Ironton Tanks

Ironton Tanks

The Ironton Tanks was a semi-professional football team from Ironton, Ohio. Former football players from Ironton High School organized the team in 1919. The Ironton Tanks played its home games in Beechwood Park. The team’s games sometimes attracted crowds as large as 1,500 people, and eventually, grandstands were built to accommodate the spectators. The Tanks’ uniforms, consisting of red jerseys and khaki pants, earned the team the nickname the “Big Red Machine.”

During the early 1920s, the Ironton Tanks emerged as a football powerhouse. Between 1920 and 1926, the team won sixty-one, lost four, and tied eight games. By the late 1920s, the Tanks routinely played exhibition games against National Football League teams, including the Portsmouth Spartans, the New York Giants, and the Chicago Bears. Although not always victorious, the Tanks defeated each of these teams during this period. The 1930 season saw the end of the Ironton Tanks. The Great Depression caused the team to collapse due to a lack of funds.

The Ironton Tanks were a semi-professional football team organized in 1919 in Ironton, Ohio.

Their historical marker gives the story of the Tanks origin: “Semi-professional football began in Ironton in 1893 with a team known as the Irontonians. The Ironton Tanks, founded in 1919, was a combination of two Ironton cross-town rival football clubs known as the Irish Town Rags and the Lombards.”Their name reflected both the town’s deep roots in the iron industry and the desire of returning soldiers from World War I to run over their opponents.

Based on their outstanding record of 85 wins, 19 losses, 14 ties, an undefeated season in 1922, a state championship in 1926 and dual victories in 1930 over National Football League (NFL) powerhouses the Chicago Bears and New York Giants,[2] the Tanks have a strong claim to being the best team to not play in the NFL. This motto is reinforced on the wall of Tank Stadium, where the story of the stadium opening proclaims “When the Tanks Were Tops” (2nd picture in photo gallery below). Their unmatched achievements in 1930 are recorded in a Professional Football Researchers Association’s report on the 1930 season[3] when talking about non-NFL teams: “None, however, matched the Ironton (Ohio) Tanks’ 1930 achievements.”[4]

Although the Ironton Tanks ceased operations after the 1930 season, they lived on. Over half of the Tanks moved on to other NFL teams, the most, including Glenn Presnel stayed in Ironton and played for the Portsmouth Spartans (only 30 miles away) until they too folded in 1933. The combined team strength from the Tank infusion and the addition of rookie Dutch Clark turned the Spartans into a power to be reckoned with. In 1932 the Spartans were among the best in the league but lost to the Chicago Bears in the first NFL playoff game, but after the next year in the depths of the depression, the Spartans too folded. Their assets were purchased to pay off debt and the team became the Detroit Lions in 1934. Without presence of the Tanks on the roster the Spartan record would have been less successful and likely not worth being bought and moved to become the Detroit Lions. So the forerunners of today’s Lions were both the Tanks and Spartans.
As with most football teams of the era, the Tanks regularly played games over Thanksgiving weekend. The Tanks played a game the day after Thanksgiving with the Lombards, a crosstown rival on Friday Nov 26, 1920 winning 26-0 when many people were off due to the holiday. They began the actual string of Thanksgiving Day Games by defeating the Huntington Boosters 12-0 on Thursday Nov 30, 1922. The Tanks continued playing on this national holiday each year through 1930, which was the Tanks final season. Several Tank players (including Glenn Presnell) continued their football careers by joining the nearby Portsmouth Spartans. They did not continue the annual tradition through their demise after the 1933 season. The Spartans assets were acquired and moved to Detroit where they were renamed the Lions. Asked by their new owner (G.A. Richards) about ways to improve ticket sales, the former Tanks players (led by Presnell) indicated that in the past (as Tanks) that they always got a good turnout on Thanksgiving Day. This led him to schedule the first Thanksgiving Day Game in Detroit (actually the 10th game of the series). One thing that made the first game in Detroit so notable was arranging NBC to broadcast the game nationally, reaching a larger audience and developing a national clamor for repeats in following years.

Local rivalries
Perhaps more important to Ironton residents at the time were the local rivalries with other cities in the Ohio area, particularly Portsmouth, where the local sentiment was summed up by this quote “ancient and hereditary foes”.[5] Despite being a small town, only about 1/3 the size of Portsmouth, the Tanks are referred to by Carl Becker refers as the dominant team of the era, “In the 1920s, the “famous” Ironton Tanks were the sovereigns of semi-professional football in the upper Ohio Valley, indeed even in the state of Ohio”.[2] Other rivals in Ohio were the Ashland Armcos, Dayton Koors, several teams from Cincinnati, Columbus and Akron,[6] but none appeared to have stirred the fans’ passion as did the different Portsmouth teams that appeared between 1920 and 1930.

