Season 2, Episode 8: Breathers

The Dayton Triangles, last founding members of the National Football League, struggle to survive as a road team in the late 1920s.

Why the Triangles failed

In the course of producing this podcast, I’ve pondered the reasons that the Dayton Triangles couldn’t make a go of it as a pro football team. I’ve come up with three things that influenced the outcome.

First. in those days professional football was not the elite game it is today. College teams were generally better and often won head-to-head matchups when they played the pros in exhibitions. Simple economics: Fans don’t want to pay to see a less than premium product on the field. This tended to favor larger population markets that had more die-hard fans. This is a problem Carl Storck set out to address when he became NFL president in 1939. (For more on that, stream the next episode, “The Last President.”)

Second, even at its height Dayton, Ohio was never more than a second-tier U. S. city. However, it was a large and bustling one. Therefore, it ended up being caught in the middle of market demographics: too small to support a pro team the way New York, Chicago or even Pittsburgh could, and too large and cosmopolitan to go “all in” on pro football the way Green Bay, Wisconsin – a much smaller town – could and did.

Third, and finally, Dayton was never really a football town anyway. Going back to Harry Solimano’s Saint Mary’s Institute heyday at the beginning of the twentieth century, Dayton has been a basketball town. The city takes great pride in supporting the University of Dayton Flyers (and to a lesser extent the Wright State Raiders) and is proud to be the home of the NCAA’s First Four each year. Baseball fans are perfectly happy with the hometown, single-A Dayton Dragons, and high school football is probably bigger than college ball in town.

Episode Transcript

National Football League original team the Dayton Triangles limped into the 1928 NFL season. Franchise owner Carl Storck now worked in Detroit as a personnel executive for General Motors. The Dayton press had paid tribute to Storck for his generosity in devoting time to various sports, his sense of fairness and lack of partisanship. In Storck’s absence, Mike Redelle managed the team. At this point Storck and Redelle had likely abandoned any illusions of the Triangles being a profitable home team. They were now strictly “road warriors” who economized at every opportunity. In the team’s later years, they traveled in a railroad car that performed multiple duties for sleeping, eating and changing before and after games.

Redelle stuck to the strategy of populating the team with homegrown players. New faces for 1928 included former University of Dayton linemen Jim Spenser and Ab Strosnider, former Steele High School and Colgate standout end Carl Mankat and back Jackson “Jack” Keefer. Keefer had played high school ball in town before starring at Michigan and later Brown, where he earned the nickname “The Dayton Flash.”  Art Matsu, a former William and Mary quarterback, had played high school ball in northeast Ohio. The popular and talented Earl Britton was also back.

Conspicuously absent for the 1928 campaign were Lee Fenner and Lou Partlow, leaving Hobby Kinderdine as the last original Triangle still playing. Fenner played for the independent Kesslers that season; Partlow went back to playing around his old West Carrolton stomping grounds. Gone too was Lou Mahrt, with Faye “Hack” Abbott returning as the team’s head coach.

Redelle didn’t completely give up on home games, telling the press he was trying to entice the Detroit team to come to Triangle Park. However, when the final schedule was announced the Triangles once again had no home contests.

Dayton opened the season at the Frankford Yellow Jackets in Philadelphia on September 29, losing a close defensive struggle, 6-0. The only score was set up when Earl Britton fumbled while attempting to punt from his own five-yard line. Wally Diehl recovered for Frankford and scored on the third play after the turnover.

The following Sunday, October 7, another low-scoring affair in Chicago against the Cardinals turned on a critical mistake by Art Matsu, who threw a pick-six that accounted for the only touchdown in Chicago’s 7-0 victory.

As the season wore on, other league teams rounded into form. Dayton did not.

In Providence on October 14, the Steamrollers dominated the Triangles 28-0. The home team put up a touchdown in each quarter, exploiting the Dayton line on sweeps and off-tackle plays. The Triangles passed extensively toward the end of the game to try to get on the board, but an interception foiled Dayton’s most promising opportunity.

The following weekend saw another Saturday game against Frankford on October 20. Unlike the game in Providence, the Triangles made this one interesting. Faye Abbott gave the Triangles an early lead with a 43-yard field goal in the first quarter. The game stayed 3-0 until the third quarter. The usually stoic Hobby Kinderdine was penalized and ejected from the game for rough play, and the penalty set up a rushing touchdown by fullback Wally Diehl. Ken Mercer scored another touchdown for the Yellow Jackets. Dayton scored a touchdown off Frank Sillin’s return of a fumble in the fourth quarter, but the Triangles could not find another score and fell short, 13-9.

As the 1928 season wore on, the Triangles appeared to wear down. On October 28 in Green Bay, Verne Lewellen, who had been a bane to Dayton throughout the 1920s, added another touchdown to his tally in Green Bay’s 17-0 victory. The score might have been more lopsided if the Packers had not lost a fumble at the Dayton five-yard line following a long run late in the game. After an off week, the Triangles traveled to Chicago on November 11 where, badly outweighed by the Chicago Bear line, they lost 27-0.

The following Sunday, November 18, marked a low point in franchise history. Favored to win against the non-league Cincinnati National Guards at Redland Field, the Triangles were unable to score and gave up two touchdowns to Freddy “Ghost” Shipp, losing 13-0 as 5000 cheering fans looked on. It was the first time Dayton had suffered a defeat to a non-league team in its NFL history.

The season ended in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, where the home-standing Wolverines cruised behind the passing of quarterback Benny Friedman. Friedman completed nine of his eleven pass attempts and the Triangles, once the league’s elite passing team, had no answer for Detroit’s aerial attack. The final score was 33-0.

