Podcast Season 2, Episode 9: The Last President

Carl Storck sold the Dayton Triangles in 1930, but stayed in the National Football League as an executive. Eventually, he succeeded the late Joe Carr as NFL president, becoming the third, and last, head of the league before the commissioner era. This episode documents the two year period when the National Football League was headquartered in Dayton, Ohio.

Man Of Many Hats

In the 1930s, Joe Carr was president and secretary of the NFL, while Carl Storck held the posts of vice president and treasurer. Following Carr’s death in 1939, Storck succeeded him on an interim basis. So, during the 1939 season Storck held every league office.

Episode Transcript

By 1930, the Dayton Triangles were part of National Football League history. Bill Dwyer had bought the team, moved it to Brooklyn and renamed it the Dodgers. Meanwhile, Carl Storck, though he no longer had a team in the National Football League, remained in an executive capacity with the NFL as Joe Carr had done after Carr’s Columbus Panhandles had folded. The two men were mainstays of the league, winning reappointment year after year – Carr as president and secretary, Storck as vice president and treasurer.

Storck continued to attend to various interests in sports management as well as his duties with General Motors. In 1932, GM appointed Storck director of personnel at the Buick Division in Flint, Michigan. Two years later, Storck made the jump from personnel to line production, becoming assistant factory manager at the Delco plant in Dayton, bringing Storck back to his hometown after a six-year absence. He quickly resumed a prominent role in the local sports scene.

Smooth sailing continued until 1937, when Joe Carr suffered a heart attack. With Carr’s health failing, Carl Storck found himself forced to take on more responsibility with the NFL. At the same time, Storck was becoming involved in professional baseball, stepping in to become receiver of Dayton’s bankrupt minor league baseball club, the Ducks, and working out a deal for the team to reorganize as part of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball farm system. In March 1939, Storck became president of the revamped baseball team, now called the Dayton Wings.

In May 1939, Joe Carr, who had been president of the league since the second season of its existence in 1921 and built its organizational and legal structures, passed away. Storck likely assumed that, based on his loyal service to the league over the years, the job of NFL president would be his by default. However, the owners did not immediately name Storck to the permanent post of president, but instead made the appointment temporary for the 1939 season. Nevertheless, Storck established league headquarters in Dayton.

Within days of his appointment, Storck was treating his “temporary” title as a formality, holding forth on topics like league expansion, requiring officials to pass physical fitness exams, and the possibility of moving the NFL’s head office to Washington, DC. Not all the owners welcomed this.

By the late 1930s, professional American football was on the cusp of becoming a big business. Some NFL owners saw men like Carr and Storck as representing the league’s bygone, rough-and-tumble early days. They wanted a modern, dynamic, high-profile person to take the league to the next level. The owners were specifically interested in having a towering figure like baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis in charge: in other words, a commissioner of football.

Undeterred, Storck set out to address issues that had clearly bothered him since his Triangles days. He authorized the defending champion New York Giants to scrimmage with the Chicago Cardinals as they prepared for a pre-season exhibition game against a group of college All-Stars. Joe Carr had never allowed this, but Storck felt strongly that the professional game should always be the elite in gridiron football, meaning the pro teams should always beat the college teams. Another of Storck’s innovations was to approve the use of a device to ensure that the size of game balls would be consistent. Storck also presided over the creation of the first version of what would become the NFL’s Pro Bowl.

President Storck was forced to make some tough calls during the 1939 season. In November, Cleveland Rams’ coach Dutch Clark, a former Detroit Lions star who had last played for Detroit, petitioned the league to allow him to suit up for Cleveland against the Lions. Clark’s parting from Detroit had not been friendly, but the Lions still held Clark’s playing rights. Storck’s decision was Solomon-like in a way. He ruled that the rights to Clark’s playing and coaching services were divided between the two clubs, and that the Rams could not use Clark as a player unless they bought or bartered for his “complete services.”

The major controversy of 1939, though, occurred in the final game of the regular season between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants. The two divisional races were coming down to the wire, and Storck had worked out playoff contingencies in the event of a two- or three-way tie in the standings. By the first weekend of December, however, the picture had cleared up considerably. In the West, Green Bay needed to beat Detroit to avoid a playoff with the Chicago Bears. They came from behind to take a 12-7 win and the division crown. New York and Washington were tied at eight wins, a loss and a tie, so the winner of their game would take the Eastern Division title. Storck had set up a contingency for sudden-death overtime to determine a winner in the event the Giants and Redskins were deadlocked following the end of regulation.

