Tag Archives: barnstorming

Barnstorming on Dec. 25

On Christmas Day 1932, the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans played to a 6-6 tie before a sparse crowd of 2,000 in Cincinnati. I mention this because, well, they’d also met the Sunday before in the NFL title game — won by the Bears, 9-0.

You sometimes saw these championship rematches in the early days, before the league decided that maybe they weren’t such a good idea. After all, you want to be able to bill your title game as Globe AP story on 6-6 gamethe be-all and end-all of your season. It was devalued a bit if the clubs played again a week — or a month — later in Los Angeles, Dallas or Miami, even if it was just an “exhibition tilt,” as The Portsmouth Times called it.

Rest assured both sides took the tilt seriously. That was the other thing about these rematches: They gave players a chance for retribution. Thus, the action at Redland Field, home of the baseball Reds, was “replete with vicious tackling and effective blocking,” the Times reported.

The Spartans scored first on a pass from Glenn Presnell to Harry Ebding. (I think. There was some disagreement about who the receiver was). The Bears tied it on a run by Red Grange. The score ended up 6-6 because both teams missed the extra point; Portsmouth’s was blocked and the Bears’ was wide.

Unfortunately, with so many empty seats, the game didn’t make enough money to cover the clubs’ guarantees. Instead, “the Spartans and Bears were offered 75 percent of the gate receipts,” the Times said. “The players received about 25 percent of their regular salary [for] playing this game.”

Portsmouth coach Potsy Clark had driven the 100 miles to Cincinnati, a trip that was much more adventurous than he’d planned. His car broke down and, despite Potsy’s best efforts, a mechanic had to be summoned . . . on Christmas Eve.

After the game “he said goodbye to all the boys,” according to the Times, “and then hopped into his automobile and left for Indianapolis, where he had Christmas dinner with his family.” Hitching a ride were fullback Ace Gutowsky and his wife, “who enjoyed the hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Clark before leaving for Oklahoma City.”

As for the Bears, they caught a train to Nashville and played there the next day against the Boston Braves (the team that would become the Washington Redskins). It was the first pro football game ever played in the Music City, and the locals were in a festive mood. They spent most of the afternoon throwing firecrackers at one another.

The Bears weren’t the least bit distracted, though, Blinky Horn (yes, Blinky Horn) of the Tennessean wrote. “They long ago became accustomed to the rat-tat-tat of submachine guns in the Windy City.”

Fred Russell, the famed columnist for the Banner, poked his head in the Chicago locker room before the kickoff and was stunned to see players, quite a few of them, puffing away on cigars. “They can smoke any time up to an hour before the game,” he informed his readers. “But it’s taboo between halves.”

Fueled by nicotine, the Bears won easily, 25-0. But as in Cincinnati, the crowd was disappointing — only 2,000 to 3,000. Nashville was still very much a college town. (Indeed, the game was played at Vanderbilt’s Dudley Stadium). Some of the proceeds were supposed to go to the Community Chest to help the needy, but there was nothing left after the clubs took their cut.

That prompted this comment from Horn: “One of two things is certain — [either] pro football has no appeal to the citizenry of this township or the natives have poured out so much to assist charity that they have nothing left to give.

“There’s never been such a fullback in Dudley Stadium as [the Bears’] Bronko Nagurski. Nor such a passer as Johnny Doehring. Nor an end superior to Luke Johnsos. But all this sweetness was wasted in the desert air. For Nashville’s public is not pro football-minded. Or maybe they have too many headaches from Xmas ’nog and Xmas bills to take any acute interest in this visit of the champions.”

Sixty-eight years later the Titans would begin playing in Nashville — and things would change in a hurry. But in 1932 the NFL was still a rumor in large swaths of the country. That’s part of what the barnstorming was about: to plant the seed, even if it meant disrupting your Christmas holiday.


Even if you’re not an NFL history buff, you’re probably familiar with the score of the 1940 title game: 73-0 (the Bears nipping the Redskins). Well, I’ve got a blowout that’s even bigger than that. It just didn’t happen in a league game. It happened during a postseason barnstorming tour in December 1936, when the Brooklyn Dodgers “shellacked” the semipro St. Louis Terriers, 100-0.

Such tours were fairly common in those Depression times. Before teams broke up for the season, they’d squeeze in a few more games — and paydays — against non-league clubs in warmer parts of the country. They didn’t always win them, either. The same afternoon the Dodgers trounced the Terriers in Wichita, the Chicago Cardinals lost to the Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles Bulldogs in L.A., 13-10.

You know what else was played that day? The NFL championship game between the Packers and Redskins. Here’s your scoreboard for Dec. 13, 1936:

Results in 12-14-36 Eagle

The ’36 Dodgers weren’t very good at all. They finished 3-8-1 and scored a grand total of 92 points. In other words, they scored more points in 60 minutes against the St. Louis Terriers than in 12 regular-season games.

Fortunately for them, their competition in Wichita was a scraggly bunch. In fact, it came out afterward that their opponents bore only a slight resemblance to the real St. Louis Terriers. One of the Terriers’ promoters, Jack Lally, told The Associated Press, “The scheduling of a National [Football] League team was ‘football suicide’ and a financially unsound idea this late in the season. And reports a St. Louis team was beaten so badly may hurt the sport here next year. Our objection is that we were not considered when plans for the game at Wichita were being drawn up — and Yates [James Yates, the promoter] represents only one-third of the team.”

According to the AP, “only three regular Terrier players were in the lineup.” Yates did supplement the St. Louis roster, though, with All-American back Ozzie Simmons, who had just finished his college career at Iowa. Simmons never played in the NFL because the league wasn’t hiring blacks then, but he managed to make his presence felt even in a 100-0 loss. He “turned in one run of 50 yards and completed one pass before leaving the game in the third period,” the wire service reported.

A sampling of the headlines that appeared over The 100-0 Story (in case you’re curious):

The New York Times:

NYT 100-0 head The Boston Globe:

Globe 100-0 head

The Milwaukee Journal:

Milwaukee headline

And finally, The San Antonio Light:

San Antonio Light headline

Now that’s the spirit. At least the Light grasped the utter ridiculousness of the game — one that was certainly worth an exclamation point or two. It’s also the only paper I’ve come across that provided much detail (courtesy of the wires):

Running wild, the Dodgers rang up 21 points in the first quarter, 12 in the second, 34 in the third and 33 in the fourth. The St. Louisans, led by the dark flash, Oze Simmons of the University of Iowa, were completely helpless, cowed and pulverized.

The 15 Brooklyn touchdowns were made by [Jeff] Barrett (5), [Joe] Maniaci (4), [Tony] Kaska (2), [John] Yezerski (1) and [Paul] Riblett (1). The Dodgers gained 274 yards by rushing and 300 on passes. In the last period, they bewildered the fans – and the Terriers more so – with seven laterals on one play.

Seven laterals on one play. Clearly, the Dodgers were enjoying themselves after the long slog of the NFL season. Yezerski, after all, was a tackle. (Wonder if he was the recipient of The Seventh Lateral — or if they threw him a touchdown pass on a tackle-eligible play.) Barrett and Riblett, for that matter, were ends. Which raises the question: Did Barrett actually have five TD receptions? Because that would match the NFL record shared by Jerry Rice, Kellen Winslow Sr. and Bob Shaw.

The game, by the way, attracted a crowd of 4,000. It figures out to 40 people per point, for those of you scoring at home.