Vanderbilt part of Nashville's first pro team in 1938

Aug 28, 2013

Bill Hayes

When the Tennessee Oilers/Titans arrived in Nashville in 1997, a professional football team was anchored in the city for the first time.

This is not actually correct.

An article in a September 1938 issue of the Tennessean gave this report on Nashville's first professional football team with the caption "LOCAL PRO OUTFIT PLAYS FIRST GAME WEDNESDAY NIGHT:"

Nashville's first professional football team, the Rebels, who are members of the American League, will open their season Wednesday night when they play the Blades in Cincinnati.

Four former Vanderbilt stars are members of the local pro eleven. Bill Hays, one of the Seven Iron Men of last fall. Hayes Noel, guard of two years ago; Arnold Peebles and Gene Strayhorn are all ex-Commodores.

The Rebels are made up of stars of North Carolina, West Virginia Wesleyan, Tennessee, Arkansas State Teachers, Tennessee Tech, Alabama, Cumberland, Middle Tennessee Teachers and prep schools.

The American Football League was a descendant of the Midwest Football League that was formed in 1935. It was a minor professional league consisting of teams from Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. This league was in direct competition with the National Football League, but very weak competition.

The Nashville Banner reported on the Rebels financial situation:

The Nashville Rebels, this city's first professional football team, have completed the last necessary plans for proceeding with the season and will start practice next Monday, James W. Cocke announced today. A conference yesterday, attended by James C. Hogan, secretary of the American Professional League, and Herb Goepper, president of the Louisville entry, saw the completion of a financial tieup between Cocke and Jimmy Holt, owners of the franchise, and a local firm of investors.

Hogan, who came here as a representative of League President George Heitzler of Cincinnati, gave the investors definite assurance that the Nashville club would go through the season, playing a representative schedule of league games. He was high in praise of the local setup and said last night before leaving that the club should have a highly successful season.

Henry Fishman of the Estes firm of investors worked out financial details for the club and it is now ready to proceed on a sound basis, Cocke said today. There is adequate financial backing to make certain that the club can go through the season without money worries.

Along with the Nashville Rebels AFL members included the Chicago Indians, St. Louis Gunners, Louisville Tanks, Cincinnati Blades and Dayton Rosies. Louisville had won the league title from 1935-37. Nashville played its home games at the Sulphur Dell ballpark, home of the Nashville Vols baseball club of the Southern Association. Practices were held at Centennial Park with an arrangement made with nearby Father Ryan High School for usage of its locker rooms and showers.

Both major Nashville newspapers gave extensive coverage of the Rebels franchise. The Nashville Banner (evening paper) and the Tennessean (morning paper) covered practices and games.

The Tennessean gave this report on the day of the Rebels first game in Cincinnati:

The Nashville Rebels will make their debut in the American Professional League tonight when they play the Blades in Cincinnati. Although most of their players are inexperienced in professional ranks, the Rebels stack up as a strong machine, one which should be able to furnish other members of the American League with some stubborn opposition.

Hayes Noel

The Rebel forward wall, composed of ex-college stars, averages 208 pounds. The backfield also made up of former college gems, averages 189. Eight local boys will be among those which will make the trip to Cincinnati, Bill Hays, Hayes Noel and Gene Strayhorn are former Commodores. Harry Epperson wore the orange at Tennessee. Howard Murff starred as an Alabama freshman. Dave Aaron got his degree at Cumberland. Wallace Long and George Mackey glittered at T.I.S. The former played at Tennessee and the latter at Tennessee Tech.

It was reported that 12 members of the squad left Nashville at 6 a.m. for Cincinnati while the other nine made the trip by airplane leaving the Nashville municipal airport at 4:15 p.m. The game time was set for 7:30 p.m.

The Tennessean wrote about the first game played on September 28, 1938:

The Cincinnati Blades won their second victory of the season here tonight by humbling the Nashville Rebels 34-0 in an American professional football league game. It was the first contest for the Tennesseans. The Blades outmaneuvered the Rebels from the start and kept the ball in enemy territory almost throughout the contest. The locals went into an open style of play successfully, completing nine out of 13 attempted passes. Rock Reed, halfback from Louisiana State, made a 15-yard run around right end to score the first marker in the first round. Capt. Les Post's try fro the extra point was good.

The Blades went on from there to score at least one touchdown in every period. Reed and Bob Douglas, of Kansas State College led the attack making repeated long end runs. George Fowler, star in Indiana University last year, also was a steady ground gainer. Al Sandfoss scored the second touchdown in the second period on a 26-yard run around left tackle.

