Season 1, Episode 7: Year of the Triangle

The Dayton Triangles football team, which would become a founding member of the National Football League in 1920, open their inaugural season of play in 1916 under coach Nelson “Bud” Talbott. Led by rifle-armed quarterback and field general Al Mahrt, and featuring running backs Norb Sacksteder, Lou Partlow and George “Babe” Zimmerman, the Triangles formed a Dayton “dream team” that set out to capture the championship of the Ohio League.

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Lou Partlow

This episode features a short profile of Lou Partlow, who went on to score the first touchdown in NFL history and played for the Triangles through most of their era. One interesting tidbit about Partlow is that he could never get the hang of deciphering the play calls. A quarterback who played with Partlow later in his career once recalled that he would simply tell Lou which way to run.

Storck’s Health

The episode also discusses something that I discovered in my research: Carl Storck’s surgery to alleviate a goiter in 1916. Along with information about Storck’s mysterious fatigue during his final year at Stivers High in 1913 (mentioned in an earlier episode), it gives another clue foreshadowing Storck’s later health issues. His love of chocolate and cigars, which later became legendary, probably didn’t help.

Episode Transcript

(Note: This transcript may not be identical to the recorded episode.)

With the creation of Triangle Park and his seat on the Park’s executive board in 1916, Nelson “Bud” Talbott was now in a position to make good on an idea he had first entertained in 1914 and had prepared to set in motion while assisting Frank Hinkey at Yale in 1915. Talbott would have his chance to coach a semi-pro team and compete for championship honors in the Ohio League.

The team that became the Dayton Triangles represented a different sort of triangle than the industrial one. It was the product of three local squads, consisting of the best players from the Delco and Dayton Metal Products teams and former members of the Dayton Gym-Cadets. In keeping with the tradition of a company team, all team members became employees of one of the Triangle companies.

The former Gym-Cadets formed the foundation of the team. Al Mahrt, Norb Sacksteder, Billy Zile, Mike “Pie” Decker, George Kinderdine and other stalwarts were committed.

Lou Partlow, who had signed with the Gym-Cadets late in the 1915 season, also moved over to the Triangle roster. Lou was cut from a slightly different cloth than some of the other players were. He used to train by running through woods near his home. He would pretend that trees were would-be tacklers and zigzag around them. Occasionally, though, he would lower his shoulder and hit one. One game day, Coach Talbott encountered Partlow running, and told him not to tire himself out before the game. Partlow responded that running was the only way he knew to get loose. While others played baseball, basketball or both outside of football season, Lou boxed.

Of the regulars, only Babe Zimmerman, who had famously retired and then unretired in 1915, was uncertain of playing in the weeks leading up to the opening of the 1916 campaign. Observers speculated that Talbott, the former All-American, might take the field himself. Since the Triangle companies had just acquired the land for the new Triangle Park in August, there was insufficient time to create a proper playing venue at the site. The Triangles would therefore play their home games at Westwood Park. The new team was touted as a sort of Dayton “dream team”, with the Daily News calling it “one of the greatest semi-pro elevens ever formed here.” Mike Redelle, hired by the Triangle Park committee to manage the park’s operations, managed the team as well.

Despite the high expectations for the new Triangles under Talbott’s coaching, the play in the 1916 opener was somewhat ragged. There were problems in particular with loose line play, but it hardly mattered. The outmatched Cincinnati Northern team that came to Westwood field had no answer for Norb Sacksteder, who made runs of ten to forty yards at a time through their defense, seemingly at will. Sacksteder finished with seven touchdowns as the Triangles steamrolled the hapless Cincinnati squad 72-0.

Even though the Triangles had won easily, Talbott was not satisfied with the quality of play and drilled the men very hard over the following week of practice. He also installed a new wrinkle in the offensive attack: the triple pass, which he described as “a play used extensively in the East.” During the week, Zimmerman, who had “retired” for a second time, once again “unretired” and was slated to be on the sidelines that Sunday as the Triangles tilted with a team from Wellston at Westwood field.

As in the previous week, it was no contest. Coach Talbott’s drilling had paid off in tighter play in the line and elsewhere. The outcome was never in doubt and Talbott was able to empty his bench in the 67-0 blowout. Norb Sacksteder scored three more touchdowns before giving way to “Mac” McCorkle, who scored two. Lou Partlow chipped in two touchdowns, as did Zimmerman off the bench. To attest to the magnitude of the victory, the game was timed in ten-minute quarters. The Triangles thus scored their 67 points in just 40 minutes of play, not even three quarters of a modern game.

As easy as the first two victories were, the Triangles did not expect such a walk with their next opponent, the Elyria Professionals, who were touted as tougher than Dayton’s earlier opposition. In fact, the Elyria players made some excellent individual plays, but the Triangles’ teamwork proved superior in a 25-0 win. Lou Partlow scored three touchdowns and Norb Sacksteder added a fourth in the winning cause. Zimmerman was forced out of the game with an ankle injury.

