Season 1, Episode 6: End of an Era

This episode covers the 1915 season, when the former Saint Mary’s Cadets became the Dayton Gym-Cadets. It was the last year they played football under the Cadet name. The following season they merged into the Dayton Triangles. The episode also covers Nelson Talbott’s preparations for the next phase of his career, and the events leading to the birth of the Triangles.

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F. B. MacNab

Although he stayed out of the public eye, MacNab played a key role in creating the Triangle athletic club and overseeing Triangle Park for employees of the Triangle companies and, ultimately, the entire City of Dayton. He was a die-hard supporter of the Triangles and his untimely death in 1922 at the age of 37 had far-reaching consequences.

The Columbus Panhandles

In this episode we meet the Columbus Panhandles for the first time. The Panhandles are widely regarded as the last of the old sandlot football teams and have a rich history of their own. Before the famous “first NFL game” in 1920, the Triangles and Panhandles tangled on a regular basis. The 1915 season marked the only meeting between the Panhandles and the then-Cadets. Club owner and manager, Joe Carr, would eventually become a long-serving president of the NFL and is now enshrined in Canton.

For more in-depth information about the history of the Panhandles, check out the article from the Professional Football Researchers Association here.

NFL Films historian Chris Willis has also written a book on the Panhandles. You can find it on Amazon.

Episode Transcript

(Note: This is only the script. It may not be word-for-word what appears in the episode.)

The opening of the 1915 season found the Cadets, with Al Gessler’s steady business management, looking to expand their horizons. Earlier in the year, the Cadets concluded a tie-up with the Dayton Gymnastics Club. The team would use club facilities for practices and shed the Saint Mary’s name to become the Dayton Gym-Cadets. Having won the city football championship for two years running, and with Al Mahrt returning as quarterback and head coach, the Gym-Cadets would now put themselves forward as “Dayton’s Team” in the annual quest for state independent football supremacy known informally as the Ohio League.

The Ohio League wasn’t really a “league” of course; it was more a loose aggregation of teams that played each other yearly for state bragging rights. The best-known teams in the “league” were the Massillon Tigers and the Canton Bulldogs, whose lineup in 1915 would include, for the first time, the legendary Jim Thorpe.

The Gym-Cadets, to whom sports reporters still usually referred simply as “the Cadets”, featured almost all returning favorites. George Kinderdine was back at center, Lewis Clark at guard, and Billy Zile at one of the end spots. Babe Zimmerman had announced that he would not be playing, but would instead work with Mahrt as an assistant coach. Most significantly, Norb Sacksteder was back in the fold. Joining George Kinderdine, and hoping to find a spot on the 1915 roster, was his brother Harry. Harry made money as a youth by shining shoes, and as a result earned the nickname “Shine.”

The Gym-Cadets opened with an easy 50-0 win at Westwood Park field over Valley Athletic Club of Cincinnati. Mahrt did not play, but Norb Sacksteder scored three touchdowns to pace the Cadets. The following week, they took a 33-7 road win over Northern Cincinnati at Norwood Park. Sacksteder scored two more touchdowns.

The Gym-Cadets now moved on to a new level of competition, facing a series of teams touted as state championship contenders: the Cincinnati Celts, Toledo Maroons, Columbus Panhandles and Akron Indians. The Cadets had seen the Celts before, and beaten them in 1913 during their run to the unofficial championship of Southern Ohio. This time at Westwood field, the Celts played the Cadets much tougher. Despite Mahrt’s starting himself at quarterback for the first time, and the Cadets controlling the game throughout, the Cincinnati pass defense proved itself up to the challenge of the Cadets’ high-flying aerial attack. Worse, Cadet receivers dropped several of Mahrt’s throws, and turnovers plagued the home team that day. The Celts were also unable to mount an offensive threat, though, and the game ended in a scoreless tie.

The Toledo Maroons proved less of a challenge in Toledo as the Gym-Cadets won 20-7. Norb Sacksteder returned a punt for a touchdown and caught one from Mahrt, who went in for a touchdown himself. The game also marked the return from “retirement” of Babe Zimmerman. It would not be the last time Zimmerman “retired” only to “un-retire” later.

The next game marked the first, and last, meeting between the Gym-Cadets and the Columbus Panhandles. The Panhandles were not beggars, nor were they from Texas, Oklahoma or Florida. The “panhandle” in their name referred to the Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad on which many of their players worked. Their story began with a young machinist in that division named Joseph F. Carr. Joe was no athlete, but he loved sports. Despite having only a fifth-grade education, Carr parlayed his love of sports into a job as a sportswriter, eventually becoming assistant sports editor of the Ohio State Journal in Columbus. Joe Carr didn’t just want to write about sports, though. He wanted to be in on the action. Carr first organized a baseball team in 1901 from his former co-workers in the Panhandle Division. Then, he used the same strategy to recruit players for a football team. After a “false start” of sorts in 1904, the football Panhandles played regularly beginning in 1907.

