In the 1920s, Schuylkill County was noted for large anthracite mining operations, which created towering culm banks. PA Dept of Environmental Protection
By Sara Hodon
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVII, Number 4 - Fall 2011
Pottsville, like many communities in the Roaring Twenties, was a rugged, hard-living, hard-working city. The small Schuylkill County seat in northeastern Pennsylvania was best known for the booming anthracite industry and D. G. Yuengling and Son, established in 1829 and touted as America's oldest family-owned brewery. Coal mining had been good to Pottsville, crowned the Queen City of the Anthracite. Most days, it was hard to know what Pottsville had more of in its atmosphere - black coal dust or the overly optimistic, sky's-the-limit spirit of the day.
Coal mining was difficult and dangerous. The men who toiled deep inside the earth chipping away at what residents called black diamonds were just as tough and unbending as the work they did each day. Deep beneath the earth's surface, miners faced the threat of cave-ins, landslides, explosions, deadly gases, and flooding. Those sufficiently lucky to make it out alive carried coal dust with them well into old age, usually in their lungs. (Coal workers' pneumoconiosis, colloquially called black lung disease, is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust and is similar to silicosis, from inhaling silica dust, and tobacco smoking.) During rare breaks, the men would play a few makeshift games of football. After risking life and limb hundreds of feet underground each day, giving and receiving a good pummeling was a much-needed release.
D. G. Yuengling and Son, brewers since 1829, was as important to Pottsville's economy as coal. The history of the company and the Pottsville Maroons is cherished by residents. D. G. Yuengling and Son
As the games grew more intense, they moved from near the mine entrances to a grassy field at Minersville (or Sportsman's) Park, just north of Pottsville. The field was as unforgiving as the players who tumbled across it. Nearby culm banks (enormous mountains of waste from mining consisting of fine coal, coal dust, debris, and dirt) made the grass and soil extremely acidic; if a player was unlucky enough to be scratched or cut on the field, the wound could become infected and he would be out of commission for days. Before long, crowds began gathering to watch the teams play, and the games became a favorite family outing. Pottsville's businessmen began to take notice. One of those individuals was John G. "Doc" Striegel (1885/1886–1969), a former college athlete and surgeon who helped establish Pottsville's A.C. Milliken Hospital.
Striegel, a brash, larger-than-life personality, epitomized the heady, overblown Roaring Twenties. He was known for his visionary thinking as much as for his medical skills. Striegel enjoyed nothing more than a challenge and recognized a good idea when it presented itself. It was clear there was a world of opportunity on the gridiron. He organized the community's first professional football team, the likes of which the region had never seen. Not only did Striegel put together a first-class football team, but the players put Pottsville on the proverbial map for something besides hard coal and cold beer. His team would be a part of the fledgling National Football League if he had anything to say about it. Striegel needed to be a part of the action, and he went to the ends of the earth to make it happen.
The savvy Striegel understood a good team needed a great coach and he recruited one of the best. He signed on Richard H. "Dick" Rauch (1893–1970), a Harrisburg native and a graduate of Penn State, who possessed an impressive coaching record. Striegel presented an appealing offer that Rauch accepted - but with several conditions. If he was expected to transform coal miners into professional football players, Rauch stipulated there would be rules. The team would practice regularly. Not only would the players be expected to live in Pottsville, but they would become active members of the community. Rauch knew the players had their work cut out for them. College football ruled the sports world; professional football was in its infancy. The Pottsville team played the roughest kind of football there was - coal region football. It would take much work for the team to earn even a modicum of respectability. Striegel trusted Rauch and agreed to the terms. His next task was to find the quickest, strongest, and most brutal players in the sport and entice them to come to Pottsville.
