by Ron Spence
Sports were all the rage by the ‘90s – the 1890s.
Americans were spending some $150 million per year – the players’ salaries for three NHL teams today – on recreation, and by 1909, $1 billion on recreation and travel combined.
People had discovered this new-fangled thing called leisure, as their work weeks were shrinking – from 60 to 44 1/2 hours a week, during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century.
In 1910, Americans were dropping $73 million, just on sports, and businessmen were investing $105 million in sporting enterprises.
“…sports had been enjoyed mainly by the rich,” Walter Lord wrote in The Good Years, “Suddenly [the general public] were becoming part of the American scene … The World Series gate at one game was only six thousand … By 1910 (the next five-game series) attendance was double the 1908 figures, and the pattern of the future was set … the general public was eagerly moving into an area that had previously been monopolized by the rich. Big stadiums began blossoming over the land [Two large steel and concrete baseball stadiums were built in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in 1909, and by 1916 there were seven more.] … poor boys started taking up tennis … the seeds were planted for [The Golden Age of Sports].”
“North Americans were on the move,” Ron Smith added, in The Sporting News: Chronicle of 20th Century Sport, “as the decade opened and the agrarianism of the early 1900s was giving way to a new urban industrial society – wealthier, more mobile and interested in expanding its sports and entertainment horizons.”
It’s estimated that during the late ’20s, Americans spent somewhere between $6 and $21 billion per year on their leisure activities.
THE INDY 500's FIRST WINNER - The MODEL 32 MARMON "WASP"
The NHL saw a good thing, and expanded into the U.S. during the mid-1920s.
The league first established itself in Boston (Bruins) in 1924 (while creating a second Montreal team, the Maroons), and Pittsburgh (Pirates) and New York (Americans) the following season. The third year of NHL expansion was in 1926, when Detroit (Cougars, later the Falcons, and finally the Red Wings) and Chicago (Blackhawks) started teams, and a second club was permitted in New York (Rangers).
The 1920s were aptly called the “Roaring Twenties,” as society completely opened up, and people were rejecting traditional values. Many defied Prohibition, and indulged in dancing, dressing up and “making whoopee.”
“…the 1920s were a ‘party’ that resulted in a serious hangover,” Frederick J. Hoffman wrote in his book THE 20’S.
So, hockey was perfect for this generation.
Paul Gallico covered hockey’s arrival in the Big Apple for the Daily News, and wrote in his memoirs, Farewell to Sport:
“…I have always suspected that the real appeal of hockey … [is] that it is a fast, body-contact game played by men with clubs in their hands and knives lashed to their feet, since the skates are razor sharp, and before the evening is over it is almost a certainty that someone will be hurt and will fleck the ice with a generous contribution of gore before he is led away to be hemstitched together again.”
BUILT IN 249 DAYS FOR $4.75 MILLION
The Americans took their first faceoff in 1925, the year before the Western Hockey League closed their arena doors, and many players migrated east to the new American franchises.
The Portland Rosebuds moved to Chicago, the Victoria Cougars to Detroit.
Amerks’ owner, “Big Bill” Dwyer, was initially lucky, as the Hamilton Tigers had been suspended – for going on strike – and he was able to purchase the players for $75,000 – on September 26, 1925. He had previously acquired Joe Simpson, John Morrison and Roy Rickey, from the cash-strapped Edmonton Eskimos, for $10,000 – on September 18th.
Both Detroit and Chicago would pay WHL teams $100,000 for their players.
The core of the Americans, had been the NHL’s regular season champs the 1924-25 season.
They went 12-22-4 the following season, however. And then they improved slightly to 17-25-2, and fell even further to 11-27-6 their third year (The year that the Rangers would win the Stanley Cup).
There were numerous reasons for the Americans’ failures.
Much has been written about the Culture of Winning – the Montreal Canadiens, the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Yankees, etc.
Well, the Quebec City Bulldogs, who became the Hamilton Tigers, who became the New York Americans typify a Culture of Losing (As today are the Pittsburgh Pirates [baseball], the Arizona Cardinals [football], and the Memphis Grizzlies [basketball].).
The Tigers were terrible in Quebec and Hamilton (see spreadsheets), and only played well during the one 1924-25 season (They had more wins – 9 – by the mid-season mark, than they had ever had in a previous year.). And, they had started to slump during theit second half in Hamilton, before being suspended from the playoffs.
If this culture of losing wasn’t bad enough, the former Tigers were transplanted into a terrible environment. Dwyer was pure and simply a gangster, and players would go into Dwyer’s office to get paid, and have to pass through a number of gunsels and hit men to get to his desk.
Also, they weren’t treated well in their own rink, Madison Square Gardens, which didn’t help their self esteem. Everything was, “The Rangers this … the Rangers that….”
And then, there were their bad habits.
To begin with, Dwyer spoiled his players by giving them too much money.
