Ralph E. Hay was not only a great auto dealer, he was also a sports pioneer. In fact, it’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for this entrepreneurial auto dealer, the National Football League wouldn’t exist and it certainly wouldn’t be entering its 100th season this Sunday.
That’s because the National Football League came to life in Hay’s auto dealership in Canton, Ohio, in 1920. Hay started his career as a salesman for a local dealership right out of high school. A few years later, he went into business for himself, selling Hupmobiles, Jordans and Pierce Arrows at his own dealership on the corner of Cleveland Avenue and Second Street SW.
Always the salesman and an innate marketer, Hay bought the local football team, the Canton Bulldogs, in 1918 to promote his business. And while pro football was gaining in popularity in the United States, there was no system in place to organize the fledgling sport. Players played on multiple teams and demanded increasingly high salaries, which meant owners were losing money.
Hay’s idea: Get the team owners together to agree on terms and conditions that would benefit them all. Hay invited the three other Ohio team owners to meet at his office on August 20, 1920, and formed the American Professional Football Conference. A follow-up meeting a month later led to the formation of a national league.
“On September 17, 1920, a group of men gathered in Canton, Ohio, at the Hupmobile showroom of Ralph Hay, owner of the hometown Bulldogs,” according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website. “The result of the meeting was the birth of the National Football League.” The Hall of Fame (located in Canton to commemorate the birthplace of the NFL) owns the minutes from that meeting and notes that they “are among the most precious documents in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's collection.”
Representatives from 10 teams attended that September meeting. “They were going to meet in Ralph’s office, but there were 15 men there and they couldn't get into his office,” Hay’s grandson, Dr. James Francis King, told ABC News. “It was too small, so they went into his showroom and there were two Hupmobiles there. They sat on the fenders and running boards. He had buckets of beer on the floor, and there was a lot of cigar smoke in the room.”
Cars, beer and football. It doesn’t get any more American than that.
And if you’re wondering what happened to the Canton Bulldogs, they did pretty well in the new league. They were the first team to win back-to-back NFL titles in 1922 and 1923, before Hay sold the money-losing team to focus on his successful dealership. “He knew the NFL would be big, but he never could have dreamed the multibillion-dollar industry that meeting he organized inside of his showroom would create," King told ABCNews.