Having worked out the kinks in the friendly confines of Westwood field, the Triangles now faced their first real test: a road game in Detroit against the highly touted Detroit Heralds. On Saturday night, October 21, the team boarded a special sleeper car for an overnight train ride to Michigan. The next afternoon found them in front of the largest crowd any of the players had ever encountered. An estimated 7000 hostile fans attended the game that Sunday at Navin Field (eventually renamed Tiger Stadium). Lou Partlow later credited Coach Talbott, who had played before much larger crowds at Yale away games, for not letting the local crowd intimidate his men.

Not only did the Triangles win the game, they won over the Detroit football fans and sportswriters, too.

Talbott’s men were on the board within fifteen seconds. Norb Sacksteder took the opening kickoff at his ten-yard line. He then bobbed and weaved 90 yards for the first score, stunning the Detroit crowd. The extra point made the score 7-0 Triangles, likely before some of the home fans had sat down. In the second quarter, a Detroit touchdown reception by Dick Shields netted the first points ever scored against the Triangles, tying the score at 7-all. Once again, Al Mahrt had the answer. Mahrt threw what appeared to be a touchdown pass to Sacksteder, but the officials ruled that Norb stepped out of bounds at the Detroit ten-yard line. Then, Mahrt threw a low dart that Partlow snagged with a diving grab. Untouched, Lou leapt up and dashed past the goal line for what would become the winning score. The highlight of the scoreless second half was a defensive stand by the Triangles in the third quarter after Detroit had worked the ball to the Dayton four-yard line. Partlow’s touchdown reception held up, and the Triangles came away with a 14-7 victory.

For football fans in Detroit, the sophisticated play of the Triangles was a revelation. In the words of Detroit Free Press sports writer G. O. MacGonachle:

It was the best game of football the Navin lot patrons have seen this season. Sacksteder is the most sensational back that has ever been here, and he was worth the gate tariff alone. Mahrt is a wonderful quarterback . . .

Describing Mahrt’ throws, MacGonachle wrote that they

. . . come out like a rifle shot and had the Dayton ends and backs been a little keener on the ‘catch’ there is no telling what might have happened to the Herald cause. He gets the ball to his man faster and with more accuracy than anybody who has ever raced around on the Detroit football greens . . . 

Of Coach Talbott, MacGonachle wrote that he

demonstrated what good sportsmanship in a visiting coach means. He never once questioned a decision and upheld Referee Lane in all his rulings, discouraged coaching from the sidelines and in many ways was a delightful contrast to other tutors who have been here.

As good as the Triangles had become at football, though, there was one obstacle to the team’s long-term success that practice could not overcome, one that would prove more difficult to overcome as time passed: economics. Writing in the Daily News’ lead-up to the Triangles’ next game against Altoona, Pennsylvania, Jerry Conners expressed it this way:

The Triangles are wanted back in Detroit, and they have big offers from Cleveland and Canton. If these games are accepted the boys can make more money than by playing at home, as their guarantees are larger than their share of the receipts would be here. The comparatively small crowds which turn out in this city make it almost impossible to bring some of the big teams of the country to Dayton, as the guarantees demanded by these elevens are too large for the Triangles to accept.

This perfectly captures the Catch-22 of small market semi-pro football in the early twentieth century. To claim the championship mantle, you had to play against, and beat, the best competition. To attract that competition, however, you had to guarantee them a bigger payday than attendance at your games would support. This problem would dog the Triangles throughout their history.

The following Sunday, Altoona proved less than a match for the Triangles, who prevailed 33-0. Norb Sacksteder, Babe Zimmerman, Al Mahrt and Lou Partlow each scored touchdowns, and Coach Talbott was able to substitute freely in the second half, with little need to resort to the passing game. The following game, however, promised a much tougher Pennsylvania team to test the Triangles. The Pitcairn Quakers had previously lost narrowly in low-scoring games to upstate Ohio powers Canton and Cleveland, and would thus represent a real litmus test for Dayton.

Pitcairn did not disappoint at Westwood field on November 6, and neither did the Triangles. The Quakers keyed on stopping Norb Sacksteder, and on the ground, they mainly succeeded. However, the versatile “Saxy” did his most critical damage as a receiver, catching a pass from Mahrt in the first quarter for the only touchdown of the day. Pitcairn managed a 45-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, but were unable to add to their total as the Triangles held on for a 7-3 win. The Pitcairn field goal represented the first points ever scored against the Triangles on their home field. It was easily the best game of the season.

Unfortunately, only about 2000 fans came out to see it. This guaranteed that games, if any, against the top-notch upstate competition would occur on the opponent’s home field. As it was, the undefeated Triangles would have to remain so through their remaining schedule to harbor any hope of interesting, say, the powerful Jim Thorpe-led Canton Bulldogs.

The stretch run began at Toledo with a 12-0 win over the Maroons. Lou Partlow scored the game’s only touchdown on a short run set up by Mahrt’s passing. Two fourth quarter field goals put the game out of reach.

