Season 1, Episode 3: Coming of Age (Part One)

This episode is the first of two that covers the development of the Saint Mary’s Cadets football team, whose members later formed the nucleus of the Dayton Triangles, into city independent champions. Episode date: May 23, 2019.

Next episode –>

The Role of the Business Manager

An interesting aspect of the research that I did for this episode was learning about the business end of early semi-pro football. Good business management was crucial to a club’s success. The manager negotiated with other teams to get the best possible share of gate receipts for a game, took care of advertising, managed the box office, counted receipts and made sure that opposing teams got their agreed share and (of course) paid players.

Every game represented a business contract between two athletic organizations. As the money involved grew, so did the importance of the business manager’s role.

I goofed

While writing this episode, I decided I wanted to throw in a little piece about the Phillips Hotel, or Phillips House, which was a major gathering spot in downtown Dayton for many years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Phillips was where the negotiations for the 1913 city championship game between the Cadets and the Olt’s Superba Oakwoods took place. I had recorded all the narration, put in some music, and so on, when I realized I had made a mistake. I had placed the Phillips at the northwest corner of Third and Main Streets.

Wrong.

The Phillips was located on the southwest corner of Third and Main. The northwest corner is where Courthouse Square now sits. If you listen carefully you can hear where I edited the word “northwest” out of the recording, so it just says “the corner of Third and Main.”

I can’t figure out how I did that. I guess maybe I was looking at it in my mind’s eye facing south, but then I would have called it the north east corner. (I think.)

Brother, can you spare a . . .

“Coming of Age (Part One)” episode script

(Note: The script may not be an exact transcript of the episode.)

In their early years, the young Saint Mary’s Cadet football team confined themselves to the lighter end of the unofficial weight classes that held in local football. There was no evident sanctioning body that determined these classes, but it appeared that local teams divided themselves into “lightweight” or “junior” (125-140 pounds and under) and “heavyweight” or “senior” divisions (over 140 pounds), similar to the style of boxers of the day. Teams often had pre-game weigh-ins to prove that their players were eligible to play, even, in some cases, publishing the weights of their players.

With amateur and semi-pro sports gaining local popularity, the games took on financial significance. Al Gessler, a local businessperson and sports enthusiast, stepped in for the Saint Mary’s Cadets, replacing original business manager Billy Slick. Gessler had a reputation as a firm but fair advocate of his club’s interests.

While the Cadets were a truly independent athletic club, other organizations benefitted from business sponsorships. The sponsors’ motivations varied. Some took a progressive view of employee well-being and sponsored teams as a way of enhancing morale and employee health. Others saw sponsoring sports as a way to promote their businesses.

The rapidly growing Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (“the Delco”) fell into the former category. Many people are familiar with the name “Delco” because of its long association with auto parts, like spark plugs. Back in the day, though, it wasn’t known as “Delco” – locals and the press always referred to it as the Delco. Company principals Charles F. Kettering and Edward A. Deeds were civically minded, progressive men, to be sure. However, the real advocate for employee recreation programs was probably Forrest Burleigh (F. B.) MacNab. MacNab came to Dayton in 1910, initially to work for the Delco as a patent attorney. He was the fourteenth employee of a company whose labor force eventually grew into the thousands. MacNab’s concern for his fellow human beings extended beyond just Delco employees, ultimately encompassing the entire local community.

Other sponsors of local sports saw their participation as good for business. Prominent among these was the Olt Brothers Brewing Company. They sponsored men’s and women’s sports teams throughout the city as a way to promote their flagship beer brand, Olt’s Superba. Eventually, support became outright control of several teams. In January 1912, a group associated with Olt’s Superba incorporated the Olt’s Superba-Shiloh Base Ball and Amusement Company. Among the teams under their control was the Oakwoods, perennial semi-pro champions of Dayton football.

While the economics of football were changing in response to its increasing popularity, the rules of the game were evolving in response to a key driver of that popularity: the forward pass. Before 1912, there were limits to how far you could throw the ball. Furthermore, balls thrown past the goal line resulted in a touchback for the opposing team. A receiver could not run past the goal line to catch a thrown ball because the area past the goal line was out of bounds.

