State Your Case: Norb Sacksteder and pro football's forgotten era

Photo courtesy of Doug Spatz

Norb Sacksteder was Barry Sanders before Barry Sanders. But was he born too soon for the HOF?

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.

Comments (6)
No. 1-6
Packdynasty
Packdynasty

Do Not overlook Howard "Cub' Buck for Canton class of 2020! WHO? Look him up. Cub played pro football for undefeated World Champion Canton Bulldogs starting in 1916 and Bulldogs were powerhouse pre-NFL. Buck was a lineman and they never get proper recognition. Buck blocked for JIM THORPE and Jim said Buck was " THE GREATEST Lineman he played with or against' It doesn' get better than that. Except Cub was ALL PRO for 1920 NFL Bulldogs. In 1921 he was Green Bay's first STAR and highest paid player, in their first year in NFL. Buck kicked and played tackle in both directions. Buck was coaching on Saturdays and playing Pro ball on Sundays. Look him up- EARLY NFL STAR but stuck in trenches and 2020 is his best shot!

TanksAndSpartans
TanksAndSpartans

Rick, great article! I actually wrote a PFRA article that introduced an objective methodology for creating a half-decade team for 1915-19 (I plan to ultimately develop an All-1910s Team, but that will be a bigger challenge given the lack of known All-Pro teams, so I decided to publish the results incrementally). The two halfbacks on the half-decade team? Thorpe and Sacksteder. I’m definitely a proponent of following Baseball’s example and getting some pre-NFL players into the Pro Football HOF and Saxy belongs in the first group. I’d love to see the 10 seniors for the 2020 class come exclusively from the early days. Dilweg, Slater, Sacksteder, Al Nesser, Tony Latone, Verne Lewelenn, Bob Nash, Al Mahrt, Cub Buck, and Homer Davidson would be a solid group. And that even leaves a few for future discussion: Ralph Waldsmith, Pete Calac, and Frank and Ted Nesser.

jefferyepayne
jefferyepayne

I wonder how many HOF voters even know who the players are you've rattled off in your list TanksAndSpartans. The HOF has done a disservice to those who came before the NFL and/or played mostly before it existed. It's time to make this right by inducting all of the players you mentioned in your response. But of course all the chatter is about some 70s player who has been 'overlooked'. Let them wait 50 more years like the early pros have waited! Thank you for writing this (and other) articles, Rick!

jefferyepayne
jefferyepayne

And PLEASE stop just looking at the All-Decade Teams. There are several issues with doing this: 1) the teams from the 20s - 60s were all selected in 1969 and those involved just didn't do a very good job for the very early teams, in particular the 20s. 2) Lots of players spanned decades such that they didn't play enough in any particular one to get selected yet were strong for 10+ years.

Rick Gosselin
Rick Gosselin

Editor

The fact of the matter is 72.8 percent of the all-decade selections in the NFL's first nine decades now have busts in Canton. It's difficult for this committee NOT to look at the all-decade teams.

TanksAndSpartans
TanksAndSpartans

Rick, not to pile on, but I agree with Jeff on this one (Full disclosure, I know him to be an excellent historian who shares an interest with me in this early era). In an article on the All-20s team, PFRA founder Bob Carroll noted “the selectors leaned heavily on men already enshrined in the Hall of Fame”. Carroll gives several examples of which Thorpe is one, certainly an all-time great for his dominant performance in the 10s, but not one of the best backs of the 20s. The argument is compelling that they simply backfilled the team with HOFers. Despite this, focussing on all-decade teams certainly turns up some outstanding candidates like Lavvie Dilweg, but also misses quite a few. Its great you spotlighted a worthy candidate like Sacksteder from the 10s which isn’t the easiest thing to do. Unlike the 10s though, the 20s doesn’t lack for published research and even has a few competing all-decade teams. To me, Tony Latone jumps out from the The Pro Football Chronicle’s 20s team (Dan Daly and Bob O’Donnell) and Verne Lewellen from Bob Carroll’s. Are you open to considering non-official all-decade players from the 10s and 20s? Would you agree there is a logic and fairness to giving some extra attention to these under-represented decades?