State Your Case: Ralph Hay

Pro Football became a reality in his auto showroom in 1920

(Published July 2016)

There’s a reason the Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio.

That reason is Ralph Hay.

It was his auto dealership where the men of professional football met in 1920 to form what would become the National Football League – and Hay was the reason all those men traveled to Canton. He has been credited as a co-founder of the NFL.

That’s why the league’s birthplace was chosen in 1961 as the site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yet for all the time and money Hay spent building a championship team and creating the most powerful league in the world, his hometown Hall has ignored him. That’s an oversight that needs to be corrected.

Hay bought the Canton Bulldogs in 1918 at the age of 27 and fielded a team that would win three championships in five seasons. The Ohio league went dormant in his first year of ownership because of World War I, but his Bulldogs won the state title when play resumed in 1919 with a 9-0-1 record.

But the Ohio teams weren’t drawing well enough to pay their bills, so the owners of the four teams – the Akron Pros, Cleveland Tigers, Dayton Triangles and Bulldogs – met in Canton in August 1920 to form the American Professional Football Conference (APFC) in a bid to control costs and provide an organized structure. Hay then contacted all the professional teams outside of Ohio with the idea of forming a larger league.

Owners of teams from Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana and New York met at Hay’s Hupmobile dealership in September 1920 to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA). There wasn’t enough space in his office to conduct the meeting, so the men gathered in the dealership’s showroom with the team owners sitting on car fenders and floorboards. Among those in attendance was George Halas, the owner of the Decatur Staleys.

They agreed that Hay should be the first president, but he suggested that Jim Thorpe, his coach and star player, would be a better choice because his name recognition would provide the league instant and greater credibility. So Thorpe became the league’s first president and, in 1922, the APFA changed its name to the National Football League.

Hay signed college all-stars and future Hall of Famers to compete in the new league — Guy Chamberlin, Joe Guyon, Wilbur Henry and Link Lyman – and his Bulldogs won the their first NFL title in 1922 with a 10-0-2 record. But Hay’s auto dealership was being drained financially by the Bulldogs, so he sold the team to a group of local Canton businessmen in 1923. He remained with the Bulldogs as its manager, and in that 1923 season Canton became the first team to win back-to-back NFL titles with an 11-0-1 record.

By 1926, though, the Bulldogs disbanded. The NFL was leaving behind burghs such as Canton, Hammond, Racine and Rockford and moving into the Chicagos, Detroits and New Yorks.

Hay remained in Canton, and his car dealership become one of the most successful in the state. He passed away in 1944 at the age of 53 of heart disease. There is a plaque at the site of his car dealership that commemorates that 1920 meeting that spawned the National Football League. Hay and Thorpe are featured on the plaque.

“Ralph Hay had boundless enthusiasm and promotional courage of a high order – both of which were needed to keep a team going week-after-week in the post-World War I era,” said Halas in a 1972 letter promoting the Hall-of-Fame candidacy of Hay. “He was a pioneer in Canton, by no means a metropolis with population in six figures, and he dreamed beyond his own city. He dreamed of bigger, better things in the form of a major league.

“I emphatically recommend that Ralph Hay be voted into our Hall of Fame and be honored just as have others who followed him as players or coaches or owners.”

But Ralph Hay’s candidacy has never been considered by the Hall of Fame. He’s never once been a finalist. He deserves better. He is truly the one person you cannot write the history of pro football without.


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