What happened to the 1924 NFL Champion Cleveland Bulldogs?
The Cleveland Bulldogs won the NFL Championship in 1924, moved to Detroit for one year, and then Tim Mara bought the entire team and merged them with his New York Giants. That’s how they acquired Hall of Fame quarterback Benny Friedman among other star players from the Bulldogs. If a team could be tested for DNA, the Giants would be 50 percent New York and 50 percent Cleveland.
Actually, Cleveland Bulldog blood is a bit mixed also, containing a strong contribution from Cantonese Bulldog in it too. Technically, however, the Canton Bulldogs were not the same franchise as the Cleveland Bulldogs.
The story is complicated because greedy owners signed players that they could not afford, hoping that winning would make them rich, but instead went bankrupt. This pattern is seen over and over again in Pro Football history. So there were players changing teams, teams suspending operation, teams changing names, and reappearing.
For those who are curious about the details (particularly if you have friends who are Giants fans you want to taunt and want to get the facts straight) let’s start with the Canton Bulldogs. They played games in the Ohio League from 1903 to 1919, and Jim Thorpe (yep, the 1912 Olympic decathlon winner) was their star player, starting in 1915.
Thorpe was also the first commissioner of the NFL, known as the American Professional Football League for the first two years of its existence. Jim Thorpe, by the way, also played for a Cleveland team in 1921, which decided to call itself the Cleveland Indians.
One reason was that the baseball team had the same name, but also to honor Thorpe and two other Native American teammates, Joe Guyon and Pete Calac, legit stars in their own right. Guyon also is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, incidentally. The Cleveland Indians gig only lasted for one year, however, because Thorpe was injured most of the year.
That Cleveland team went bankrupt. Thorpe, Guyon, and Calac went on to play for an All-Native American team known as the Oorang Indians, which played mainly road games, based out of tiny La Rue, Ohio. But that is another story for another time and place.
Meanwhile, the Canton Bulldogs were still contenders even without their three Native American stars, and they won two NFL Championships in 1922 and 1923. However, the owner spent too much money on salaries (where have we heard this before?) and had to sell the team.
Meanwhile, a fellow named Sam Deutsch created a new team in Cleveland in 1923, which was also called the Indians, even though Thorpe, Guyon, and Calac were long gone. Nevertheless, it was still the name of the baseball team, and to maintain continuity with the previous team, the team name stayed. They finished a more than respectable 3-1-3 in their first season.
So Deutsch bought the Bulldogs and decided that the Canton team would suspend operations, but the best players from Canton, freshly unemployed, would merge with the Indians. He also changed the Cleveland team name to Bulldogs. In effect, it was a merger, but technically he signed the Canton players as free agents. The Canton franchise was not actually defunct, just suspended for the 1924 season.
Once again, the plan was to outspend the competition and make oodles of money by winning.
The Cleveland Bulldogs, with the additional free agents from Canton, became NFL Champions in 1924. After having won the Championship, however, Deutsch realized he could not afford his payroll and wanted to unload some contracts.
Hence the Canton Bulldogs were brought back to life in 1925 by the Canton business community so that both teams played in the NFL at the same time. Since both the Canton Bulldogs and Cleveland Bulldogs played in the NFL the same year (not to mention the Boston Bulldogs), they obviously were not the same franchise. So don’t let your friends from Canton try to claim the 1924 Championship as their own, although Canton did indeed win the NFL Championship in 1922 and 1923.
The Cleveland Bulldogs, still troubled by finances, suspended operations in 1926, but played again in 1927. The 1927 team featured a hotshot rookie quarterback from Michigan named Benny Friedman who led the Bulldogs to a surprising 8-4-1 record. The team was then sold yet again and moved to Detroit, where they were known as the Detroit Wolverines, posting a 7-2-1 record.
Although it’s disappointing that Cleveland lost the Bulldogs, what could be more perfect than a former Michigan star quarterback playing in Detroit? Given time, this team should have flourished.
However, after the 1928 season, Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants, purchased the Wolverines and merged the team with his Giants, with Friedman being the main prize. Once again, the plan was to outspend everybody else and build a winner, only the Mara family of New York could really do it. This was a true merger.
The Cleveland Bulldogs, a.k.a. the Detroit Wolverines were permanently defunct and assimilated into the New York Giants. Eight former Bulldogs played for the Giants in 1929. Together, they led the Giants to a 13-1-1 record, but lost the Championship to the undefeated Green Bay Packers, who were 12-0-1. Friedman eventually made the NFL Hall of Fame, but the Giants never won the NFL Championship with him.
They did okay, though. The Maras have built the GIants into one of the most successful and valuable franchises in the league. Giants fans think that they are a long-suffering fan base, but they are silly. The team is built on fundamentally sound principles and the cap is managed well. They will rebound. Youse should shut yer traps and stop complaining