Season 1, Episode 10: Return to Normalcy

Following two years of war and disease, life returned to normal for the Dayton Triangles football team in 1919. With their coach and star quarterback back from the war, the Triangles looked to prove their mettle against the top competition in the Ohio League. Getting games against the likes of the Canton Bulldogs and Massillon Tigers, however, remained a daunting challenge. 

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This episode concludes Season 1 of “Triangles.” Season 2 premiered in August 2019; you can stream it by clicking the “Next episode” button above. Please check the main site page for updates as they become available.

Episode Transcript

(Please note: This transcript may not exactly match the audio content of this episode.)

Following the traumatic years of war and disease, Dayton football fans looked forward to seeing their favorites on the gridiron once more in 1919. Nelson “Bud” Talbott, who came home from the war a Major, would once again roam the sidelines as coach of the Dayton Triangles. Al Mahrt returned too, joined at the beginning of the season by his cousin Armand. Other players back from service included Dr. Dave Reese and Harry “Shine” Kinderdine. Lou Partlow, Dick Abrell, Lee Fenner and George “Hobby” Kinderdine were among those back from last year’s championship team. Among the notable new faces was Howard Yerges, who had quarterbacked teams at The Ohio State University.

The end of the war also brought changes for the Triangle companies. Uncertainty resulting from the acquisition of United Motors by General Motors in 1918 hung over the community for nearly a year. At length, in September of 1919, all three Triangle companies agreed to sell themselves to GM. Day-to-day operations did not change much. Amenities for Triangle company employees, including maintenance of Triangle Park and sponsorships of the companies’ sports teams and leagues, continued without interruption. Despite the return of Mike Redelle from war, Carl Storck remained as business manager of the Dayton Triangles.

The season began October 5 in typical Triangle fashion, with an easy 51-0 victory over the Nordyke-Marmon team from Indianapolis. Mahrt went out early with an ankle sprain, but it hardly mattered. Yerges entered the game at quarterback and ran the team effectively. Partlow scored two touchdowns, and Yerges, Armand Mahrt, “Dutch” Thiele, Francis Bacon, and Lee Fenner tallied one apiece. As in years past, wire services kept fans who braved the October rain abreast of the ongoing World Series. This version of the Fall Classic particularly interested local fans since the Cincinnati Reds represented the National League against the Chicago White Sox. One of the Reds’ stars that year was Earle “Greasy” Neale, who had coached the Triangles to glory in the 1918 football campaign.

The following week found Al Mahrt still gimpy and unable to go against the Triangles’ old foes, the Pitcairn Quakers. Although Pitcairn’s rushing defense proved stingy, they could not prevent the Triangles from scoring via the aerial route. Yerges started the game at quarterback and filled in admirably, throwing touchdown passes to Partlow and Thiele. Partlow added a short rushing touchdown, and Dick Abrell scored on a spectacular 90-yard punt return in the 28-0 victory on October 12.

During the first quarter of the Pitcairn game, Hobby Kinderdine took a blow to the head and briefly lost consciousness. He received smelling salts to revive him and went back into the game. Hobby’s teammates quickly noticed that he was behaving strangely and missing signals. They motioned to the sideline to take Kinderdine out, and Glenn Tidd replaced him for the duration of the game. A member of the staff walked Hobby to the clubhouse. After the game ended, Kinderdine turned up missing. Following a frantic search, Hobby was finally found – rowing a boat up the river.

In 1919, there was no such thing as a “concussion protocol.”

Despite opening 2-0 and going undefeated since the start of the 1917 season, the Triangles once again faced their chronic problem: getting other major teams to play against them. The Canton Bulldogs were back in business for 1919, once again featuring the great Jim Thorpe. Manager Storck had pursued Canton to no avail; a scheduled game with the Bulldogs had been cancelled. The Detroit Heralds had also cancelled on the Triangles, but Storck remained hopeful of rescheduling both contests. The way to force the northern teams to play the Triangles, it seemed, would be for Dayton to run up the score on its remaining opponents. This was the idea as the Triangles took the field at Triangle Park against the Cleveland Panthers on October 19.

Untimely mistakes, early and late, proved the Triangles’ undoing that Sunday. In the first minute of play, Mahrt threw an interception that a Cleveland halfback ran back for a touchdown. From there, the Triangles rallied. Partlow scored on a five-yard run set up by a long halfback pass from Yerges to Dave Reese. A touchdown pass from Mahrt to Reese made the score 14-7 before the Cleveland defense stiffened. Two Panthers field goals in the second quarter made it a one-point game at halftime, 14-13.