The only positive note in the disastrous, winless 1928 season was that Al “Pup” Graham made second team All-Pro. Earl Britton’s punting was the team’s main weapon. The prominence of players of Asian descent like Walter Achiu and Art Matsu during this period led at least one promoter to refer to the Triangles as “a team of immigrants,” as reported by long-time Dayton sportswriter Tom Archdeacon.

In the early history of the National Football League, owners and managers of the top teams had a slang term for teams they booked to give their players a break between games against tougher competition. They called such games, and teams, “breathers.”

By 1929, the once-proud Dayton Triangles were “breathers.” They played five of their six NFL games that year before October 15. Other teams seemingly used the Triangles almost as practice fodder. Lee Fenner and Lou Partlow returned for the 1929 season, but it hardly mattered. Jack Keefer, the one-time “Dayton Flash,” went into the sporting goods business and played for the Ashland Armcos. Art Matsu, who had quarterbacked in 1928, hung up his cleats. Earl Britton moved on to the Chicago Cardinals, where he lasted two games. In the revolving door came Steve Buchanon, a former standout back at Steele High and Miami University; Elmer Wynne, a bruising fullback from Notre Dame; former Wabash running back John Singleton and ends Roy Carlson and John Wallace. Faye Abbott continued as coach.

Dayton opened the 1929 season at Green Bay on September 22. The Triangles made only two first downs and never advanced the ball into Packer territory. All the scoring came in the third quarter. Verne Lewellen, naturally, scored Green Bay’s touchdown. The other score was a safety registered when the Triangles’ Buchanon, in punt formation, had a track down a bad snap and was unable to get the ball out of the end zone. The final score was 9-0, Green Bay.

The following weekend once again saw the Triangles playing two games in as many days. On Saturday, September 28 in Pennsylvania, the Frankford Yellow Jackets scored two touchdowns in the first half. Early in the third quarter, Pup Graham scooped up a Wally Diehl fumble and took it 30 yards for a touchdown, the last points scored by the Triangles in their NFL history. Dayton continued to press, but could not find an equalizer, falling 14-7.

The following day in Providence, Rhode Island, the Triangles had nothing left in the tank. The Steamrollers lived up to their name, racing to a 34-0 halftime lead before coasting to a 41-0 win. Dayton failed to register a single first down. Only Providence turnovers prevented the game from becoming an historic rout.

Sunday, October 6 found the Triangles in New York for a tilt with the Staten Island Stapletons. Dayton played hard, but could not generate offense, losing 12-0.

It was more of the same in Boston on October 13 as the Boston Bulldogs crushed the Triangles 41-0. Paul Kittridge intercepted two Triangles passes, returning one for a touchdown and another deep into Dayton territory to set up a score. Cy Wentworth scored on a 50-yard punt return. In all, Boston scored three touchdowns off Triangles interceptions. The Dayton Daily News did not report the score at all; the Herald’s report consisted of one sentence.

After a layoff of more than a month, the Dayton Triangles concluded the 1929 season, which would be their last in the National Football League, in front of a few hundred fans at Comiskey Park against the Chicago Cardinals on November 24. Ernie Nevers accounted for all of the scoring in Chicago’s 19-0 blanking of Dayton. The only notable play for the Triangles that Sunday came from Singleton. Playing quarterback without a helmet, Singleton at one point booted an 87-yard punt. The kick bounced at the Chicago 20 and rolled through the Cardinals’ end zone. Otherwise, the Triangles were hopelessly outclassed and fortunate that Chicago did not run the score higher. No Dayton paper bothered to cover the game.

The 1929 season ended as the Triangles’ second in a row without a victory. The chief bright spot for the team was Singleton, who received honorable mention All-Pro accolades.

In January 1930, the National Football League held its annual end of the season meeting in Dayton, at the Van Cleve Hotel. The NFL declared the 1929 season to be their most successful to date, financially. Joe Carr was re-elected as president. Carl Storck was elected vice president and treasurer. The league announced it would entertain applications that could increase the number of teams from 12 to 15, and boosted player roster limits from 18 to 22.

While the NFL had its mind on expansion, however, Storck probably had his mind on the end of the line. The Dayton Triangles, which he had served as player, coach, manager and owner, could no longer compete in the rapidly developing league. The team played only about half as many games as other teams in the league, probably because bigger teams did not want to book them. The recent expansion of team rosters likely did Storck no favors either. Fan interest had evaporated. The press no longer covered the team.

For Carl Storck, it was time to move on. Over the winter of 1929 and 1930, Storck began to focus his attention on a new venture, becoming president of a professional basketball league based in Detroit.

As 1930 progressed, Storck put out feelers to gauge interest in the Triangles franchise. He found a willing buyer in Bill Dwyer, who owned a hockey team in New York. Dwyer agreed to buy the Dayton franchise from Storck for $2500.

No players were involved in the deal. Dwyer allied himself with former Orange Tornadoes head coach Jack Depler, who defected from Orange, New Jersey with several of his players. The only Triangles player who piqued any team’s interest at the time was guard Al “Pup” Graham, whose contract Dayton sold to the Providence Steamrollers before the franchise sale was completed. Dwyer moved the team to Brooklyn, New York and renamed it after the local baseball team – the Brooklyn Dodgers.

George “Hobby” Kinderdine, the one mainstay of the Triangles through every season of its existence, was heartbroken. Kinderdine went back to his day job at General Motors and reminisced about the old days. Lee Fenner signed with the expansion Portsmouth Spartans in 1930, but his heart was no longer in football and he retired after playing one game. The rest of the players went back to their day-to-day lives.

After a ten-season run, the Dayton Triangles, last of the NFL original teams, were finished in the National Football League.

Dayton itself, however, was not.