Season 1, Episode 9: Year of the Asterisk

The 1918 Dayton Triangles must deal with the constraints imposed by war in Europe and an influenza pandemic at home. The Triangles persevere under the guidance of fill-in coach Earle “Greasy” Neale and the management of Carl “Scummy” Storck.

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Snakebit Earle Neale

Dayton Triangles 1918 player-coach Earle “Greasy” Neale couldn’t catch a break in the late 1910’s. He coached the Triangles masterfully in 1918, but the achievement was tainted by a lack of competition caused by war and the influenza pandemic. The following year, 1919, Neale helped the Cincinnati Reds win the Major League Baseball World Series. Once again, the achievement was marred, this time by the infamous “Black Sox” scandal. Instead of “Greasy,” maybe Neale’s nickname should have been “Snakebit.”

Neale got the last laugh, though. He eventually coached the Philadelphia Eagles to back-to-back NFL championships in the late 1940s, capping off an athletic career that saw him become the only person ever to play in a World Series and coach in both a Rose Bowl and an NFL Championship game. Today, Earle Neale is enshrined in both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic

The 1918 football season was almost cancelled because of the influenza pandemic of that year. The 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 50 million worldwide, including about 675,000 in the United States, one of whom was tied closely to the Dayton Triangles.

To learn more about the 1918 flu pandemic, check out the U. S. Centers for Disease Control’s site here.

Episode Transcript

(Note: the following may not be a word-for-word match for the episode audio content.)

American participation in the Great War continued through 1917 into 1918. The injection of soldiers, materials and money from the United States into the Allied cause had more than offset the loss of Russia to revolutions in 1917. As 1918 progressed, it seemed increasingly clear that the tide of war was turning in favor of the Anglo-French-American alliance. By November, Germany and Austria-Hungary would have no choice but to sue for peace.

In the meantime, the war effort meant sacrifice. Carl “Scummy” Storck, who now focused his full attention on business management of the Dayton Triangles and Triangle Park, had reason to fear the possible negative impacts for his club. To conserve fuel, the Federal Government had banned driving on Sundays and curtailed all long-distance travel. The Sunday driving ban was a greater concern for semi-pro teams, as it was likely to depress attendance figures if fans were unable to drive to games. The long-distance travel restrictions would likely make it difficult for some teams to travel for away games.

Furthermore, many players were at war. Besides Al Mahrt, who had enlisted in June of 1918, the Triangles would be without Jimmy Beckley, Harry Kinderdine, Johnny Devereaux and Earl Stoecklein. Many teams were in the same situation and a number of them — both college and semi-pro — debated whether to field teams at all. Storck was having a tough time booking opponents, and as late summer wore on, prospects for a 1918 season were hardly encouraging. With strong support from the Triangle companies via the athletic association and its chair F. B. MacNab, the team could operate at a loss as it had the previous year, but would only do so if they could find opponents to pique the fans’ interest.

There was also the matter of a coach. The two men who had coached the Triangles in the team’s brief history, Nelson Talbott and Al Mahrt, were both at war. Cincinnati Reds outfielder Earle “Greasy” Neale had signed a short-term contract to play in the Triangle companies’ recreational baseball league near the close of the major league baseball season. Neale had played football with Jim Thorpe on the Canton Bulldogs before the war and had coached college teams in the baseball offseason, making him an obvious choice to lead the Triangles in the absence of Talbott and Mahrt. With Storck’s hiring of Neale, the brain trust of “Scummy” and “Greasy” went to work.

By early October, prospects had brightened considerably for a 1918 season. The Triangle athletic association directors decided on October 5 to move ahead with plans for a full schedule of football, starting with the Toledo Maroons. Storck expressed hope of booking additional games with the Detroit Heralds, Cincinnati Celts, and one or more Great Lakes naval teams.

As the Triangles were planning for a new season, though, events began to take an unexpected — and tragic — turn. In Ohio and across the United States, a public health crisis was developing.

Outbreaks of viral infections that target the upper respiratory system, and sometimes the digestive tract, have occurred throughout history. Different cultures have come up with different names for the disease. The French called it grippe. The Italians ascribed its cause to astrological factors – “the influence of the stars” or in Italian l’influenza delle stelle. In modern times, “influenza” (or “flu” for short) became the common name of the disease in English. At the beginning of October 1918, a particularly virulent strain of flu was spreading rapidly worldwide.

