Season 1, Episode 8: The War Year

When the United States enters the war in Europe in 1917, things change for the second-year Dayton Triangles. Coach Nelson “Bud” Talbott and Triangles business manager Mike Redelle are among those who volunteer for military service. The team moves on with Al Mahrt as associate coach for the season and Carl Storck taking Redelle’s position as team and park manager.

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Manager Storck

In 1917, Carl Storck assumed the role of business manager for the Dayton Triangles. His involvement in management of the Triangles would extend throughout the team’s history. In fact, as we’ll see later, Storck eventually became the owner of record of the Triangles’ NFL franchise. His involvement in Triangles management led Storck to participate in the founding of the American Professional Football Association, which in 1922 renamed itself the National Football League. Carl Storck continued to serve as a league official after selling the Triangles, and eventually became the third and last president of the NFL’s pre-commissioner era.

Episode Transcript

(Note: This transcript may not match the episode content word-for-word.)

War had raged in Europe since 1914. The United States government’s official position had been one of neutrality, but at the same time, there was sympathy for the Anglo-French-Russian alliance fighting against Germany and Austria-Hungary. This sympathy grew as the result of perceived German aggressive actions, both overt and covert, and by 1917, it was clear that the United States could not avoid becoming embroiled in the global conflict. When Congress declared war on April 6, 1917 at President Woodrow Wilson’s urging, it set in motion a massive mobilization of men and resources in preparation for the war effort. This would play havoc with domestic pursuits, causing activities like American football to take lower priority during the next two seasons of play.

As the 1917 season opened, the Triangles’ coaching situation was unsettled. Coach Talbott had volunteered for military duty. He completed officer training at Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis and was commissioned as a Captain in the United States Army. Following Talbott’s commission, Major General E. F. Glenn appointed the young captain to be his personal aide at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, where other young men would train to become artillerymen. With Talbott’s availability to coach limited by his military duties, Al Mahrt would act as associate coach for the season, and fulfill the coach’s duties during games. Mahrt’s playing status was uncertain, however, as he struggled with knee problems.

As for the remainder of the team, most of the 1916 squad expected to return, including running back Lou Partlow and ends Lee Fenner and “Shine” Kinderdine. Shine’s brother George was also expected back in the fold for the season. However, as of mid-September there were doubts about Norb Sacksteder, who would eventually sign with the Detroit Heralds, and Babe Zimmerman, whose retirement had become something of an annual tradition. Among the new faces in the lineup was Jimmy Beckley, who was “just passing through” on his way to Canada to enlist in the Royal Aero Corps when he heard about the team and decided to try out. Beckley ended up as a stalwart at left tackle.

Carl Storck would be playing as well. However, Storck’s playing would increasingly take second priority to a new role. Business manager Mike Redelle had volunteered for military service, as Coach Talbott had done. Decades later, Norb Sacksteder wrote that he and several other individuals had recommended Storck to F. B. MacNab as Redelle’s replacement. MacNab appointed Storck, whose administrative duties also included managing Triangle Park, its facilities and assets.

For the first time in 1917, the Triangles would play their home games at Triangle Park. The People’s Railway Company made special arrangements to handle the anticipated increased demand for transportation from downtown. To encourage attendance by fans who did not want to make the walk up Riverside Drive from the terminus of the Main Street car line at the north end of downtown Dayton, the athletic association arranged for sightseeing trucks to carry passengers from the last train stop to the Athletic Park Bridge (now better known as the Ridge Avenue Bridge). The bridge at that time was closed to vehicle traffic due to repairs in progress, but pedestrians could still use it to access the park. Auto traffic could access the park by following New Troy Pike (now Keowee Street) north across the Great Miami River and turning left onto what is today called Embury Park Road.

The park association made several efforts to promote a safe and pleasant experience for spectators. They had seen to the construction of bleachers and boxes at the park and a fence around the entire field. For fans interested in the New York Giants-Chicago White Sox World Series, the association arranged for a telegraph wire to be run to the park to obtain nearly real-time updates of the action. They put up a scoreboard to carry inning-by-inning updates, and engaged a megaphone service to provide play-by-play during stoppages in the football game.

The Triangles opened the 1917 season against the 42nd Aero squadron from Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). The 42nd was just one of the numerous military teams that had formed to promote morale and physical exercise as an adjunct to regular training. As part of a promotional campaign to build interest in the game, team manager Sergeant Tandy and his commanding officer Lieutenant W. W. King were to make a flyover of the city on the Saturday before the game, dropping hundreds of pasteboard airplanes containing advertisements for the contest. Some of the planes carried free tickets to the game. As an extra stunt of sorts, the 42nd dropped a football out of a plane onto the field to announce the start of the game.

