By Dan Daly
The dressing rooms at Universal Stadium, home of the NFL's Portsmouth Spartans, were in a shed-like building at one end of the field. Over the years, cracks developed in the roof, and on wintry days players sometimes had to brush snow off the benches before they sat down to tie their cleats.
Thanksgiving 1930 was that kind of day. A blizzard had hit the Ohio Valley on the eve of the holiday, and more snow fell during the Spartans' game against the neighboring Ironton Tanks, a non-league team but Portsmouth's bitterest rival. The field -- or what was left of it in late November -- was as hard and slippery as a dance floor, and the frigid temperatures, coupled with a merciless wind, caused some players to wear gloves.
How cold was it? Cold enough for Spartans coach Hal Griffen to tell sportswriters that if they lost feeling in their typing fingers -- the press box was unheated -- they could warm themselves by the gas stove in the dressing room. Cold enough, according to the Portsmouth Times, for one fan, a prominent realtor, to dress thusly: "seven pairs of sox, two suits underwear, three pairs of trousers and other accoutrements too numerous to mention."
The Tanks, who had trounced the Chicago Bears 26-13 in Cincinnati four days earlier, wanted to postpone the game until the weekend, when the conditions figured to be more favorable (and their bruises from the Chicago scrum less purple). But the Spartans didn't have the flexibility; they were scheduled to meet the Bears on Sunday at Wrigley Field. So the Thanksgiving game kicked off as planned at 2:30 p.m. -- the snow piled up on the sidelines, a crowd of 4,500 shivering in the stands.
The Spartans' descendants, the Detroit Lions, have become synonymous with Thanksgiving football, hosting a game almost every year since 1934, when the franchise moved from Ohio to the Motor City. But teeing it up on Turkey Day has been an NFL tradition since Season One, since the Canton Bulldogs and Decatur Staleys roamed the earth. In those lean times, it was common for a club to squeeze in another payday late in the season, preferably one against a nearby foe. Then it could pack the stadium with fans from both sides... and possibly pay off any promissory notes it might have outstanding.
In 1930, nine of the league's 11 teams played on Thanksgiving. In Chicago, you had the Bears and crosstown Cardinals renewing hostilities at Wrigley. In Staten Island, you had the Stapes taking on the New York Giants. In Brooklyn, you had the Dodgers entertaining the Providence Steam Roller. In Frankford, you had the Yellow Jackets going up against the defending champion Green Bay Packers. And in Portsmouth, hard by the Ohio River, you had the rubber match between the Spartans and Tanks.
The last of these games is probably the most instructive, because it tells us much about where pro football was in those days -- and where it was heading. You see, in 1930, the NFL's 11th season, the league was hardly the Godzilla it is now. Indeed, a city of 16,000 like Ironton could field an independent team good enough to beat three NFL clubs: the Spartans, Giants and Bears.
Granted, there's a caveat: The Tanks were much better rested than the Giants (who were playing their second game in three days) and Bears (who were playing their second in two). But they were still an NFL-quality team that boasted a future all-pro, triple-threat tailback Glenn Presnell, and was coached by Greasy Neale -- the same Greasy Neale who led the Eagles to two championships in the '40s and is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Spartans, too, were an improbable story. After all, Portsmouth, population 42,560, was barely bigger than Green Bay, the only small-market team that made it through the Depression. But the Spartans were terrors in the early '30s, finishing second in '31 and '32 (when they played in the first title game, indoors at Chicago Stadium). Then the economy caught up with them, with the failures of the steel mills and shoe factories that had kept their fans gainfully employed, and they had to relocate to the greener grass of Detroit.
As Dr. Harry March, one of NFL's founding fathers, said, "Proximity seems necessary for real enmity in football," and Portsmouth and Ironton had both in abundance. A mere 27 miles separate the towns in the southeast corner of state, where Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia converge. When the teams met, the Model T's and Model A's were bumper to bumper on the Gallia Pike. So, yes, a Spartans-Tanks game -- any Spartans-Tanks game -- was a must-see.
It might seem hard to believe that such off-the-beaten-path burgs could compete with big-city clubs, but you have to remember: With rosters set at 20, there were only 220 players in the league in 1930. The colleges, of course, were turning out many more than that, and some terrific talents -- like Presnell and Tanks quarterback Keith Molesworth, who later went to the Bears -- wound up with independent teams.
Besides, Ironton could offer something other clubs couldn't: second jobs in the local school system. When the Tanks contacted Presnell at Nebraska after his college career was over, "I'd never heard of 'em," he once told me. "In those days there was no draft or anything. You just signed with whoever you wanted to. I'd already had offers from the Giants, Providence Steam Roller and [independent] Kansas City Cowboys at about $175 a game.
