F & AC
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
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.
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.
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.
Links to Additional Information
Thanksgiving Day History
© John J. Fenton, 2009, all rights reserved.