The game itself was not much of a contest after the early stages. The 42nd scored the first touchdown, but the Triangles scored the rest on their way to a 54-6 rout. Lou Partlow scored three touchdowns and Carl Storck chipped in two to pace the Triangles. Mahrt, his knee apparently better, started himself at quarterback, but substituted freely once the game was in hand.

The following week saw the Triangles preparing to face a team from Elyria that aspired to the same kind of open, big-play style as Mahrt’s squad. Lieutenant Hoyt, a former Harvard star, stepped in as a sort of “guest coach” to help put the Triangles through their paces during the week. Meanwhile, Babe Zimmerman confirmed his retirement for the third time in as many seasons.

Around the same time, word came from Camp Sherman that Captain Talbott had formed a group of “select” teams from the men of the 83rd Division. The select teams would train to play exhibition games against the top teams in the region.

The following Sunday, with Zimmerman acting as referee, the Triangles easily handled Elyria by a 55-0 score. Lou Partlow, Lee Fenner and Bill Weaver each scored two touchdowns as Mahrt again substituted freely. The Athletic Park Bridge was now open to all traffic, and parking spaces were set aside south of the field for automobiles.

Zimmerman’s third retirement lasted all of one week. By the following week, he was back in the Triangle fold, practicing for the upcoming game against the Toledo Maroons. The Daily News described Zimmerman in his attic, unpacking the football gear he had so carefully packed just recently.

The Maroons, making their first visit to Dayton, were set on revenge for the defeat they suffered at the hands of the Triangles at their home field in 1916. The newly unretired Zimmerman proved their undoing, however, catching two touchdown passes from Mahrt and kicking a field goal to provide all the scoring in a 15-0 Triangles victory.

For all the team’s success on the gridiron, though, success in attendance continued to elude the Triangles. A crowd of 1500 was considered a large one in Dayton, while in Detroit and upstate Ohio teams routinely pulled in 7000 to 10000 on Sundays. One fan even wrote to the Daily News suggesting that the Triangles put 3000 tickets up for sale for a future Detroit Heralds game and then offer the Heralds a guarantee contingent on the tickets selling out.

The weather was less than cooperative as well. A scheduled game at Triangle Park against the Cleveland Tomahawks could not go on because the rain had turned the field into muck. It would have marked the first visit by a team from Cleveland to Dayton for a football game.

The Triangles opened November with a 27-0 victory over the McKeesport (Pennsylvania) Olympics. Mahrt threw two touchdown passes to Johnny Devereaux and one to Lou Partlow. Partlow, whom the Olympics had held in check on the ground for most of the game, added a late rushing touchdown to round out the scoring.

Now, Mahrt’s crew faced its toughest test of the year to date. With honor on the line, the Triangles would play a half on Saturday, November 10, against a select team from Camp Sherman coached by their former mentor, Captain Talbott himself. The following day, they would face a grueling game against the always-tough Cincinnati Celts, with potential regional and state championships in the balance.

In preparation for the game against the Camp Sherman team, the Triangles brought in reinforcements including Norb Sacksteder and ends Dr. Dave Reese and “Dutch” Thiele. The Army team would include such high caliber players as Walter “Nocky” Rupp and quarterback George Roudebusch, who had given the Triangles fits as a member of the Celts. Another notable in the game for the Army side was their starting left end James Abram Garfield, a former standout at Williams College and grandson of President James A. Garfield. The game would culminate a series of patriotic events during that Saturday, including a military parade. The plan was for the Denison University team to face Camp Sherman in the first half, with the Triangles tussling with the Army squad in the second half. Due to massive public interest in the entire event, the game was staged at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds south of downtown Dayton.

The day of the game, the order of play was reversed. The Triangles faced the Camp Sherman team first, giving up a second-quarter touchdown on a short run by Camp Sherman fullback “Mal” Scoville. Otherwise, they gave the Army side a tough game, finishing the first half down 6-0. The Denison squad fought gamely in the second half, but were no match for the more adept and experienced Camp Sherman team, losing their half 20-0. The final score: Camp Sherman 26, Triangles-Denison 0.

The following day, the Triangles returned to their home field at Triangle Park to confront the rival Celts. The battle raged back and forth; both teams had chances. Mahrt’s passing and Partlow’s running gave the visitors problems in the first half, but the Celt defense stiffened in the second. In the end, neither team scored. The game ended in a 0-0 tie.

