Book Review: Pigskin
America’s Game is a marvelous history of the NFL, and a book I sometimes think could profitably be read as an indicator of second-half of the twentieth century American culture. Despite its strengths, though, its focus, understandably, is on the modern NFL, which for this purpose I’ll indicate begins with the 1958 NFL championship game between the Giants and the Colts. That leaves a void of nearly forty years of NFL history I was looking for a good book on.
Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football by Robert W. Peterson, whose existence antedates America’s Game, covers precisely those years America’s Game does not. It’s a fairly straight-forward narrative history covering the years from the first professional football players in the 1890′s in detail up through the 1950′s. It focuses in the NFL once that was formed, but makes side trips to the various other professional leagues, including the Red Grange AFL, the AAFC, and a smattering of minor leagues.
Despite filling a void and being the book I wanted, I didn’t end up loving Pigskin, though. I noticed a surprising number of typos and general infelicities for a book published by Oxford University Press. While it doesn’t contain formal notes, it does have a biography and index, plus from the text it’s clear Peterson did a good amount of research on it. On the other hand, a howler like describing collegiate football halves as twenty-four minutes long (p.18), which from a perusal of The Anatomy of a Game they have never been, makes me wonder about the veracity of all the other things Peterson isn’t telling me about. It is also not particularly well-structured, either on a micro or a macro level; chapters flow for the most part chronologically, but in the manner of “first X happened, then Y, then Z, …” A good example of the problem of intra-chapter structure is the segment on the World War II years. Peterson talks about the 1944 Steelers-Cardinals merger to introduce a player anecdote, then more player anecdotes about the intermixing of service and NFL football, then goes moves back to franchise disruption to mention the Rams suspending play and the Steagles merger. I found the result overly discursive and harder to read than it should have been.
On balance, Pigskin did more or less fill the void I wanted it to fill, but ultimately I don’t have an easy time recommending it to anyone other than football history buffs. I’m more looking forward to reading Chris Willis’s biography of early NFL president Joe Carr, The Man Who Built the National Football League.