The Panhandles played an extremely physical style of football, paced by the great Nesser brothers. As many as seven of them (plus a son of one of the brothers, making eight Nessers in all) played for Columbus during the course of the team’s history. Despite their rough and tumble reputation, the Nessers were no mere brawlers – they were skilled athletes as well.

The Panhandles were mainly a barnstorming team, playing most of their games on the road. There was a simple reason for this: as railroad workers, they could ride to games in other towns free. They didn’t have to rent a stadium, and they learned to economize on the road. This no-frills approach served the Panhandles well, allowing them to survive when other teams in their era failed. In 1915, they were arguably at the height of their powers.

The Cadet-Panhandle game was tight for three quarters. Norb Sacksteder opened the scoring with a 50-yard touchdown run before the Columbus defense stiffened. Then the Panhandles blew the game open with three fourth quarter touchdowns, winning 24-7. Columbus played their best game of the season to that point, while the Gym-Cadets, with Mahrt unavailable due to injury, arguably played their worst. Mahrt returned the following week and the Gym-Cadets bounced back, winning a surprisingly easy 39-0 decision over the Akron Indians.

Although their loss to Columbus likely dashed any Ohio League championship hopes, the Gym-Cadets still had city honors to contest. In response to a challenge from Miami Athletic Club, Manager Gessler scheduled a city championship game to be played on November 21. The Miami side, hoping to pull an upset, built its game plan around stopping the seemingly unstoppable Norb Sacksteder.

When it came time to play, however, “Saxy” was nowhere to be found.

Due to confusion over scheduling, Sacksteder thought the Gym-Cadets’ season was over. During the past season or so, Norb had built a solid reputation outside of Dayton. So, when the powerful upstate Massillon Tigers offered him a short-term contract, Sacksteder accepted. The day of the city championship game, Norb was in Toledo, helping the Tigers defeat the Maroons, over whom he claimed his second win of the season.

Instead of being unable to stop Sacksteder, the Miamis were unable to stop Zimmerman. Babe ran for two touchdowns and caught two scoring passes from Mahrt on the way to a 48-0 shellacking.

The following Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, the Gym-Cadets matched up against West Carrollton Athletic Club. The “Paper Millers”, as they were popularly known because most of them worked at the local paper mill, had nearly beaten the Cadets the previous year, and would again feature top runner Lou Partlow and his brothers. With Norb Sacksteder back in the Gym-Cadet lineup, diehard fans were salivating at the prospect of a Partlow-Sacksteder halfback duel.

That duel never materialized, as both teams were able to neutralize the threats from Partlow and Sacksteder. However, the returning Carl Stock took up the slack, scoring two touchdowns. One of Storck’s scores came by way of a spectacular 35-yard interception return, and Zimmerman added a touchdown as the Gym-Cadets shut out West Carrollton 20-0.

Although Lou Partlow failed to dent the goal line against the Gym-Cadets, he nevertheless made a favorable impression with them. When the team hastily scheduled a game against the local Wolverines, which had beaten Miami A. C. and wanted a shot at the city title, they found they would be without the services of both Sacksteder and Zimmerman. They signed Partlow, along with Oakwoods star Herb Allen, to fill in. Partlow’s running, in particular, helped the Gym-Cadets control the ball on the rainy, mucky field at Westwood Park as they beat the Wolverines by a 20-0 count. The players may not have known at the time, but it was the end of the line for them in football under the Cadet banner.

On the East Coast, Nelson Talbott was busily preparing for the next phase of his life. Excerpts of the Yale 1915 yearbook, which the Dayton Daily News reprinted, give clues to the groundwork he had already lain. Talbott was easily the most highly regarded student of his 1914 class. His athleticism extended well beyond football; Talbott also represented the Yale track team in the hammer throw for three years and won the university’s heavyweight wrestling championship in 1914. He had also headed up the college YMCA. The year 1915 found Talbott dividing his time between graduate studies, learning the ropes of finance as a junior employee of the American Exchange National Bank of New York, and assisting Coach Frank Hinkey with the varsity football team. Of Talbott, Yale’s class historian wrote, “this was the noblest Roman of them all.”

Opportunities were about to take off for young Nelson on several fronts. In 1915, his father Colonel Harold E. Talbott leveraged the experience he had gained in industrial research and metals manufacturing over more than a decade to organize the Dayton Metal Products Company. Along with the Colonel, the principal owners of the company were his son Harold, Jr. and Charles F. Kettering. Soon, Talbott, Kettering and Edward A. Deeds, spurred on by the advocacy of F. B. MacNab, would usher in a new era, both in industry and in the life of the city and its people.

American sports teams, it seems, have always had memorable nicknames. Team nicknames are sometimes predictable, sometimes not. The first professional baseball team, formed in Cincinnati in 1869, took its name from the red stockings their players wore. Other teams have taken the names of animals that reflect the team’s spirit, like the bulldog, the eagle or the colt. Still others took the name of their founders or owners, like the Decatur Staleys (which later became the Chicago Bears). Where did ‘the Triangles’ come from, then?

