Portsmouth, Ironton, and the Making of Thanksgiving Football

     

Advertisement for the 1929 Thanksgiving game between the Portsmouth Spartans and the Cincinnati National Guards. Portsmouth won 25-0 and claimed the independent professional championship of the United States.

It’s Thanksgiving time again in the United States, and for millions of Americans Thanksgiving is synonymous with American football. Football on Thanksgiving is almost as old as the holiday itself Princeton and Yale began an annual Thanksgiving Day game in New York City in the 1876, just 13 years after Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday.

America’s top professional league, the National Football League, will feature an entire day of games on Thanksgiving. The afternoon game will feature the Detroit Lions playing host to the Philadelphia Eagles. Detroit has hosted Thanksgiving Day games since their first year in the league in 1934. The seeds of Detroit’s Thanksgiving tradition, however, sprouted in a little field in Portsmouth, Ohio six years earlier. 
In the late 1920’s, Portsmouth was a bustling industrial city. The town, which had just over 33,000 residents in 1920, would swell to over 42,000 by the end of the decade. Like many blue-collar towns in Appalachia during that time, Portsmouth fielded a semi-pro football team. Portsmouth had a problem, though—their teams weren’t all that great. Portsmouth’s industrial base dominated the Scioto Valley, but each autumn the teams representing the city failed to defeat the best team from the region—the Ironton Tanks. Ironton, 30 miles down the Ohio River from Portsmouth, was a town of just over 14,000 people in 1920. The Tanks were a powerhouse football team during the 20’s, though, racking up wins against NFL teams and laying claim to the mythical Ohio Valley Championship numerous times. There were few professional teams during that time, and many semi-pro outfits hired the talents of top-notch players—sometimes fresh out of college and sometimes playing under assumed names while still undergrads. The Tanks began hiring enough talent to compete on a national level. In the early years, the Tanks scheduled games against regional rivals on Thanksgiving Day. By mid-decaade, though, the Tanks were competing with NFL teams like the Kansas City Cowboys and Canton Bulldogs on Thanksgiving. 

Their most bitter rivalry, however, was with Portsmouth. For years during the 1920’s, Portsmouth found no answer for the powerful Tanks. That all changed in 1927, when a team from Portsmouth calling themselves the Shoe-Steels, and led by NFL Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe, defeated the Tanks. The Spartans were formed the following year and, taking a cue from the Tanks, scheduled the rival Ashland Armco Yellowjackets for an afternoon contest at Labold Field in Portsmouth. Ashland, like Ironton, was a big draw in Portsmouth featuring nationally-known talent. 

“The demand for tickets is unprecedented in the history of football for this city,” wrote the Portsmouth Times. Portsmouth fans were rewarded with a 19-0 win over Ashland. Portsmouth finished the 1928 campaign with a record of 9-3-2, there only setbacks coming against Ashland early in the season, the Cincinnati National Guards, and Ironton. 

Portsmouth’s fortunes changed in 1929. Portsmouth signed Indiana University halfback Chuck Bennett and first-year fullback Roy “Father” Lumpkin of Georgia Tech. Flush with top-notch talent, the Spartans finished the 1929 campaign with a 12-2-1 record. Ironton edged the Spartans 3-0 in October and the 1929 NFL Champion Green Bay Packers defeated them 14-0 in September Portsmouth faced Ironton again the Sunday before Thanksgiving, drubbing the Tanks 38-0. Portsmouth defeated Cincinnati 25-0 on Thanksgiving to claim the mythical Tri-State Championship. Spartan leadership began using stationary calling themselves “Independent Pro Champions of the United States.” 

In 1930 Portsmouth made the jump to the professional ranks—they joined the NFL. More powerful competition meant a larger stadium. In August, the $150,000 Unicversal Stadium was completed just in time for the Spartans home opener with the NFL’s Newark, New Jersey Tornadoes. The Spartans won 13-6 on their way to a 5-6-3 record and an 8th place finished in the NFL. The Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants all played at Universal Stadium that year. The Spartans slate was filled with League contests, but the team still found room to play the hated semi-pro Ironton Tanks in a Thanksgiving grudge match at Universal Stadium. Playing on a snow-covered field, the aptly named Frosty Peters dropkicked two field goals and Bennett plunged for a late touchdown to lead the Spartans over the Tanks 12-0. It would be the last time the purple clad Spartans would clash against the red of the Tanks. It was the last game the Ironton squad would ever play. 

Portsmouth didn’t play on Thanksgiving again. The Tanks were gone and the Spartans had no real rival after their first lackluster year in the NFL. The Chicago Bears were always a big draw, but the Bears had their own Thanksgiving series with the crosstown rival Cardinals. Still, games were schedule against the Bears for the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1931 and 32. Those were years when the Portsmouth-Chicago rivalry began heating up. The Bears and Spartans—along with the Packers, would compete for the league championship. The Bears and Spartans finished in a tie atop the league standings. At that time, ties did not count in league standings, so the Bears (6-1-6) and the Spartans (6-1-4) finished in a dead heat, and neither team had managed to defeat the other during the season, playing to ties on November 13th and 27th. Counting ties as half a win and half a tie, as the NFL would in later years, would have given Green Bay the championship at 10-3-1. Nevertheless, a ‘playoff’ in Chicago was scheduled to determine a champion. In a game dominated by defense, Chicago pulled away thanks to a fourth quarter touchdown pass from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange. The Bears won 9-0. The Spartans had a new rival. 