Two tough matchups against the Cincinnati Celts, a team with state championship aspirations of their own, followed. The first game would be played at Westwood field, the second on the following Sunday in Cincinnati. The Celts, too, were unbeaten, and their line had been impenetrable all year. The Cincinnati team, however, had yet to reckon with Lou Partlow. Of Lou, it was said that the opposing line would “part” when he hit it “low”. On November 19, Partlow did not run rampant, but he ran successfully as no other Triangle player could that day with consistency. His second quarter touchdown, set up (as was so often the case) by Mahrt’s passing, provided the only score, and the Triangles came away winners by a 6-0 count.

The November 26 rematch did not go so well. This time, the Celts held all of the Triangles, including Partlow, in check. Celt quarterback George Roudebusch scored in the early going on a 25-yard end run. The Triangles got an equalizer on a fluke defensive play. Roudebusch had dropped back to pass when he lost his footing on a soft spot in the field. The ball squirted out of his hand and straight into the hands of Earl Stoecklein, in at guard for Louis Clark. Stoecklein then sprinted 40 yards for the touchdown. A 35-yard field goal by Celt Keene Palmer in the third period turned out to be the difference maker. The Celts survived two unsuccessful late field goal attempts by the Triangles to hand the Dayton team the first loss in its history, 10-7. To make matters worse, Norb Sacksteder suffered an injury late and had to leave the game. The Triangle players limped home, their championship hopes dashed, to face the prospect of a tough, season-ending rematch with Pitcairn a few days away on Thanksgiving.

Rumors flew before Thanksgiving Day that Carl Storck might suit up for the Triangles in place of the injured Sacksteder. Earlier in the year, Storck underwent surgery for a goiter, an enlargement of his thyroid gland that had caused bulging in his neck. Following his recovery, Storck went to Chicago to enroll in a YMCA. training program for athletic directors, and had recently returned home for the holiday, sparking the buzz about his potential participation in the game.

In fact, Carl Storck did participate in the second Pitcairn game – in the officiating crew as head linesman. As it turned out, the Triangles did just fine without Storck or Sacksteder. The Pitcairn line was not up to the quality it had shown in the first matchup, and Lou Partlow took advantage, scoring two touchdowns on the ground. Mahrt added a touchdown pass to end Lee Fenner. The Quakers got an early field goal and a defensive score on a fumble recovery in the Dayton end zone, but the Triangles were never seriously threatened and closed out the season with a 20-9 victory.

Although the Triangle era began auspiciously enough, there were storm clouds on the horizon. The Thanksgiving Day game against Pitcairn drew 2000 fans despite competing events that day. It seemed, though, that this figure represented a ceiling on attendance. The Triangles would have to draw bigger crowds if they wanted to play at home against the top upstate teams, which could put many times that number in their seats.

There were several possible reasons for the low turnout. In those days, football fans did not regard the professional game as highly as they did its collegiate counterpart. Playing for the love of the game – “amateurism” in the truest sense of the word – represented the height of competitive quality. Purists tended to regard men who played the game for money as mercenaries, hacks or both. It did not help the cause of the professionals that some teams tended to poach the best players from other teams in mid-season. Such players seemed to have no sense of loyalty, and for many sports fans this called into question other aspects of their character as well. It was also common for pro teams to use college players under assumed names.

Coach Talbott, given the opportunity to write a special column for the Daily News at the end of the season, attempted to address concerns about the players. In fact, Talbott asserted, the professional game is “a clean sport” and both the players he coached and those he coached against were “as clean a lot of young men as one could meet anywhere”. Talbott also suggested that the creation of a professional league could go a long way toward stimulating interest in the game: “. . . rivalry of this kind with a real championship at stake would be greatly appreciated by the fans and be a successful venture from all standpoints.” A few years later, Talbott’s words would prove prophetic.

Meanwhile, although the Triangles might have trouble drawing big crowds at home, their players had attracted the attention of fans in other cities where they played. It seemed quite clear that the best Dayton players could play anywhere they wanted, one in particular. Late that season, the Detroit Heralds “borrowed” Norb Sacksteder (as the Detroit press put it) to help them in their last couple of games. Based on published reports, the Heralds probably paid Norb $150 per game, significantly more than was usual for that era. Of Sacksteder’s play in the Detroit city championship against the local Harvards, G. O. MacGonachle of the Detroit Free Press wrote:

…[E]very time Sacksteder got a hold of the ball, whether it was through catching a punt over his ear or getting the oval from scrimmages, he was good for a few ‘Ahs’ from the onlookers. The change of pace that this young man possesses is something wonderful to look at. He would run up to a Harvard tackler and then suddenly shut off his gas and stand perfectly still while the foe would clutch madly at the thin air where he thought ‘Sax would be. Then just when the other fellow figured ‘Sax would put on the brakes he would suddenly shove it into ‘high’ and zip by the man. . . All we have to say is, that in our humble opinion, Sacksteder packs more football than any player we have ever clamped our lamps on.

By Bruce Smith

Writer, producer and host of the podcast "Triangles: The Life and Times of an NFL Original Team." Music composer and producer. Dayton, Ohio native.

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