The Triangles had survived their toughest two days of the 1917 season. Although they came up on the short end in the exhibition half against Camp Sherman, they could be forgiven, having put up a stiff fight against an elite team coached by their old mentor. The tie against the Celts was arguably the greater disappointment, but it left the Triangles still undefeated in their regular schedule going into the late November stretch run. To remain undefeated, the Triangles would have to navigate two rematch games on the road, first against the Maroons in Toledo, then with the Celts in Cincinnati.

Sometime in this late stretch of 1917, Triangles center George Kinderdine came up limping after a practice and was gimpy for several days. His teammates gave him a nickname to rib him for his hobbling around. The press caught wind of it, and started using it as well, and for the rest of his life, Kinderdine was affectionately known to players, sportswriters and fans alike as “Hobby.”

The Toledo game turned out to be by far the easier of the Triangles’ two late season tests to pass. With several players, including Johnny Devereaux, “Shine” Kinderdine, Harry Cutler and Dick Abrell, down with various injuries, Al Mahrt relied heavily on Lee Fenner, and Fenner delivered. Lee’s spectacular 50-yard run after catch opened the scoring, and was the first of three receiving touchdowns he caught from Mahrt on the day. Hobby Kinderdine capped the scoring with a punt return for touchdown as the Triangles handled the Maroons 28-0.

Not surprisingly, the return game against the Celts at Redland Field was the tougher contest. A considerable amount of bad blood had built up on both sides since the first game. In a controversy eerily similar to the New England Patriots’ “Deflategate” a century later, Celts players claimed that Mahrt had had air taken out of the ball in the previous game to make it easier to throw, a claim at which the Triangles scoffed. In the rematch, despite outplaying the Celts overall, a critical error robbed the Triangles of outright victory. The Celts scored off a muffed punt by Mahrt, giving them their only points of the day. The Triangles responded with a short drive, keyed by a bad Celt punt, which ended in a two-yard Partlow plunge for the touchdown. The Triangles were unable to find the end zone again, though, and the game ended in another tie, this one 7-7.

The end of the second Celt game also marked the end of the Triangles’ season schedule. However, the lack of a clear winner in either of the two previous games against the Cincinnati squad created demand for a rubber match. Business managers for both teams began negotiations for a third game to be played the following Sunday, December 2. Before the negotiations were concluded, however, the Triangles were hit by a common problem of the period: poaching of players by other clubs. In this case, “Dutch” Thiele got an offer that was too good to pass up from the Detroit Heralds, who had previously signed Norb Sacksteder, and had reportedly pursued both Mahrt and Zimmerman before the season. Following conclusion of the negotiations for the third Triangle-Celt game, rumors surfaced that the Celts had somehow signed Sacksteder to play against his old team.

That Sunday at Triangle Park, though, Norb Sacksteder was nowhere to be seen as the teams took the field. There would be no tie this time. Mahrt threw a touchdown pass to Partlow to open the scoring in the first quarter. With Hobby Kinderdine, Lou Reese and Jimmy Beckley dominating the line of scrimmage, the Triangle defense was solid throughout. Zimmerman’s short scoring run in the fourth quarter, set up by a 25-yard run by Mahrt and a long Mahrt-to-Fenner pass, provided the clincher as the Triangles defeated the Celts by a 13-0 count.

The Triangles’ 1917 campaign ended on more than one positive note. The closing win over the Celts capped an unbeaten season in which the Triangles outscored their opponents 188-13 on their way to compiling a record of six wins, no losses, and two ties.

None of the victories, though, came against the likes of Canton or Massillon, which would have added weight to a state championship claim. The huge turnout for the Camp Sherman exhibition game never translated into bigger crowds at Triangle Park during the rest of November. Manager Storck still could not justify risking a big guarantee to the upstate teams to play in Dayton; with the existing competition the Triangles had operated at a loss in 1917.

On the other hand, intense interest in the Celt rivalry, aided by fair late November-early December weather, led to paid attendance of 2,661 for the final Celt game, which was believed to be the largest crowd to see a football game in Dayton up to that date. If the team could sustain and expand on the momentum they had built, there was cause for optimism that semi-pro football could catch on in the Gem City.

On Monday, June 17, 1918 the sports page in the afternoon edition of the Dayton Daily News reported that Al Mahrt had departed Dayton that morning for Cincinnati to be processed for military service. Sportswriter Jerry Conners lauded Mahrt as the greatest local athlete of his generation, writing:

With all his athletic honors and despite all the praise that has been heaped upon him he was one of the most modest and unassuming fellows local sport has ever known and when Uncle Sam takes Al Mahrt he takes a perfect gentleman as well as a brilliant athlete.

The loss of Mahrt was hardly the only effect the war had on Dayton athletics.

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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