Tag Archives: Steam Roller

Early “analytics”

Pro football has always been a bit behind in the Numbers Racket. No joke: Recordkeeping was so slipshod in the late ’30s that the NFL didn’t even know who its all-time leading rusher was. (It just thought it did.)

But that’s a story for another day. Instead, let’s talk about a couple of early attempts to swim against the tide, to look at statistics — and the game — in a different light. The first is from the Dec. 4, 1927, Syracuse Herald. The day after a neutral-site battle between Red Grange’s New York Yankees (the “home” team) and the Providence Steam Roller, the newspaper ran this graphic:Syracuse Herald headline 12-4-27 Grange game

Syracuse Herald subhead 12-4-2712-4-27 Syracuse Herald YAC graphicHow cool is that? It’s 1927 — 1927! — and you’ve got a paper keeping track of the distance passes traveled in the air and how far receivers ran after the catch. Yards After Catch didn’t really enter the football lexicon until the 2000s, but here’s the Herald charting it in the Red Grange era. It’s a shame we don’t know who dreamed up the idea. The guy was way ahead of his time.

(This, by the way, was the year before the Steam Roller won the NFL title. “Conzelman” is Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman, their player-coach, who later coached the Chicago Cardinals to the 1947 championship.)

We move ahead to 1941 — and a box score that appeared in the Pittsburgh Press after the Giants whacked the Steelers, 37-10. Many papers back then just ran basic information (who started, who substituted, who scored, who officiated, etc.). But the Press went above and beyond. Take a look, and then we’ll discuss it.10-6-41 Steelers box Pitts Press

A couple of things jump out — the “Ball lost on downs” category, for instance. Even today’s box scores don’t include that. So it’s interesting that, in a period when stats were hard to come by, it was part of the Press’ package. But, hey, why shouldn’t it be, then or now? Fourth-down stops can be some of the biggest plays in a game.

Even more intriguing, though, is “Net yards gained, rushing, passing, intercepted passes, kick returns.” Can’t say I’ve seen that anywhere else. What it looks at, essentially, is how far a team advanced the ball — by any and all means (except fumbles, for whatever reason).

As you can see, the Giants came out ahead here, too — 433-323. But it’s debatable how useful or revealing a statistic it is. After all, a club that’s getting smoked can rack up a lot of yards returning kickoffs.

Still, you can appreciate the Press’ willingness to depart from the norm and give readers a little extra. Especially when the esteemed New York Times was casually reporting (in 1936): “[Tuffy] Leemans gained 117 in 20 tries to bring his yardage for the season to 502. At the rate he is going he bids to surpass Beattie Feathers’ league record of slightly more than 1,000.”

Slightly more than 1,000. That’s where the NFL was in those days — and change was slow in coming. But some folks, at least, were trying.

Beattie Feathers, behind the block of Bronko Nagurski (3), rushing for some of his "slightly more than 1,000 yards" in 1934.

Beattie Feathers, with Bronko Nagurski (3) leading the way, rushed for “slightly more than 1,000” yards in 1934.

Thanksgiving 1930

Thought we could celebrate the holiday by setting the Wayback Machine for Nov. 27, 1930. Why Nov. 27, 1930, you ask? Oh, why not?

For the record, nine of the NFL’s 11 teams played on that Thanksgiving Day, which wasn’t the least bit unusual. It was, after all, the Depression. If a team could squeeze in an extra game before winter arrived, preferably one against a nearby opponent, it could fill the stadium with both fan bases and possibly break even for the season.

In Portsmouth, Ohio, the Spartans, in their first year in the league, faced the Ironton Tanks, an independent club and their fiercest rival. Spartans-Tanks games had an anarchy all their own. Here’s a link to a piece I wrote about their 1930 Turkey Day battle — memorable in every way — for Sports on Earth last year. (Reader advisory: At one point in the hostilities, a Portsmouth player has his pants torn off.)