Earle Louis “Greasy” Neale
The most colorful figure to be associated with the Ironton Tanks was their legendary coach Earle Louis Neale, known as Greasy Neale. He is the only person to have coached in the Rose Bowl (1922),[7] won the World Series (Reds vs White Sox, 1919) and won an NFL title (Philadelphia Eagles back to back 1948-49). Greasy insisted his Reds won the scandal-plagued 1919 “Black Sox” Series because of better pitching.[8]

Glenn Presnell
The best player for the Tanks was Glenn Presnell. Besides leading the Tanks to victories over the Giants and Bears, guiding the Portsmouth Spartans to third place in the NFL regular season championship in 1932, he helped the Detroit Lions to their first NFL championship in 1935. Not only did he play both sides of the ball, Glenn Presnell held the NFL longest field goal record for 19 years, with a 54 yarder that beat the Green Bay Packers 3-0. He led the NFL in scoring in 1933 with 64 points from TDs, field goals and points after TDs.[9] He graduated from the University of Nebraska as an All-American in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree in Education and was honored with an Alumni award in 2003 at the age of 97.[10] Glenn was inducted into the Nebraska High School Hall of Fame, citing his three Letters as a Cornhusker, leading the nation in total yards as a senior, All-Missouri Valley two times, and twice being NFL All-pro.[11] He was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame[12] in 1973 and named 34th out of Nebraska’s top 100 athletes.[13] Interesting trivia is that his wife helped choose the famous powder blue uniforms for the Detroit Lions when the team moved from Portsmouth, Ohio.[9][14] However, Glenn’s memory is challenged by the Lions official site[15] Outside this minor controversy, Glenn and the Lions seemed to have gotten along well. He posed with a football from “Your Friends at the Detroit Lions” crowning him the “LionKing”.[14] Many feel his NFL career itself deserved entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,[16] while others have said he was unfairly discriminated against because of his years with the Tanks. An online petition to support his entry to the Football Hall of Fame, in nearby Canton, Ohio, has also attracted attention,[17] Note: Glen has been referenced in several publications as being named an All-American while at Nebraska. In studying the Nebraska football media guide, no individual records other than participantion and team win-loss is recorded for that time frame. The Nebraska media guide does show All-American award winners, and Glenn is not shown as on that list. No effort has been made to confirm directly with any sports officials at the University of Nebraska if this is correct. Also the Wikipedia reference for All-American awards for Glenn’s years at Nebraska does not show him being awarded the honor. Again, the total evidence confirming his status in unclear. As evidence of Glenn’s outstanding career, it can be shown that his on the field performance both as a Tank, Spartan and Lion were exemplary and it should be noted that several other teams had shown interest in signing him upon the Tanks demise. Indeed, Glenns contributions and performance as a starting halfback and safety in his years with the Detroit Lions were key in their becoming 1935 World Champions. Glenn Presnell was honored by the Lions in 1995 at halftime against the Packers as a member of the 60th anniversary of the 1935 championship by being driven to the 50 yard line in a Ford Model T.

The Tanks uniform was also noteworthy, a distinctive blend of khaki pants and red jerseys, reminiscent of the 49ers today. They were nicknamed Big Red and the Big Red Machine[18] and appear to be the first team to sport this intimidating moniker.

The secrets of their success;
1) Recruiting
The answer to the most intriguing question about the Ironton Tanks, “How could they compete year after year with teams from the NFL and much larger cities?” is found primarily with the leader of the early years Charlton “Shorty” Davies (circled in the picture gallery’s newspaper article below) and his teammate at Ohio State, Bill Brooks.[19] The early Tanks typically played without helmets and made fifty dollars a game but sometimes were not paid (F.C. “Dutch” McCarthy, private conversation). However, they were able to attract top players by providing coaching and teaching jobs in the surrounding areas. Charlton “Shorty” Davies coached at Ironton High School.[19] Glenn Presnell taught science at Ironton High School and coached at Russel. Other Tanks taught or coached at Hanging Rock, Pedro, Blackfork, South Point, Chesapeake, Coal Grove, Proctorville, Rome and Raceland.[20]

2) Innovative Offense Although the Tanks operated out of the standard formation of the day, the single wing, they were able to use the pass, in part because of Presnell’s threat to run from the tailback position. He credited his superior speed more than quick cuts. The ball was more round than today, which made a passing game even more difficult.[20] Still the Tanks were able to innovate with “looping and angle charges still being used today by teams of the National Football League”.[1]

