State Your Case: Why is Elmer Layden, the NFL's first commissioner, still last?

Photo courtesy of Notre Dame

Elmer Layden was the NFL's first commissioner. So why isn't he in the Hall of Fame 78 years later?

Elmer Layden was the first to hold one of the most significant jobs in professional sports but 73 years after he left the post as the NFL’s first commissioner Layden has yet to be enshrined in Canton. Should not the first to hold sweeping powers over the game have found his way into the Hall of Busts by now?

Elmer Layden originally came to fame as a 160-pound fullback in the most famous backfield in college football history. Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller and Layden formed Notre Dame’s “Four Horseman,’’ which during three seasons together between 1922 and 1924 lost only two games (one each in 1922 and 1923). But it was not until October 18, 1924, in the midst of their senior season together, that were they handed football immorality by the most powerful sportswriter in the country.

After upsetting Army, 13-7, Grantland Rice wrote in the New York Herald Tribune one of the most famous paragraphs in sports writing history: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.’’

That may sound ponderous today but in 1924 those words transformed Layden and his three teammates into instant celebrities. A year later Layden joined the original American Football League’s Hartford Blues and for one game was reunited with the other Notre Dame “Horseman’’ at a cost of $5,000. The Blues lost and the Horsemen quickly galloped off.

Layden would play professionally for two seasons while also coaching college football. He would eventually return to his alma mater and lead Notre Dame from 1934-1940, going 47-13-3 and losing only the final game of the 1938 season (8-1). He also served as athletic director but reluctantly agreed to leave to become the NFL’s first commissioner on February 3, 1941. His charge was to bring all the struggling professional football teams of that day under one league umbrella and the control of a single commissioner.

Despite being appointed by a majority of the owners rather than approved by a full vote of ownership, Layden was given sweeping powers that rivaled those of baseball’s iron-fisted commissioner, Kenasaw Mountain Landis. He exercised them judiciously and, some said, too softly but he did succeed in creating one league under his jurisdiction.

Still, several owners were irate. One was Bert Bell, the powerful owner of the Philadelphia Eagles who would ultimately replace Layden after his forced resignation five years later. Bell claimed, somewhat correctly, that Layden had been “railroaded into office.’’ Bell insisted better candidates (including Bell’s friend John B. Kelly, Sr., whose name had also been mentioned but who had not yet been interviewed for the job) had been passed over for the handpicked candidate of Arch Ward, the most powerful sports journalist in the country and the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. Ironically, it would be Ward’s decision to form the All-America Football Conference in 1944 that led to Layden’s downfall.

Layden led the NFL through the challenging years of World War II when talent was limited by military service and several teams, including Bell’s Eagles, had to be merged to stay in business. He also launched a gambling investigation into pro football without informing the owners and after the War ended declared the Star Spangled Banner would be played before every NFL game saying, “The National Anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kick-off. We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.”

His decision ruffled no feathers at the time and Layden could never have imagined the controversy that decision would cause the league, its players and the President of the United States seven decades later.

Layden opposed Ward’s formation of the All-America Football Conference, a competing league created in 1944 that did not begin play until 1946. Coming out of an early meeting to discuss the AAFC, Layden dismissed it by saying, “Let them get a football and play a game and then maybe we’ll have something to talk about.’’

As it turned out the AAFC and its salary battles with the NFL would become something NFL owners did talk about after Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Dan Topping announced he was withdrawing from the NFL and jumping to the new league. Topping had originally been among those who opposed Layden’s hiring and now took his revenge.

Fearing Layden was not forceful enough in using his powers, some owners opposed renewing his contract and he resigned under pressure on January 11, 1946. He was, however, asked to stay on as a consultant for the same $20,000 salary he had been paid as commissioner but declined, moving on to a successful career in the shipping business.

And who replaced Layden? None other than Bert Bell, who many in the game credit with saving the still struggling league from financial ruin and laying the foundation for the business colossus it has become today. Bell, the NFL’s second commissioner, went on to be named one of the 17 members of the Hall’s inaugural class of inductees in 1963.

As for the first commissioner, Elmer Layden is still waiting for his call, 78 years after creating the job.