Dwyer at least doubled the salaries. At a time when NHLers were making $1,500 to $2,000 per season, he paid Shorty Green $5,000 – up from $3,000 – and Billy Burch $25,000 over three years. And he would continue to pay Lionel Conacher $7,500 per season, as per his Pittsburgh contract.
With the big bucks, the bad hockey environment, plus living in the Big Apple, his players started gambling.
“…you could get betting actions in that club dressing-room,” Andy Lytle of the Toronto Star wrote, “from one and all on almost any subject under the sun involving debate and hence betting, from what the weather would be, to which way their press agent would be leaning when he stumbled in for a spot of scuttle-butting, and he a most noted lush.”
And if this wasn’t bad enough, some became heavy drinkers. Lionel Conacher’s brother, Charlie, once quipped that Dwyer’s star defenseman, seemed “bent on a literal interpretation of the soft drink slogan, ‘Drink Canada Dry’.“
The drinking was so bad, that Dwyer threw up his hands and dispatched Lionel to the Maroons, who also set him adrift (And yes, there is a certain irony here. Dwyer was – in a way – paying his alcoholic star from money acquired from bootlegging.).
The greatest reason for the Americans’ failure, however, was Dwyer himself. He couldn’t stick with one coach, and the team lacked continuity.
Dwyer went through coaches – one per season – faster than Harold Ballard would five decades later.
Dwyer’s first coach was Tommy Gorman, followed by Edward “Newsy” Lalonde, and then Wilfred “Shorty” Green. The Americans’ fourth season, Dwyer went back to Gorman for the 1928-29 campaign, and Lionel Conacher the next year.
I think that Dwyer’s total confusion may be seen in the fact that he would expand the duties – from player to player/coach – of a faltering alcoholic.
Dwyer’s team might be losers, but his bottom line was great. On opening night alone, December 24, 1925, 17,422 arrived at the new arena, located on 50th Street at Eight Avenue.
This wasn’t a record for an opening night, however.
At the Indy 500’s inaugural race in 1911, 80,000 spectators had filled the stands. And, an amateur baseball championship in Cleveland, in 1914, had drawn more than 100,000 fans.
Ray Harroun had won the big Indy race, with a time of 74.6 mph. It was a controversial affair, as he had used some newfangled invention called a rearview mirror.
This 1926 pic doesn’t include Amerks’ owner, “Big Bill” Dwyer.
Shown in his place, were: Tom Gorman, Manager (on crutches), Honorary President Tex Rickard (with a cane), President Col. John Hammond, Chairman/Director Tom Duggan (in black suit, bow tie and hat).
THE NEW YORK AMERICANS - THEIR INAUGURAL SEASON - 1925-26 - THEIR RECORD WAS 12-22-4 - YOU CAN SEE IT IN THEIR FACES
Ray Harroun, and his yellow Model 32 Marmon “Wasp” retired from racing, but people were speeding all over the place during the 1920s. Canadians and Americans had become “nations of spectators,” with lots of money and a bad attitude. They wanted to go places and do things.
And they disliked rules, particularly Prohibition.
“It infringed too directly upon the personal liberty,” wrote Foster Rhea Dulles in America Learns to Play: A History of Popular Recreation, “and the right to enjoy oneself, upon which the post-war generation was so stridently insisting.”
Bill Dwyer had never been too concerned about personal liberty, and he believed that people should enjoy themselves.
Time: The Weekly News Magazine described Dwyer’s career in his December 23, 1946 obit:
“William V. (”Big Bill”) Dwyer … onetime ‘king of the bootleggers,’ who in Prohibition days commanded a fleet of 20 rum-runners, controlled the entry of liquor into New York Harbor … After spending “a little vacation” in Atlanta’s Federal Penitentiary (he was convicted of bootlegging in 1926), he tried to rebuild his crumbled fortune through sports promoting, bought the N.Y. Americans hockey team, introduced professional hockey to Manhattan, headed Miami’s famed Gables Racing Association.”
Yes, there’s a further parallel with Harold Ballard here. Both spent time in stir, while owning NHL hockey teams.
“Big Bill” Dwyer wasn’t in his team’s photo because he was in prison. He had been arrested eleven days before the Americans’ inaugural game, and missed more than the photo – his team’s pathetic first season.
The NHL’s Club Directory for 1930-31 listed Dwyer as the Americans’ Treasurer.
The Directory didn’t include Dwyer’s name, however, with the Philadelphia Quaker Hockey Club.
The franchise had been the Pittsburgh Pirates the year before, and had been owned by Dwyer for nearly three seasons.
Arthur Reeve, “What America Spends for Sport,” Outing 57, December 1910, p.303.
Walter Hiatt, “Billions Just for Fun,” Collier’s, 74, October 25 1924, p 50.
Jesse Steiner, Americans at Play. NY, McGraw-Hill, 1933, p 183.
Stuart Chase, “Play,” in Charles Beard, ed., Whither Mankind. NY, Longman, Greene & Co., 1928, pp.336-7.