But I want to do more with this post than just go over old ground. I want to give you a sense of what a day in the NFL was like in those times. So I’ve gathered newspaper stories about the other four games on Thanksgiving 1930 in case you want to read them. If you went to the newsstand the next day, this is the coverage you would have found in The New York Times, Brooklyn Eagle, Milwaukee Journal and Chicago Tribune.

Two of the games were in New York. The first, at Thompson’s Stadium on Staten Island, pitted the Giants against the Stapletons. The Giants, who were leading the league with an 11-2 record, had Benny Friedman, the greatest of the early passers. But the Stapes, 4-4-2 coming in, had a Hall of Fame back of their own: Ken Strong (who moved to the Giants after the Staten Island franchise folded and spent most of his career with them). The Times’ account:

Giants-Stapes 1 11-28-30 NYT

Giants-Stapes 2 11-28-30 NYT

Giants-Stapes 3 11-28-30 NYT

The “Wilson” mentioned in the story, by the way, was Mule Wilson, one of the Stapletons’ running backs. Can you imagine leaving that out of the play-by-play – a fabulous name like Mule? Of course, Moran’s first name, Hap, also was omitted. He, too, was a back — for the Giants.

The difference in the game, as you read, was that the Stapes made their one PAT try and the Giants missed theirs. But the Giants, interestingly, didn’t attempt a kick. Instead, the Times reported, their “pass from Friedman to Moran for the extra point was grounded [meaning incomplete].” Teams sometimes did that back then. What would have been nice is if the paper had explained the Giants’ strategy. Was the field too torn up for a dropkick? Was there a problem with the snap that forced Friedman, the Giants’ primary kicker, to throw the ball instead? We’ll never know. But it proved incredibly costly.

The second game in New York was between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Providence Steam Roller, the 1928 champs, at Ebbets Field. As with the Times, the Eagle’s coverage was less than exhaustive: five paragraphs plus a box score that provided the starting lineups, scoring summary, substitutions and officiating crew. Note that only three officials worked these games: a referee, umpire and head linesman. Think a few penalties — if not felonies — might have gone unnoticed?

Brooklyn Eagle 1 T-Day 1930

Brooklyn Eagle 2 T-Day 1930

So in the Giants game we have Mule and Hap, and in this one we have Stumpy (Thomason, “the stocky little halfback who has become so popular with the Brooklyn fans”). What can I tell ya? They were big on nicknames in the ’30s. One of the reasons the Dodgers won by such a large margin — 21, which was a sizable spread in the NFL’s dead-ball era — is that the Steam Roller were playing shorthanded. After dropping out of the race, they’d released five players to reduce payroll (and Portsmouth happily signed them to load up for the Ironton grudge match).

Let’s move on to Philadelphia — and the Frankford Yellow Jackets-Green Bay Packers matchup. The Packers were a veritable all-star team with future Hall of Famers in the backfield (quarterback Arnie Herber, back Johnny Blood) and the line (tackle Cal Hubbard, guard Mike Michalske). They also had a center, Jug Earp, who was related to Wyatt Earp, the famous lawman (just in case there was any trouble).

The Frankford franchise, on the other hand, was in its death throes — yet another victim of the hard economic times. The Yellow Jackets had won the championship four years earlier and were one of the strongest teams in the ’20s, but 1931 would be their last season in the league (as it would for the Steam Roller).

Packers-FYJ head 11-28-30 Milw Journal

Packers-FYJ 2 11-28-30 Milw Journal

Packers-FYJ 3 11-28-30 Milw JournalPackers-FYJ 4 11-28-30 Milw Journal

This was a huge victory for the Packers. Not only did it stop a two-game skid, it enabled them — because of the Giants’ loss — to reclaim first place. They went on to win their second of three straight titles (an NFL record later tied by Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the ’60s). Despite their success, though, it looks like the Journal hired a stringer to cover the game in Philly. I’m guessing the paper didn’t have the healthiest travel budget the year after the stock market crashed.

