State Your Case: Norb Sacksteder and pro football's forgotten era
Ever hear of Bid McPhee?
Didn’t think so. He was a second baseman who scored 100-plus runs in 10 of his 18 professional baseball seasons. He led the league in triples one year, in homers another and once stole 95 bases in a season. He’s also the last second baseman to play without a glove – and he has a plaque in Cooperstown to show for his career.
But McPhee never threw a baseball, swung a bat or fielded a grounder in the 20th century. McPhee retired after the 1899 season. He was out of baseball before the American League was even created. He also is the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame whose best years were spent in the American Association.
But baseball has done a great job of identifying greatness regardless of the era. McPhee is one of 13 players in Cooperstown whose careers ended before the year 1900. Their careers were not forgotten.
Which brings me to Norb Sacksteder. He’s another player you’ve never heard of, right?
Like McPhee, Sacksteder enjoyed his greatest seasons in a less-familiar league -- the Ohio League. That’s because the NFL wasn’t even around when Sacksteder began his pro football career in 1915. He spent five seasons playing for the Dayton Triangles and Detroit Heralds. The Ohio League then merged with several other Midwestern teams in 1920 to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA).
Sacksteder played for the Detroit Tigers in 1921 and then moved on to Canton to play for the Bulldogs in 1922. The APFA officially became the NFL that year and the Bulldogs were crowned its first champion. Sacksteder was one of the best players on a team that featured Hall of Famers Guy Chamberlin, Pete Henry and Link Lyman, producing touchdowns rushing, passing and receiving.
That also was Sacksteder’s final season. With only one NFL season on his resume, Sacksteder has never been a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But baseball recognized the greatness in McPhee – and football should recognize the greatness in Sacksteder.
Don’t bother looking at his stats. They don’t exist. The only numbers football tracked in that era were W’s and L’s. But thanks to some extensive research of newspaper clippings from that era by Ohioans Kevin O'Donnel and Doug Spatz, there are now some numbers available to substantiate Sacksteder’s greatness.
Sacksteder was the Barry Sanders of his generation, both in stature and style. He stood only 5-9, 172 pounds and took very few direct hits from tacklers because of a unique spin move. Did I say hits? Not many tacklers even touched him, much less hit him. Like Sanders, his speed and shiftiness allowed him to score from long distances. Very long distances.
By Spatz’s count, Sacksteder scored 50 touchdowns – and 15 of them covered 50-yards or more. He returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown against the Detroit Heralds in 1916 and ran back a punt 90 yards against the Toledo Maroons in 1915. He rushed 80 yards for a score against the Cincinnati Celts in 1917 and caught a 65-yard pass for another against the Cleveland All-Stars in 1916.
Sacksteder once scored 42 points on seven touchdowns in a 1916 game against the Cincinnati Northerns. The Detroit newspapers of that era labeled him “the Ty Cobb of football.” He also threw four career touchdowns passes on offense and intercepted four passes on defense.
If there was a 1910 all-decade team, Sacksteder would have been on it. But there wasn’t one. But they still played professional football – and this is the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Norb Sacksteder should not be penalized for being born too soon. He should be among the game’s pioneers discussed and debated for a spot in the Hall of Fame’s expanded Centennial Class of 2020.
Baseball didn’t forget Bid McPhee. Football shouldn’t forget Norb Sacksteder.