The Dayton Triangles and Pro Football

By Mark Fenner, James “Rocky” Whalen,
Tom Hamlin, Tom Webb, Chuck Malloy, Mike Scrimenti, Kevin O’Donnel and Marc Katz

 

Carl Storck, not quite 28 years old and a job foreman in Inspection and Packing for the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, was also a manager of the semi-pro Dayton Triangles, who played in the old Ohio League, and were looking for a new league to join for the 1920 football season.

 

That’s why Storck was in attendance on Sept. 17, 1920, at Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile showroom in Canton. Hay also owned the Canton Bulldogs.

 

Storck, a graduate of St. Mary’s Institute – which would become the University of Dayton - played football there and later with the Triangles, whom he also managed for several seasons.

 

Storck also attended the earlier Aug. 20, 1920, meeting at the Canton Hupmobile location, one of only four teams represented, including Canton and Dayton, Akron and Cleveland.

 

Interest in the new league was growing. The Sept. 17 assembly included reps from 11 teams and four states – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and New York.

 

That was the beginning – on paper – of the National Football League, which for two seasons was known as the American Professional Football Association (A.P.F.A.). The first game, starting at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 3 that season, featured the Columbus Panhandles at Dayton Triangles, played at Triangle Park in Dayton, on the site where Howell Baseball Field now stands.

 

Two dark, wood-board buildings were constructed to use as locker rooms. One was destroyed over the years. The other was used for storage for a long time, then moved to Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, where it will soon open as a refurbished museum room.

 

 

In 1920, professional football was different. There was no real organization and owners, managers, coaches and players jumped from team to team. College players used pseudonyms to play in pro games, hoping they wouldn’t be noticed and jeopardize their amateur status.

 

Not surprisingly, college administrators, athletic directors, coaches and alumni insisted professional football corrupted amateurism and its ideals of fair play and character-building.

 

Owners tried to address those problems in the Canton meetings, naming the famed Jim Thorpe as the first president in 1920 while he continued to play for the Bulldogs.

Columbus sports promoter Joe Carr replaced Thorpe after a year, while Storck was named secretary-treasurer of the league.

 

Carr established order to the league, forcing Green Bay out for a season for using three Notre Dame players under assumed names, and blocking the Chicago Bears’ George Halas from hiring running back Paddy Driscoll from the Chicago Cardinals.

Another major confrontation came in 1925, just after football’s biggest star, Red Grange of Illinois, signed a lucrative contact to play immediately for the Chicago Bears.

 

The contract called for Grange to play 19 games (he appeared in 17 of them) over 67 days and is generally considered the tour that boosted the league (if not all individual teams) into solvency.

 

Angered, both the NCAA and AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) urged university administrators not to employ any coaches, trainers or game officials who gave their services to professional football.

 

Carr countered with the “Grange Rule,” which subjected them to fines and forfeiture of their franchises if they signed any collegian to a contract before his class had graduated.

 

Grange – who went on to appear in some movies and then became a voice of the league on national radio and television broadcasts – never did play for the Triangles, but he did play in Dayton, on Oct. 2, 1927, offering insight into the game for young sports writer Si Burick of the Dayton Daily News. Burick would shortly replace Carl Finke as the newspaper’s sports editor and become famous himself, but not quite yet.

Players such as Grange, and before him, Jim Thorpe, had fan-luring power. While that Oct. 3 game is most important for marking the start of the NFL, Dayton fans flocked to see Thorpe play with the Canton Bulldogs against Dayton on Oct. 24, 1920, at Triangle Park, and to see Grange with the New York Yankees (football division), on Oct. 2, 1927.

 

Canton, entering the 1920 season, had not lost a game since 1915 and opponents had not scored on them in more than a year.

 

Grange, an Illinois All-America, began his pro career with the Chicago Bears until a contract dispute had him moving to New York. An estimated 6,000 fans – overflowing the bleachers – witnessed each of those games.

 

Those games turned out to be quite competitive. Wilbur “Fats” Henry played with Thorpe on the Bulldogs, and in a 1950 interview, remembered the game as the greatest in which he ever participated. John Seis, a witness, many years later and at 96 years of age, said he heard Thorpe tell an opponent on the sideline that day, “the last time I was hit that hard, they carried the guy off on a stretcher.”

 

The Triangles reacted well, tying Thorpe’s Canton team, 20-20. Grange’s team left town with a slim 9-3 victory – and receipts from those 6,000 fans.

 

While nabbing an interview was big, especially by a cub reporter, the status of the pro game vs. the college game was clear. The Dayton Flyers were also opening the season, on Oct. 1, and on the front page of that day’s newspaper, Flyers Open Football Season was the banner headline. Inside, bannered across the bottom of the sports page, was Burick’s interview with Grange.

 

His playing against the Triangles in Dayton not only drew a big crowd, but also drew former Ohio State All-America Chic Harley to Dayton to watch the game. Harley played briefly with the Chicago pro team in 1921 and might have eclipsed Grange’s later thunder had not an injury knocked him out of the league. A photo and Grange (in uniform) and Harley (in civilian clothes) graces the Dayton Daily News sports page prior to the 1927 Yankees/Triangles game.

