Why The NFL Hall Of Fame Is In Canton, Ohio

On a crisp fall weekend in 1963, the living legends of the National Football League came together to honor their own and to dedicate the brand-new NFL Hall of Fame. It was called "pro football's greatest weekend" and it included, besides the dedication ceremony, a parade, a musical program, and a Hall of Fame game between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.

To determine exactly why Canton, Ohio, an industrial city of only 125,000 residents at the time of the dedication ended up as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we have to go back to 43 years earlier. At two meetings in August and September 1920 at a car dealership in Canton, several football team owners got together over beers and dreamed up what would become the National Football League. While that helps a little in explaining the location, it was a local newspaper that really made it happen. The Canton Repository, and especially its City Editor Germane Swanson, began agitating for the Hall of Fame in 1956 and eventually won enough support to make it happen.

The cradle of pro football

Ralph Hay, the Canton auto dealer who hosted the 1920 meetings, sold Hupmobiles (a brand of American cars made by the Hupp Motor Car Company that went belly up in 1940) and owned the professional football team the Canton Bulldogs. At the meetings, he and George Halas of the Decatur Staleys, Jim Thorpe, the Olympic athlete and professional baseball and football player, and several other owners hashed out the details for what they dubbed the American Professional Football Association. They changed the name to the National Football League two years later.

They named Thorpe the league's first president. In the original makeup, Ohio had the most teams at five. Illinois had four, Indiana and New York had two, and Michigan had one. Since the meetings took place in Canton, the city eventually claimed the title "the Cradle of Pro Football." The city's residents took the claim seriously and raised the equivalent today of around $4 million in 90 days to help build the Hall of Fame.

A treasure hunt

Canton, besides being the birthplace of the NFL, had another claim on why it should be the Hall of Fame's home. Ralph Hay's team, the now-defunct Canton Bulldogs, were the league's first two-time champions in 1922 and 1923. Besides the residents who chipped in to help build the Hall of Fame, the city donated 14 acres of land, per the Associated Press. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle helped break ground on the site in August 1962 for the building with a football-shaped roof.

Dick McCann, the first president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, quit his job as the general manager of the Washington Redskins to take the job. He was soon on "one of the biggest treasure hunts in sports history," he recalled (via The Marion Star). Some of the items he found included Jim Thorpe's sweater and Knute Rockne's helmet, among other treasures. Thorpe, who died in 1953, was among the first 17 inductees to the Hall of Fame — 11 of whom were on hand for the ceremony, including George Halas, who helped found the NFL. His team, the Decatur Staleys, is one of two teams still around. They're now known as the Chicago Bears. The other team is the Arizona Cardinals, which started out in Chicago.