Games were scheduled against the Bears on the Sundays before and after Thanksgiving. The Bears defeated the Spartans 17-14 on November 26 and 17-7 on December 3. The December contest would be the final game played in Portsmouth. The team, struggling as the league’s second smallest market next to Green Bay, was facing financial hardship as the Great Depression dragged on. Offseason rumors began to circulate that the Spartans would be leaving town. Unfortunately for Portsmouth’s fans, the rumors proved true. Detroit radio executive George Richards purchased the Spartans for just under $8,000. 

The core elements of the old Spartans remained intact in the Motor City, however, and the lions started their inaugural season on a 10-0 tear. Despite that fact, the largest attendance for a game in Detroit had been 15,000. That changed on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions met the Bears at the University of Detroit Stadium in a game televised on 94 radio stations coast-to-coast. A crowd of 26,000 showed up to watch the game, which would determine the champion of the Western Conference. 

It was a hard-fought contest. Some Lion players, such as Glenn Presnell, had long histories with the Bears. Presnell, a former All-American for the University of Nebraska, had faced the Bears with Ironton, Portsmouth, and Detroit. In 1930, he scored two touchdowns to lead Ironton to victory over the Bears. Presnell and the Lions would come up short on their first Thanksgiving in Detroit, however, as Nagurski and the Bears won 19-16 nailbiter. When the Bears returned the following Thanksgiving, Detroit handily defeated them 14-2 on their way to the first NFL Championship for the Lions. The Lions would play the Bears every Thanksgiving until the series was interrupted by World War II. When the war was over, there was only one NFL Thanksgiving Day each year—a tradition synonymous with Detroit football, but born in southern Ohio. 

The Typography of Slavery

Runaway Slave Images, Clockwise from Upper left: Boon’s Lick Times (Fayette, Missouri) 1845; Long Island Star (Brooklyn, New York) 1828; Maryland Gazette (Annapolis) 1789; Boon’s Lick Times (Fayetteville, Missouri) 1845; Tarboro Press (Tarboro, North Carolina) 1845; Edgeville Advertiser (Edgeville, South Carolina) 1845; The North Carolinian (Fayetteville, North Carolina) 1845; Western Carolinian (Salisbury, North Carolina) 1824; The Times Picayune (New Orleans) 1852.

Printing presses have always fascinated me. I spent a lot of time studying them as a newspaper reporter in my teens and early 20’s. This was in the early 2000’s, and it was a time of transition for print media. Papers were updating equipment and moving on from traditional printing methods towards completely digital technologies. No matter the size or circulation, every paper had one dusty room that housed a large printing press that was growing more obsolete by the day. Once in a while—when I should have been working—I would take some time to look through the old type cases. These were wooden boxes with multiple compartments to store the metal type used to print newspapers. Capital letters were stored in the upper case and small letters in the lower case. This, incidentally, is why we call those letters upper and lowercase. Along with the metal letters used to make newspaper print, there were all kinds of wonderful images hidden in those old drawers. These images carved into metal told a story not only of the newspaper, but of the local community the newspaper covered. The metal type in those boxes contained generic images used for want ads, local columns, national political news, crime briefs—any image the paper might need to draw a reader’s attention to a mass of black text.

Lately, I’ve been spending a good portion of my days conducting research on 19th Century U.S. history. Newspapers of that era had little in the way of visual imagery to break up massive amounts of text. One area that did feature unique images were advertisements. The quality of these ads ran the gamut from crudely made to intricately carved works of art. On the crude end of the spectrum were the common images papers used for small advertisements and announcements made by everyday folks. Most papers had small type that looked like houses for property listings, cows for livestock sales, and dogs for missing pets. These small impressions on 200-year-old papers in digital form are easy to look past with modern eyes. One category of metal type that is hard to overlook, however, is the metal type used to announce the runaway slave. 

As a historian, I always try to remember that the people whose stories I tell were indeed real living breathing individuals. They had hopes and fears and desires and struggles. That’s why these advertisements, with their small black figures pressed into ink centuries ago, are so jarring. These figures not only represent human beings taking the drastic step to flee chattel slavery, they represent how easily this evil was tolerated in everyday life. These newspapers were prepared for the inevitability of masters advertising runaways—masters ready to pay to have their role as master protected. Someone at each of these papers had to physically see that the images depicting runaways were fixed into place, covered in ink, and pressed onto the paper. These papers were accomplices in a worldwide commercial establishment built on slavery. These images show the horrors of slavery reduced to just another small news items among the hundreds of the day. 

One of the greatest horrors of the slave system was the systematic destruction of not only the family unit, but of the enslaved person’s very own identity. The enslaved were often not only taken away from family members, they were removed from any sense of community they might have had on the plantation. They were named by masters and had little control of their own bodies under this system. Ironically, these ads written by masters provide brief glimpses into the lives of these faceless African-Americans. The master’s own words often tell us that these former slaves were intelligent, well-spoken, and strong. The ads describe ways runaways dressed and the physical scars they carried with them.

The moveable type images from these newspapers themselves are intriguing. Obviously, these images were white constructs—a white artisan’s depiction of a runaway. These images were seen by white Americans nearly every day. Some of the type was used so often over so long a period of time that it began to wear, blurring the figures like the image from the Times Picayune featured above. The Times Picayune, based in the nation’s largest slave market in New Orleans, is littered with runaway ads covering every several decades of the antebellum United States. For whites experiencing these images of African-Americans, the message was clear: African-Americans were deception, capable of subterfuge, and often on the wrong side of the law. These runaway ads are more than meets the eye, though. In these images I see determination, self-reliance, and an attempt to strip the bonds of slavery and forge a new identity—their own identity.