Dayton Triangles coach Nelson Talbott, forced to take on more family responsibilities in the wake of his father’s death, turns to his old Yale coach Frank Hinkey to help out during the 1921 professional football season. Business manager Carl Storck hopes to build on the success of the 1920 Triangles at the box office, but runs into trouble when the team struggles to win games.
In a future episode I refer to “new” lineman Dale Sies. In fact, his actual first name was Herb, and he played for the Triangles in 1921 and 1922 before signing with Rock Island in 1923. The 1924 season marked the first time he made a noticeable impact for the Triangles – some of it good, some not so good.
(This is the script for the episode; the actual recording may not read word for word.)
With the sudden death of Colonel Harold E. Talbott in January 1921, his son Nelson’s involvement in the family’s social and business affairs accelerated. In May, he took has father’s place on the boards of two local financial institutions, City National Bank and City Trust and Savings Bank. By late summer, it must have been clear to everyone that Nelson’s new obligations would prevent him from devoting his full time and energy to coaching the Dayton Triangles. At an “informal” banquet for players in September, the team introduced Frank Hinkey, Talbott’s former Yale coach, as an assistant for the upcoming season. According to the Dayton Daily News account of the evening, it was Hinkey, not Talbott, who outlined to players the team’s plans for the coming campaign.
While the coaching transition proceeded, Manager Carl Storck was busy making another run at Jim Thorpe. The legendary athlete had parted ways with the Canton Bulldogs after the end of the 1920 season, and had stepped aside (or was gently moved aside) as president of the APFA in favor of Joe Carr. A proposed partnership for a team in Toledo fell through earlier in the year for Thorpe. He was trying to secure a franchise of his own for the 1921 season, and in the meantime found himself a free agent. Storck reportedly met with Thorpe in Indianapolis over the summer and pitched the idea of coming to Dayton in the event that the star back decided to focus only in playing in 1921. The deal never panned out; Thorpe eventually agreed to lead a team in Cleveland.
Storck had the coaching situation sorted out, but had another uncertainty to deal with: the status of Al Mahrt. The quarterback’s collarbone, which he broke in the last game of the 1920 season, had healed, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to play again. As insurance against Mahrt’s possible retirement, Storck signed Lafayette “Hack” Abbott, also known as Faye, a one-time honorable mention All-American at Syracuse. Later in September, Storck brought in Art Haley, a former star quarterback at the University of Akron, to add more depth at the signal caller position. By the time Mahrt made a late decision to return to the fold, the uncertainty became how much playing time he would see.
Many old favorites returned for the 1921 season. Hobby Kinderdine once again held down the center position, with Larry Dellinger, Russ Hathaway, Ed Sauer and newcomer Art Sampson making up the rest of the starting front line. Dave Reese, after initially retiring, reversed his decision and returned at one end spot. Lee Fenner was projected to start at the other end. Norb Sacksteder was gone again, having signed with the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers had succeeded the Heralds, where Norb had played years before. Lou Partlow and Francis Bacon were set for another season in the backfield with the Triangles. At least two other teams had expressed interest in Bacon, but Storck was able to protect him under new association rules by placing Bacon on the Triangles’ reserve list.
Team management looked to build on last season’s box office success with new improvements to the Triangle Park facilities. They added more bleacher seating and built a twelve-foot board fence around the park. The team also added an enclosed “kids’ section” beyond the east end zone with its own bleachers. Youngsters could gain admission for 25 cents.
The Triangles opened the season on October 2 at Triangle Park with a 42-13 win over old foes the Columbus Panhandles. Bacon scored four touchdowns in total; Partlow ran for one score and threw to Abbott for another. The Triangles, leading 21-0 at halftime, substituted freely in the third quarter. When Columbus scored two touchdowns to make a game of it, most of the starters returned in the fourth quarter. Bacon collected three of his four scores in the final period. Abbott started at quarterback and went the entire way in the victory.
The second game of the season was an away game at Detroit against the Tigers and former teammate Sacksteder. The first half was a defensive struggle with a second quarter field goal by the home team the only score. In the third quarter, Detroit right end Tillie Voss picked up a teammate’s fumble and went 66 yards for a touchdown. His extra point made it 10-0. In the fourth quarter, the Triangles tried to rally, putting together a 60-yard touchdown drive. The key play was a long Abbot to Reese pass to the Detroit 15. George Roudebusch eventually scored on a short run. The Triangles continued to press, but time ran out and they fell to Detroit 10-7. Sacksteder came off the bench for Detroit but was not a major factor in the game.
