F & AC
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Eastern Pennsylvania's Schuylkill Valley was a hotbed of gridiron activity as teams from places like Pottstown, Norristown, Conshohocken and Philadelphia's Schuylkill River neighborhoods vied for regional bragging rights. Over much of that period one football team, the Union Club of Phoenixville, was consistently ranked among the most successful in the region. The Union Club reached the pinnacle of its success in 1920, capping an undefeated season with a victory over the legendary Jim Thorpe and his Canton Bulldogs, and laying claim to the title of United States Professional Champions...
Like A Phoenix Rising
Phoenixville's Union Club fielded its first "foot ball eleven" in 1907. The team frequently played rival clubs from the other towns along the Schuylkill River, as well as teams from Philadelphia and New Jersey. Within a few years the "Big Red" established itself as one of the strongest teams in the region, and at the close of several seasons bore such laurels as Champions of the Schuylkill Valley and Champions of Eastern Pennsylvania.
America's entry into World War I had a sever impact on the 1917 football season. That year the Union Club was able to schedule just five games. Although the Big Red ended its 1917 campaign with a successful 4-1-0 record, the season's difficulties proved to be a harbinger of troubles to come. The following year the situation grew much worse. With American boys in the thick of the fighting in Europe and an influenza epidemic at home, the region's once vibrant club football scene was virtually non-existent. Union's 1918 season looked to be a complete washout until an early December game was arranged with the Paschall AC of Philadelphia. A 48-0 blowout of the Philadelphians ended the season on a positive note, and left hope that things would improve the following year. Unfortunately that hope proved to be unfounded.
As preparations were about to get underway for the 1919 season, another football team formed in Phoenixville, this one under the age-old banner of the Phoenix Athletic Club. The new team got the jump on organizing and quickly signed many of the borough's best players. The Union Club was left to pick-up the pieces. Coach Eddie Gavin did the best he could with what players he had, but it soon became apparent that his team's prospects weren't very good. The Big Red's first, and as it turns out only, game of the season was a scoreless tie against Phoenix High School on September 20. With the writing clearly on the wall, Gavin arranged to merge his club with the Phoenix AA. That happened on October 2, just two days before the new team kicked off its campaign.
By all accounts the Phoenix AA's inaugural season was a successful one. Having notched victories over such opponents as Norristown, East Falls YMA of Philadelphia and Parkside of Camden (NJ), while holding both Pottstown and the Ewing AA of Philadelphia to scoreless ties, Phoenix was a solid 6-0-2 heading into the season finale against the Conshohocken AC. In addition to Conshohocken's status as a traditional Phoenixville rival, this club from farther down the Schuylkill was clearly the best team in the entire region. A victory over "Conshy" would mark Phoenix as a legitimate contender on gridirons throughout the Schuylkill Valley. Another motivating factor was the fact that the Conshohocken lineup featured Calvin "Fats" Eyrich, the former Union Club coach and captain. The Phoenix AA management quickly set to work padding its roster for this contest. In short order a host of collegiate stars that included the likes of Heinie Miller of Penn, Johnny Scott and Bodie Weldon of Lafayette and Butch Spagna of Lehigh, was signed. Ironically, these players would go on to form the core of a reconstituted Union Club team the following season.
Nearly 5,000 fans from throughout the area braved bitter cold on December 6 to witness the contest at Norristown's Great Stockade Grounds. Conditions on the field were sloppy, as the gridiron was covered in several inches of snow from the first winter storm of the season. The game itself was a hard fought punting duel, with most of the action taking place between the 30-yard lines. Conshohocken played a surprisingly strong game that provided three real scoring opportunities when quarterback Charlie McGuckin attempted field goals of 40, 30 and 25 yards respectively. On each occasion the ball fell short of the crossbar. Phoenix's best opportunity came in the fourth quarter, when Bodie Weldon broke free around right end for a thirty yard gain. But the Conshohocken defense stiffened, stopping that drive. At the final whistle the score stood at 0-0, the game ending in a bitterly contested draw.
On Monday, September 13, 1920, about fifty of Phoenixville's leading citizens met at the Company D Armory and agreed to support Fats Eyrich's proposition for the borough to sponsor a first class professional football team. Within one week's time more than $7200 was raised for the effort. A decision was soon made to field the team under the revived Union Club banner, and Arthur "Pops" Keenan was enlisted to recruit some of the nation's top collegiate players. It was Keenan, a well respected member of the Phoenixville gridiron community, who had recruited the ringers for the previous season's Phoenix-Conshohocken game.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, two well known former University of Pennsylvania All-Americans, Bert Bell and Big Bill Hollenbeck, were organizing a team of collegiate stars to play out of Penn's Franklin Field. Among the notables who had turned out for practice were Heinie Miller, Lou Little, Lud Wray and Gus Zeigler, all former stand-outs at Penn, Johnny Scott and Bodie Weldon of Lafayette, and Fritz Pollard, the former All-American at Brown. On September 25 the squad's acting manager, Leo Conway, announced that his team would open its season on October 23, against the Lancaster All-Collegians.