The answer lies in another grand tradition of team naming: identification with a signature local industry or company. Often, the name honors the chief industry of the team’s hometown. Such was the case with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Milwaukee Brewers. Dayton’s Triangles were named for three companies, which were known locally as the ‘Triangle companies’ or simply ‘the Triangle’. The year 1916 was pivotal for both the team and the companies.

As much as the ‘Triangle’ denoted three local industrial powerhouses, it also reflected three men of differing personal styles. Two of them kept a high profile in the community, while the third seemed to prefer a lower key approach.

Edward Andrew Deeds showed great expertise with the relatively new technology of electricity from the early stages of his engineering career. While employed by the National Cash Register Company, or NCR, Deeds oversaw the electrification of NCR plants. He designed and built generators that could supply electricity to company plants independently of the – often-unreliable – local power grid.

Also during his time at NCR, Deeds engaged a brilliant engineer named Charles Franklin Kettering to work on a revolutionary improvement in cash register operation. Kettering designed a small electrical motor to power the register, which greatly reduced the physical effort required to open it. While collaborating, the two men struck up a lifelong friendship and business partnership.

When Kettering sought to apply his cash register solution to an equally vexing problem in automobiles, Deeds lent him space in his barn to work on it. There, Kettering perfected the electric ignition. Previously, to start a car one had to crank the motor, which could be a physically daunting task. Thanks to Kettering’s new ignition, though, one simply needed to push a button to send electrical power from an onboard battery to start the motor. Then, the operator could simply put the car in gear and drive away. Deeds and Kettering founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company to make and market this and related products.

One of those related products grew out of Deeds’ early experiences with NCR. Deeds and Kettering had the insight that Deeds’ early NCR industrial generator work could be scaled down to power and light farms and other residences that remained outside the electrical power grid of major cities. The resulting product division, called Delco-Light, was so successful that by 1916, the Delco spun it off as a separate company, called the Domestic Engineering Company, with Deeds as president.

The third company (and third man) in the triangle tended to choose a less conspicuous path. Nevertheless, Dayton Metal Products Company, and its principal owner Colonel Harold E. Talbott, also played an important role in Dayton industry. By the late teens, in fact, the Talbott business interests were almost a triangle in themselves. Besides Dayton Metal Products, the Talbott family also owned the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company, whose chief executive officer was the Colonel’s son Harold, Jr. Dayton Metal Products Company also included a substantial research and development arm, which was later spun off as Dayton Research Laboratories within General Motors.

In the spring of 1916, Deeds and Kettering were in negotiations to fold some of their business interests into the United Motors Company. When the deal closed in May, they received shares of United Motors stock and an estimated seven million dollars in cash (more than $160 million in 2018 dollars).

Among their plans for this money, Deeds and Kettering intended to realize a long-harbored dream, one heavily advocated by F. B. MacNab, to develop a major recreational facility for the benefit not only of their own employees, but ultimately for the entire population of Dayton. This was in keeping with their vision of themselves as progressive industrialists in a new, modern age. It was a vision that Colonel Talbott shared. A 1918 article in the Dayton Daily News describes benefits provided by Dayton Metal Products to its employees. These included “group life insurance, box lunches for all employees, savings account plan, factory newspaper, free medical, dental and legal advice and reading rooms.” [DDN, April 28, 1918, page C2]

The industrialists eyed a peninsula of land at the confluence of the Great Miami and Stillwater Rivers north of downtown Dayton to host their employee playground. The land was divided into two large parcels. The first and biggest parcel consisted of approximately 105 acres along the east bank of the Stillwater River, extending a little over a half mile down from its northern boundary to the confluence of the Stillwater and Great Miami. The land had been owned by another prominent Dayton family, the Meads, from 1858 until Deeds and Kettering purchased it. They immediately made space for baseball diamonds, and by July 1916, company amateur teams were playing on the site, which they already called “Triangle Park.”

The second parcel, to the east of the first, was smaller at about 35 acres. However, it boasted a key feature the larger plot did not: a natural amphitheater that would be useful for hosting large sporting and other events. One of the former owners, Charles Swadner, had dubbed the land “Idylwild,” after a similarly scenic place he had seen traveling in the South. With the resources of the Triangle companies, it would be possible to develop the park, including installing landscaping and facilities for camping, picnics, boating, swimming, dancing and sports, such as football.

Deeds and Kettering closed the deal and took over Old Idylwild Park in Mid-August of 1916. To oversee the operation of the new combined park, the Triangle companies established an executive committee consisting of one person appointed by each of the three companies. The Delco representative and chair of the committee was F. B. MacNab, who had worked hard behind the scenes to make the park a reality. The young man appointed as Dayton Metal Products Company’s representative on the committee was Nelson Talbott.