Following books on baseball among black professionals before Jackie Robinson and on the history of professional basketball, Robert W. Peterson has given sports fans a history of football’s emergence as a professional sport in the United States. One of the many curious facts he presents in PIGSKIN: THE EARLY YEARS OF PRO FOOTBALL is that professional football began in the Ivy League. In the late 1880’s some college players received “financial incentives;” then in 1891 a recent Yale star, Pudge Heffelfinger, was paid $500 for one game with a team representing an athletic club in Pittsburgh, much more than most players would receive for decades thereafter.
The National Football League (NFL) did not begin until the 1920’s, but even with the advent of such famous athletes as Red Grange of the University of Illinois and Jim Thorpe of Carlisle Indian School, fans much preferred the college variety. Unlike their counterparts today, who groom their players for the professional ranks, the college coaches of the 1920’s were by and large the NFL’s biggest detractors. Until 1933, when the league began adopting rules fostering a more wide-open style of play encouraging the forward pass, it rather timidly followed in the footsteps of the collegiate game
Peterson portrays well the contribution of black players, a few of whom played in the league’s early years but who then went totally unrepresented for a dozen seasons from 1934 on. Their reappearance in increasing numbers after World War II, along with the interest generated by television, had much to do with the game’s rise to popularity.
The author has relied on the work of a growing cadre of professional football historians and on extensive interviews with older players and coaches to document a lively narrative of how the sport came to be the attraction that it is today.