It wasn't long before Pops Keenan had secured a solid roster of collegiate stars for the Union Club – a roster nearly identical to the one practicing at Penn. Talk of the "Philadelphia Collegians" faded from the news as the Union Club prepared to open its 1920 campaign on October 2, at Phoenixville's Union Field, against the East Falls YMA of Philadelphia.
This opening game of the 1920 season was expected to be a good test of the Union Club's strength. Hailing from the Philadelphia neighborhood that gave the team its name, the East Falls YMA. was a solid eleven that featured several players with locally established reputations. It was even rumored the famed Olympic gold medallist Jack Kelly, a native of East Falls and sometimes member of the squad, might be in the visitor's lineup. From opening kick-off to final whistle the outcome of this contest was never in doubt. Union maintained complete control, with Lou Little and Lud Wray dominating the line while Fats Eyrich and Bodie Weldon contributed two and three touchdowns respectively. This 34-0 blowout set the tone for the rest of the season. The biggest disappointment, however, was the fact the car trouble delayed Fritz Pollard's arrival until the third quarter. The Union Club's tardy halfback was introduced to the crowd with much fanfare, but didn't see any action in the game.
Next up on the schedule was Ewing, one of the oldest and most respected teams from Philadelphia. Oddly enough, Union's own Lou Little was the coach of the Ewing AA squad. On game day neither team had the advantage of the former All-American on the field. Little sat out and directed his Philadelphians from the sideline. The first points of the contest came late in the second quarter. Heinie Miller took a well placed pass from Bodie Weldon, broke free of two defenders and scampered twenty yards to the end zone. The point after attempt was an equally stunning play. Miller picked up the loose ball, which had been fumbled by the usually sure handed Lud Wray, and quickly executed a successful dropkick to put the Big Red ahead 7-0. The Union Club's second touchdown came shortly after the beginning of the third quarter. Several plays into a solid drive Fats Eyrich fumbled while plunging through the line, but fortunately Weldon was there to scoop up the loose ball. After twisting his way through several Ewing players, Weldon broke loose on a twenty yard dash into the end zone. Another Miller extra point ended the scoring and sealed the Big Red's second victory.
The third contest of the young season pitted the Schuylkill Valley against the Lehigh Valley, as the Union Club played host to the Bethlehem Blue Stars. In spite of their reputation as a strong team, the visitors offered little in the way of resistance. Fritz Pollard, making his first appearance in the Union Club's backfield, was the star of the game. Pollard's efforts netted three touchdowns while John Gillespie, a former standout at Annapolis also making his first appearance with the Union Club, added another. Heinie Miller's successful conversions of all four point after attempts provided the final margin of victory as the Big Red rolled to a 28-0 victory over the outclassed Blue Stars.
On October 23 the Union Club hosted the Lancaster All-Stars at the Great Stockade Grounds, in nearby Norristown. Once again the visitors proved no match for the locals. Fritz Pollard scored two touchdowns before retiring in the second quarter. Not to be out done, the Big Red's other halfback, Earl Potteiger, added three more touchdowns of his own. Another flawless performance by Heinie Miller, who successfully converted all five point after attempts, topped off the scoring. The 35-0 blowout of was significant. As the second victory in as many weeks over a well reputed club from outside of the immediate area, the defeat of Lancaster helped to establish the Union Club's reputation as the region's premier professional football team.
Three of the Union Club's next four opponents were members of what was sometimes referred to as the "anthracite league," a loose affiliation of teams from the coal mining communities of Eastern Pennsylvania. The first of these, Mount Carmel, came calling on the final Saturday in October. Mt. Carmel was easily the best team the Union Club had yet faced that season, and a difficult game was anticipated. Fritz Pollard was out with a shoulder injury sustained against Lancaster – in fact, he would never appear in the Big Red lineup again. Lud Wray also missed this contest with an injury, although the popular center appeared on the sideline in civilian clothes. Twice during the first quarter the Union Club offense drove to within two yards of the end zone only to lose the ball on downs. In the second quarter another opportunity to put some points on the board presented itself, but Bodie Weldon's dropkick from the 25-yard line fell short. The second half started as a near repeat of the first, until Heinie Miller recovered a Mt. Carmel fumble on the visitor's 5-yard line. Three plays later Weldon took the ball around end and into the end zone. Weldon's point after attempt failed, leaving the score at 6-0. Another strong stand by the Mt. Carmel defense during the final quarter stopped the Big Red on the 1-yard line, but upon taking possession the up-staters chose to punt out, giving the ball back to the Union Club on the 25-yard line. A few plays later a Weldon connected with Dan Cable on a pass into the end zone. Heinie Miller's extra point sealed the victory, 13-0.
