The N.Y. Yankees and the NFL

(The following passage comes from a draft of my original manuscript The Least Among Them which provides a unique history of the New York Yankees franchise.)

As football season is now upon us, I determined that it is worth sharing this passage that highlights the connections between the New York Yankees and professional football. These connections go back to the early days of both sports.  While some of the players’ names in this passage will be familiar to sports enthusiasts, this essay includes the story of one of the least remembered New York sports legends of all time.

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In the late 1920’s, one of the most famous stars in sports played professionally for the New York Yankees.  This player was better known by his nickname than his given name. He set records and his exploits on the field were often times larger than life.  This player was considered a legend at the time, and, of course, still is today. During those years, it could be said that this player was his sport’s greatest star.  After his playing career, this player was also among the very first athletes enshrined in his sport’s Hall-of-Fame.

While all of the descriptors above apply to George Herman “Babe” Ruth, he was not the only legendary athlete in his sport playing in New York for the Yankees.  For three years, from 1926 through 1928, there was a professional football team known as the New York Yankees.  This team played in the American Football League in 1926 and was a member of the National Football League (NFL) from 1927 to 1928.  Their star player, at least in 1926 and 1927 was “The Galloping Ghost,” the legendary halfback Harold Edward “Red” Grange.

The 1926 New York Yankees football team was born out of a dispute between Red Grange and the Chicago Bears the team with whom he played in 1925.  Grange formed the Yankees as part of a rival league, the American Football League, in 1926.  After one season, the Yankees were brought into the NFL.

Statistics from the early years of the NFL are scant.  It is known that the 1927 team played to a record of 7 wins and 8 losses.  Red Grange appeared in 13 games that season.  In the entire season, the Yankees scored twenty-two touchdowns, one of which, a five yard run on October 12, was scored by Grange.

Unfortunately for the football Yankees, their star player did not stay very long in New York nor did the franchise.  Grange sat out the 1928 season with an injury before returning to Chicago (and continuing his legendary play) in 1929.  That 1928 Yankees team played to a record of 4 wins and 8 losses before folding.

A Yankees football team did return to New York in the late 1940’s.  This team played in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and was highly successful, at least at the start.  In 1946, the team’s first season, they played to a 10-3 record, finishing in first place, and reached the Championship game, eventually losing to Cleveland.  The following year, 1947, the Yankees also finished in first place going 11-2.  They once again reached the Championship game.  Unfortunately, in that title game, they lost to Cleveland for the second straight time.

The history of professional football in the 1940’s and 1950’s contains a dizzying array of franchise movement and name changes.  In 1949, this team was rechristened the Brooklyn-New York Yankees.  That 1949 team finished in third place but reached the AAFC Semi-Final Playoffs where they lost to San Francisco.  That 1949 season was the last of the AAFC and in 1950, the players from this team were split between the NFL’s New York Giants and the New York Bulldogs.  The Bulldogs were renamed the New York Yanks in 1950.  This team played the 1950 and 1951 NFL seasons in Yankee Stadium before the franchise was moved to Texas.

In addition to the failed New York Yankees football teams, there have been numerous players that have played professionally for the Yankees and in the NFL.  The most recent two-sport athlete who accomplished this feat was Drew Henson.

Drew Henson was considered a “Can’t Miss” prospect in both baseball and football.  He was a strong athlete who played power positions in both sports – third base and quarterback.  The Yankees took a chance on Henson, hoping that baseball would be his primary sport and drafted him out of high school in 1998.  The Yankees organization thought so highly of Henson that they allowed him to play Minor League baseball in the summers and still attend Michigan during the school year.  At Michigan, Henson apprenticed under and played alongside future NFL legend Tom Brady before becoming the starting quarterback in his own right during his junior year.