 On the same day the Triangles decided to field a team for the 1918 football season, the U. S. Navy Department’s Division of Sanitation published guidelines for fighting the outbreak. Preventive measures proved ineffective, however, as cases and deaths began to mount. On the evening of Tuesday, October 8, Dayton health authorities ordered all schools, churches and theatres to close. The following day, the closings extended to include saloons, soda fountains and billiard rooms. In total the order effectively closed all “non-essential” places where children or adults congregated, meaning everything except factories producing war materials.

The virus apparently could not survive in open air, so the city’s orders exempted outdoor gatherings. This meant that end-of-season baseball games and the opening of football season could proceed as scheduled. However, many teams could not practice or play due to the prevalence of flu in their ranks. As of October 9, more than 200 cases and 12 deaths had been reported in Dayton alone.

Other cities included outdoor events in their bans on public gatherings. It was unclear whether teams in those cities would be allowed to play. When the Toledo Maroons informed Storck that they would be coming to Dayton to play on October 13, local fans breathed a sigh of relief. When the Cincinnati Celts decided not to play the season, the Triangles benefitted, too. They signed Dr. Dave Reese, who had previously defected to the Celts, as well as long time Celt tackle Otto Bissmeyer.

In the weeks leading up to the opening of the season, Coach Neale worked to sort out his lineup. He delayed final decisions on starters and reserves until almost the day of the opener against Toledo. Complicating matters was the uncertain status of stalwart end Lee Fenner, who the Daily News reported was not at present associated with a Triangle company, and therefore ineligible to play. Meanwhile, Babe Zimmerman had announced, for the fourth consecutive year, his retirement from football. This time, he did not change his mind. It was the end of an era; Zimmerman had been the last of the original St. Mary’s Cadets still on the Triangle roster.

Whatever issues Fenner had regarding his employment status were apparently resolved by the time the Triangles took the field against the Maroons at Triangle Park. He was firmly planted in the starting lineup at his old left end spot. Dave Reese started at right end. The line featured veteran Harry Cutler and newcomer Bissmeyer. Hobby Kinderdine, as always, anchored the middle. Dick Abrell and Lou Partlow lined up at the two halfback spots, while Coach Neale started himself at fullback and handled kicking duties. Lou Reese drew the unenviable task of starting at quarterback.

The game was only marginally competitive. The Triangles dominated with Neale and Partlow scoring rushing touchdowns in the first half. Leading 14-0, Neale concluded that the Maroons were finished, and began to substitute freely. Toledo, though, fought back and nearly scored on the reserves before time ran out in the first half. “Greasy” took no chances in the second half, reinserting the starters, and they dominated the outmatched Maroons. Dick Abrell scored twice on the ground, and Neale added another rushing touchdown as the Triangles prevailed 34-0. Lou Reese, though he did not throw a touchdown pass, did a surprisingly good job at running the offense.

The following week brought changes. Dave Reese, a dentist by training, got the call from Uncle Sam to report for duty with the Army Dental Corps in Camp Oglethorpe, Georgia. Meanwhile, Triangle fans were abuzz with word that Norb Sacksteder, then in officer training at Camp Lee, Virginia, was due home on furlough. Hopes ran high that Sacksteder — now referred to in Detroit as “the Ty Cobb of football” — might be able to play for the Triangles as early as Sunday’s upcoming game against Wabash, Indiana.

Coach Neale worked on cleaning up his players’ rust and loose play from the season opener. To replace Dave Reese, Neale planned to start backup end Harry “Piggy” Collins. That week, however, Collins’ wife fell ill. A few days later, she passed away. According to her death certificate, she died of pneumonia caused by the flu. Pearl May Collins was 22 years old and left behind Harry and their one-year-old son. Her bereaved husband never appeared in a game with the Triangles after that. By the end of the week, state health authorities estimated that Ohio had seen between 90,000 and 100,000 cases of influenza since the beginning of the epidemic.

To plug the hole at end, Storck signed Chuck Helvie, who had played college ball at Notre Dame and more recently held down an end spot for the Pine Village, Indiana team. Helvie signed on Saturday night, October 19, and started at right end against Wabash the following day. The Wabash defense proved tough, but the Triangles were a little tougher. Dayton’s defense dominated the Wabash offense throughout. The game was tight for three quarters with the only score an early safety by Dayton off a blocked punt. Finally, in the fourth period, Partlow broke through for a 30-yard touchdown run. Lou also made a touchdown-saving tackle in the waning moments to preserve the shutout as the Triangles prevailed 9-0.