"They asked me if I'd be interested in playing in Ironton -- and if I had a degree, they'd get me a teaching job. Well, here's what I thought: I was considered a pretty good college player, but I didn't know how good you had to be to play professional football. So if I went to Ironton and didn't make the team, I could still teach school. They couldn't take the teaching job away from me once they gave it to me. So I got my degree in the spring -- majored in physical education, minored in science -- and they offered me a job at Ironton High School teaching science. [The Tanks] practiced at night, under the lights, and played on Sunday."
The Portsmouth-Ironton rivalry, always contentious, had been taken to another level in 1929, when the Spartans were still an independent outfit themselves. Oh, the inhumanity! Dick Young of the Portsmouth Times called the Oct. 13 bloodletting "the roughest football game ever played, and the officials seemed to turn a cold shoulder to open attempts at hostility... Ironton devised every means known to football to injure Portsmouth [players] and remove the stars from the game. Leg-twisting, slugging and kneeing were the main Tank objective."
At the end of the game, which Ironton won 3-0, irate Portsmouth rooters jumped the officials. The umpire and head linesman got punched in the jaw, and the crew needed a police escort to get off the field. An editorial later that week in the Ironton News bemoaned the brutality on both sides.
"The one play when three Portsmouth players picked up [Pat] Knieff and carried him back 10 yards and threw him on the ground on his head, after carrying him with his feet in the air, was the worst play we ever saw any team get away with," the newspaper said. "This kind of play is sure to kill pro football."
The paper also was concerned about fan-on-fan violence: "If Ironton rooters are to be beat up when they go to Portsmouth, and Ashland [Ky.] rooters treated the same way when they come to Ironton, pro football is dying a fast death. It won't be safe for rooters to follow the teams, and without attendance, football is over in the Ohio Valley."
Not that anyone was listening too closely. During the offseason, the antagonism between the teams spilled over into the boxing ring when Spartans quarterback Roy "Father" Lumpkin and Tanks end Dick Powell, fledgling heavyweights, duked it out for four rounds before a capacity crowd at the Elks Hall in Ironton. The end came when Powell landed "a series of right and lefts to the head and a terrific right uppercut to the chin" that left Lumpkin "in a heap near his own corner," the Portsmouth paper said. "He took the count of 10, completely on his back, and had to be carried to his chair."
(Soon afterward, Lumpkin turned to wrestling, where results could be prearranged.)
Pugilistic shortcomings aside, "Father" was one of the more dashing figures in the early NFL, renowned for playing without a helmet or socks. The day he fought Powell, his wife filed for divorce, claiming she hadn't seen much of him since, well, the first month of their marriage. The fans so adored him that they gave him write-in votes for city council and state senator.
"He was a lot of fun," Presnell said. "Loved to play cards" -- among other activities. "They got pretty rowdy," he went on. "Did a lot of carousing around. There were a lot of bootleggers in those days."
Another Spartan of note was Bill Fleckenstein, the former Bears lineman, who came to Portsmouth in 1930. To those concerned about the escalating roughness of Spartans-Tanks games, the pickup of Fleckenstein, a no-holds-barred type, must have seemed like a curious move. An opponent once testified in a deposition that Bill slugged him in the face while he was down in his stance. "It was Wednesday afternoon before my nose completely stopped bleeding," he said.
This came out in a libel suit Fleckenstein filed against Hall of Fame quarterback Benny Friedman, who had accused him of foul play in a magazine article. The jury ruled in Bill's favor, but it was a hollow victory. He was awarded a whopping six cents in damages.
Such was the backdrop as the 1930 season got underway -- the Spartans' first in the NFL and the last, it would turn out, of the financially strapped Tanks' existence. The teams' first two meetings that year were decided by a single point, a missed point after in both instances. Portsmouth won Game 1, 7-6, in Ironton, and the Tanks evened accounts in Game 2, 16-15, at Universal Stadium.
In the latter battle, banged-up Ironton had only 13 available bodies, so Neale activated himself and started at right end (under the assumed name of Mitchell). He was three weeks shy of his 39th birthday and hadn't worn a helmet in over a decade, since he played for the Massillon Tigers in the years before the NFL. Fortunately for the Tanks, he still had something left, catching a 30-yard pass to set up a touchdown and blocking a punt.
He paid for it later, though, Presnell said. "He was bound up for a week." So it was when Portsmouth and Ironton knocked heads. The game plan for both clubs was always the same: whatever it takes, inside or outside the rules.
There was such an attachment between the cities and their teams -- even stronger, perhaps, than in pro football today. Most players rented spare rooms from fans and regularly sat down to dinner with them. They were treated like members of the family (and as a result, never wanted to let that family down on the field).
The newspapers, recognizing the value of a high-profile team to a low-profile town, were no less supportive. They were so rah-rah, in fact, that Pete Minego's advance of the Thanksgiving game in the Portsmouth Times actually included the words "Let's go, Spartans!"