Just three days after its triumph over Mt. Carmel the Big Red was back in action. This time the opponent was a team representing New York Shipbuilding of Camden (NJ). At 42-0, the election day game was a complete blowout. Lud Wray returned to the lineup as six Union Club players contributed points to the total. On Saturday of the same week the Shenandoah Yellowjackets made the trip from the coal region down to Phoenixville. Although preceded by a reputation as one of up-state Pennsylvania's strongest teams, Shenandoah proved no match for their hosts. For the second time in five days the Big Red ran roughshod over their competition, this time to the tune of 46-0.
The Union Club's final coal country foe was the Edwardsville Lithuanian Club, and for the third game in a row the Big Red ran up the score against an overmatched opponent. Much to the visitor's credit, however, they did manage to garner the first points of the season to be surrendered by the Big Red. The score came on the first play from scrimmage of the third quarter. Trailing 27-0, the Lithuanians' Joe Horsby took a thirty-five yard pass into the end zone. A missed kick left the score at 27-6. The Big Red countered with two more touchdowns, ending any illusion of an Edwardsville come-back. The final margin of victory was 41-6.
In defeating teams from Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster and the anthracite belt, the Union Club had dominated challengers from all across Eastern Pennsylvania. But these contests were generally viewed as warm-ups for the Big Red's next series of games – the most important of the season – against Holmesburg, Conshohocken and Frankford.
Union Club of Phoenixville, 1920
The Big Red's first real test of the season came against the Holmesburg AC. One of the two strongest teams in Philadelphia, the only blemishes on the Holmesburg's record were a pair of scoreless ties against the Bethlehem Blue Stars and the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Anticipating a tough game, the Union Club strengthened their roster through the addition of Ockie Anderson and Stan Cofall.
Over 2,000 of the Big Red's fans rode specially scheduled trains from Phoenixville to Philadelphia on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Once there they were joined at the Phillies' Ball Park by nearly 7,000 football fans from Holmesburg and elsewhere in Philadelphia – total paid admissions numbered about 8,900. Both clubs got off to a slow start. Then, about mid-way through the second quarter, Butch Spagna broke through the Holmesburg line to block a Kidder Caskey punt. Former Navy star John Gillespie recovered for the Big Red on the Holmesburg 42-yard line. On the very next play Heinie Miller took a Bodie Weldon pass down to the 2-yard line before being forced out of bounds. Two plays later Weldon plunged across the goal line. Weldon's follow-up kick put the Big Red ahead 7-0. In the second half Cofall made his first appearance on the field for the Union Club, replacing Fats Eyrich. He immediately made his presence felt by returning a punt for twenty-five yards and then stretching a short pass into a sixty yard gain. The big gain was nullified by a penalty, but Cofall played a key role in the subsequent drive, which culminated with him kicking a field goal from the 40-yard line. In the fourth quarter the Big Red's Earl Potteiger fumbled a punt return at mid-field, but Ockie Anderson managed to scoop up the ball and scramble to the Holmesburg 30-yard line. From there Cofall again put his foot to the ball. His successful kick took the score to 13-0, the final margin of victory. Holmesburg's only real scoring opportunity came near the end of the final quarter. With the ball on the Union 35-yard line halfback Charlie McGuckin attempted a field goal, but Lou Little broke through the Holmesburg line to block the kick. News of the Union Club's victory quickly relayed to the faithful back in Phoenixville via homing pigeon!