The day before, Burick walked down the street to the hotel where the visiting Yankees were staying to obtain an interview.

The day before, Burick walked down the street to the hotel where the visiting Yankees were staying to obtain an interview.

 

Burick interviewed Grange while the player ate breakfast with his coach, former Wisconsin All-American lineman Ralph Scott.

 

The interview was held the morning of Oct. 1, while Grange dined on ham and eggs, toast, coffee, French fries, cantaloupe and more.

 

Burick said the two talked about football, the Dempsey-Tunney fight (the long-count fight held just a few days before) and the coming World Series between the Babe Ruth-led Yankees (on the baseball side) and Pittsburgh.

 

As a backdrop, a Daily News article that day said the Yankees, “…will come here on the first leg of their country-wide travels, with their complete lineup of the cream of the country’s greatest, and they will be here to knock this Triangle club all over the lot and thereby receive a lot of publicity.”

 

Among other things, Grange played up his sport.

 

“The good pro team will best the good college eleven every day in the week,” Grange said. “For this reason: A college coach is limited by the material he has on hand. If he can develop a great tackle, it’s all right. But what if his team’s weak spot is tackle? Can he go out and scour the country till he finds a player capable of handling the job for the next game?

 

"Of course he can’t. He’s limited. But what does the pro manager do when he’s got a weak spot? He goes out and finds a better man and fires the first fellow. An All-American player doesn’t mean a thing in the program. A team can have 11 All-Americans and lose to a club that has seven or eight itself. Few pro clubs have a weak spot."

 

Grange went on to tell Burick how much tougher it was playing pro football than
in college.

 

"Very much more,” Grange said. “You find the defense of a pro club much better developed than in college teams.

 

"A professional player is smarter than a college man. He uses his noodle. He knows what to do and when to do it. He rarely goes up in the air as is the case with most of our college players when they get in a tight place."

 

Scott added his promotional skills to the interview.

 

"Red hasn’t gone back a bit though, since he’s taken up the pro game,” Scott said. “He’s every bit as good now, if not better, than he was at Illinois. I have a record of the yardage he made in every game he played last year. And his average was eight yards gain per try. I wish we had three more backfield men like Red."

 

Grange was well acquainted with Floyd Stahl, Stivers high school coach, and Floyd’s predecessor, Harry Wilhelm, who moved on to coach at Denison.

 

"Do I know Shorty Stahl?” Grange said. “I’ve plenty of reason to remember him. Floyd and I tried out for center field on the Illinois baseball team, and he beat me out, even if I did have it all over him in size and weight. I’ll bet he’s some coach."

 

Harry Wilhelm coached Grange when Red was a freshman at Illinois. "Burt Ingwerson was head freshman coach then and Harry, who was taking "Zupp’s" course in coaching, was Burt’s right hand man. He copied every move Zuppke made. He imitated him in the slightest detail. He sure was a great student of the game. I always thought Harry would make a great coach," Grange said.

 

And then New York beat the Triangles 9-3, indicating the Triangles weren’t so bad, after all.

 

 

Still, once Grange came into the league, Carr and the owners began envisioning an NFL with big-city teams. By 1927, twenty-two franchises, many in small cities operating at the margin, comprised the league. That year Carr and a group of owners, using various means, persuaded eleven owners to surrender their franchises, leaving the NFL more nearly a big-city circuit.

 

By now, the Triangles were playing mostly on the road, where the crowds were bigger than what they could command in Dayton. The influence of Storck, who as secretary/treasurer of the league from 1921-39, then president of the league for two seasons, probably helped the team keep its franchise, but after the 1929 season, Storck sold the team to Brooklyn, where they became the Dodgers.

 

A careful tracking of that sale leads to the Indianapolis Colts today, but to say the Triangles eventually became the Colts would not be true. There were complete stops and restarts along the path.

 

The Triangles lasted 10 years, with end Lee Fenner the only player who was with them for every one, playing against 22 Hall of Famers during his career. He played one more season with Portsmouth, then faded from the game, like his teams.

Meanwhile, in the other cities, attendance rose, from about 13,000 in 1933 to 20,000 by 1938.

 

Only two franchises remain from the original 11 that attended the second meeting in Canton – the Decatur Staleys moved to Chicago to become the Bears, and the Chicago Cardinals have moved to the Phoenix area to become the Arizona Cardinals, with an in-between stopover in St. Louis.

 

Green Bay, the only remaining small-town team, is the longest tenured team in one place, rejoining the league in 1921 following its brief suspension.

 

Carr called football the “people’s game,” enlisting support of “mechanics, grocery boys, shop girls and workers of all sorts.”

 

You can still see the “people’s game” in Ohio in Cincinnati and Cleveland. And you can see the field where it all started as well, at Triangle Park in Dayton.