Phoenixville's Pro Football Legacy Begins and Ends with the Union Club
The team had ties to football legends.
The Union Club in 1915
The National Football League has seen its fair share of trouble this year—all the more reason to flashback to the pre-NFL halcyon days, when the Union Club of Phoenixville gave its opponents all the trouble. Between 1907 and 1921, the team’s various incarnations and reformations amounted to one of the best independent pro football teams in eastern Pennsylvania.
A Philadelphia Inquirer cartoon
celebrates the game between
the Union Cub and Jim Thorpe’s
Canton Bulldogs in 1920.
The so-called “Big Red” enjoyed seven undefeated seasons. It’s best known for defeating Jim Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs 14-7 in 1920, capping yet another season without a loss. The Union Club could safely lay claim to the title of “United States Professional Champions”—even if it was a title the locals cooked up.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, the Schuylkill Valley was a hotbed of gridiron activity. Teams from Pottstown, Norristown, Conshohocken and Philadelphia neighborhoods vied for bragging rights, according to local football scholar John Fenton and his Ghosts of the Gridiron website. Few rivaled the Union Club’s record of 95 wins, eight losses and 10 ties. It outscored opponents 2,307-275. In 1920 alone, Phoenixville outscored the opposition 328-19.
Prior to that, Thorpe’s Bulldogs were considered the best. The team also featured Joe Guyon, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, just like Thorpe. They were Ohio League champions in 1916, 1917 and 1919.
In December 1920, an estimated 17,000 fans turned out to watch the Union Club and the Canton Bulldogs play at the Baker Bowl, then the Philadelphia Phillies’ ballpark. It was easily the most significant game in the Phoenixville team’s history.
While the Bulldogs scored first on a Pete Calac touchdown, Phoenixville’s Heinie Miller forced a second-quarter fumble. With the ball on the Union 30-yard line, Miller broke through the Canton line and caught Thorpe in the backfield. Thorpe attempted a lateral to Calac, but Lou Little recovered the fumble. That turnover set up a Stan Cofall touchdown pass to Lou Hayes. Johnny Scott’s kick tied the game at seven.
In the third quarter, Cofall blocked a Guyon punt, which was returned the remaining 12 yards for another touchdown by Hayes. The Bulldogs fought fiercely to tie the game again, but Thorpe, who’d been badly battered, sat out the second half. While Canton managed a late-game drive to the Phoenixville 20-yard line, Guyon fumbled a pass reception that was recovered by Miller.
Despite their victory, the Union Club—even with a 12-0 record—could not formally lay claim to any national professional championship. The new NFL had begun in 1920 with 14 teams. Thorpe’s Bulldogs finished 7-4-2, behind three other teams.
In other years, various end-of-season accounts proclaimed Phoenixville “Champions of the Schuylkill Valley” and “Champions of Eastern Pennsylvania.” Local historians say the Union Club is justification enough for declaring Phoenixville one of the birthplaces of pro football. Its fields were located at Church and Starr streets—but don’t go there looking for a memorial. “There are no remnants remaining,” says the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area’s Jack Ertell, also a former athletic director at the local high school. “It’s all developed.”
The era’s players were paid $10-$50 per game, though Thorpe earned $1,500 a game in the 1917 season. Teams would pad their lineups with “ringers” or entice players to jump from other teams. Some played for multiple outfits during the same season. Often, college players were in pro games. Perhaps even the modern NFL is saintly by comparison.
In 1921, the Union Club’s board of directors rejected a proposal for the team to re-form with a similar all-star lineup the following season, opting instead to field a less costly mix of mostly local talent.
That year, the Big Red went on to a 5-2-0 record in its final season. Meanwhile, the bulk of the 1920 team took the field as the Union Quakers of Philadelphia—a one-year wonder.
The Union Club in 1907
In 1907, the Union Club fielded its first football team at the former site of Phoenixville Potteries, which operated on two large lots between 1867 and 1903. Not much is known about the team’s earliest days, when its success rivaled that of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. But there was at least one tragedy: In November 1913, George Gay, a star for neighboring Ursinus College, died from a broken neck suffered in a Phoenixville-Pottstown game.
America’s entry into World War I had a severe impact on the 1917 football season. That year the Union Club scheduled just five games, winning four. With the war and an influenza epidemic at home, the team’s 1918 season was a washout, except for an early-December 48-0 victory over the Paschall Athletic Club of Philadelphia.
