Canton vs. Massillon

November 25,1917






In 1915, the Canton Bulldogs signed Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete of the era to a contract of $250 a game. Canton was trying to gain superiority of their chief rival, the Massillon Tigers.  By 1904, the Tigers had won two straight Ohio championships and Massillon community leaders had encouraged their counterparts in nearby Canton to form a team, as well.  The Canton Bulldogs were organized in 1904.  The two teams became early rivals and struggled in their first ten years of existence, at one point disbanding for financial reasons.  Reorganized by 1915, these two Ohio rivals would form the foundation of the national game that would develop into the American Professional Football Association (NFL) in 1920.

With Thorpe as star and coach, the Bulldogs developed quickly.  By 1916, Canton had become a strong team which went undefeated and beat Massillon 24-0.  They were regarded as the champions of Ohio and of the nation.

In 1917, the Bulldogs won their first eight games, including a 14-3 win at Massillon. In that game, the Tigers' player-captain, Charlie Brickley,  had opted to use a smaller line-up than their usual starters, hoping that speed would help to offset the size of Canton.  The plan failed and Canton rolled to victory. Canton took the opening kickoff and drove 77 yards straight down the field to a touchdown.  Massillon rushed in their regular veterans, but it was too late. Canton went on to a 14-3 win.

That victory over Massillon all but wrapped up the championship for Canton.  They did, however, have one very important game remaining.  They were to meet the mighty Detroit Heralds at home on Thanksgiving Day, 1917.  The Heralds came into the game with only one loss on the season and a win against Canton would give them a strong claim to the national title. A crowd of 8000 showed up for the game.  Thorpe did not play in the first half and Detroit held their own in a 0-0 first half.  In the second half, Thorpe led a drive down the field and Milt Ghee hit Greasy Neale with a short touchdown pass.  Canton won 7-0.  They now stood at 9-0 for the season and were clearly the best team in the land.

The Bulldogs' season had been very successful, but they still had a second game with Massillon to get out of the way.  The game occurred three days after the Detroit game on November 25, 1917.  Stunningly, Massillon pulled off a 6-0 upset on a pair of field goals by ex-Notre Dame star Stan Cofall. Canton simply didn¨t play well.  Jim Thorpe was injured early in this game and limped throughout.

Although they were upset, Canton still claimed the national title and the majority of sportswriters agreed.  Although this sentiment was not complete throughout the country.  The Lake County Times of Hammond, IN reported Monday following the game, "Cofall Defeats Thorpe's Eleven.....Massillon Tigers Professional Team Defeated Jim Thorpe's Canton Bulldogs 6-0......Canton Bulldogs' loss to Massillon ruins chances to repeat as pro champions."  However, Massillon really could not make a serious claim to the title as they had lost three games including the first to Canton by a wider margin than their season ending victory.  From 1915 to 1919, Canton would post a record of 28-2-2 and would be crowned pro champions in 1916, 1917 and 1919.

The owner of the Cleveland Indians bought the defending NFL champions Canton Bulldogs in 1924.  He "mothballed" the Canton team and took its players and name to Cleveland in 1924 and won the NFL championship.  The Canton Bulldogs had ceased to exist.  Massillon withdrew in 1920 for financial reasons and, although there was talk of restarting the team in the early days of the NFL, this never occurred.