Spartan Municipal Stadium
By 1934, professional sports had become something only large cities could financially support. Portsmouth, Ohio, the last small city in the National Football League (outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin) had struggled to remain viable. Beginning as a semi-pro team in 1929, the Spartans were very successful on the field. Enjoying great fan support, the team was provided a new home in 1929, Spartan Stadium. An invitation to the NFL came in 1930. On March 24, 1934, the sale of the Portsmouth Spartans to an ownership group from Detroit, Michigan was announced. With that announcement, Portsmouth’s short but proud professional football tradition ended.
Backstory and Context
Ohio was a hotbed of professional football in the early twentieth century. Professional and semi-professional teams abounded. In the Ohio River Valley, semi-pro football found a home. A three-team league was formed which consisted of the Portsmouth Spartans, the Ironton Tanks, and the Ashland Armco’s.1 Teams were frequently sponsored by industries. Another team associated with Armco Steel played in Middletown, Ohio.1 Providing quality officiating was an issue. Concerns also arose about players' behavior and the game's image.2
Spartans football was so popular that the city supported a bond issue to construct Universal Stadium, a modern stadium for the team, in 1929. Scheduling rules were lax, and many NFL teams played teams from outside the league. Such was the case with the Portsmouth Spartans who played the Green Bay Packers in 1929.1 The Packers won the game, but Portsmouth’s success and following led to them being invited to join the NFL in 1930. The Green Bay Packers sponsored Portsmouth’s invitation.
Upon joining the NFL, the Spartans added players from other teams, including other semi-pro teams. Future Hall of Fame coach George “Potsy” Clark led the team. Top players included Earl “Dutch” Clark, also a Hall of Fame member, and Glen Presnell, George Christiansen, and Roy “Father” Lumpkin. Presnell led the NFL in scoring in 1933.3 The Spartans finished near the top of league standings in 1931 and 1932.
The Portsmouth Spartans would participate in one of the NFL’s most storied games in 1932. For the first time, a playoff game was needed to determine the league championship after the Portsmouth Spartans and the Chicago Bears tied for first place. A game was scheduled to determine the champion. Because of a blizzard that hit Chicago, the game was moved indoors, to Chicago Stadium. The Bears and Cardinals had previously played a game in the stadium and that experience aided officials to negotiate special rules that accommodated a smaller field. Chicago won the game 9-0 on a disputed play.4
Eventually, financial concerns would lead the community stockholders to sell the team to a group from Detroit in March of 1934.5 The Spartans elusive title would come to the Detroit Lions in 1935. Universal Stadium, later renamed Spartan Memorial Stadium, continued to host high school games. The stadium was designated as an Ohio Historical Site on October 5, 2003.6
1. Portsmouth Daily Times (Portsmouth, Ohio) · Mon, Nov 18, 1929 · Page 18, http://www.newspapers.com/image/42807674, accessed February 15, 2015.
2. "Fair, Clean Sport Is What We All Demand", Editorial, Portsmouth Daily Times (Portsmouth, Ohio) · Wed, Oct 16, 1929 · Page 17 http://www.newspapers.com/image/42806492, accessed February 15, 2015.
3."1933 NFL Scoring Summary", Pro Football Reference, http://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/1933/scoring.htm, accessed February 15, 2015.
4. "History: The First Playoff Game", National Football League Hall of Fame, http://www.profootballhof.com/history/decades/1930s/first_playoff_game.aspx, accessed February 15, 2015.
5. "Portsmouth Spartans Sold to Detroit Syndicate", The Zanesville Signal (Zanesville, Ohio) · Sun, Mar 25, 1934 · Page 10, http://www.newspapers.com/image/9172636, accessed February 15, 2015.
6. Ridgeway, Jim, "Spartan Municipal Stadium", http://football.ballparks.com/NFL/PortsmouthSpartans/, accessed February 15, 2015.