As a professional baseball player, Henson spent six years in the Minor Leagues, never quite realizing his potential.  In over 500 Minor League games, Henson hit an unremarkable .248 with just 67 home runs. Henson did get his own short taste of Major League ball appearing in a total of eight games over the course of two Septembers in 2002 and 2003.  Henson singled once in nine big league plate appearances.  After giving up baseball, Henson had the opportunity to play briefly in the NFL appearing in seven games with the Dallas Cowboys in 2004 and two games for the Detroit Lions in 2008.

Drew Henson is one of no fewer than six players to have ties between the New York Yankees and the National Football League.

Today, the most well-known two-sport Yankees player is Deion Sanders.  Drafted by both the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and the New York Yankees, Sanders enjoyed significant time in both the Major Leagues and the NFL.  Sanders played nine seasons in the Major Leagues appearing in 641 games while playing for the Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants.  In 1992, while playing for Atlanta, Sanders hit .533 in the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.  It was in the NFL, though, where Sanders true greatness was found.  He played for fourteen seasons in the NFL, most notably for the Atlanta Falcons and, like Drew Henson, for the Dallas Cowboys.  Sanders was an eight time All-Pro Defensive Back and Kick Returner.  In 2011, Deion Sanders was inducted into the NFL Hall-of-Fame.

John Elway is another NFL Hall-of-Famer who had ties to the New York Yankees franchise although he never reached baseball’s biggest stage.  John Elway’s, NFL record is legendary: 9 Pro-Bowls, 1987 MVP, and two Super Bowl Championships.  As a quarterback, he ranks in the top ten all-time in most passing categories.  Elway is considered by many to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of professional football.  Yet, before all of that took place, John Elway was the property of the New York Yankees franchise.  For one season, 1982, John Elway was a standout outfielder for the Oneonta Yankees of the New York-Pennsylvania League.  In 42 games, Elway hit .318 with four home runs and 25 runs batted in.  He also stole 13 bases.  The scouting reports on Elway projected him as a future Major League star.  After that initial season, though, John Elway returned to Stanford University where he led the nation in touchdown passes and was second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.  The next April, John Elway was selected by the Baltimore Colts as the first player in the NFL Draft.  A few weeks later, he was traded to the Denver Broncos.  Elway made the decision to focus on football leaving baseball behind.

Probably, the least known former Yankee who also played in the NFL was a right-handed pitcher named Joe Vance.  Vance pitched for the White Sox in 1935 and later played five games for the Yankees over parts of the 1937 and 1938 seasons.  Before his Major League baseball career, while he was still in the Minor Leagues, Joe Vance played professional football for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  In 1931, he appeared in eleven games in the NFL as a running back.  During the season he rushed for two touchdowns.

One of the largest legends in the history of the NFL is George “Papa Bear” Halas – one of Co-Founders and greatest coaches the game has ever seen.  Halas was also an excellent player.  In 1919, he was the MVP of the Rose Bowl.  He was considered one of the best ends in the game being selected as one of three members of the 1920’s All-Decade Team.  As a coach, his record is spectacular:  318 wins against only 148 losses (and 31 ties) for a .682 winning percentage.  Halas also guided the Chicago Bears to eight NFL Championships.  He was an inaugural member (1963) of the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame (which is actually located on George Halas Drive in Canton, Ohio).

Yet, before he began to establish his legendary NFL career, George Halas was, for twelve games in 1919, a member of the New York Yankees.  Halas played both center field and right field.  In 22 at bats, Halas managed only two singles for a batting average of .091.  Legend states that Halas was replaced in right field the next year by Babe Ruth, and while it is true that Halas patrolled that position the year before Ruth did, it would be a stretch to state that Ruth replaced Halas considering that Halas played in five games as the Yankees right fielder.  (The starting right fielder for the 1919 Yankees was Sammy Vick.)  By 1920, George Halas was out of baseball and pursuing the path that would take him to his status on the pantheon of NFL greats.  Interestingly, it was Halas that brought Red Grange to the NFL.  It was also Grange’s dispute with Halas that brought the original Yankees football franchise to New York.