Many sports historians assert Tony Latone was denied a place in the Professional Football Hall of Fame because he lacked a college education. Scott Warren
By late 1924, Striegel's new squad consisted of several of the most promising players in the sport, including Frank J. "Frankie" Racis (1899–19??), Howard E. "Fungy" Lebengood (1902–1980), Charles F. "Charlie" Berry (1902–1972), and brothers Herb (1898–1980) and Russell F. "Russ" Stein (1896–1970). The heart of the team, however, lay with Anthony "Tony" Latone (1897–1975), a five eleven, 195 pound powerhouse from Edwardsville, Luzerne County, about an hour north of Pottsville. Latone's father Iggy had spent his life in the mines, and froze to death on the streets of Chicago after passing out in a drunken stupor. Latone believed he would most likely meet the same fate. He had been toiling in coal mines since he left school in the fifth grade. He built up incredible physical strength by pulling coal cars day after day and possessed an unusual combination of brute strength and quiet reserve. Latone was not much of a talker and when he did speak, his teammates intently listened. Striegel heard about Latone's ability on the field and immediately knew he needed him for his team. Although Latone initially turned down Striegel's offer, he came to recognize it for what it really was: a rare opportunity to support his family that didn't involve breathing in the deadly, suffocating coal dust each and every day.
The team's first game schedule for the 1924 season began to take shape. Striegel focused on the big picture, and minor details, such as a name for his team or what its colors should be, didn't concern him. A telephone call to Joseph C. Zacko Sr. at his sporting goods store in downtown Pottsville solved both problems. Striegel placed an order for jerseys on a Friday for the team's first game the following Sunday. There was little time to order proper uniforms. All Zacko had in stock was a pile of leftover reddish-brown tops, but they were good enough for Striegel. His team suited up, and the Pottsville Maroons took to the field.
By all accounts, Doc Striegel's team shouldn't have even made it past its first few games. Everyone involved in the Maroons organization faced incredible odds during the inaugural season. They swiftly proved their mettle and ability to both their community and their stunned opponents. Thanks to Coach Rauch's innovative thinking, the Pottsville Maroons was the first team in the history of professional football to work together and actually move and think as one. Not only did the players spend countless hours together practicing, but they socialized with one another afterward, lived and worked in their adopted hometown, and came to know each other's personalities and playing style. Few, if any, teams in the league were as cohesive or fluid as a unit, which worked to the Maroons' advantage time and time again. More than a few sportswriters, league officials, and team owners had written off the Maroons as a farce, but after only a few games, the men who were seen as little more than country bumpkins who hardly had time to wipe the coal dust off their cleats made the sports world sit up and take notice.
Before joining the Pottsville Maroons, brothers Herb and Russ Stein played for the team's archrival, the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Niles Historical Society
One of the local newspaper reporters who covered the Maroons was the young John O'Hara (1905–1970), a Pottsville native and later best-selling writer whose popular novels included Appointment in Samarra (1934), Butterfield 8 (1935), Pal Joey (1939), A Rage to Live (1949), Ten North Frederick (1955), From the Terrace (1958), The Big Laugh (1962), and The Lockwood Concern (1965), in addition to collections of short stories, screenplays, and nonfiction. During his first autumn with the Pottsville Journal he followed the Maroons - characterized as "mercenary brutes" by O'Hara biographer Geoffrey Wolff - with Journal sportswriter Walter S. Farquhar. After an away game with the Providence Steamrollers, the two reporters wrote their account in their underwear at a hotel while their clothes dried on a radiator after a wet afternoon of play. O'Hara described Coach Rauch as one of the best-looking men he had ever seen.
The Pottsville Maroons' first season was scheduled to wrap up in December 1925. The team, which had crushed every opponent to date, faced the Frankford Yellow Jackets in its final game, on Sunday, November 29. Before the players took to the field, Coach Rauch dropped a bombshell: the winner of the day's game would play in a special exhibition match against the University of Notre Dame, the greatest team in the sport, for the first pro-college match-up in the history of football. The game was two weeks away and was to be played on Sunday, December 12, at Philadelphia's Shibe Park. It would be a chance for the Maroons, the hick coal miners from little Pottsville, to take on the Fighting Irish's Four Horsemen and Harold E. "Red" Grange (1903–1991), the most gifted player the sport had ever seen. Not only would the players face the most recognized team in the world, but it was a chance to secure their place in history as the first great team in the NFL once and for all.