Preserving the Tank legend[edit]
The town of Ironton has maintained the legend of these proud footballers by designating the stadium with historical status and creating a fund for its maintenance[21] in addition to a Tribute website[22] with their complete schedule and results.[23] Ironton native Dave Berry wrote a song in tribute to the professional football played in the region.[24]

Tank Memorial Stadium[edit]
The Ironton Tanks originally played in Beechwood Stadium but following through on local enthusiasm a stadium fund was created and Tank Stadium was built in 1926. This stadium still stands today and is being used by Ironton High School. It is one of the last covered stadiums in use for high school football today.[1] The stadium was later renamed to Tanks Memorial Stadium, the name in use to the present day. In 2009, the field at Tanks Memorial Stadium was given the additional name of Bob Lutz Field in honor of long-time Ironton head coach Bob Lutz. During the summer of 2014, Tank Memorial Stadium’s playing surface was upgraded to Field Turf.

Tanks Schedule and Record by Year[edit]
1919 2-1-1 4-Nov Tue New Boston Tigers 9-0 W 11-Nov Tue Ashland Playhouse 0-7 L 18-Nov Tue Ashland Playhouse 0-0 T 25-Nov Tue Portsmouth N & W 12-0 W

1920 5 Wins – 1 Loss – 1 Tie 10-Oct Sun Morris Harvey 0-14 L 24-Oct Sun Smoke House 6-6 T 6-Nov Sat Marshall 13-0 W 8-Nov Mon New Boston Tigers 77-0 W 15-Nov Mon Nitro 13-0 W 26-Nov Fri Lombards 26-0 W Day After Thanksgiving 29-Nov Mon Portsmouth Smoke House 14-0 W

1921 7 Wins – 2 Ties 2-Oct Sun Jackson Bearcats 6-0 W 16-Oct Sun Charleston Westside 34-0 W 23-Oct Sun Ashland Tigers 7-0 W 30-Oct Sun Portsmouth Smoke House 0-0 T 13-Nov Sun Lombards 21-7 W 20-Nov Sun Portsmouth Smoke House 14-0 W 27-Nov Sun Wellston Eagles 0-0 T 4-Dec Sun Morris Harvey 19-14 W 11-Dec Sun Wellston Eagles 7-6 W

1922 9 Wins – 1 Tie 1-Oct Sun Columbus Olympians 13-6 W 8-Oct Sun Athens 19-0 W 15-Oct Sun Huntington Boosters 18-7 W 22-Oct Sun Williamson 76-0 W 29-Oct Sun Jackson Bearcats 40-0 W 5-Nov Sun Huntington Boosters 7-7 T 12-Nov Sun Lancaster 38-0 W 26-Nov Sun Washington Ct. House 45-0 W 30-Nov Thurs Huntington Boosters 12-10 W First Thanksgiving Day Game

1923 10 Wins – 1 Loss 30-Sep Sun Ironton Eagles 46-0 W 7-Oct Sun Columbus Seagraves 18-0 W 14-Oct Sun Columbus Westside 7-6 W 21-Oct Sun Smoke House 40-0 W 28-Oct Mon Huntington Boosters 7-0 W 4-Nov Tue Logan Wildcats 7-0 W 11-Nov Wed Huntington Boosters 6-12 L 18-Nov Thu Cincinnati Saints 31-0 W 25-Nov Fri Portsmouth Smoke House 21-6 W 29-Nov Thurs Cincinnati Harrisons 20-0 W 2nd Thanksgiving Day Game 9-Dec Sun Huntington Boosters 26-0 W

1924 11 Wins – 1 Tie 21-Sep Sun Ironton Panthers 38-0 W 28-Sep Mon Columbus JungleImps 25-6 W 5-Oct Tue Murray City Tigers 7-0 W 12-Oct Wed Louisville Brecks 31-0 W 19-Oct Thu Cincinnati Potters 14-3 W 26-Oct Fri Akron Silents 19-0 W 2-Nov Sat Huntington Boosters 6-0 W 9-Nov Sun Portsmouth Smoke House 44-0 W 16-Nov Mon Cincinnati Potters 7-3 W 23-Nov Tue Covington C.A.C. 12-0 W 27-Nov Thurs Huntington Boosters 21-0 W 3rd Thanksgiving Day Game 29-Nov Sat Portsmouth Smoke House 0-0 T

