make matters worse, the arena wall was right on the edge of the field, presenting a serious hazard on any sideline plays.
The show, however, would go on.
O’Rourke’s plan was to set up a schedule favorable to the hometown Knickerbockers, which would result in them playing the neighboring Orange Athletic Club in the championship game.
This would guarantee the best attendance and gate receipts on New Year’s Day. Hoping to eliminate the weaker teams early, O’Rourke scheduled the Syracuse and “New York” teams to open the series and play pro football’s first indoor game on Dec. 28, 1902.
O’Rourke incorrectly assumed “New York” would defeat Syracuse and that the stronger Knickerbockers would defeat both the weak Warlow Athletic Club and the “New York” team. What the promoter did not take into account: Syracuse had loaded up with “ringers” from other teams, including the entire backfield of the powerful Watertown Red and Blacks and football legend Glen “Pop” Warner at guard.
The bolstered Syracuse Athletic Club not only won its opener 5-0 before a crowd of 3,000 fans, but then clobbered the Knickerbockers and Orange Athletic Club, each by 36-0 scores, to claim the 1902 indoor World Championship.