The final player who appeared for the Yankees and also played in the NFL holds a singular and very impressive record – he is the only player in history to have been on a World Series winning team (the 1923 Yankees) and an NFL Championship Team (the 1927 Giants).  This player was Hinkey Haines.

The fact that Hinkey Haines is not well-known is somewhat remarkable.  In his day, he was one of the biggest sports stars in New York City.  Haines was a teammate and friend of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.  He was also a football teammate with Jim Thorpe.  One must assume that Hinkey Haines is the only man to be teammates to two of the most famous athletes of all time, Thorpe and Babe Ruth.  As noted above, Haines was also a contributing member of the 1923 World Champion Yankees and a superstar football player for the 1927 NFL Championship winning Giants.

As a youth, Hinkey Haines was a star player for Lebanon Valley College where he played football, basketball, baseball, and ran track.  He was also the president of the freshman class.  After his sophomore year, Hinkey Haines served in the United States Army during World War I.  After the war, Haines enrolled in Penn State playing varsity basketball, football, and baseball.  Hugo Bezdek, Haines’ baseball and football coach forbade him from competing in any varsity track meets, but one could speculate that he would have had success in that sport as well.  During his baseball career, Babe Ruth once commented that Haines was as fast as any man in the league.  Later, when playing in the NFL, Giants coach Bob Folwell stated that he never saw a faster man on a football field.

Hinkey Haines’ played Minor League baseball most seasons between 1921 and 1934, but his only time in the Major Leagues was that 1923 season.  Haines played the entire season with the Yankees, being present when Yankee Stadium first opened in 1923.  (Haines was present at the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium when Babe Ruth made his final appearance  and in 1976, after Yankee Stadium was remodeled, Haines was one of the six living members from that 1923 to be present for the dedication of the “new” Yankee Stadium.)  In that 1923 season, Haines appeared in 28 games.  He batted only .160, and was used primarily as a defensive replacement and as a pinch runner.

In the 1923 World Series, Haines did replace Babe Ruth in the third game (with Ruth moving to first base) in a game the Yankees lost to the New York Giants 1-0.  (The only run that game came on an inside-the-park home run hit by Giants outfielder, and future Yankees manager, Casey Stengel.)  Later, in the final game of the World Series, game six, Haines pinch ran in the eighth inning and scored the tying run in a game the Yankees won to secure the championship.  After pinch running Haines played center field and was on the field when the final out was recorded.

In 1925, Hinkey Haines, who had also been playing football in Pennsylvania, signed to play for the New York Giants.  He was considered the star of the team playing an important role in the backfield as a runner and passer.  The 1927 New York Football Giants enjoyed an 11-1-1 record.  Since there was no Super Bowl, or even a Championship Game at that time, the title “Champion” was bestowed upon the team with the best record. Haines played a huge role in a late season game against the Chicago Bears (George Halas was a player and coach on that team) and the New York Football Yankees.  (Those Yankee football teams had a star of their own, the legendary Red Grange.)  Hinkey Haines has been called the first superstar of the New York Giants.

After the season, a gala event was held in Hayes’ honor as the Hotel Astor in New York City that was attended by numerous sports figured of the day including Lou Gehrig and Joe Dugan of the Yankees.

There is an unconfirmed report that Hinkey Haines, who roomed with Lou Gehrig during Spring Training in 1924, was the Best Man at Lou Gehrig’s wedding.  There is also a story that he arranged for Babe Ruth to practice on one occasion with the football Giants.  It was said that Babe Ruth stayed on the field, as a tackle, for only two plays before deciding that football might not be his game.

Hinkey Haines was a superstar athlete who seems, in a very large sense, to have been forgotten by history.  If a future player is able to achieve status as a baseball and football world champion, that might make others learn about Hinkey Haines one of sport’s greatest and least known superstars today.

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