Johnny Lynch was the Rebels coach. Playing in the game for Nashville were Strayhorn, left tackle; Murff, left guard; Hays, right guard; Noel, right tackle; Mackey, right end; Epperson, quarterback; Charley Gladd (N.C. State), fullback; Joe Troop (Middle Tennessee State), left end; Allen Ramsey (Tennessee), center; Ray Burnett (Arkansas State), left half and Jess Tatum (N.C. State), right half.

The Rebels next game was against the Chicago Indians a game played in Gary, Indiana. This game was played on Sunday, October 9. The Tennessean wrote:

Out powered on both offense and defense, rebels of Nashville bowed 20-0 yesterday afternoon before the superior power of the Calumet Indians on Turner Field in Hammond. Rebel yell and all, the Nashville contingent was no match for the straight football power unleashed by the Indians.

They couldn't do much about stopping Jimmy Angelich, former University of Alabama star, or Jack Craven, formerly of the University of Illinois. Those two, a deceptive pass attack and a stout defense had the visitors in a hole throughout the entire game.

The winless and scoreless Nashville Rebels next scheduled game was in St. Louis against the Gunners. This contest was played on Sunday, October 16. The Tennessean reported:

The St. Louis Gunners came from behind in the third quarter to tie Nashville's Rebels, 7 to 7, in an American Professional League football game today. Nashville capitalized on a break to score in the second period. Shumick, Rebel left tackle, blocked a Gunner punt and Nashville recovered on the St. Louis 12-yard line. Marty Stovak, Nashville's left half, cracked the line for six and then smashed over on the next play.

St. Louis bounced back in the third quarter with a drive that brought its only score. Taking the ball midfield after an exchange of punts, the Gunners were on Nashville's 13-yard stripe two plays later. Both gains resulted from passes.

The 0-2-1 Rebels were to play their first home game on October 23 with the Dayton Rosies at Sulphur Dell. An ad in the Tennessean promoting the game stated that ticket prices were $1.50 with the "End Section" 55 cents and a "Special Section for Colored People" 50 cents. This was in the South and segregation between the blacks and whites was strong.

The Tennessean previewed the Dayton game and professional football in Nashville:

The success or failure of the professional football idea in Nashville will be determined more or less definitely tomorrow afternoon at Sulphur Dell when the Nashville Rebels open their home season in the American League game with the strong Dayton Rosies.

Backers of the club will put a team on the field which they are confident is the strongest in the league. They have assembled the strongest array of players available, and unless the public's reaction is favorable it will be because that public isn't interested in the commercial brand of football, not because of any inferiority of the team.

The Rebels squad is composed of seventeen players who have won their spurs in the play-for-pay league. The players have taken a definite interest in the club, simply because they feel Nashville will turn out to see good professional football, and for that reason they are planning to put on something of a display tomorrow afternoon.

The Rebels roster changed often during the past few weeks. The Cincinnati Blades folded as a franchise and Nashville benefited by picking up several of their players. Many players left to make more money in full-time jobs as a private citizen. New players for Nashville were: John Shelton (Davis Elkins College) and Bob Morganthal (Miami of Ohio), ends; Bill Raznik (Cincinnati) and Tom Chumich (North Dakota State), tackles and Red Mann (Arizona), guard.

Rock Reed a halfback from LSU, led the new backfield. He was joined by quarterback Marty Slovak (Toledo), halfback; Bob Fowler (Indiana), and fullback and Wes Phillips (North Dakota State). A crowd of 5,000-6000 was expected for this home opener.

Gene Strayhorn

The Tennessean wrote on the Rebels first home game:

Thoroughly satisfied with their chilly home debut, the Nashville Rebels were to have a day of rest today before starting preparation for their fifth American League game of the season in Louisville next Sunday. Between 1,500 and 2,000 curious spectators came to Sulphur Dell yesterday afternoon to see the Rebels in their bow before the home folks. They sat through three hours of miserable football weather to watch the locals smash to a 22-0 victory over the Dayton Rosies and went home well pleased.

The crowd reaction to Nashville's first pro team was entirely favorable. During the first half, during which the Rebels failed to solve the sturdy Dayton defense, they were both doubtful and disappointed, for the pros failed to show anything out of the ordinary other than savage tackling. But if there was a doubter in the stands during the first half, he was converted into a supporter after the intermission when the Rebels took the shackles off Rock Reed and Marty Slovak and swept to three touchdowns and a safety for all their points.

Reed played for LSU from 1934-36 and was a member of the Tigers first two SEC championships as a junior and senior. He actually played in the NFL for the Chicago Cardinals in 1937 appearing in eight games. Reed also played for the Cardinals in 1939 appearing in four games. Slovak was the University of Toledo's first professional player in the NFL playing for the Cleveland Rams from 1939-41.