When Mahrt’s ankle injury flared up, he sat out the second half in favor or Yerges, with Abrell taking Yerges’ halfback spot. The remainder of the game was a scoreless standoff until the final minute. With the Triangles in possession of the ball near midfield and in position to run out the clock, Yerges inexplicably tried a pass. The Panthers intercepted the ball and returned it for another touchdown to send the Triangles down to defeat 19-14.

The team now faced a tough three-game stretch against old foes Wabash, the Cincinnati Celts and the Columbus Panhandles. It appeared that the weather might prove even tougher than the opposition. Rain and poor field conditions forced the cancellation of the scheduled Wabash game on October 26.

It was uncertain that weather would permit the Cincinnati Celts game to be played at Triangle Park on November 2, but nature relented. The game featured Celt players who had been with the Triangles in 1918, such as “Shiner” Knab and George Roudebusch. The home team was able to run consistently, but could not score until they recovered two fumbles in the Celt end zone. The game’s third score also came off a turnover, this time on an interception return of an errant Roudebusch throw. Mahrt, his ankle now fully healed, rounded out the scoring with a bomb to Thiele and the Triangles won going away, 26-0.

Early November found both the Triangles and Manager Storck hard at work. The team was preparing for their confrontation on November 9 with the Panhandles. Meanwhile, Storck had booked the Detroit Heralds, yet again, for a game at Triangle Park the following Tuesday, which marked the first Armistice Day holiday following the end of the Great War. He was looking at these two games to test whether attendance would be sufficient to book Canton and Massillon – both of which Storck continued to pursue. The estimated breakeven revenue for such a game was around $5000, given the guaranteed money demanded by the two upstate teams. This meant a crowd almost twice the size of the then-record 1917 finale against the Cincinnati Celts would have to pay $1 a head – a tall order.

When the Panhandles came to town that Sunday, something rare happened: Mahrt’s normal pinpoint accuracy was off. Panhandles quarterback Frank Nesser outdueled Mahrt in the passing game, and Nesser’s booming punts kept the Triangles at bay throughout the contest. The game, a defensive struggle, turned on a controversial call in the third period. Referee George Little ruled that a Triangle defensive back had muffed a Frank Nesser punt. The Triangles protested, claiming that the ball had gone through the receiver’s arms without touching him, but to no avail. The play set up the game’s only score, and the Panhandles defeated the Triangles 6-0.

Late in the game, Referee Little assessed a five-yard penalty against the Panhandles for delay of the game when they tried to stall and run out the game clock. Such calls were rare in the era before the introduction of the play clock. In the end, it made no difference, as Mahrt was unable to connect through the air and the Panhandles line proved impervious to the Triangles ground attack. The aftermath of the loss, the team’s second in three games, found Coach Talbott mulling, for the first time in his coaching career, wholesale changes to the Dayton lineup.

The Detroit Heralds, true to their recent form, backed out of the scheduled Armistice Day game, but Storck remained undeterred. He had booked the Pine Village semi-pro team for a November 16 clash at Triangle Park and still hoped to bring in Massillon on the 23rd. Meanwhile, Storck continued to negotiate with Canton for a game at Triangle Park and possibly a return game at Canton. To bolster the lineup, Storck signed Roudebusch from the Celts.

The Pine Village team that came to Dayton on November 16 featured another veteran of the 1918 Triangle team, Chuck Helvie, who had re-signed with his former squad when they resumed competition after the war. However, Pine Village did not trouble the Triangles that day. The Indiana squad played tough ball, but undid themselves with untimely fumbles. Lou Partlow rebounded from a sub-par performance against Columbus to score two touchdowns on the ground. Roudebusch paid immediate dividends for the home side. Entering the game at halfback for Francis Bacon in the second quarter, he threw a touchdown pass to Thiele. Yerges came up with a long punt return that set up Partlow’s second touchdown run. Other than a single long drive in the third quarter, Pine Village could not dent the goal line against the stout Triangles defense. The final whistle found the Triangles on top 19-6.

By mid-November, Manager Storck finally pulled off a coup he had long sought: booking the mighty Massillon Tigers to play at Triangle Park. The Tigers included at least five players who had starred at Notre Dame. They brought perhaps the biggest, heaviest line the Triangles had ever encountered. Indeed, the local press touted Massillon as the best team ever to visit Dayton.