Thanksgiving Day brought a much anticipated clash with Phoenixville's traditional rival, Conshohocken. The Conshohocken AC was an organization with a proud history and winning tradition. In 1919 the club fielded one of the strongest teams in the East. This season, however, was a bit of a disappointment. Recent losses to Coaldale, Holmesburg and Frankford had left the team eager to redeem its honor. Conshy Manager Bob Crawford was not known for padding his roster with ringers, but with quarterback Billy Pownall and tackle Harry Bechtel sidelined by injuries it was anybody's guess what he might do. The Big Red's management wasn't taking any chances. The Union Club brought in Johnny Scott and Swede Youngstrom. Scott, who had also been a hired gun in the previous season's Phoenix-Conshy game, was a former stand out a Lafayette; Youngstrom a former All-American out of Dartmouth. As regulars on the roster of the Buffalo All-Americans, both Scott and Youngstrom were very familiar were most of the other starters on the Big Red. The big game was played at the Great Stockade Grounds, in Norristown. The scoring started on the Union Club's first possession. Earl Potteiger was the workhorse of a drive that culminated with a Stan Cofall touchdown. In the second quarter another well developed drive also ended with Cofall taking the ball into the end zone. The game really opened up in the third quarter, when Bodie Weldon connected twice with Heinie Miller on touchdown passes. Then, in the closing minutes of the game, Johnny Scott put the game away with a touchdown pass to Francis "Irish" McKeone. Heine Miller went three for five on point after attempts as the Union Club rolled over Conshohocken, 33-0.
The Union Club had little time to savor its Thanksgiving Day victory. Just two days later the team was once again in Philadelphia, this time to take on the Frankford Yellow Jackets. To that point in the season, the only blemish on Frankford's record (8-0-1) was a scoreless tie against the Holmesburg AC. This clash of the undefeateds was the region's most anticipated pro game of the season and seemed likely to determine the best team in the East. A drizzling rain did little to deter the crowd of some 15,000 that turned out at the Phillies' Ball Park to witness the contest. Although widely expected to win, the Big Red was clearly outplayed by the Yellow Jackets in the first quarter. The Union Club finally got the upper hand in the second quarter, when Bodie Weldon, who had failed on three consecutive attempts to take the ball in from the 3-yard line, finally crashed through the stonewall of Yellow Jackets' defenders on fourth down. Early in the third quarter Stan Cofall kicked a field goal from the 23-yard line, increasing the lead to 10-0. Frankford struck back later that same period with what turned out to be the most dramatic play of the afternoon. Cofall was on the 45-yard line when he attempted another field goal. This time the ball fell short of its mark and into the waiting arms of Frankford's able bodied captain, Bob Remmey. The agile Remmey, who took the ball at the 10-yard line, dodged and weaved his way through the entire field of players, returning the ball ninety yards before finally coming to a stop in the Big Red's end zone. This spectacular return for a touchdown, however, was as far as the Yellow Jackets' comeback progressed. The point after attempt failed and the balance of the game was a stalemate, ending 10-6 in favor of the Union Club.
The victories over Holmesburg, Conshohocken and Frankford brought speculation by many fans about the Union Club's status in relation to other nationally known professional football teams. In order to help settle these questions, arrangements were finalized for a game against the famed Canton Bulldogs. The Bulldogs, which featured the legendary Jim Thorpe, were considered by many as the benchmark against which all of professional football was to be judged. As a result, the Union Club's fans generally looked upon this game as deciding the "US National Professional Championship."
On December 12 an estimated 17,000 fans turned out to watch the Union Club and Canton Bulldogs clash at the Phillies' Ball Park. The game began as a kicking duel with Stan Cofall and Jim Thorpe exchanging several punts, but this didn't last long. In short order the Bulldogs found a weakness in the Union Club's defense, and the backfield of Thorpe, Pete Calac and Joe Guyon was soon driving the ball down field. Starting on their own their own 35-yard line, the Bulldogs' series concluded with Calac crashing over left guard and into the end zone. Thorpe's successful kick brought the score to 7-0. It looked as if Canton was going to run the table, until a dramatic play in the second quarter turned the tide in favor of the Big Red. With the ball on the Union 30-yard line, Heinie Miller broke through the Canton line and caught Thorpe in the backfield. As the Canton star went down he attempted a lateral to Calac, but the ball bounced off the ground and was grabbed by Lou Little. Upon taking possession the Big Red immediately changed its offensive strategy. A quick series of passes culminated when Cofall connected with Lou Hayes in the end zone. Johnny Scott's follow-up kick tied the game at seven all. Later, just after the half, another Canton fumble led to the Union Club's second scoring opportunity, but the field goal attempt by Cofall went wide left. The Big Red defense held fast on the Bulldogs' ensuing possession. Then, as Guyon attempted to punt out, Cofall broke through the Canton line and blocked the kick. The deflected ball bounced towards Hayes, who alertly grabbed it and dashed the remaining twelve yards into the end zone for Union's second touchdown. The Bulldogs fought fiercely to get back into the game, but that task was made more difficult by the absence of Thorpe. The badly battered star sat out the second half. Canton's last real scoring opportunity came near the end of the final quarter. Starting on their own 25-yard line, the Bulldogs mounted a sustained drive that took them as far as the Big Red's twenty. At that point, however, Guyon fumbled a pass reception and Heinie Miller recovered for the Union Club. The Bulldogs managed one last possession, but the Big Red's defense held firm and time expired before any more points could put on the board.
