Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Remembering Jack Cusack & Canton Bulldogs

By Chris Willis, NFL Films
Jack Cusack, Canton Bulldogs team manager, 1912 (Color: PFJ) 

On this day in 1973 former pro football pioneer and former Canton Bulldogs team manager, Jack Cusack, passed away at the age of 82 in Fort Worth, Texas. 

In the early days of pro football the city of Canton, Ohio became a juggernaut on the field, but not so much off of it. The team, despite its success on the gridiron, always seemed to go broke at the end of the season. Then the infamous betting scandal of 1906 between Canton and nearby rival Massillon almost killed the sport in Stark County. But a new name in the sport arrived in Canton at the most opportune time. 

In 1912, at the age of 21, Jack Cusack became the team's secretary-treasurer, at no cost to the team, as a favor to team captain Roscoe Oberlin. However, Cusack was disliked by the current manager H.H. Halter. Cusack later went behind Halter's back to sign a contract with Peggy Parrett's Akron Indians, concerning conditions for a game between the two squads, something Halter was unable to do. When Jack's actions were discovered by Halter, he tried to dispose of Jack's services through a team meeting. However during the meeting the team sided with Cusack, after discovering he had secured a 5-year lease on Lakeside Park for the Canton professional team. The result was Halter being removed from the team and Jack being named the team's new manager.
1912 Canton Pros (Bulldogs) team photo (Color: PFJ)

As manager of the Pros, Cusack slowly added college players to his roster along with the local sandlotters who constituted the bulk of the team. To make the team more profitable he had 1,500 seats added to Lakeside Park. Cusack felt that the Pros had to live down the 1906 scandal and gain the public's confidence in the honesty of the game. It was his theory that if he could stop players from jumping from one team to another, it would be a first step in the right direction. Therefore, several Ohio League managers made a verbal agreement that once a player signed with a team he was that team's property as long as he played, or until he was released by management - although some pro teams did not abide by this agreement. 

The Signing of Jim Thorpe (1915) 

Cusack revived the Canton-Massillon rivalry in 1915. With the rivalry, fans began referring to Canton as the "Bulldogs" once again and Cusack reinstated the name. That season Massillon and Canton began hiring bigger name players. When Canton began the season with a 75-0 vic¬tory over a team from Wheeling, West Virginia, the Bulldogs' starting line¬up included newcomers Bill Gardner, a tackle and end from Carlisle Indian School, Hube Wagner, an All-America end from Pittsburgh, and Earle “Greasy” Neale, the coach at West Virginia Wesleyan and an outstanding halfback. Massillon also had some big names in its lineup. The Tigers were represented by four former Notre Dame players - ends Knute Rockne and Sam Finegan, tackle Keith Jones, and halfback Gus Dorais - and Ohio State halfback Maurice Briggs. 

 As the two games between the renewed rivals approached, it was just like old times, with Canton and Massillon appearing to be the best teams in the state. Each had lost only once, and Canton's defeat had been while traveling out of state, a 9-3 verdict to the Detroit Heralds. With fans anxiously awaiting the first game, Cusack, in a move reminiscent of the old Canton-Massillon wars, signed the best football player in the world - Jim Thorpe. Thorpe first earned national attention in 1911-12, when he was an All-America halfback at the Carlisle Indian School. He received the acclaim of the world when he won gold medals in both the decathlon and the pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Thorpe also had played pro baseball, as well as football, with the Pine Village team in Indiana. When Cusack contacted him, Thorpe had slid into semi-oblivion and was coaching backs at the University of Indiana.
Jim Thorpe, Canton Bulldogs (Color: PFJ)

Nevertheless, he was still Jim Thorpe. The great Indian was a star at any sport he set his mind to, but on a football field he was in a class by himself. Some players could run as well, some could pass, a few were on a par defensively, and a very few could kick equally well, but no one at the time - or possibly since - combined all these skills to an equal degree of perfection. Still, when fans heard that Thorpe had been promised $250 for each game, they figured Cusack had lost his mind. But Cusack had the last laugh. The paid attendance for the Bulldogs' games had averaged 1,200 before he signed Thorpe. For the final two games with Massillon, Thorpe helped draw crowds of 6,000 (where Massillon raised their ticket prices to seventy-five cents) and 8,000. Everyone wanted to see the world's best football player in action. Unfortunately, Thorpe didn't help the Bulldogs as much on the field as off in the first game as Massillon won 16-0. Thorpe didn't start, although he did break loose for a 40-yard run to the Massillon 8-yard line, before he slipped trying to avoid Dorais. 

Canton vs Massillon, 1915 

“Nowhere in this country today are there two football teams possessing such a galaxy of stars as do the Tigers and Bulldogs.” Massillon Independent, November 14, 1915 

“There was a large amount of money [bet] up on the game and the fans, crowded into a stadium much too small for the crowd, were at a fever pitch when the game started.” Canton Daily News, November 29, 1915.