Beginning in mid-October, Coach Talbott embarked on an extensive hunting trip to the Northwest, leaving Coach Hinkey in charge for a three game stretch. The first of the games marked the return of the Canton Bulldogs to Triangle Park. Although the Bulldogs no longer featured Jim Thorpe or the other Native-American stars of years past, they remained dangerous under their captain Bob Higgins. One of the Canton stars was Charlie Way, a former All-American and current University of Dayton athletic coach. Way decided to suit up for Canton, despite local criticism, out of a sense of loyalty to his former teammate Higgins. The two teams took the field at Triangle Park before a sellout crowd on October 16.
Two Triangle miscues gave Canton the early lead. First, an Abbott pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown. On the ensuing possession, Bob Higgins scooped up an errant snap from Kinderdine and scored. With both extra points good, the visitors had a 14-0 in the first quarter. Abbott was ineffective through the first half and as the second quarter wound down, Coach Hinkey inserted Mahrt into the game. The crafty field general went to work in earnest in the second half. Bacon scored the Triangles’ first touchdown on the ground to cap off a drive set up by Mahrt’s passing. In the fourth quarter, Mahrt, under pressure, threw a “jump ball” that Thiele grabbed out of the air. “Dutch” outraced the Bulldog defenders to the goal line to even the game. Both teams tried desperately for the winning score but failed, leaving the game a 14-14 tie.
The following week, the Triangles faced a tough road game at Chicago’s Cubs Park (later named Wrigley Field) against the Chicago (formerly Decatur) Staleys. It was the first meeting between the Dayton team and the George Halas squad that would later become the Chicago Bears. Defense dominated from the outset. The only touchdown of the game came on a long pass from Dutch Sternaman to Halas in the third quarter. The Staleys had decided to chance a long pass after a Dayton goal line stand at the 1-yard line. Dayton’s defense had trouble with Staleys back Chick Harley; they keyed on the passing game so much that Harley was able to break off several runs, keeping the ball out of Dayton’s hands. The 7-0 loss left the Triangles, for the first time in their history, with a losing record at 1-2-1.
The schedule didn’t get any easier. The Triangles now headed home to face the invading Cleveland Tigers, headed this year by Jim Thorpe, and featuring his Native-American teammates Jim Guyon and Pete Calac. Thorpe had hurt his ribs when he was hit while trying to catch a pass the previous week against the Cincinnati Celts. X-rays were negative. Manager Storck reassured fans that Thorpe would be available for the Sunday game at Triangle Park, as ticket requests poured in from as far as 50 miles away. In an interesting strategic move for the Triangles, Coach Hinkey started Abbott at quarterback and Mahrt at left halfback.
About 4000 fans came out to see the contest, a tight defensive battle, on October 30. The scoring opened when Cleveland notched a safety in the second quarter. In punt formation deep in Triangles territory, Hobby Kinderdine made an errant snap, which newly signed Gus Redman had to fall on behind the goal line to prevent a Cleveland touchdown. The Triangles had chances in the third quarter. A 47-yard bomb from Mahrt to Fenner put the blue team in business at the Cleveland 10, and two runs by Bacon brought the ball to the two. However, the Triangles were penalized five yards for backfield in motion and the drive stalled. Russ Hathaway, who had been ill, was sent into the game to kick the field goal that became the game winner. A field goal attempt by Cleveland to take the lead was caught in mid-air by Art Sampson who ran it back to the Tiger 30. Another Dayton threat ended when Mahrt threw an incomplete pass past the goal line, resulting in a touchback. The Tigers resorted to passing in the waning moments, but a Mahrt interception sealed the 3-2 Triangles win. Jim Thorpe did not appear in the game. Midway through the game, Coach Hinkey abandoned his experiment with Mahrt at halfback and returned him to quarterback.
The Triangles started November with a return trip to Canton to face the Bulldogs on their home field for the first time. Hathaway, who had kicked the game-winning field goal against Cleveland, was out with an injury. The Triangles signed Jake Stahl, formerly a lineman with the University of Pittsburgh, to fill in. Canton controlled the game on the ground on its way to a 14-0 victory. The Triangles were unable to generate an offensive threat until the fourth quarter; a Bob Higgins interception snuffed out that opportunity. Canton exploited the left side of the Dayton line several times as Stahl and Sampson failed to hold up under the Bulldogs’ ground attack. In losing, the Triangles fell below the .500 mark once again at 2-3-1.
A scheduled trip to Chicago to play an Armistice Day game against Des Plaines fell through, leaving the Triangles to prepare for a return game against the Detroit Tigers at Triangle Park. In a sign of waning fan interest, the team announced that the south bleachers would not be reserved as they had been in previous games. One newspaper reported that a “wit gang” would be on hand dispensing humor to fans in addition to the game action.