The following Monday, the football buzz in Dayton was not about the thrilling victory. It was about Jim Thorpe.

Thorpe, the Native American multi-sport star, was already a legendary figure by 1918. Local sports fans had clamored for years to see Thorpe play in Dayton. Now, with baseball season concluded and the Canton Bulldogs sidelined by the flu pandemic for the 1918 season, Thorpe was available. The Triangles reportedly made Thorpe a “very substantial” offer to play football for Dayton. Writing for the Daily News, Jerry Conners salivated about the prospect of a Thorpe-Partlow-Neale backfield at Triangle Park.

Jim Thorpe never played for the Triangles, but local football diehards enjoyed the dream while it lasted. Dayton fans would eventually get to see Thorpe play, but would have to wait two more years for the opportunity.

The following Sunday the Triangles hosted the Detroit Heralds, a team that like other teams that year had a lineup in flux. The Heralds brought a mix of veterans and former college players to Triangle Park and gave the home team a tough game. The Triangle scores came off a muffed punt and touchdown passes caught by “Dutch” Thiele and Coach Neale. The Heralds managed a field goal in the fourth quarter for the first points given up by the Triangles for the season to date, but eleven points was as close as they got and the Triangles prevailed 20-3.

As the Triangles continued to win, the influenza epidemic continued to rage. Concerns over the flu nationwide led to the cancellation of college football games and boxing matches. When Detroit Heralds management informed Storck that the city of Detroit would not allow their scheduled return match in the Motor City due to health concerns, the Triangle manager had to scramble to book an opponent on short notice. He was able to contract with the Hammond (Indiana) Professionals, a team that also unexpectedly had the date open due to flu restrictions, for a game that Sunday, November 3, at Triangle Park. End Chuck Helvie warned his new teammates not to underestimate the Hammond Pros, having heard of them during his time at Pine Village.

In preparing for Hammond, Storck and Neale brought in another former Cincinnati Celt, quarterback “Shiner” Knab, to augment the lineup. Knab would start in place of Lou Reese. The Triangles would likely need all the help they could get, as reports surfaced that Hammond was using players who were hesitant to reveal their identities “owing to other associations.” This most likely meant college players augmenting their incomes by playing on Sundays. With the stakes of semi-pro football rising, colleges and universities were less forgiving of their young men playing professionally than in earlier years. This problem would grow into a major impetus for the founding of what became the National Football League.

Helvie’s warning to the Triangles proved prophetic. Hammond arguably gave the Triangles their toughest game of the season. Their interior line was extremely strong on defense, but their flanks were a point of weakness Neale and his men exploited early and often. Knab went around end for 40 yards during a first quarter drive before scoring on a short touchdown run. The game went back and forth without further scoring in the first half and the Triangles went to intermission ahead 7-0. In the third quarter, Hammond regrouped and struck back. A pass put the Pros on the board, the first and only touchdown scored against the Triangles in the 1918 season. Critically, though, the try for extra point failed, leaving the Triangles clinging to a 7-6 lead. In the final period, with the game hanging in the balance, Lou Partlow intercepted a pass to stop a Hammond drive and turn the tide in the Triangles’ favor. From there, Neale and Partlow exploited the ends of the Hammond line for 20-yard runs in a drive that culminated in Neale’s touchdown on an eight-yard sweep. Neale missed the extra point that could have put the game immediately out of reach, but the Triangle defense held Hammond scoreless the rest of the way to secure a hard-fought 13-6 win.

The following week brought good news. Word came from Detroit that the flu ban there would at last be lifted, in time to allow the Triangles to travel to Navin Field for their rematch with the Heralds on the upcoming Sunday, November 10. Like the earlier Triangles-Heralds game in Dayton, the return engagement in Detroit was tougher than the score indicated, Partlow opened the scoring with a touchdown run in the first period, but Neale missed the extra point attempt, and the score stayed stuck at 6-0 until the final period. Then, Helvie scored on a double pass (Partlow to Abrell to Helvie) from ten yards out. Neale again missed the extra point attempt, leaving the score 12-0. Late in the game Helvie intercepted a Detroit pass, leading to a 40-yard Neale field goal that capped the scoring. Detroit had scoring chances, but turnovers did them in. The Triangles won, 15-0, but limped out of Detroit with both Neale and lineman Bissmeyer hurt.