A year later, the new Phoenix Athletic Club began signing away many of the borough’s top players. A weakened Union could only manage a tie with Phoenixville High School in its only game.
Union Club coach Eddie Gavin would eventually concede, arranging to merge with Phoenix AC, which ended its 1919 season with a 6-0-3 record. Phoenix was 6-0-2 heading into the season finale against the Conshohocken AC, a traditional Union rival. A victory over Conshy before the crowd of almost 5,000 at Norristown’s Great Stockade Grounds would’ve made Phoenix a legitimate contender. It ended in a scoreless tie, but the point was made.
The Union Club in 1920
The AC lineup featured Calvin “Fats” Eyrich, former Union Club coach and captain. According to Fenton, Phoenix had enhanced its roster for the game against Conshohocken AC with a host of collegiate stars like Penn’s Heinie Miller, Johnny Scott and John Ambrose, Lafayette College’s “Bodie” Weldon, and the Lehigh Mountain Hawks’ Joseph “Butch” Spagna (who began his collegiate career at Brown).
These players formed the core of a reconstituted Union Club team that debuted the following season. This after 50-some of Phoenixville’s leading citizens backed Eyrich’s proposition to sponsor a first-class pro football team. Within a week, more than $7,200 was raised, and the decision was made to revive the Union Club banner. Arthur “Pops” Keenan, who’d found the ringers for the previous season’s Phoenix-Conshy game, was enlisted to recruit collegiate players.
Pro football pioneer Fritz Pollard,
a onetime player for the Union Club
The heralded 1920 Phoenixville team also fielded such notables as Lud Wray, Earl Potteiger and future Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard. The latter had come to Pennsylvania to coach at Lincoln University in southern Chester County and would go on to become the first African American coach in the NFL (with the Akron Pros).
The club also fielded eight members of the NFL Buffalo All-Americans, and Cofall also had an NFL job with the Cleveland Tigers. They’d play with Phoenixville on Saturdays, then hop the train to Buffalo or Ohio for Sunday’s game. The Buffalo All-Americans’ local connection was Bert Bell, the future Philadelphia Eagles owner and NFL commissioner.
From the opening game on, 1920 was stellar for the Union Club. The team’s first opponent was East Falls YMA, which had a solid 11 that featured several Philadelphia players with established reputations. The Union’s 34-0 blowout set the tone for the season.
Next up was Ewing, one of the oldest and most respected Philadelphia teams. Oddly enough, the Union’s Lou Little was also the Ewing coach. He didn’t play, directing Ewing from the sidelines. As it turns out, many athletes were player-coaches in that era.
The season’s third game was a 28-0 shutout of the Bethlehem Blue Stars. Pollard, a halfback, was the game’s three-touchdown star in his first action in the Union’s backfield. He’d score two more touchdowns the next game, against the Lancaster All-Stars, in what was his last game for the Big Red due to a shoulder injury. The team’s other halfback, Potteiger, added three scores of his own in a 35-0 victory.
Three of the Union Club’s next four opponents were members of the sometimes-referenced “Anthracite League,” a loose affiliation of teams from eastern Pennsylvania’s coal-mining communities. But these contests were basically warm-ups for the Big Red’s next series of games against Holmesburg, Conshohocken and Frankford. Though anticipating a tough game against Holmesburg before 8,900 at the Baker Bowl, the Union Club still prevailed 13-0. News of the victory was quickly relayed to the faithful in Phoenixville via homing pigeon, according to Fenton.
More Inquirer coverage of the big game between the
Union Club and the Bulldogs
Thanksgiving Day brought a much-anticipated clash with Conshohocken, where Potteiger was the workhorse in an early drive that culminated with a Cofall touchdown. In the third quarter, Weldon connected twice with Miller on touchdown passes. Scott threw a touchdown pass to Francis “Irish” McKeone in the closing minutes of the game, and the Union Club rolled to a 33-0 win.
Two days later, it was the Frankford Yellow Jackets (8-0-1). Some 15,000 turned out at the Baker Bowl for a game that ended 10-6 in favor of the Union.
To settle speculation about the local team’s measuring up to other nationally known pro teams, arrangements were made for the game against Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs. It would be the last highlight in Union Club history.