Their main star was the great passing quarterback Gus Dorais. Along with the now-legendary Knute Rockne, Dorais had formed perhaps the first great quarterback-receiver tandem in the history of American football. The Dorais-to-Rockne combination had keyed Notre Dame’s great teams in the early part of the decade, and then the Tigers in the middle teens. Rockne had traded his cleats for a clipboard as head coach of the Fighting Irish by 1919, but Dorais was still active. Tigers coach Stan Cofall was a football legend and could still insert himself into the lineup at need.

As game day crept closer, both teams looked to sign reinforcements. The Triangles signed two linemen, one from the Detroit Heralds and the other from Miami University. Both teams were jockeying to sign Ohio State star “Chick” Healey, who was playing his last collegiate game that Saturday against Illinois. For his part, Healey remained noncommittal.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a visit from the legendary Tigers had the desired effect on ticket sales. The park was furiously adding seating to sell more reserved seat tickets. Box seats were sold out by mid-week.

That Sunday, November 23, the weather again played havoc with field conditions. Massillon ran freely early in the game, but the Triangle line bowed its back and the game soon turned into a punting contest. From all accounts, the field was a massive mud puddle. The much-anticipated passing duel between Mahrt and Dorais never materialized: the ball was too slick to throw accurately. In the end, the two teams played to a scoreless tie.

If nothing else, the game showed that the Dayton Triangles at their best could go toe to toe with a top upstate team. However, the Tigers were not destined for Ohio League championship honors that year; they lost twice to the Canton Bulldogs. The strong box office results also showed that fans would turn out in large enough numbers that the team need not incur a huge loss, if the competition was right.

Emboldened by the Massillon result, Storck made renewed efforts to book the Canton Bulldogs before the end of the season. Time, though, was running out. The Triangles faced a rematch with the Columbus Panhandles on the upcoming Sunday, November 30, one they felt they had to win to have any hope of getting a final game with Canton. Storck also continued to work on booking the Detroit Heralds, a matchup that offered the prospect of Norb Sacksteder returning to Dayton to face the Triangles for the first time as an opponent.

Storck continued to pursue fresh players. In the run-up to the second Columbus game, he signed lineman Eddie Sauer, fresh off a Miami University squad that had just completed its season. The signing marked the beginning of a long relationship between Sauer and the Triangles.

Although weather again threatened to interfere, the Triangles and Panhandles were able to play their second match. This time, Mahrt was accurate with his passing and the Panhandles were the ones whose problems in the kicking game proved costly. Frank Nesser fumbled in the first quarter while attempting to punt. “Dutch” Thiele recovered the fumble and ran in for a touchdown. Lee Fenner recovered a muffed punt by the Panhandles in the second quarter, then caught Mahrt’s pass for the second score. Another long touchdown pass, Mahrt to Dave Reese in the fourth quarter, capped off the scoring for a 21-0 Triangles victory, avenging their earlier loss to Columbus.

After finally getting a commitment from the Detroit Heralds for a game on December 6, snowy and rainy conditions made the field at Triangle Park unplayable, forcing the Triangles to cancel the game that Sunday. The cancellation ended the season on a note of disappointment.

The Dayton Triangles finished the 1919 season with a respectable mark of five wins, two losses and a tie. The team had made progress toward showing that they could compete with the top upstate teams, and make it worth their while financially. The longed-for matchup with the Canton Bulldogs remained elusive, though.

The next year would bring a turn of events that would give Dayton the chance to compete at a new, elite level of professional football. Before this could happen, though, the sport had growing pains to overcome. As American football became more popular in the late 1910s, it also became more lucrative for the players. Colleges grew intolerant of players who played on both Saturday and Sunday, or worse, dropped out of school entirely to play professionally.

In some quarters, there was a backlash against any professionalism in the sport. The University of Minnesota went so far as to threaten alumni who signed to play professionally with the loss of their letters and other school honors, even if they “went pro” after finishing their college careers. Some cities seemed prepared to ban the playing of professional football in their jurisdictions.

As for the pro teams themselves, they increasingly struggled with the problem of unfettered free agency. Teams would poach players from other teams in mid-season, only to see their own players poached in turn. The constant churn of players was as bad for business as it was for the on-field product. Expenses to sign and retain players threatened to spiral out of control. Owners and team managers grew tired of the practice, and were ready to put an end to it.

Thus, the stakes were high when a group of team representatives, including Manager Carl Storck of the Dayton Triangles, gathered at an automobile dealership in Canton, Ohio to hammer out the future of professional American football in August 1920.

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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