In 1912, Walter Camp proposed, and the intercollegiate rules committee approved, two key changes to liberalize the passing game. The first change removed the limitation on how far a passer could throw the ball, opening up the possibility of exciting long pass plays. The second, and by far most important historically, was the creation of the “end zone.”

The pre-1912 American football field was a rectangle 160 feet wide and 330 feet – 110 yards – in length. Everything outside that rectangle was out of bounds. The proposed end zone was an area extending ten yards past each goal line and equal in width to the rest of the field. A receiver in the end zone would still be considered to be within the field of play (in bounds) and could catch a pass, which would result in a touchdown for the offensive team.

Adding the end zones created an unforeseen problem, though; some venues, such as baseball fields, couldn’t contain a gridiron twenty yards longer. To accommodate the smaller parks, the committee shortened the length from goal line to goal line from 110 yards to 100 yards. This change, in turn, made it necessary to change the spot of kickoffs and touchbacks. Kickoffs, which had traditionally been from midfield (then the 55-yard line), moved back to the kicking team’s 40-yard line. Touchbacks moved from the 25-yard line to the 20-yard line.

These changes would play to the strengths of the young Saint Mary’s Cadets. First, though, they needed games.

The Cadets faced a watershed year in 1912. After dominating the local competition in the junior classes in their first years of existence, they practiced and sought out opponents, but found the competition scarce. Although many of the players were sidelined, a few, notably Al Mahrt and Norb Sacksteder, competed on the Saint Mary’s collegiate squad. In the early days of semi-professional football, players often performed double duty, playing for colleges on Saturdays and semi-pro teams on Sundays. There were no meaningful rules against this kind of double dipping, and the amount of money one could earn playing semi-professionally did not provide a significant temptation to become a full-time professional, as it did in later years. Norb’s brother Hugh Sacksteder played the 1912 season at halfback for the Oakwoods.

While things were slow in Dayton in 1912, in Connecticut it was a banner year for Nelson Talbott, who was beginning to make his mark at left tackle with the Yale University varsity. Talbott’s standout performance in the Yale-Princeton game was front-page news in Dayton. His parents attended the game as part of the Yale cheering section for the contest at Princeton.

Nineteen thirteen brought tragedy. In late March of that year, heavy rains caused massive flooding in Dayton, submerging downtown and other areas. Among the many catastrophes, fire burned Al Mahrt’s family home. The stress of flood and fire took a heavy toll on Al’s father John, whose health declined in the months that followed.

The City of Dayton designated Harold Talbott to be chief engineer directing the cleanup of the city’s streets after the flood waters receded. Ohio Governor James M. Cox appointed Talbott and industrialist John H. Patterson Colonels in the state’s Quartermasters Department in recognition of their relief efforts. This was no mere honorarium; the Quartermasters Department is the state government entity that runs Ohio’s National Guard to the present day. From then on, press accounts frequently referred to the elder Talbott as “Colonel Talbott.”

Dayton gradually recovered and life returned to normal. By autumn, with many of their best players now out of college, the Cadets were ready to test themselves against the best senior competition Dayton and the region had to offer. Manager Gessler put out the word in the run-up to the 1913 season. His hope, stated to the Daily News, was “to work his team up to the point where it will give the Oakwoods a run for the city championship before the season is over.” Taking up residence at Highland Park southeast of downtown for their home games, the Cadets would feature Mahrt at quarterback, the Sacksteder brothers at halfbacks, and Babe Zimmerman at fullback. Louis “Foos” Clark, coaching both the independent Cadets and the Saint Mary’s collegiate team, would hold down one of the guard positions.

The Cadets’ first test came against a squad from Newcastle, Indiana. The Newcastle team, like many in the day, consisted of factory workers in the team’s hometown. In this case, the opposition hailed from the Maxwell Motor Car Company with support from the organization, including workers from the Dayton Maxwell dealership. It hardly mattered in the end; the Cadets passed their first test easily, wrecking Newcastle 65-0.

The team followed its opening win with an equally easy romp over a highly touted Cincinnati Y. M. I. team. Norb Sacksteder scored three touchdowns and Zimmerman two in the 46-0 victory. Despite a stumble the following week, the Cadets handled Christ Church of Cincinnati 21-7. The Cincinnati team’s score came off a Mahrt fumble and represented the first points ever scored against the Cadets.

