Season 2, Episode 7: A Last Hurrah

Facing irrelevance in 1927, Dayton Triangles owner Carl Storck and business manager Mike Redelle reinvent the National Football League original team as a hometown squad. Season highlights include an upset win over defending NFL champions the Frankford Yellow Jackets and an epic game against the New York Yankees, led by the legendary Red Grange. By the end of the 1927 season, Dayton is the last remaining NFL original franchise.

Diversity: First Asian-American Players in the NFL

The Dayton Triangles’ push to recast the team as a hometown club in the late 1920s led them to recruit heavily from the University of Dayton football program. At the same time, the Flyers had established a recruiting pipeline of players from the Hawaiian Islands. Among the players from Hawai’i who suited up for the Triangles were Sam Hipa, August “Auggie” Cabrinha and Walter “Sneeze” Achiu. Achiu, of mixed Hawaiian-Chinese descent, was the first Asian-American to play in the NFL. The following year, the Triangles signed Art Matsu, who became the first Asian-American quarterback in NFL history.

In an era when racial and ethnic prejudice was common, the presence of players of Asian and Pacific Islander descent led one promoter to refer to the Triangles as “a team of immigrants,” according to research by Dayton sportswriter Tom Archdeacon.

Episode Transcript

By 1927, National Football League original team, the Dayton Triangles, faced dire circumstances. The managerial decision not to play games in Dayton meant the team received minimal coverage from the local newspapers. Worse, rather than missing the Triangles and pro football, local fans mainly ignored them in favor of high school, college and independent team games in the fall. Few people knew or identified with the players. With the retirement of long time lineman Ed Sauer, only Hobby Kinderdine, Lou Partlow and Lee Fenner remained as players early fans of the team would remember,

In other words, out of sight, out of mind. Team owner Carl Storck and manager Mike Redelle must have known their window of opportunity to turn things around was closing. They needed to rethink their marketing strategy, radically.

Their solution was to recast the Triangles as a hometown team. While Redelle did not completely give up on pursuing national level talent, he focused on players with ties to the local community, whether homegrown players who had played at local high schools or players who had made their marks at local colleges. Their hope was to harken back to the halcyon days of Al Mahrt, Babe Zimmerman and Norb Sacksteder and bring crowds back for home games at Triangle Park.

Many newcomers on the 1927 roster were former University of Dayton players. Among these were end Sam Hipa, lineman Bill Belanich and backs Augie Cabrinha and Walter “Sneeze” Achiu. The returning Lou Mahrt was also a University of Dayton alumnus. Returning lineman Johnnie Becker had played his high school ball at Steele in town.

Sports writer Preston Hinebaugh projected the team to be a fine one. All it needed, he stated, was a coach who was familiar with the Notre Dame system of ball the University of Dayton Flyers played and with which the former Flyer players were comfortable.

Reading between the lines, the clear implication was that the coach should not be Carl Storck. In fact, Lou Mahrt would go on to coach the team that season, relegating Storck to the single role of franchise owner.

While Storck lurked in the background, Redelle succeeded in signing a few players with a national profile. One of them, Jimmy Tays, was a noted halfback at Penn State University. Another, Frank Sillen, played college ball at Western Maryland. The most notable signing by far, though, was fullback Earl Britton. During his college days at Illinois, Britton had built a reputation as a top-notch defensive player. More than that, Britton had been the blocking back for the already legendary Harold “Red” Grange – the “Galloping Ghost” who was scheduled to invade Triangle Park with his New York Yankees in October.

The New York game was the only scheduled home game for the season, so it seems likely that Storck and Redelle were hedging their bets. Grange, widely considered the greatest running back ever to that point, would certainly draw a huge crowd. Perhaps Storck and Redelle hoped those fans would catch the pro grid bug and make more home games profitable. Perhaps hoping to spur fan interest in their road games, the Triangles scheduled to play at powers Green Bay, the Chicago Bears and Cardinals and the defending champion Frankford Yellow Jackets. Meanwhile, they also scheduled more non-league contests to supplement their income.

The season started on a losing note in Green Bay on September 18. Curly Lambeau did all the damage, scoring two second-half touchdowns as the Packers shut out the Triangles 14-0.

The Triangles now faced two games on the following weekend, September 24 and 25.