The following week brought news of the armistice ending the war in Europe. With the war concluded and the flu epidemic all but over as well, local sports fans breathed a sigh of relief. The first sign of coming normalcy was the return to Dayton on November 17 of the Columbus Panhandles. Panhandles manager Joe Carr indicated that he expected all seven of the famous Nesser brothers to be in tow for the matchup at Triangle Park.

In fact, only four Nessers got into the game. Inclement weather held attendance to around 500. The weather also played havoc with field conditions: It was, literally, a slog. The game remained scoreless for three quarters before the Triangles broke it open. Lou Partlow’s punt return to the Pandhandles’ 30-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter set up his touchdown run to put Dayton on the board. Then the Triangles took advantage of a lost Panhandle fumble at the Columbus ten-yard line, setting up another Partlow rushing touchdown. The Triangles went on to win, 12-0.

Following the Panhandle game, Manager Storck announced that the Triangles had booked Hammond for a return game at Triangle Park on Sunday, November 24. With Hammond promising an even stronger team than the one that gave Dayton such a tussle earlier in the season, the Triangles could use all the help they could get. That help came in the form of Lieutenant Norbert Sacksteder. Sacksteder finally arrived home on furlough, and the Triangles immediately “conscripted” him into the starting lineup. Dick Abrell moved from halfback to quarterback to make room.

The Hammond offense that took the field at Triangle Park that Sunday was a disappointment compared to the one from just a few weeks before. The weather and field conditions were poor and it seemed to affect the Indiana squad more than the Triangles. Partlow was unable to go due to injured ribs. Sacksteder, though hindered from making his usual spectacular runs by the sloppy field, nonetheless gained steadily. After a scoreless first quarter, Coach Neale scored on a short touchdown run, but missed the extra point. Later in the second, Neale kicked a 20-yard field goal, then passed to Knab for a touchdown to give the Triangles a 16-0 lead at the intermission. Following a scoreless third quarter, Neale attempted a field goal but missed. While attempting to return the kick, Hammond fumbled and the Triangles recovered at the Hammond ten-yard line, setting up another short run by Neale to cap off the scoring in a 23-0 Triangle victory.

Following the Hammond game, Storck announced that he was trying to schedule one more game at Triangle Park. A proposed third game against the Detroit Heralds fell through. Speculation as to an opponent shifted to a rematch with Wabash, or possibly a Saturday game against the Camp Taylor Army team from Louisville, Kentucky.

The local Miami Athletic Club had other ideas. They issued a public challenge to the Triangles, as in days of old, to play for the city championship. Storck responded to the challenge by sending a contract and telling Miami A. C. to sign it or the Triangles would book an out-of-town team.

Then, the haggling over gate receipts began. The Miamis wanted the winners and losers to split 60-40 while the Triangles demanded 75 percent. Much of what, in modern times, might be called “trash talking” ensued. The Triangles questioned whether local fans would even find the game interesting, while the Miamis insisted they could give the Triangles a surprise. At length, the teams concluded negotiations and scheduled the game for Sunday, December 8.

As the city championship game approached, the Miami squad insisted they could make it a David and Goliath matchup similar to what happened five years before between the Cadets and Oakwoods.

They did, for one quarter.

An early fumble by Partlow almost led to a Miami touchdown. The challengers failed to convert, with a forward pass rolling across the goal line for a touchback, but they hung tough with the champions. As the first quarter waned, though, the Triangles began to gain the upper hand. They scored the first of nine touchdowns (three each quarter) early in the second period. The Miamis only other chance was at the end of the first half when they recovered a fumble and returned it to the one-yard line. After one unsuccessful attempt to score, time ran out in the half.

Partlow dominated the game from there. Lou lived up to his reputation: he hit the Miami A. C. line low and it parted. He gained yardage at will and ultimately accounted for six touchdowns. Abrell added two more, and Neale one. The Miamis never mounted an offensive drive of their own, recording only two first downs as the Triangles won 62-0.

The 1918 Dayton Triangles finished with a spotless 8-0 mark and outscored their opponents 188-9. They were the clear consensus Dayton city and Ohio League champions. However, their achievement was notably tainted. Some of the top teams in the state, including the Canton Bulldogs and Cincinnati Celts, did not even field teams that year. Between the effects of the war and flu epidemic, very few other teams could offer meaningful competition. Like many accomplishments under unusual or dubious circumstances, this one is typically accompanied by an asterisk in the record books.

For Earle Neale, this would be neither his last championship nor his last asterisk, but in the fullness of time, over a decades-spanning career, he would prove his championship mettle as a coach – and he would do it “fair and square.”

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