Book explores Memphis’ pro-football origins

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A long-lost piece of Memphis sports history is charging the field once again in the pages of a new book.

Wylie McLallen, author of "Tigers by the River," is a native Memphian whose passion for both history and football goes back decades in part, thanks to his dad.

"My father used to tell me about them," McLallen said about the Memphis Tigers of the late 1920s and 30s. "He said they were the best professional team in history."

Clarence Saunders of the Pink Palace, who founded Piggly Wiggly, the first self-serve grocery store in America, purchased the team and poured money into acquiring the best athletes available.

"He was a very enthusiastic man once he got going on something and he had the skill and resources to buy all the good players that there were in the country at that time," McLallen said.    

McLallen spent three years researching the team mainly through articles in the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Press-Scimitar and compiled that research into a new book"Tigers by the River: A True and Accurate Tale of the Early Years of Professional Football."

The Tigers were an independent team who played professional teams from around the country and actually beat the NFL's Green Bay Packers in 1929.

"This is the undefeated NFL champions and the game was broadcast back to Green Bay and they beat them very badly it was almost a route," McLallen said.  

The book not only highlights the team and some of its Hall of Fame players - Ken Strong, Cal Hubbard and Johnny Bloody McNaly - but also digs into Memphis life outside of football during that time, a segregated city during the great depression with sky-high unemployment.

"Segregation it's damaging to the soul and it's also damaging to the economy because you are losing a great part of the populations that are disenfranchised," McLallen said.

Some 90 years later there are still signs of that infamous Memphis pro football team, like Early Maxwell drive near the Liberty Bowl.

Early was the first organizer of that pro team and Zach Curlin Drive by the U of M.

Zack was a line judge during the pro football games and as the first athletic director at the University of Memphis, he gave one of the greatest compliments to that famed team.

"The finest legacy they have is that the University of Memphis athletic teams are still called the Tigers," McLallen said.    

"Tigers by the River," a piece of lost Memphis history is now being discovered again in paperback.

For more information on the book or to order your own copy, visit or Barnes and Noble.

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