Time wound down at the end of the game with New York leading 9-7 but Washington driving. With seconds left, Washington placekicker Torrence “Bo” Russell lined up a field goal from the 16-yard line for the lead, and probably the win. The snap came back. Holder Frank Filchock placed the ball, and Russell struck it. The ball sailed toward the right upright. Veteran referee Bill Halloran, a respected official who advised the league on rules interpretations, called the kick “no good.” The Giants ran out the clock, and won the game.

It was a difficult call, to say the least. Depending on the observer’s angle, the kick was either clearly good, or clearly not. Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall demanded that Storck reverse the decision and fire Halloran. Storck refused. A report later surfaced that Marshall had gone so far as to try to get Halloran fired from his day job with the United States Post Office.

A number of proposals surfaced to foolproof the process of judging field goal attempts, but none was implemented. Several films and stop-action photos surfaced purporting to show the flight of Russell’s kick, but none was taken from the proper angle to show clearly whether the kick was good or not. In contemporary terms, it was a “call stands.”

Although the infamous “Halloran decision” was the most heated officiating controversy of the 1939 season, it was hardly the only one. In the aftermath, the owners decided to take control of officials from the league president and put it in the hands of a committee for 1940. Beyond that, whether fairly or not, President Storck had made an enemy of Redskins owner Marshall. This bitterness did not help Storck’s case for becoming permanent league president, despite record attendance in the 1939 season.

By Christmas 1939, Storck stated his readiness to make the NFL his full-time job. The question was whether the league wanted him. Reports surfaced in early 1940 that the league had offered the position of commissioner to former Olympic athlete and Philadelphia Democratic Party leader John Kelly. Kelly ultimately declined. Another, apparently unfounded, rumor had the league wooing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Then, Redskins’ owner Marshall reportedly organized a group to promote the candidacy of Chicago sports editor Arch Ward at a salary much higher than Storck’s, but Ward declined to be considered as well.

By April 1940, with all other options exhausted, it appeared that Storck would be elected league president on a permanent basis for the 1940 season. Storck, though, held out for a multi-year deal. In the end, he compromised and accepted unanimous election for a one-year term as president and chair of the league executive committee. Storck continued to hold on to his General Motors job and the presidency of the Dayton Wings baseball team. The NFL head office remained in Dayton.

In the eyes of many in the press and public, Carl Storck had emerged as a deserving man who had been unfairly treated by the NFL owners, especially Marshall. All that would change in 1940.

At the beginning of the 1940 campaign, President Storck confidently predicted that attendance at NFL games would exceed 1.5 million. The season began well enough. The system of appointing officials by committee, adopted after the 1939 season, turned out badly, which worked to Storck’s favor in the court of public opinion. In October, the league announced that the NFL championship game would be broadcast on radio by a network of more than 100 stations under the Mutual Broadcast System. To help the passing game along, the league instructed officials to increase enforcement of both pass interference and roughing the passer penalties.

Everything was going well for President Storck, until rain began to unravel his career.

National Football League teams in 1940 still relied heavily on walk-up sales, rather than advance ticket sales, for most of their revenue. When rain on the second to last Sunday of the season killed turnout for the scheduled game in Philadelphia between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the lowly Eagles, Philadelphia owner Bert Bell cancelled the game. However, the cash-strapped Eagles needed the revenue, so Bell petitioned the league to allow Philadelphia to reschedule the game for the following Thursday, which was Thanksgiving Day in Pennsylvania. President Storck initially granted Bell’s request.

Then, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Dan Topping, who had bought into the team after Bill Dwyer sold it, protested. The Dodgers’ slim hopes of winning the Eastern Division crown and spot in the NFL championship game depended on three things. First, Brooklyn had to beat their crosstown rivals the New York Giants on the last Sunday of the season. In addition, they needed Philadelphia (who were winless in nine games to that point) to upset the first-place Washington Redskins on the road just four days after the Eagles’ rescheduled Thanksgiving meeting with the Steelers. If both of those things happened, Brooklyn and Washington would end tied for the division lead, setting up a one-game playoff, which the Dodgers would then have to win.

Topping demanded that Storck force Bell to postpone the Eagles’ Pittsburgh game until after their game at Washington, claiming that Philadelphia would have no chance of winning a second game in four days. Bell countered that the Eagles had planned a special tribute during the Steelers game to long-time quarterback Davey O’Brien, who was retiring to begin a career with the FBI and would be unavailable after December 1.