On the eve of what the Dayton Daily News billed as the club’s biggest test yet, against a strong team from Marion, Indiana, Al Mahrt’s father John passed away. John had never recovered from the stress of the flood and fire earlier in the year. His death followed closely the death of his brother Herman. Compounding the tragedy, only a few days later Al’s cousin Gretchen, Herman’s only daughter, also passed away at the tender age of 13. Despite Al Mahrt’s absence due to bereavement, there was still a game to be played, and the Cadets would have to find a way to persevere without their field general.

To make matters worse for the Cadets, they had to overcome the loss of Norb Sacksteder and pass-catching end Billy Zile to injuries during the Marion game. Babe Zimmerman stepped up to spark the passing game and the defense proved stout in the Cadets’ 14-0 victory. Zimmerman threw a touchdown pass to Earnie Dungan, and a long pass from Zimmerman to Zile prior to the latter’s injury set up another score. The defense kept Marion off the board, and the Cadets improved to 4-0 against the best competition Gessler could book.

The time had come to challenge the champion Oakwoods.

It had become customary for contending teams in town to issue their challenges publicly. The simplest way to do this was to publish an open letter in the social media of the day – the local newspapers. Thus, on November 6, 1913 the following item appeared in the Daily News:

Mr. Harry Huckins:

    I would like to meet you regarding a game to be played between the Oakwoods and the St. Mary’s Cadets.

   The showing the Cadets have made this season, I believe, almost forces you to consider us as able opponents and as I have Nov. 16th open on my schedule, I would like to make an appointment with you, at your earliest convenience in regard to the above date.

               Yours In Sport,

               (Signed) AL G. GESSLER

                 Mgr. St. Mary’s Cadets

Huckins’ response to Gessler the following day was polite and businesslike, but perhaps a bit condescending. For one thing, he misspelled Gessler’s name:

Mr. Al G. Gessle (sic),

Manager Cadet (sic).

Dear Sir: In reply to your challenge to me regarding a game between the Oakwoods and the Cadets for the independent championship of the city, will state we have no game scheduled for November 16. We were just about to close with the Shelby Blues, but will hold this date open for you. I will be glad to meet you at the Hotel Phillips Friday evening and if satisfactory arrangement can be made, the game will be played on the date named.

                           Respectfully,

                (Signed) HARRY HUCKINS,

                          Manager of Oakwoods

With the challenge issued and accepted, the managers met as agreed at the Phillips that Friday to negotiate terms and conditions.

The four-story Hotel Phillips, opened in 1852, was located in the heart of downtown Dayton at the corner of Third and Main Streets, and locals regarded it as the social center of the city. Elite citizens of Dayton often gathered there, and important visitors who came through town typically stayed there. It was extremely popular with jurists and attorneys because of its location directly across the street from the old courthouse, which still stands in what is now called Courthouse Square. The hotel was not actually a single structure, but an architectural hodge-podge that the Dayton Daily News once called “the house of 1000 buildings.” In its heyday, the dining room was the stuff of legend, and its bar and billiard room drew young men throughout its history. It was a natural venue to conclude this business.

The managers failed to reach an accord in their initial meeting at the Phillips that Friday. The chief sticking point was division of the gate receipts. The Dayton Journal reported that Huckins and Wilbur Haynes, representing the Oakwoods, initially demanded 70 percent of the gate, while agreeing to cover all expenses. Based on a projected paid attendance of 2500 and admission price of 50 cents per ticket, the Cadets would only receive $375 for the game, an amount they considered far too low. Their negotiators, who besides Gessler included Lewis Clark, Al Mahrt and Harry Solimano, countered with a demand for a larger share of the receipts, in return for which the Cadets would cover 60 percent of the expenses. After arguing back and forth, and even discussing a winner-take-all proposal, the two sides reached an impasse and agreed to think things over.

The two clubs returned to the Phillips the following day and ironed out a compromise. The Cadets and Oakwoods would split the gate receipts on a contingency basis. If the Oakwoods won the game, they would receive 60 percent; if the Cadets won or the two teams tied, the split would be an even 50-50. Apparently skeptical that local officials could perform impartially, the clubs agreed to contact two officials based in Cleveland about handling the game. Papers were drawn up and signed, each team posted a $100 forfeit bond, and the game for the city championship of football – estimated by that time to be the biggest football game played in Dayton, Ohio in many years – was on.