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. 

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