Ralph Hay (1891-1944) is best known for being the driving force behind the creation of the APFA/NFL, which has since grown into America’s most popular and followed spectator sport. Hay did not know that his love of football would turn it into a billion dollar industry. He was merely a man with an appreciation of the game who wanted to be able to enjoy it for years to come. He saw a need for better organization between different teams and pursued that goal in the same straightforward fashion that he approached everything else in life.
It didn’t seem like an impossible task, so he invited stakeholders from all the major professional teams to visit him for a discussion in the showroom of his car dealership. He used the same charisma that had let him build the largest Hupmobile dealership in Ohio to convince them all to sign on.
Upon graduating from high school, Ralph went to work for a car dealership, and discovered his natural talent for salesmanship. Several years later he left his employment at the dealership to form the Ralph E. Hay Motor Company, selling Hupmobiles, Jordans and Pierce-Arrows. His success made his dealership the largest in the area.
Ralph’s innovation led him and a colleague to create an amphibious hydro-car that could travel on both land and sea. They presented it to Congress in 1917 for use in the war, but plans to produce more vehicles halted when the war ended.
From 1915 through 1923, the Canton Bulldogs were at the center of the pro football world. With known players like Jim Thorpe and Guy Chamberlain, the Bulldogs pummeled any team they faced. The Bulldogs 47-1-5 record during their five championship seasons (1916, 1917, 1919, 1922, 1923) has yet to be matched.
In 1918, Ralph Hay acquired the Bulldogs as a savvy marketing move to help promote his car dealership. At the time the Bulldogs were the undisputed kings of the unofficial “Ohio League,” having won the championship the previous two years. Under Hay’s management, the Bulldogs became a charter member of the NFL and were the driving force behind the organization’s establishment.
Under Hay’s ownership throughout the 1921-1923 seasons, the Bulldogs played 23 games without defeat, which remains a league record. After winning the championship games in both the 1922 and 1923 seasons, the Bulldogs were the first team to win consecutive NFL Championship titles.
Hay eventually sold the team in 1923.
Ralph Forms the NFL
When Ralph Hay first became involved with professional football, he couldn’t have imagined the legacy he would leave behind. As an owner, he grew frustrated with the high player salaries and disorganized scheduling and worked to establish league regulations The players jumping from team to team, and poaching of college players led him to form a league.
In 1920, Ralph met with the managers of the Akron Pros, the Cleveland Tigers and the Dayton Triangles. Together, they devised a plan to form the American Professional Football Conference. Ralph was elected chairman of the conference and spent his summer writing to every pro team in the Midwest, inviting them to meet and discuss the future of professional football. On September 17, 1920, Hay made history when he organized 15 football professionals to lay the foundation for America’s favorite sport.
Because his office was too small, the meeting took place in Ralph’s automobile showroom, with owners sitting on running boards and fenders due to lack of seating. Together, they hammered out the details of the organization that would become the APFA/NFL we know and love today. It was proposed that Ralph Hay be the league’s first president, but he selflessly declined, knowing that with Jim Thorpe as president, the league would gain more recognition. It was then that Hay put the success of the league above his own gains.
Ralph Hay and Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe, arguably the world’s greatest athlete at the time, joined the Canton Bulldogs in 1915 and led the team through 5 championship seasons. As the most talented and most popular player on Ralph’s team, the two became close friends. The friendship continued even after Thorpe’s retirement, as he often traveled back to Canton to visit Hay.