PORTSMOUTH SPARTANS 1930-33
Researching the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers is a hobby of mine. On my annual trip to Pittsburgh in 2009, I spent time in the Carnegie library in Oakland, reading about the Steelers' first game in 1933 so I could write it up for my web site. It becomes more than a passion, but fortunately not quite an obsession.
While researching the birth of professional football, I discovered that one of the first teams was started in Portsmouth, Ohio. As I am from Portsmouth, England, I became interested in the story and when I learnt that the original stadium still existed, it became an obsession of mine to pay a visit.
My planning began when I purchased a team photo on Ebay in 2011 and I exchanged emails with the seller, who lived in Portsmouth. I gave my annual visit to Pittsburgh a miss that year, so it was 2012 when I began organising my trip in earnest.
With our holiday based in Pittsburgh, the journey to Portsmouth was going to take us 250 miles across three States. For most of the drive, I didn’t hang around, but as we approached Portsmouth I kept to the speed limit as we were looking for the city boundary so I could have my photo taken under the city sign.
Just before hitting the outskirts, I noticed a State Trooper behind us and eventually the flashing lights told me to pull off the road. As I had never been involved with an offense in the United States before, I naturally got out of the car to talk to the officer. That was my second mistake. I guess my first had been to speed.
He asked for my licence and rental agreement. Perhaps our New York plates made him think we were New Yorkers. He asked the purpose of our visit and I obviously told him about the Steelers and visiting the Spartans’ stadium. Satisfied that we were not the Sopranos, and I can only assume he wasn’t a Browns’ fan, he told us to visit “the mirrors” down by the river and to watch my speeding.
We eventually stopped by the city sign for a photo shoot and then miraculously found our way to the stadium where we met up with our host, Bill Beaumont. Over the phone from the United Kingdom, I had spoken to Bill regarding our visit and he had agreed to show us around.
He was a very able and friendly host and bridged the language barrier, especially when he told us to go down to the river to see the murals!
Spartan Municipal Stadium is one of the oldest remaining stadiums to house a NFL team. Financed by an $80,000 bond issue, it was originally named Universal Stadium. The name was changed in 1970 to honour the NFL franchise that once called the stadium home. The stadium is still used by local high schools, including the Notre Dame schools.
Portsmouth was given an NFL franchise in July 1930. At that time Green Bay was the only city smaller in size. Harry N. Synder was the principle stockholder of the Portsmouth National League Football Corporation that was founded on June 12, 1930.
Despite the construction that continued at the stadium, the first NFL game was played on September 14, 1930 before a crowd of 4,000 when the Spartans beat the Newark tornados 13-6. Ten days later, in the NFL’s first night game at a football stadium and with 6,000 in attendance, the Spartans defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers 12-0.
That first season, the Spartans finished 5-6-3 with a few games that finished tied as this was before the introduction of overtime.
The final standings were:
Green Bay Packers 10-3-1
The league struggled in those early days of professional football against a background of the depression and baseball being the national sport. The 1932 season saw fewer teams with smaller rosters as they attempted to survive in a world without television’s money and fans the preferred collegiate football.
Portsmouth played that year with a greatly reduced squad size and cut their expenses by travelling by bus instead of train. Overcoming this adversity, the Spartans finished the regular season tied with the Chicago Bears.
The two teams then agreed to play a title game. A blizzard forced the game to be played indoors in Chicago Stadium, home of the Blackhawks ice hockey team. Despite being the largest indoor arena at that time, the smaller odd shaped field did not suit Portsmouth’s sweeping offense.
This disadvantage, combined with the handicap of playing without their star quarterback Dutch Clark, gave Chicago the edge and they took the championship with a 9-0 victory. Their scoring play was a controversial pass from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange that many considered illegal.
With the loss of Dutch Clark into retirement at the start of the 1933 season, the writing was on the wall for the team. When the season finished, George A Richards purchased the franchise and took it to Detroit. The new owner found sufficient monetary incentives to attract Dutch Clark back into the game and in 1935 the Detroit Lions won the NFL championship.
Information supplied by the Portsmouth Spartans Historical Society