1925 9 Wins – 1 Loss – 2 Ties 27-Sep Sun Chillicothe 29-0 W 4-Oct Mon Columbus Bobbs 35-0 W 11-Oct Tue Cincinnati Potters 15-6 W 18-Oct Wed Ashland Armcos 21-6 W 25-Oct Thu Huntington Boosters 12-0 W 1-Nov Fri Columbus Wagner-Pirates 19-5 W 8-Nov Sat Ashland Armcos 9-0 W 15-Nov Sun Huntington Boosters 0-0 T 22-Nov Sun Dayton Koors 7-7 T 26-Nov Thurs Canton Bulldogs 0-12 L 4th Thanksgiving Day Game 29-Nov Sun Cincinnati Potters 9-0 W 14-Dec Mon Dayton Koors 24-6 W

1926 11 Wins – 1 Loss – 1 Tie 19-Sep Sun Columbus All Stars 27-0 W 26-Sep Sun Middletown Armcos 27-0 W 3-Oct Sun Columbus Wagner Pirates 39-0 W 10-Oct Sun Dayton Koors 23-0 W 17-Oct Sun Cleveland Indians 47-0 W 24-Oct Sun Ashland Armcos 2-0 W 31-Oct Sun Akron Silents 27-0 W 7-Nov Sun Portsmouth Presidents 9-0 W 14-Nov Sun Kokomo American Legion 15-0 W 21-Nov Sun Ashland Armcos 7-0 W 25-Nov Thurs Kansas City Cowboys 0-0 T 5th Thanksgiving Day Game Beechwood stadium Opens 28-Nov Sun Cincinnati Potters 0-28 L 5-Dec Sun Portsmouth Presidents 33-0 W

1927 6 Wins – 3 Losses – 2 Ties 18-Sep Sun Columbus Bobbs 7-0 W 25-Sep Sun Middletown Armcos 0-7 L 2-Oct Sun Toledo Boosters 25-7 W 16-Oct Sun Shelby Blues 14-0 W 23-Oct Sun Ashland Armcos 0-0 T 30-Oct Sun Akron Indians 27-0 W 6-Nov Sun Portsmouth Shoe Steels 18-0 W 13-Nov Sun Ashland Armcos 7-7 T 20-Nov Sun Portsmouth Shoe Steels 0-7 L 24-Nov Thurs Middletown Armcos 0-8 L 6th Thanksgiving Day Game 27-Nov Sun Logan Wildcats 14-0 W

1928 7 Wins – 1 Loss – 3 Ties 30-Sep Sun Columbus Bobbs 52-0 W 7-Oct Sun Cleveland Panthers 47-0 W 14-Oct Sun Akron Awnings 0-0 T 21-Oct Sun Portsmouth Spartans 0-0 T 28-Oct Sun Ashland Armcos 6-7 L 4-Nov Sun Cincinnati Guards 7-0 W 11-Nov Sun Portsmouth Spartans 0-0 T 18-Nov Sun Middletown Armcos 13-0 W 25-Nov Sun Ashland Armcos 3-0 W 29-Nov Thurs Akron Awnings 19-0 W 7th Thanksgiving Day Game 9-Dec Sun Portsmouth Spartans 14-0 W

1929 5 Wins – 6 Losses 22-Sep Sun Columbus Medel Tailers 39-0 W 29-Sep Sun Chillicothe Eagles 6-0 W 6-Oct Sun Toledo Boosters 78-0 W 13-Oct Sun Portsmouth Spartans 3-0 W 20-Oct Sun Ashland Armcos 2-7 L 27-Oct Sun Akron Awnings 7-5 W 3-Nov Sun Portsmouth Spartans 0-20 L 10-Nov Sun Cincinnati Guards 0-5 L 17-Nov Sun Ashland Armcos 0-7 L 24-Nov Sun Portsmouth Spartans 0-38 L 28-Nov Thurs Akron Awnings 3-7 L 8th Thanksgiving Day Game

1930 7 Wins – 3 Losses 28-Sep Sun Portsmouth Spartans 6-7 L 5-Oct Sun Chillicothe Eagles 14-0 W 12-Oct Sun Akron Awnings 3-0 W 15-Oct Sun Portsmouth Spartans 16-15 W 26-Oct Sun Polish-American Athletic Club of Washington 70-0 W 2-Nov Sun Memphis Tigers 0-7 L 11-Nov Sun New York Giants 13-12 W Giants place 2nd in NFL with 13-4 record 16-Nov Sun Akron Awnings 13-0 W 23-Nov Sun Chicago Bears 26-13 W Bears place 3rd in NFL with 9-4-1 record 27-Nov Thurs Portsmouth Spartans 0-12 L 9th Thanksgiving Day Game Last game of the Ironton Tanks. {Source}