My favorite passage in the story: “With the wind at their backs the Jackets kicked far into Green Bay territory. One of the many fumbles, all of which can be readily excused because of frozen fingers, occurred at this time.”

It wasn’t unheard of for players to wear gloves in the 1930s — even if some of them did disdain helmets. But it appears everybody toughed it out in the Packers-Yellow Jackets game. Thus, the “many fumbles.”

We finish this Day in the Life of the NFL at Wrigley Field, where the Bears and Cardinals collided with Chicago bragging rights at stake. The game is particularly notable because of a late addition to the Bears roster: fullback Joe Savoldi, who had been booted out of Notre Dame in midseason after it was discovered he was married. By week’s end, the Bears were $1,000 poorer — the fine they were assessed for signing a player before his college class had graduated. The Tribune’s take:

Bears-Cardinals 1

Bears-Cardinals 2

Bears-Cardinals 3

Bears-Cardinals 4

Bears-Cardinals 5

You’ll love this: The Wilfrid Smith who wrote the game story and the “Smith [De Pauw]” who served as the head linesman are the same person. A number of sportswriters in that era double-dipped as officials — and would sit in the press box afterward, still wearing their zebra outfits, and type their deathless prose. (The linesman in the Giants game was “J. Reardon.” That would be Jack Reardon of the Times. He may well have covered the game, too, but we can’t be 100 percent sure because the story didn’t have a byline.)

Smith, who also played some tackle in the NFL with the Cardinals and three other clubs, was one of the best football writers of his generation — knowledgeable, instructive and funny. Wasn’t it classic how he described Savoldi’s touchdown?

Red [Grange, the Bears’ halfback] carried within inches of the [goal] line. . . . Here, [quarterback Carl] Brumbaugh remembered his professional etiquette and Savoldi banged into the line, falling with the ball squarely on the final strip[e].

Did you catch, too, that the Cardinals completed six passes to their own receivers and six to the Bears? Putting the ball in the air could be a risky proposition in those days, much like plane travel.

So ends our field trip to Thanksgiving 1930. According to my calculations, the attendance at the five games was 37,500 — about half the capacity of AT&T Stadium, where the Cowboys will host the Eagles today. Eighty-four years later, the Stapes, Dodgers, Steam Roller and Yellow Jackets no longer exist, the Spartans have moved to Detroit and become the Lions and the Cardinals have relocated to Arizona after a stop in St. Louis.

Even worse, there’s nobody in the league named Mule or Hap or Stumpy.

The 1930 Staten Island Stapletons -- all 19 of them.

The 1930 Staten Island Stapletons — all 19 of them.

The one and only Jimmy Conzelman


“[Light-heavyweight champ] Philadelphia Jack O’Brien thought I had a future as a fighter, but I’m glad I didn’t follow up on that. As for music, I had an expert opinion from the late Eddy Duchin. We were good friends, and I used to pretend to him that I seriously thought I was in his league as a piano player.

Eddy never caught on, he couldn’t see anything funny in the idea. So I began to get people to ask him just where he would rate me among the 10 best piano players of the country. Eddy used to blow his top. He’d yell, ‘Conzelman! He’s no piano player! Look at his left hand! As a piano player Conzelman is a bum!'”

— JImmy Conzelman


If you could invite any five people from pro football history to dinner, who would you choose? My first draft pick — playing the position of: Life of the Party — would be Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman. Conzelman was a man of many talents. A fine quarterback in the 1920s with the Rock Island Independents and other clubs, he also coached two teams to NFL titles (the single-wing Providence Steam Roller in 1928 and the T-formation Chicago Cardinals in ’47), was perhaps the most sought-after after-dinner speaker of his time and could even play the piano.

Sports Illustrated’s Gerald Holland wrote this piece about Conzelman in 1961, one that captures him in all his multifaceted glory. Hope you like it as much as I did. To me, Jimmy was a combination of John Madden and Art Donovan — with some Victor Borge, perhaps, mixed in. Of course, Jimmy always said his primary influence as a speaker was humorist Robert Benchley, who had a seat at the Algonquin Round Table.

