Today will be the first full Sunday of games in the National Football League, as its 93rd season begins in earnest. Fans will pay hundreds of dollars for tickets and teams will reap millions (the league, billions), and games will be seen worldwide on TVs, laptops, tablets, and phones. NFL football in 2012 is an entertainment colossus.
Of course we all know it was a different story when the NFL began, in 1920. Teams from all over the East and Midwest sprouted up and died, while a few lucky ones survived. Most of the extinct hung on for a season or two, or at least a few games. But there is one team that played one lone NFL game before disappearing into the vapors of history, virtually unknown today. That team was the Tonawanda Kardex.
The what what? First, the geographic portion. Tonawanda is a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. Even today, between Tonawanda and its neighbor North Tonawanda, the local population is around 45,000. In the early 20th century, they were industrial towns, home to companies that produced things like organs and carousels.
And file storage. That was American Kardex’s game, and it was based in North Tonawanda. American Kardex would eventually become Remington Rand, which would manufacture everything under the sun, from firearms to typewriters, and most historically the UNIVAC. But in those days, it was still American Kardex, and its game was file organization. Take a look at the logo above and you’ll see. “Kardex” is a trademarked card-filing system, often used in hospitals for quick reference.
And so it came to be that a football club bore this company’s name, as overt corporate sponsorship was the norm in those days. As I wrote on this subject at The Fanzine:
In 1920, the NFL’s first season, non-affiliated opponents included the Moline Universal Tractors, Lansing Oldsmobile, and Kewanee Walworth, named for a steel tube company. The NFL’s Duluth Kelleys were named for a hardware store, while the Decatur Staleys (today’s Chicago Bears) had a corn processing company for its namesake.
That’s to say nothing of the Green Bay Packers, the most famous corporate shills, who got their name by selling out to two different meat packing companies. Considering there was a team collectively nicknamed “Oldsmobile,” a team calling itself the Kardex wasn’t totally weird in that era.
The team got its start as the All-Tonawanda All-Stars in 1916, playing games at the local high school field. They were coached throughout their existence by Walter “Tam” Rose, a former captain of the Syracuse Orangemen. Playing in the New York Pro Football League, the All-Stars (later named the Lumberjacks) would tussle with other local teams such as the Lancaster Malleables, the Buffalo Pierce-Arrows, and the Watertown Red-And-Blacks (which is still in semi-pro existence today, believe it or not).
The Lumberjacks were a pretty good club, winning the state league title in 1917 over the Rochester Jeffersons, and losing a playoff game in 1919. Coming off a 7-1 record in 1920, Tonawanda figured it would toss its hat in the newly-formed NFL’s ring. It was at this juncture the team secured sponsorship from American Kardex and changed its name accordingly.
They could have been called the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. In their lone NFL contest, in Rochester, the Kardex faced their old foes the Jeffersons. It was a 45-0 laugher won by Rochester, and a reality check for Tonawanda. The team that just a few years before had beaten the Jeffs and the Syracuse Pros, another New York League team turned NFL, realized it simply did not have the talent to compete on this level. And with that, it folded, relegated to the dustbin, or file tombs if you will, of NFL history.
(As for Kardex, the company? It must have been spun off at some point, because this would appear to be it.)
Today there is no direct connection between the NFL and the Kardex. Tonawanda’s pro football history lives on only in the mascot of its high school, the Lumberjacks. They remain a bizarre footnote, just as curious for their corporate nickname as their brief experience in the big leagues. To this day the Kardex remains the only NFL team to have amassed a total of 0 wins, 1 loss.