Two weeks later, the teams met at Canton, with the Bulldogs winning 6-0. First, Thorpe dropkicked a field goal from the 18-yard line and later he made a 45-yard field goal from placement. But it was one of the most exciting finishes ever that earned the game its place in history. The second game was played before a crowd so large that fans had to stand in the end zones. Ground rules for the game were adopted providing that any player crossing the goal line into the crowd had to be in possession of the ball when he emerged from the crowd. Late in the game, Massillon drove the length of the field to try to score the winning touchdown. That is when the fireworks really exploded, according to Cusack: 

"Maurice Briggs, right end for Massillon, caught a forward pass on our 15-yard line and raced across our goal right into the midst of the "Standing Room Only" customers. Briggs fumbled - or at least he was said to have fumbled - and the ball popped out of the crowd right into the hands of Charlie Smith, the Canton substitute who had been following in hot pursuit. Referee Connors, mindful of the ground rules made before the game, ruled the play a touchback, but Briggs had something to say about that. "I didn't fumble!" protested the Massillon end. "That ball was kicked out of my hands by a policeman - a uniformed policeman!" That was ridiculous on the face of it. Briggs was either lying or seeing things that didn't happen to be there -- for most everybody knew that Canton had no uniformed policemen in those days. But Briggs was unable to accept this solid fact.” It was a policeman!" he insisted. "I saw the brass buttons on his coat.” 

As the arguing over the call continued, the crowd grew more and more restive. Only three minutes remained in the game that would determine the Ohio professional championship. If the touchdown counted and Massillon either won with an extra point or tied, the Tigers would win the undisputed championship. However, if the score did not count and the Bulldogs held on to win, they might be awarded the title. Finally fans of both teams could stand the strain no longer, broke down the fences surrounding the field, and swarmed by the thousands onto the playing surface. The officials, unable to clear the field, ended the game. However, the officials were not allowed to escape. The Massillon team and its fans demanded that they settle the matter by making a definitive statement about the referee's decision. The officials agreed to make the statement, but only if it were to be opened and read by the manager of the Courtland Hotel at 30 minutes after midnight. That would give the officials time to leave town, thereby avoiding the wrath of either the Canton or Massillon fans. That night the lobby of the Courtland was filled to capacity with both Canton and Massillon fans, waiting for the statement to be read. When it was announced, the fans learned that the officials had backed the referee’s decision and ruled that the Bulldogs had won the game. The last chapter of the season did not end at the hotel, however. It was not until 10 years later that Cusack solved the mystery of Briggs’s fumble and the phantom policeman. As Cusack recalled: While on a visit back to Canton I had occasion to ride a street car, on which I was greeted by an old friend, the brass-buttoned conductor. We began reminiscing about the old football days, and the conductor told me what had happened during that crucial final-quarter play back in 1915. Briggs, when he plunged across the goal line into the end zone spectators, fell at the feet of the conductor, who promptly kicked the ball from Briggs' hands into the arms of Canton's Charlie Smith. “Why on earth did you do a thing like that?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “it was like this - I had thirty dollars bet on that game and, at my salary, I couldn't afford to lose that much money." 

That kick might have saved the conductor $30, but it cost Massillon an Ohio League championship. Instead, the title race was left in a muddle, with three teams - Canton, Massillon, and Youngstown - all claiming the championship. As it turned out, the only clear winner in 1915 was Canton, and that was off the field, where Cusack’s signing of Thorpe not only led to immediate financial success but gave the Bulldogs a bright future. 

Thorpe actually did more than that, helping football throughout Ohio. More important than anything he did in any single game, Thorpe's presence at Canton focused the attention of the whole country on Ohio professional football. More players of quality began arriving and both attendance and salaries went up. Ohio sportswriters - without blushing - began to trumpet the "world professional championship." True, pro and semi-pro teams could be found from New England to Iowa in nearly every town will eleven able-bodied men and a flat expanse of 100 yards, but they all took the aspect of minor leaguers; Ohio held the majors. 

The presence of Thorpe on the field in football-crazy northeast Ohio doubled the attendance and escalated the demand for former college all-stars to the point where no team could hope to become a state, regional or national championship contender without a significant number of paid former college stars on its team. Soon, the annual talk of forming a real pro league - with Thorpe's Canton Bulldogs as the cornerstone - became more vocal than ever before. 

The Bulldogs were the class of the Ohio League and professional football. Cusack’s squad would go on to win the “championship” three straight seasons, 1915-1917. World War I halted Cusack’s plans for his Canton Bulldogs. But pro football wasn’t the only thing on his mind. At this time Cusack decided to leave Canton and go into the oil business, setting up his operation in Oklahoma. He would eventually sell the team to Ralph Hay, a successful automobile dealer in Canton.
Eventually Cusack would make his mark in the oil business, retiring wealthy in Fort Worth. Cusack’s contributions to the early days of pro football shouldn’t be forgotten. Although he isn’t enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he very could be based on his resume. In the 1960’s Cusack wrote a short memoir of his time in pro football, titled “Pioneer in Pro Football,” it was self-published. Just 32-pages in length it gives a great look into how the game of pro football was organized and operated during the 1910’s. It also gives game-by-game accounts of the famous Canton-Massillon games under Cusack’s watch. Pioneer in Pro Football is worth the short read.
On this day we remember Jack Cusack.
1973 Jack Cusack obituary
1967 Jack Cusack letter to Hall of Fame coach Greasy Neale


  1. Great article and history guys ...

  2. Thanks for sharing this great information about Mr. Cusack. Everything that I've read about him or written by him seems to be consistent. I just didn't know what happened to him after he left Canton for Texas. He clearly lived a full life.

  3. I remember seeing that picture of Mr. Cusack and the Great Jim Thrope on the living room wall at his wife Mrs. Mary Cusack home across the street from Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth Texas my mother was a private nurse or Miss Cusack for a number of years until her passing