Helmetless in 1927

The clip below should be seen in its entirety. First because precious little game footage survives from the ’20s, and second because it’s only 2 minutes long. You got something better to do?

The teams are the Providence Steam Roller (dark jerseys) and the semipro Framingham (Mass.) Lion Tamers (light jerseys with stripes on the arms). The year is 1927 — the year before the Steam Roller won the NFL title and five years before they dropped out of the league, a victim of the Depression. It looks like the game is being played in Framingham, because Providence’s stadium, the Cycledrome, was built for bicycle racing and had a banked track running around the field.

One of the first things you notice (:03) is that the left end and right guard for Providence are bareheaded. I’m guessing the end, No. 12, is Ed Lynch. Not sure about the right guard, but it could be Jim Laird. Later on (:53) you’ll see Nos. 12 and 26, both helmetless, in the same frame, and later still (1:29), if you look hard, you’ll see three Steam Roller linemen without headgear — the left end, right guard and right end. The right end might be John Spellman, who was renowned as a wrestler and won a gold medal in the 1924 Paris Games — the Chariots of Fire Olympics — in the light-heavyweight class.

Also worthy of note:

● The officials are wearing white — like hospital attendants, which was probably fitting. It was a rough game back then, what with minimal padding, no facemasks (except to protect an injury) and, for some guys, no helmets.

● On the extra point (:26), the kicker uses a holder. It’s a good reminder that not everybody dropkicked in 1927. Indeed, by the end of the decade, the practice was becoming obsolete.

The Steam Roller’s coach was Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman, who also played quarterback for them. (The QB was essentially the blocking back in the single wing, though he often called the plays and, in Conzelman’s case, contributed as a receiver.) Jimmy was a legendary storyteller, and one of his best tales was about Lynch. It went something like this:

You hear a lot about Cal Hubbard and George Trafton from those early years, but you never hear about a lad named Ed Lynch. Lynch was a bricklayer before he went to college, and from what I’ve been able to learn, he was a very good man on the corners. Now, there are bricklayers and there are bricklayers. Some are good on a straightaway wall, but only a master craftsman can handle the delicate job of laying the corners. As I said, Lynch was very good on the corners.

When he’d gathered together enough money, he matriculated at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He’s a legend down there now. He was a grand basketball player and a magnificent man on a football field. Six feet tall, about 205 pounds, wide shoulders, tremendous arms – an eye-filling sight from head to toe.

He played end for me in Detroit and Providence, and he was one of the finest ends I ever saw. He thought that only sissies wore pads, so he played without any protective equipment except the muscles he was born with. Brother, that was plenty.

One day we were playing the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and we returned the opening kickoff to about our 20. The Yellow Jackets had just signed a hotshot college tackle, and Lynch looked him over as we lined up for the first play.

“What’s your name, sonny?” asked Lynch, calm as you please.

The kid was taken aback by such a question at such a time. “Weir,” he said. “Ed Weir.”

“Oh,” answered Lynch, “you’re that All-America tackle from Nebraska. Gosh, it must be great to be famous. Take me, for instance. Nobody ever heard of me. I went to a little school, Catholic U., but I’m just as big as you and just as tough. I probably know more about football than you do, too. Give me a minute and I’ll show you.”

He turned back to me and said, “Jimmy, run a play around my end. I want to demonstrate something to this young fellow.” Nobody ever said that Conzelman was anything but obliging. So I carried the ball myself, and Lynch practically drove Weir into the next lot. A defensive back made the tackle about 20 yards downfield. As I walked back, there was Lynch helping Weir to his feet.

He was very nice about it, too. “See what I mean, sonny?” he remarked in kindly fashion. “Now let me show you again. Jimmy, run one this way once more.” And he pinned Weir in that same deadly fashion. What I wouldn’t have given to have a Lynch or two on my Chicago Cardinals teams in the ’40s. A great player. And a great bricklayer. Very good on the corners.