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The NFL's Forgotten Thanksgiving Rivalry
Green Bay Packers vs. Frankford Yellow Jackets

  

This brief article was written after Packers Radio Network Pregame Show host Jay Sorgi called with few questions for a piece he was preparing to run on Thanksgiving Day, 2009.  It was originally distributed as a handout in conjunction with a presentation on the early history of professional football given before the Upper Moreland (PA) Historical Association.

The NFL’s Forgotten Thanksgiving Rivalry:
Green Bay Packers vs. Frankford Yellow Jackets

In November of 1925 the Green Bay Packers made their first trip to Pennsylvania.  The purpose of that visit?  To play two of the newest and strongest teams in the National Football League: the Pottsville Maroons and Frankford Yellow Jackets.  The Packers fell victim to the Maroons on Thanksgiving, and two days later suffered another setback at the hands of the Yellow Jackets.  In retrospect, the game in Frankford was probably the more meaningful of the two contests.  For when the Packers returned to the Keystone State the following season, it was to face the Yellow Jackets on Thanksgiving, and that game witnessed the beginning of what quickly became an annual holiday tradition.

Yellow Jacket Field, view of the north stands.

North stands of Yellow Jacket Field. Thanksgiving Day, 1926.

Thanksgiving Day rivalries have never been common in the NFL, which is somewhat surprising, especially considering the fact that individual clubs arranged their own schedules during the league’s first decade.  Certainly the most notable holiday rivalry of that period was between the Bears and Cardinals, who met every Thanksgiving from 1922 thru 1932 to decide the city championship of Chicago.  The only other holiday rivalry to even come close was that of the Green Bay Packers and Frankford Yellow Jackets.  At its onset the Yellow Jackets were at the height of their prowess, poised to capture the 1926 NFL championship.  By the time of their final Thanksgiving Day battle in 1930, it was the Packers who stood atop the NFL in the midst of a three-year reign as league champions.

It’s not entirely clear why this particular rivalry developed, or that either team originally intended to make it an annual event.  The most likely reasons are that the Packers, like most clubs around the league, recognized the Yellow Jackets as both the strongest team in the East and an emerging power in the NFL.  The Yellow Jackets also had a large and enthusiastic fan base that turned out for games.  This made them a desirable opponent, as the visitor’s share of the gate at Frankford was often more than an average team might expect to earn at home.  The fact that the Packers usually played only away games once the calendar turned November may also have been a contributing factor, and is almost certainly the reason these holiday games were all played at Yellow Jacket Field.  From Frankford’s perspective, Green Bay fielded a strong club and hailed from the Midwest.  Long considered the heartland of professional football, opponents from that region had always appealed to Yellow Jackets’ fans.

But whatever the reasons for the initial Thanksgiving Day contest, it was undoubtedly the competitiveness of the game that set the stage for a rematch the following year.

Although Frankford was the stronger club at the beginning of the affair and Green Bay toward the end, neither team truly dominated the series.  The Packers held a slight 5-4-1 edge in overall games between the teams, but on Thanksgiving it was an even 2-2-1 split.  And the holiday contests were usually good ones, almost always having some bearing on the outcome of the season for one or both clubs.

Their inaugural Turkey Day tilt occurred in 1926.  By late November of that year the Chicago Bears (10-0-1) sat atop the league standings, but the Yellow Jackets (10-1-1) were hot on their heels.  A loss to Green Bay on the holiday would likely have knocked Frankford out of contention, making the outcome of this particular contest all the more important.  

As one might expect, the game proved no easy affair.  The Yellow Jackets jumped out to a 13-0 first quarter lead on the strength of their running game.  But the Packers responded with a touchdown through the air in the second quarter, and moved ahead with another early in the final period.  Then, in the closing minutes of play, the Yellow Jackets scored a game-winning touchdown on a long pass play of their own.  That 20-14 victory set the stage for a showdown with the Bears the following week.  A 7-6 Frankford victory in that slugfest put the Yellow Jackets in the cat-bird’s seat, and ultimately led to an NFL championship.

By mid-November of 1927, the Packers (6-2-1) were playing solid football and well on the way to their most successful season since joining the league.  The defending champion Yellow Jackets (5-7-1), on the other hand, were in the middle of their first losing season in recent memory.  That year’s holiday match-up seemed to reflect the teams’ respective fortunes.  Although Frankford jumped out to a 9-0 lead, Green Bay closed the gap to 9-7 by the end of the first half.  Then the Packers turned up the aerial attack to dominate the final two quarters, riding their passing game a 17-9 victory.