That's why, as another Times writer once put it, "Attending Ironton-Portsmouth games is like sitting on a seething volcano. Tension in the crowd is painfully taut. Intercity rivalry races at fever heat." (It's also why the first-down marker was manned by one delegate from Ironton and one from Portsmouth, just to make sure there was no hanky-panky.)
Nine days before Thanksgiving, Portsmouth loaded up, adding five players from Providence, which had dropped out of the race and was looking to reduce payroll. The Spartans had more money to throw around than the Tanks did, thanks to the deep pockets of their principal owner, Harry N. Snyder. Snyder's Universal Contracting Co. had built Portsmouth's 8,000-seat stadium, and he was determined to assemble a championship team -- if not that season, then soon.
When the clubs ran onto the field on Turkey Day, "it looked like the Aurora Borealis," the Times said. We tend to think of pro football in those years as a black-and-white world -- black-and-white photographs, black-and-white game films -- but a Spartans-Tanks game was an explosion of color, Portsmouth dressed in vivid purple (headgear included), Ironton in scarlet.
For once, Lumpkin kept on his helmet and socks. Masculinity had its limits -- in this case, temperatures in the single digits. Usually, fans perched atop the floodwall outside the stadium to catch a free glimpse of the action, but the weather was too nasty for that. As for huddled masses in the bleachers, they bundled up in winter coats, stocking caps, scarves and anything else that might keep them from icing over.
In one respect, it was a typical Spartans-Tanks game. We know this because a Portsmouth player, guard Al Graham, "had his pants torn off" in the second quarter, the Times reported. (We also know it because the Spartans tried to run up the score by attempting a 35-yard field goal on the final play. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.)
Despite footing better suited to skating, Portsmouth's Frosty Peters, one of the Providence Five, put the Spartans in front 6-0 with a pair of field goals. On an afternoon like this, six points seemed like 60 -- especially to the Tanks, who were still feeling the effects of their Sunday game. The Spartans, on the other hand, were fresh from an 11-day break, their longest of the season. They were further fortified, the newspaper said, by the contents of "a black bag" that was occasionally brought onto the field by a water boy. Nothing like a little nip to ward off the elements.
In the fourth quarter Portsmouth's Mayes "Chief" McLain picked off a pass and later plunged for a touchdown to make the final score 12-0. (What could be more fitting than McLain, one of two Native Americans on the Spartans roster, coming up big on Thanksgiving?) By then the stands were half-empty, darkness was closing in ... and the curtain was coming down on the Ironton Tanks. It was the last game they ever played.
The Spartans, though, still had something to look forward to, before their own economic obstacles overwhelmed them. And while the franchise didn't win a championship in Portsmouth, it did win one in Detroit in 1935. Virtually all the key players on that title team were former Spartans, guys like Presnell (who came over after the Tanks folded), Hall of Fame tailback Dutch Clark, fullback Ace Gutowsky and tackle George Christensen.
The Spartans also left behind a slew of memories, none greater than the 19-0 drubbing of the Packers, the three-time defending champs, in 1932. It's depicted in one of the Floodwall Murals that now adorn Front Street, not far from where the Spartans used to play. In the bottom half of the painting, Presnell is crashing over for a touchdown; in the top half, the Portsmouth team stands shoulder to shoulder -- 19 players plus coach Potsy Clark, sporting a bow tie.
What makes the game eternal, by the way, is that Clark didn't need 19 players that day. Not nearly.
"We'd gone up to Green Bay earlier in the season, and we'd gotten a bad [officiating] decision or two," Presnell said. "We lost by a touchdown or so" -- 15-10, to be exact -- "and Potsy told 'em, 'By god, we'll get you when you come down to Portsmouth.' So when we played them again, he gave us this big pep talk and named the starting lineup. Then he said, 'You guys are going to go out there and give everything you've got. The only way any one of you will get off that field is if you're carried off on a stretcher.' We went out there with fire in our eyes, beat Green Bay and didn't make a substitution."
The Iron Man Game, it was dubbed.
Five years later, after the Spartans had left for Detroit, a story ran in the Times. "FOOTBALL FANS PLAN TO ENTER TEAM IN LOOP," the headline read. "Former Spartan Star Proposed As Coach For New Gridiron Organization." "Local promoters," the paper said, were in the process of acquiring another NFL franchise for Portsmouth, one that would begin play that season. Three former Spartans were being considered for the coaching job: Presnell, Lumpkin and center Clare Randolph, who appeared to be the frontrunner.
"Sport lovers," the story went on, "feel that the city should not have a $100,000 football plant, one of the finest in the country for a city the size of Portsmouth, and not be represented by a football club of national reputation."
For Spartans fans, still pining for their lost heroes and those Thanksgiving classics of old, it was the best news they'd had in ages. Alas, the joke was on them. It was April Fool's Day.
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Dan Daly is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who has covered pro football since 1978. He's the author of "The National Forgotten League," an informal history of the first 50 years of the NFL.