In a defeat that surprised the Maroons as much as their opponents, Pottsville walked away, bruised and battered but the champions nonetheless with an incredible score of 49–0. Critic, fan, skeptic, or believer, there was little doubt in anyone's mind that the boys from the coal region had what it took to play against the biggest teams in the league and come out on top. There was no choice but to give credit where credit was due. Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Gordon MacKay (1878–1941) concisely characterized the Maroons as "The Perfect Football Machine."
Harold E. "Red" Grange. www.answers.com
Following the crushing defeat of the Yellow Jackets, Striegel received an intriguing telephone call from Chris O'Brien, owner of the Chicago Cardinals. O'Brien invited the Maroons to play a "championship" game at the Windy City's Comiskey Park. Striegel agreed, although he knew he was pushing the team's luck. Despite its victory over Frankford, Pottsville was still seen as the NFL's black sheep and had to fight for every ounce of credibility. In 1925, the team owners voted on the champions. Based on Striegel's dealings with fellow NFL owners, he knew his team didn't have a chance of being legitimately named the champs. If the Maroons defeated Chicago on their own merit, the league would have no choice but to recognize the team as the winner. For this reason, Striegel agreed to the match-up.
The team made the long train ride to Chicago for the game on Sunday, December 6. The players had barely enough time to recover from the game against Frankford the previous week. Nevertheless, the Maroons left Chicago with the Eastern Division title with a score of 21–7. Pottsville's victory had been nothing short of a miracle; the team's strongest players were nursing various injuries and it had seemed hopeless. The Maroons' puny third-string back Walter French (1899–1984), who faded into the shadows of his more formidable teammates for most of the regular season, stepped up and led the team to victory. The Maroons made a triumphant return to Pottsville as bona fide heroes. But the euphoria that swept through the community was short-lived.
H. S. "Shep" Royle, owner of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, had placed a telephone call to Striegel several days before the Maroons challenged Notre Dame. Still smarting from his team's defeat, Royle warned Striegel in no uncertain terms that if the Maroons went ahead with the game against Notre Dame, it would come with a price. The NFL had designated home territories for each team and because Frankford was geographically the closest team to Shibe Park, by rights the Yellow Jackets should be the team to challenge Notre Dame. Never mind that Pottsville had defeated Frankford and had earned the right to play against Notre Dame as the terms of the exhibition game stated. If Striegel's team played, Royle threatened to file a grievance with the NFL and the Maroons risked expulsion from the league. Striegel balked. Surely NFL Commissioner Joseph F. "Joe" Carr (1880–1939) would back the best team in his league and not uphold such a ridiculous rule. As the Maroons' sole financial backer, Striegel was hoping to recoup some of his expenses, which he fully planned to do with the Pottsville-Notre Dame game.
The headline of the sports section of the December 23, 1925, edition of the Philadelphia Public Ledger screamed victory for the Maroons over Notre Dame. Ghosts of the Gridiron
In what several sportswriters and many fans called "The Greatest Football Game Ever Seen," the Maroons shocked the world with a last-minute field goal by Captain Charlie Berry. The team defeated the seemingly unstoppable Notre Dame with the score of 9–7. For decades afterward, Red Grange, nicknamed "the Galloping Ghost," would call the Maroons the "most ferocious" team he had ever faced. The Maroons should have had the world at their feet, but in a decision that has been mired in controversy to this day, NFL officials voted to uphold the territory rule. The Maroons lost the championship and the Chicago Cardinals were officially declared the winner. Not wanting to accept a victory that wasn't rightly his, O'Brien refused the title and the 1925 champion has never been named.