That Saturday at Philadelphia, Dayton shocked defending champion Frankford 6-3 in the latter’s opening game. The Triangles defense bent but did not break despite having their backs to the goal four times. Two Frankford passes fell in the end zone for touchbacks. Otherwise, the Yellow Jackets dominated play. The home team’s Dick Moynihan opened the scoring with a 21-yard field goal in the first quarter. The score remained 3-0 until the fourth quarter when the Triangles got a break. Dayton guard “Pup” Graham picked up a Paul Fitzgibbon fumble and raced 70 yards for the game-winning score, stunning the 6000 fans in attendance. The unlikely 6-3 triumph was more than simply the Triangles’ first consequential win in years. It would prove to be the last NFL victory in franchise history.

Buoyed by the happy result in Philadelphia, the Triangles made the short trip to Orange, New Jersey to play a local non-league team the following day. Lou Mahrt threw a touchdown pass to end Red Joseph to put the Triangles on the board first, but Dayton gave the touchdown back on an interception return. Tiring after the previous day’s contest, the Triangles struggled to hold on, but managed to salvage a 7-7 tie in front of 5,000 cheering New Jersey fans.

Returning home, the team now focused its attention on the titanic matchup against Grange’s New York Yankees at Triangle Park. Once again, Dayton’s press played up the game to the greatest extent possible. They featured Grange heavily, of course. In an interview, his former teammate Britton opined at length about how Grange was actually underrated as a defensive and offensive player. There were profiles of Yankees halfback Eddie Tryon, fullback “Bo” Molenda and quarterback William “Wild Bill” Kelly. The papers even played up the Triangles’ “homegrown” aspect with reports on former high school foes Eddie Seibert from Steele and Frank Sillin from Stivers, now both teammates on the Triangles.

The stage was set, then, on October 2, 1927 for what would become the last professional football game ever played in Dayton, Ohio and the last consequential game in Dayton Triangles history. It was one day shy of seven years since the first NFL game played against the Columbus Panhandles. Just as on that day, nearly seven years before, the weather was hot. The paid attendance of approximately 6,000 broke the record set when the Triangles played Jim Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs in 1920 at Triangle Park. Preston Hinebaugh of the Dayton Herald estimated that an additional 1,000 unpaid attendees tried to watch the game from nearby hilltops, rooftops and trees. Among the paid attendees was former Ohio State and pro star Chick Harley.

The stakes were high, perhaps higher than the players themselves knew. Later press reports indicated that Mike Redelle had secured a huge guaranteed payout from the New York Giants to play at the Polo Grounds, if Dayton won the game.

The Triangles had early chances. Britton missed an early 43-yard field goal attempt, but made a 40-yarder in the second quarter to send the Triangles to halftime with a 3-0 lead. The game turned in the third quarter when New York’s “Wild Bill” Kelly made a long punt return to the Triangles 2-yard line. There was controversy on the play. Some observers thought Kelly had stepped out of bounds before Lou Partlow made the tackle that forestalled a New York touchdown. That score came shortly after on a one-yard plunge by Wes Fry. The extra point failed. Britton attempted a field goal in the third quarter from 47 yards to tie the game, but failed. End Red Joseph blocked a fourth quarter field goal attempt by the Yankees, keeping the game close. A final drive by the Triangles was halted by a Yankees interception, sealing New York’s 6-3 victory.

The Triangles limited Grange on the ground, but he was able to complete some tricky passes, apparently throwing across his body more than once. Bob Husted, writing for the Herald, noted that Grange was hardly the “galloping ghost” of old, having picked up extra weight that slowed him down. Husted reported that, as a runner, Grange gained only eight yards from scrimmage on the day. In fact, Partlow was the true star back of the game, battering New York’s beefy line with the same gusto he had shown a full decade earlier, despite the sweltering heat.

Late in the game, Grange attempted an off-tackle run. In the course of tackling Grange, Triangles guard Corl “Pleasant” Zimmerman hit the legendary back’s knee, The following year, Grange’s business manager “Cash” Pyle reportedly told Triangles manager Mike Redelle that Zimmerman’s hit wrenched Grange’s knee. According to what Pyle told Redelle, Grange aggravated the injury a few weeks later, most likely against the Chicago Bears on October 16. Due to opponents’ contractual obligations that required Grange to play in every game, he was unable to rest the knee. Grange continued playing with an iron brace, but by the end of the 1927 season was hobbled. He initially announced his retirement, but eventually returned to play several more seasons in the NFL.

