Gridiron in the National Archives

Photograph of Francis “Bucko” Kilroy (1921-2007) one of the two plaintiffs in the case against Time Inc. Image from the holdings of the National Archives)

It’s football season again! We’re celebrating with a special post written by Matt Dibiase, an archives technician at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

The October 24, 1955, issue of Life magazine (owned by Time, Inc.) did a pictorial story on excessive violence and dirty play in the National Football League. Back in the 1950s, professional football was far more violent than it is today.

Many of the safety rules and penalties such as the in-the-grasp rule, face-masking, and illegal hitting did not exist. Players could use clothes-line tackles on opponents or grab their opponents by the face mask or use their forearms or elbows to down ball-carriers. Quarterbacks were fair game for any pass-rusher.

Two members of the Philadelphia Eagles are among the players featured in our documents from this rougher time: defensive lineman Francis “Bucko” Kilroy and linebacker Wayne Robinson. The story alleged that both players were dirty players and “ornery critters.”

Kilroy was a living legend in Philadelphia sports history. He was born and raised in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, played football at Temple University, and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1943. Kilroy played 13 seasons with the Eagles as an offensive and defensive lineman. He was a key member of the Eagles teams that made three consecutive appearances in the NFL championship game from 1947 to 1949 and won the NFL title in 1948 and 1949 (both games by shutout—the only time in NFL history this has happened). Kilroy made three Pro Bowl appearances and was named seven times on All-Pro teams. After his playing career ended, Kilroy worked as a scout for the Dallas Cowboys and in the front office of the New England Patriots.

On October 28, 1955, both players filed a civil action against Time Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, alleging that Time Inc. libeled and defamed their good names and reputations.

The case went to trial in 1958 and featured photographic evidence and testimony by the plaintiffs as well as numerous witnesses for both the plaintiffs and the defendants. Some of the witnesses were fellow NFL players (a few of whom were among the greatest players of their day) to both support and refute Kilroy’s and Robinson’s allegations that Time Inc. libeled them.

One of the witness against Kilroy and Robinson was Otto Graham. This player had led the Cleveland Browns to four consecutive championships in the All-American Football Conference from 1946 to 1949 and six consecutive NFL championship game appearances from 1950 to 1955 (winning the NFL title in 1950, 1954, and 1955).

Below are two pages from the testimony of Otto Graham. Otto Graham was a key witness for the defendant because it was Graham who assisted Time Inc. in the preparation of the story. Graham examined the photographs featured in the story and selected the ones that he felt showed “dirty” play. Pages 79 and 80 (below) show Graham’s testimony about Bucko Kilroy’s conduct on the playing field.

In the end, the jury found in favor of both Kilroy and Robinson and ordered Time Inc. to award Kilroy and Robinson each $11,600 in general and punitive damages.

The documents and photo displayed here are drawn from Record Group 21, (Records of the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania). They are from the actual court records of the two cases, Civil Action Case File #19760 and #19761, now part of the holdings of the National Archives–Mid Atlantic Region.

Many players, including Emlen Tunnel, gave testimony. You can see a larger set of images on the Facebook page for the National Archives at Philadelphia.

Page 79 of the testimony of Otto Graham. This page shows Graham’s testimony about Bucko Kilroy’s conduct on the playing field. (National Archives at Philadelphia)
Page 80 of testimony of Otto Graham. On this page Graham testifies as to his opinion of Wayne Robinson as a football player and addresses the issue as to whether Robinson was a dirty football player or not. (National Archives at Philadelphia)

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