The collective spirit of the players and the city that had been unwavering in its support had been broken. The loss of the title and the stock market crash that followed four years later signaled the end of the Maroons' glory days. The team played for three more seasons before the franchise left Pottsville and moved to Boston.
There have been several attempts to restore the Maroons' title since that fateful day in 1925 but to no avail. Even though they dominated sports sections headlines for months during their stellar season, the Pottsville Maroons has largely been overlooked as one of the true pioneering teams in the early days of professional football.
The official photograph of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, touting the team as the National Football League champion. Scott Warren
Sara Hodon is a freelance writer and lifelong resident of Schuylkill County.
The Curse Continues?
Professional Football Hall of Fame
Although the saga of the Pottsville Maroons is a footnote in American sports history, the "curse" reputedly cast on the Chicago Cardinals after the Schuylkill County team lost the 1925 championship title remains very much alive.
Maroons historian Scott Warren, a resident of Plains Township, Luzerne County, believes the supposed curse originated with Joseph C. Zacko Sr., owner and manager of Zacko's Sporting Goods Store in downtown Pottsville. According to Warren, in 1962 Zacko read a newspaper advertisement seeking football memorabilia for display in the Professional Football Hall of Fame, scheduled to open the following year in Canton, Ohio. Zacko telephoned Richard "Dick" McCann, the hall's executive director, offering some of the Maroons memorabilia he had collected, including the bronzed shoe Charlie Berry had been wearing when he kicked the game-winning goal against Notre Dame. But there was one condition attached to the gift. Zacko would contribute the memorabilia only if the championship title was restored to the Maroons.
Word of Zacko's request reached the National Football League (NFL) officials and team owners and the story made the newspapers once again. And once again nothing happened. Zacko prophesized that until Pottsville was awarded the title that rightfully belongs to the Maroons, the Cardinals (which had moved from Chicago to St. Louis and finally to its current home in Arizona) would never win a championship. Even though the Cardinals played in the 2009 Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defeat confirmed for many in the anthracite region that the curse continues.
David Fleming, author of Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship, agrees that the ghosts of the players from the hotly contested season were helping fellow Pennsylvanians by channeling divine intervention to the Steelers. Fleming has become an unofficial son of the coal region and spokesperson for the team's legacy. "Pottsville is never going to give up on getting the title restored," he believes. "The Maroons were one of the first truly great teams in NFL's history. People loved the fact that Striegel had coal miners playing next to college All-Americans." More important than the team's reputation for its prowess of the field is the significance of what the players were able to do for Pottsville. "The team really brought a potentially divided town together, and that was the first time that had happened in the NFL," Fleming adds. "And, really, the team represents so much more than just the lost championship. The Maroons represented the absolute best that sports have to offer. They represented the idea in the 1920s that anybody could do anything. Once people hear their story, it's hard not to become a supporter of the team."
Four decades after the 1925 season, the surviving Pottsville Maroons players had their own trophy created - carved, appropriately, out of a chunk of anthracite - which they presented in 1967 to the Professional Football Hall of Fame, where it remains on exhibit.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission dedicated a state historical marker commemorating the Pottsville Maroons on November 10, 1999, on North Centre Street, between Arch and Race Streets, in the Schuylkill County seat. PHMC Bureau for Historic Preservation
For Further Reading
Fleming, David. Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship. New York: ESPN Books, 2007.
Genovese, Vincent. The Pottsville Maroons and the NFL's Stolen Championship of 1925. Baltimore, Md.: PublishAmerica, 2009.
Mac Arthur, Pamela C. John O'Hara's Anthracite Region. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 1999.
Purdy, Dennis. Kiss ‘Em Goodbye: An ESPN Treasury of Failed, Forgotten, and Departed Teams. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010.
Ward, Leo L., and Mark T. Major. Pottsville in the Twentieth Century. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
Wolff, Geoffrey. The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.