President Storck was torn. Having gone through tough times with the Dayton Triangles in the late twenties, he had resolved that the league had to do everything in its power to help struggling franchises. A league, Storck had declared on more than one occasion, is only as strong as its weakest team. At the same time, he felt for the fans in Brooklyn, whose team, incidentally the successor to his old Triangles, had never finished better than fourth place in the league before the divisional era or second in the Eastern Division afterward.

This time, Carl Storck’s sense of fairness got the best of him. He waffled, changing his mind at least twice before finally letting the rescheduled Steelers-Eagles Thanksgiving game go on.

If Storck had stuck to his guns and insisted that the Eagles-Steelers game not be postponed at all, he likely wouldn’t have made any new friends. However, he could have pressed the argument without damaging his reputation with the fans and press. After all, the Dodgers had themselves played on a short week earlier that season – against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Storck’s indecision did far more damage to his reputation than any decision he could have made and stuck with. It was the first of two critical errors in judgment that ultimately doomed his NFL executive career.

For the record, Philadelphia beat Pittsburgh 7-0 that Thanksgiving. The following Sunday, they went to Washington and fought gamely, but lost 13-6, finishing 1-10 on the season. The Dodgers beat the Giants, but it was for naught. The Washington Redskins’ reward for winning the Eastern Division title was to suffer the most lopsided defeat in NFL history, 73-0 to the Chicago Bears, in the 1940 NFL Championship game.

As 1941 opened, Carl Storck likely had more enemies than friends among NFL owners. The main question seemed to be whether and in what capacity he would stay on when the league hired a commissioner. Each owner appeared to have his own favorite candidate for the job. To make matters worse, Storck was fighting on another front as well. He was struggling to save his Dayton Wings baseball team after the parent Brooklyn Dodgers announced the withdrawal of their support unless increased local funding could be found.

On the NFL front, the owners reportedly made another run at Chicago sports editor Arch Ward, who again declined. They then held a secret meeting, which leaked to the press, to discuss establishing the position of commissioner. Storck was not invited, and on hearing of it called it a “plain double-cross.”

By February 1941, the owners had settled on a candidate for the new commissioner’s post, one possibly recommended by Arch Ward: Notre Dame Coach and former member of the legendary “Four Horsemen” Elmer Layden. Reached for comment, Stock had to confess that he had no knowledge of the offer to Layden. The league constitution did not provide for an office of commissioner, so it was yet unclear what Layden’s role and duties would be.

As the NFL spring meeting opened in early April, Storck made a second critical error that led to his demise as league president. Stressed over the potential loss of his NFL job and the Wings baseball team, and growing sicker by the day, Storck lashed out. He declared Layden unqualified for the job of commissioner and vowed never to take orders from a man he did not respect. He claimed that Arch Ward and George Halas had “streamrolled” Layden through, in his words. Worse, Storck insinuated, without presenting evidence, that Layden’s days as head coach of Notre Dame were numbered whether Layden took the NFL job or not.

The effect of Storck’s outburst was to undermine the goodwill he had built over two decades of service to the league. It was a tragic ending for an otherwise good man. He resigned April 4 and left the meeting site in Chicago, cancelling a planned vacation to return to his sick bed in Dayton. It was the end of the line for Carl Storck, third and last president of the National Football League’s pre-commissioner era.

Looking back, Storck may have lost the battle but he arguably won the war. His staunch defense of Bill Halloran established a precedent that the NFL would not reverse the result of a game based on an official’s call. His advocacy for the interests of weaker teams helped to establish the policy of promoting parity among NFL teams that ultimately led to the revenue sharing system now in place across the league.

Overshadowed in the Layden-Storck controversy of 1941 was one of the stranger transactions in league history. Pharmaceuticals magnate Alexis Thompson had bought the Pittsburgh Steelers from Art Rooney, who bought a piece of the Philadelphia Eagles from Bert Bell. However, Thompson really wanted to be in Philadelphia, while Rooney and Bell wanted to be in Pittsburgh. That April, Thompson and the two partners traded franchises straight up; Bell and Rooney took over the Steelers, while Thompson got the Eagles.

To turn around the fortunes of the long-suffering Philadelphia franchise, Thompson hired as head coach Earle “Greasy” Neale, who had guided the Dayton Triangles to Ohio League glory in 1918 under dubious circumstances. Neale made the most of the opportunity, coaching the Eagles to back-to-back NFL Championships in the late 1940s – with no asterisks attached.