Despite their victory, any claim by the Union Club to a national professional championship based upon the outcome of the Canton game is questionable at best. The Canton Bulldogs of 1920 were simply not the dominant football machine that they had been in previous seasons. In fact, at 7-4-2, Canton could not even claim to be the best team in its own league, the American Professional Football Association (which later changed its name to the National Football League). That title belonged to the 8-0-3 Akron (OH) Pros. Akron, incidentally, featured former Union Club halfback Fritz Pollard. The Decatur (IL) Staleys, who had finished their season with a 10-1-1 record, also staked a claim to the APFA title, as did the 9-1-1 Buffalo All-Americans. Akron had twice defeated Canton earlier in the season, while the Buffalo split its two games with the Bulldogs. But then again, the core of the Union Club's roster consisted of many of the same players as the Buffalo All-Americans.
Regardless of the many questions surrounding the Union Club's "national championship," some things can be said with certainty. Without question the Union Club fielded the season's best team in Eastern Pennsylvania and quite probably the Eastern United States; and the Big Red could no doubt have held their own against any team in the fledgling APFA.
Sadly the Union Club's status as a premier professional team was fleeting. The club's board of directors rejected Heinie Miller's proposal to for the team to reform with a similar lineup the following season, opting instead to field a less costly team of mostly local talent. In 1921 the Big Red went on to a 5-2-0 record in what turned out to be its final season. Miller, however, managed to keep his team intact. Together with manager Leo Conway, he fielded the Union Quakers of Philadelphia in 1921.
At the core of the Union Club's 1920 lineup were three former Penn standouts with All-American pedigrees: Heinie Miller, Lou Little and Lud Wray. Heinie Miller was the only player to start every game for the team in 1920. In addition to his duties as coach, and later team captain, he was a dominant player on both offense and defense. Miller's five touchdowns and seventeen extra points placed him second only to Bodie Weldon in scoring for the Big Red. Weldon, an All-American out of Lafayette, was a powerful fullback whose fifty-two points over eleven games led the team in scoring. In addition to their positions on the Union Club roster, Little, Wray, Miller and Weldon also played for the Buffalo All-Americans, of the American Professional Football Association, on Sundays. Late additions Ockie Anderson, Johnny Scott, Joe Spagna and Swede Youngstrum also pulled double duty with the Buffalo club. Another APFA veteran, Jim Bryant accompanied Stan Cofall to the Union Club from the Cleveland Tigers.
Perhaps the most famous player to appear in the Big Red's 1920 lineup was halfback Fritz Pollard. An exceptional back, Pollard had earned All-American honors at Brown before turning pro in 1919. In addition to his two appearances with the Union Club that season – during which he scored five touchdowns – he was also the star of the APFA champion Akron Pros, the team with which he later became the league's first African-American head coach. Pollard's on field exploits with Akron that season earned him an All-Pro selection by Chicago Tribune writer Wilfred Smith. In 2005 this NFL pioneer was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Stanley Cofall was another invaluable addition to the Big Red's lineup in 1920. A former All-American at Notre Dame – where he is still ranked as the career leader in average points per game – Cofall originally broke into the ranks of pro football in 1917, playing first with the Youngstown Patricians and later the famous Massillon Tigers. He jumped to the Cleveland Tigers, of the fledgling APFA, in 1920. In fact, the former Irish star participated in that league's organizational meetings and even served as the league's first vice-president before making the trip east to join the Union Club for the final four games of the season. In later years he played with other Philadelphia area clubs including the Union Quakers and Holmesburg AC, as well as the (pre-NFL) Pottsville Maroons.
By the Numbers
From its inaugural amateur
season in 1907 through height of its prowess as
claimant to the "US Professional Championship" in 1920, and
even on to its final season the following year, the
Union Club consistently fielded successful football teams. The table
below gives a stats summary of the Union Club's fifteen seasons. Click
on the year to view a breakdown of that season's game schedule and
results, including links to some newspaper articles reporting specific games.
Links to Additional Information
Society of the Phoenixville Area (HSPA)
© John J. Fenton, 2007-2006, all rights reserved.