The following post first appeared on thisbrucesmith.com to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Dayton Triangles team that won the Ohio League football championship. I’ve moved the post here to consolidate all Dayton Triangles-related content on this site.
As I continue my research with the goal of writing a history of the Dayton Triangles football team, I’m struck by 1918. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangles’ “championship year” that saw them acclaimed by consensus as the best team in the Ohio League. But it was also a strange, and in some respects tragic, season. I’ve taken to calling it “the year of the asterisk”.
As summer wore on, it wasn’t clear that there would even be a season in 1918. The war in Europe still raged, and many of the best players were either “over there” or in training to go. That meant a shortage of talented players. Making matters worse, to conserve fuel for the war effort, the Federal Government had mandated cuts in long-distance travel and local driving on Sundays. The restrictions would crimp attendance at Sunday games.
It was not just players who were in short supply. Triangles coach Nelson “Bud” Talbott was serving as an artillery commander. Fortunately, Triangles business manager Carl Storck did not have to look far for a replacement. Cincinnati Reds outfielder and multi-sport star Earle “Greasy” Neale had signed a short-term contract to play some games in the Triangle company baseball league. Neale had played and coached football and so was the perfect choice for the job. He also played fullback and handled the kicking duties for the Triangles that year.
Storck had also faced an uphill battle to find and schedule teams. The three companies that bankrolled the Triangles team were willing to operate at a loss, as they reportedly had in 1917, but they didn’t want to go to the trouble unless they could have competitive games. As October rolled around, though, more teams were making the decision to play.
No sooner had the Triangle Athletic association made the decision to move ahead with games, than the influenza pandemic of 1918 hit.
The viral infection we call “the flu” had been been around for some time, and people called it by different names. Some people used the French name grippe. The name that eventually stuck came from the Italians, who blamed the disease on astrological factors – “the influence of the stars” or l’influenza delle stelle.
By late 1918, a very bad strain of flu that had been prevalent in Spain was spreading around the world. Reaching America that fall, it set off a major public health crisis. Cities around the country moved to ban public gatherings in the hope of limiting the spread of the disease. In Dayton, for example, public health authorities closed schools, churches, saloons, pool halls, reading rooms – virtually any indoor place where people might congregate. The flu also wiped out much of the fall boxing schedule that year.
The Triangles’ season might have ended then and there, except that local authorities exempted outdoor sporting events from the ban, believing that the virus could not survive in open air. However, other cities extended their bans to all public gatherings, indoors or out. Several college and semi-pro teams in Illinois and Michigan had to cancel or postpone games that year.
Between the war and the flu, several of the top teams in the Ohio region did not play the 1918 season. This actually worked to the Triangles’ advantage, as they were able to pick up players who would otherwise have played for rivals, such as the Cincinnati Celts and Pine Village, Indiana. The powerful Canton Bulldogs were also sidelined that year. The Triangles attempted to sign Canton’s top star, the legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, but were unsuccessful.
Even with the personnel advantages the Triangles enjoyed, Manager Storck and Coach Neale found it difficult to keep a stable lineup at times. Starting right end Dave Reese, a dentist by training, was called to medical duty with the military in Georgia. Reese’s backup “Piggy” Collins was ready to step in, but his wife suddenly passed away three days before the Triangles were to play against a team from Wabash, Indiana. Pearl May Collins was only 22 years old. It seems likely that she succumbed to the flu or pneumonia caused by the flu. Storck scrambled and was able to sign Chuck Helvie the night before the Wabash game. Helvie played well that Sunday and became a mainstay of the Triangles for some years after that.
The Triangles posted an 8-0 record in the 1918 season, outscoring their opponents by a combined margin of 188-9. The closest game they played all season was a hard-fought 13-6 win over a team from Hammond, Indiana that was rumored to have a number of “ringers” – highly-skilled college players who were playing semi-pro ball for money on the side. The Triangles played, and easily won, a rematch with Hammond late in the season. Other teams the Triangles defeated that year included the Toledo Maroons, Detroit Heralds (twice) and the Columbus Panhandles.
Although the Triangles were – for the first and only time – the consensus Ohio League champions, circumstances in 1918 left a cloud over their achievement. The Cincinnati Celts, Canton Bulldogs and other major teams did not play that season, and the competition that did come to play was not very strong. This is why I’ve taken to calling 1918 the “year of the asterisk”.
For Earle Neale, this was neither his last championship nor his last asterisk. The following year, he hit .357 for the Reds in the 1919 World Series, winning another championship that was tainted – this time by the infamous “Black Sox” scandal. It took 30 more years, but Coach Neale eventually proved his mettle, leading the Philadelphia Eagles to two NFL titles – fair and square.