The following year the Packers and Yellow Jackets squared-off twice.  Their first meeting was in the season opener, which ended 19-9 in Frankford’s favor.  By the time Thanksgiving rolled around the Yellow Jackets (9-2-2) had thoroughly rebounded from the previous season’s woes and were making another strong run at a title.  After getting off to a slow start, the Packers (5-3-2) also seemed to be moving in the right direction.  That season’s holiday game was a defensive struggle in which neither offense made much any headway.  Indeed, Frankford’s 2-0 margin of victory was the result of a fluke play – a safety born of an errant Green Bay snap into the end-zone during a botched punt attempt.  But the effort put forth left the Yellow Jackets weakened and affected their play when, on just two days rest, they faced the Chicago Bears the following Sunday.  The 28-6 thrashing they suffered that afternoon at Wrigley Field effectively took them out of contention.

1929 was perhaps the Packers best season ever, as the team posted a remarkable 12-0-1 record while en route to capturing the first of their record 12 NFL championships.  But that is not to say they didn’t have at least one close call.

Green Bay had defeated Frankford handily in mid-October.  But by Thanksgiving the Yellow Jackets (9-2-3) were playing well, and a victory on the holiday would bring both the Packers (10-0-0) and another league championship within striking distance.

Early in the first quarter Frankford drove to the Green Bay 2-yard line before losing possession on a grounded pass.  After that the game turned into a defensive stalemate in which neither team was able to gain an upper hand.  Indeed, the Packers never penetrated any farther than the Yellow Jackets’ 20-yard line.  The scoreless draw that resulted put an end to any chance Frankford might have had at challenging for the title and proved to be the lone blemish on an otherwise perfect 1929 season for Green Bay.  

"Wild Billy" Kelly slashes through Green Bay tacklers. Thanksgiving Day, 1929.

The defending champion Packers opened the 1930 season with a string of eight consecutive victories.  The Yellow Jackets, in contrast, started with just two.  They then proceeded to lose their next ten in a row, including a 27-12 defeat at Green Bay.  That year’s Thanksgiving Day showdown was simply more of the same.  The Packers dominated with a strong passing attack and took full advantage of Yellow Jackets’ miscues, scoring 14 points off of turnovers.  Their 25-7 victory at Frankford was just another stop on Green Bay’s road to a second NFL title.

In 1931 the Packers picked-up right where they’d left off at the end of the previous season, handily winning their first nine games.  Once again, it was different story for the Yellow Jackets.  The onset of the Great Depression and an off-season fire that destroyed Frankford Stadium left the club in dire straights.  When the two teams met at Green Bay in October, the Packers notched a 15-0 shutout.  That loss was Frankford’s fourth in five outings, and the road ahead wasn’t looking any easier.  Indeed, within a month financial distress would force the Yellow Jackets to disband, pre-empting that season’s holiday classic with the Packers.  Green Bay rescheduled, playing the Providence Steam Roller on Thanksgiving Day.  The 38-7 blowout victory they scored that afternoon all but clinched their third consecutive NFL championship.  The Frankford Yellow Jackets, on the other hand, never took to the field again.

Other Thanksgiving Rivalries of the Early NFL...

  • Akron Pros vs. Canton Bulldogs, 1920-1922
  • Chicago Bears vs. Chicago Cardinals, 1922-1932
  • Pottsville Maroons vs. Providence Steamroller, 1926-1928
  • New York Giants vs. Staten Island Stapletons, 1929-1932

Additional Notes on the Early NFL...

  • Individual teams arranged their own schedules.
  • There was no set number of games per season.  Indeed, the first season all league teams played the same number of games was 1936.  Prior to that, some clubs played as many as 18 contests, others fewer than 10.
  • There were no playoffs until 1932, and no official league championship game until 1933.  Prior to that the title was officially awarded by a vote at the league’s winter meeting after the conclusion of the season.  It was, however, always awarded to the team with the highest winning percentage at the end of the season.
  • Only wins and losses were used in calculating a team’s winning percentage.  Tie games were disregarded.

Links to Additional Information

Packers Thanksgiving Day History
A brief radio segment that originally aired during the Packers Radio Network pregame show on Thanksgiving Day, 2009.  It features commentary from this website's author regarding the Green Bay-Frankford holiday rivalry.


© John J. Fenton, 2009, all rights reserved.