Dayton: Home of the first NFL Game
By Leo Deluca
Sunday, Oct. 3, 1920, was a warm autumn day in Dayton with temperatures reaching 75 degrees. The Dayton Daily News headline that day read: “Governor Cox, Coming Sunday from 9,000-Mile Speaking Tour of West, to Find Friends Waiting.” Ohio Gov. James M. Cox, the famed Dayton Daily News magnate, was campaigning for the presidency alongside vice presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt; one month later, another Ohioan, Warren G. Harding, would defeat Cox in the first presidential election where women had the right to vote. Across the country, Prohibition had just begun, the Jazz Age was underway and the Boston Red Sox had recently purchased the New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth for $125,000 with an accompanying New York Times headline: “Highest Purchase Price in Baseball History Paid for Game’s Greatest Slugger.”
During those days football players worked day jobs. They practiced throughout the workweek and competed on Sundays. No one dreamed football would eclipse baseball as the nation’s most popular sport, so as the crowds gathered at Dayton’s 5,000-capacity Triangle Park on Oct. 3, 1920, to watch the Dayton Triangles face the Columbus Panhandles no one knew that history was being made.
“My great-grandfather graduated from Stivers Manual Training School in 1915 and immediately began working for Delco,” says Dayton Area Sports History member Mark Fenner, whose great-grandfather, Leland (Lee) Fenner, supplemented his income playing for the Triangles. “Players made from $50 to $100 per game.”
The Triangles were a flagship franchise of the American Professional Football Association—an organization formed in Canton, Ohio, on Sept. 17, 1920, and renamed the National Football League in 1922.
“The Triangles would go on to play teams such as the New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals,” says Fenner.
Football games were typically scheduled after church on Sundays, and Triangles manager Carl Storck and Panhandles manager Joe Carr scheduled their first game against one another for Sunday, Oct. 3, 1920. Fortuitously, it happened to be the first scheduled game of the newly formed league—what the NFL recognizes as its first game.
Dayton came out on top that day, shutting out the Panhandles 14-0. In the third quarter, after a 40-yard run to the 10-yard line, Lou Partlow, known as “the West Carrollton Battering Ram,” soon carried the ball over the goal line scoring the first touchdown in NFL history. Miamisburg native George “Hobby” Kinderdine then kicked the league’s first extra point.
The Triangles finished its first season with a 5–2–2 record, and though it managed to survive the 1920s it became evident that Dayton was too small to support a team in the flourishing league. On July 12, 1930, fabled bootlegger Bill Dwyer bought the Triangles and moved the franchise to Brooklyn and renamed the team the Dodgers.
Though times have changed for professional football, one aspect of that first Dayton Triangles game remains—the ineffable sense of excitement and hope and joy fans feel on a crisp autumn day when the first whistle sounds and the dawn of a new football season gets underway.