The Triangles’ reward for their valiant effort was another two-game weekend on October 8 and 9. Saturday October 8 found them back in Philadelphia to face Frankford again, this time playing the Yellow Jackets to a scoreless tie in muddy conditions. A Triangles interception snuffed out the most serious Frankford threat, while the Yellow Jackets blocked Britton’s field goal try that could have given the Triangles their second win against Frankford that season.

Then, Storck and Redelle arranged to hold the fast Broadway limited train so the team could take it from Philadelphia to Chicago, where they played the Cardinals the following day, Sunday, October 9. In another mud bath that featured numerous missed chances, the game stayed scoreless until almost the end, when Ben Jones’ long pass to Red Strader set up Strader’s short touchdown run, giving Chicago a hard-fought 7-0 victory.

The following Sunday, the Triangles played a non-league game against the Ashland Armcos, coming away with a scoreless tie.

During the week leading up to the Triangles’ first visit to face the Providence Steamrollers in Rhode Island, the Buffalo franchise, one of the NFL’s founding members, failed. The Triangles had scheduled a game in Buffalo on November 13, and the demise of the former All-Americans/Bisons/Rangers/Bisons team forced Redelle to scramble in filling the date. He initially tried to bring the New York Giants to Triangle Park, but negotiations went nowhere. Ultimately, Redelle booked another game at Green Bay for November 13. The end of Buffalo left Dayton as the last original league franchise.

In Providence on October 23, passing made the difference in another close game. The Triangles’ once-vaunted passing game was outdone by the Steamrollers, as the aerial combination of Curly Ogden to Wildcat Wilson in the final period set up Bill Pritchard’s five-yard touchdown run, giving Providence the 7-0 victory.

Sunday, October 30 saw the Triangles make a return trip to Chicago, this time to face the Bears in front of 10,000 fans at Wrigley Field. Dayton held their own with Chicago in the scoreless first half, with punting the dominant theme. “Sneeze” Achiu helped keep Dayton in the game with his running. The Triangles went to the lead in the third quarter when Bill Belanich returned a fumbled punt for a touchdown, but the extra point attempt failed. From there, the Bears rallied, wearing Dayton down, and scored two rushing touchdowns in the final period to claim a 14-6 decision. The win left Chicago as the only unbeaten team in the league, a condition not destined to last.

In the hastily scheduled return trip to Green Bay on November 13, the Packers squeaked past the Triangles 6-0. Dayton mainly controlled field position as Britton out-punted Verne Lewellen. Green Bay finally broke through with a long pass from Red Dunn to Eddie Kotal, setting up Lewellen’s short run on fourth down for the only score of the day. Frank Sillin went 40 yards on a pass from Britton late in the game, but the Triangles were unable to score.

With the loss at Green Bay, the Dayton Triangles’ season ended with an NFL record of one win, six losses and a tie, leaving Dayton in tenth place of the eleven teams that made it all the way through 1927. Only the Duluth Eskimos finished with a worse winning percentage, and they ceased operations after the season, returning their franchise back to the league.

In the rest of the National Football League, there were still games to be played. With this in mind, the Triangles sold Earl Britton’s contract to Frankford for the remainder of the 1927 season. After the year was over, lineman Pup Graham was acclaimed as a second-team All Pro.

For the Dayton Triangles, the writing was now clearly on the proverbial wall. The days of professional football in the Gem City were numbered. Stivers and Roosevelt High Schools, planning their city championship game, decided they needed to move the contest to the University of Dayton’s stadium. The reason; Triangle Park, which the Dayton Triangles could never fill themselves, lacked the seating capacity for the 12,000 spectators the two schools expected. Furthermore, the Park’s facilities, now operated by the City of Dayton, were deteriorating. A section of the bleachers gave way in October when rowdy visiting high school fans from Steubenville crowded onto them during a Stivers home game at the park.

When Carl Storck accepted an offer of a promotion and transfer to become assistant director of personnel at General Motors Corporation in Detroit starting in 1928, he became an absentee franchise owner.