On November 13 at Triangle Park, the game was tight until the fourth quarter. Two Hathaway field goals in the first quarter gave Dayton a 6-0 lead. That score held through halftime. Hathaway missed a field goal attempt wide left in the third quarter. The Triangles opened up their lead in the fourth period on an unusual play that found Mahrt on the receiving end of a 20-yard touchdown pass from Roudebusch. Bacon scored on a short run and Dave Reese returned a blocked punt 42 yards to complete the 27-0 victory. The win avenged the Triangles’ earlier 10-7 loss at Detroit. Sacksteder started at halfback for the Tigers, but did not affect the outcome.
During the game, Glenn Tidd relieved Hobby Kinderdine at center. An observer reportedly asked Kinderdine what had happened. Recalling the incident in the Pitcairn game of two years before, Hobby replied, “They came near sending me to the boats again.”
With Detroit out of the way, the Triangles now faced their biggest challenge of the season, a visit from the undefeated, defending champion Akron Professionals. If anything, the Pros were even stronger than the team that won the inaugural APFA title, beating Dayton twice in the process. Star player Fritz Pollard was now a co-coach as well, becoming the first African-American head coach in the history of the NFL. Pollard’s 1921 team featured another talented African-American player in end Paul Robeson. Robeson had the skill and agility of a backfield player, but was big and strong enough to play on the line. At six feet, three inches tall and weighing 210 pounds, Robeson could probably play wide receiver in the modern NFL.
A controversy over officials marked events leading up to the game. It was customary for team managers to negotiate the choice of the referee, umpire and other officials in advance. Carl Storck and Akron’s management could not come to an agreement, though, so they appealed to the APFA. President Joe Carr selected the officials and dispatched them for the game. Neither team knew the identities of the officials until they took the field that Sunday, November 20.
What a Sunday it was.
After a scoreless first half, the Triangles began to take over in the third quarter. Dayton’s Eddie Sauer intercepted an Akron pass and returned it deep into Pros territory. The Triangle offense worked the ball to the Akron 3, where Russ Hathaway kicked a short field goal. That kick turned out to be the game winner. From there the Triangles continued to press and the Pros needed a lucky break (a pass that rolled across the goal line for a touchback), and a goal line stand to keep the score to the final 3-0 margin.
The Triangles victory marked the first loss the Akron Pros had suffered in their APFA tenure. For Dayton, the 20-20 tie with Canton may have been the greatest game in team history, but this was the most consequential win. Akron’s loss started a three-game skid that crushed the Pros’ hopes for back-to-back championships. It was also sweet revenge for the Triangles, whose championship hopes Akron had dashed only the year before.
Dayton won by keying on Fritz Pollard, keeping him in check all day. Paul Robeson did not start at end as expected, but he did appear in the game as a substitute on the line. Robeson ultimately made his mark as a singer rather than a flanker.
With the season winding down, only a road game at Buffalo against the All-Americans remained on the schedule. Storck, though, remained hopeful of booking another game. Both Akron and Canton were reportedly struggling to make money on their home games, and Storck reached out to both teams about coming back to Triangle Park. Storck also reportedly contacted George Halas about a game in Dayton. By all accounts, though, the Staleys were doing quite well at the box office. With Chicago making so much money at home, any guarantee to lure them from Cubs Park would likely be cost-prohibitive.
The game at Buffalo on November 27 was effectively decided in the first five minutes of play. A 45-yard touchdown reception by Oscar “Ockie” Anderson was the only score. In muddy conditions, the Triangles were unable to generate their usual passing game. They pressed for an equalizer, coming within a few yards of the Buffalo goal line when time ran out in the first half, but ultimately failed to score. Buffalo’s 7-0 victory put them in prime position for APFA championship honors, which the Chicago Staleys ultimately claimed.
Storck, unable to book a game against an association opponent, declared the season over. A proposed postseason game against a non-association team, the Senators of Washington, D. C., failed to materialize. The Dayton Triangles finished the 1921 season with a middling mark of four wins, four losses, and a tie.
On December 7, a train wreck between Dayton and Cincinnati killed one person and injured 17. Among the injured was Russell Hathaway, Triangles lineman and kicker. Hathaway would recover and return to the team in 1922; however, clouds loomed over other key persons in the Triangles organization.
Events pulled Nelson Talbott farther away from football. At the end of December, he joined a committee that was tasked with constructing a new War Memorial wing at the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Museum on the big university’s campus. The project would take Talbott out of Dayton for large stretches of the following year. Nelson “Bud” Talbott would never again serve as full-time head coach of the Dayton Triangles. Meanwhile, F. B. MacNab had taken ill earlier in 1921. His kidneys were failing. With kidney dialysis decades in the future, it seemed only a matter of time before two of the men who had most strongly supported the team within the Triangle companies would be off the scene.