One newspaper report stated the Nashville Rebels probably are the only "player-owned outfit in the country." There was a history of professional teams and leagues folding due to financial instability. The American League was not stable as evidence of all teams declaring a turnover of players. The 1-2-1 Rebels would next play the mighty Louisville Tanks on October 30, the strongest team in the league and defending champions. The Tennessean reported on an upset:

The Nashville Rebels put on a stretch drive in the fourth quarter today to score a touchdown, an extra point and a field goal to defeat the Louisville Tanks, 10-to 0, in an American Pro Football League game. After spending three quarters and part of the fourth in their own territory, the Rebels completed a 36-yard pass, which resulted in a touchdown. A few minutes later Krumenecker booted the field goal from the 28-yard line.

The long pass was from Marty Slovak to Rock Reed, the same pair sparked the Cincinnati Blades to a life last period rally that beat the Tanks, 7 to 6, for their first American League loss several weeks ago. After the Blades disbanded the pair, with eight teammates joined the Rebels.

After Louisville's offense bogged down in the last period the Rebels began a downfield march, with Reed and Phillips running and Slovak and Fowler passing, which went to Tanks' 38. Then Slovak passed to Reed, who grabbed the ball on the three-yard line. He was downed on the two. In three plays Slovak crashed over for the marker. Krumenecker kicked the field goal after failing in one attempt.

Nashville evened their record at 2-2-1 with the win over Louisville. When Cincinnati folded, the Rebels were now in fourth place in the standings behind Chicago, St. Louis and Louisville. A game for the next week was not played since an opponent could not be located. There was an announcement that Nashville would play host to the Boston Shamrocks (independent pro team) on a Wednesday night at Sulphur Dell. And a game would be scheduled the next Sunday with Chicago the same team the Rebels lost to earlier in the season.

The games with the Shamrocks and Chicago were not played. Therefore a Sunday game was arranged with St. Louis another team Nashville lost to earlier. That game was cancelled as reported in the newspaper:

For the second consecutive Sunday the Nashville Rebels failed to perform in Sulphur Dell as scheduled. Their game with the St. Louis Gunners was called off late Saturday night and a game with an Atlanta team was scheduled in a hurry. But that game, too, was cancelled yesterday. It was estimated that approximately 1,500 fans showed up for the game.

Independent professional football teams were scattered about the country. Last minute arrangements for games were common. There were reports, Nashville had arranged December games with the Los Angeles Bulldogs, Cleveland Rams "in addition to the game in Los Angeles, contests are planned for San Francisco and one other Southern California city. A game is planned at Des Moines, Iowa, on the way to the coast and one en route back, either in Texas or New Orleans." None of these games were played.

Three weeks passed before the Rebels did appear in another game. It was announced that fourth place Nashville (2-2-1) would play in second place St. Louis (4-3-1) in the first round of the four-team American Football League playoffs. Third place Louisville (4-3) and first place Chicago (5-1) qualified for the remaining spots. This would be the same St. Louis team the Rebels tied 7-7 earlier in the year. St. Louis was a slight favorite in the game.

The Tennessean reported on the November 27 playoff game:

A touchdown in the pinch in the final quarter by Ray Johnson turned an apparent 13-to-12 defeat, into a thrilling 19-to-13 victory as the St. Louis Gunners conquered the Nashville Rebels today before a crowd of less than 1,000 shivering spectators.

The contest was one of two in the circuit and the verdict placed the Gunners in the finals with the Louisville Tanks, 13-to-0 winners over the Chicago Indians today.

Ray Johnson, Gunner halfback, climaxed a drive down the field in the closing minutes of the game by plunging for the winning touchdown. Early in the same quarter Slovak had passed to Reed on the goal line to put Nashville out in front 13-to-12.

In the AFL championship game, Louisville defeated St. Louis, 3-0. The next year the league changed its name to the American Professional Football Association (APFA) and Nashville dropped out of the league. The Dayton Rosies became the Dayton Bombers while remaining in the league were St. Louis, Louisville and Chicago. New members included the Los Angles Bulldogs, Cincinnati Bengals, Columbus Bullies and the Kenosha Cardinals.

In July 1940, the league suffered when the new American Football League was formed with teams in Boston, New York and Buffalo in addition to the APFA's Cincinnati, Columbus and Milwaukee. The split league forced the APFA to cease from existence.

Traughber's Tidbit: Vanderbilt's first professional football player was end Lynn Bomar (1921-24), who was an All-American for the Commodores. In 1925, Bomar played in 12 games for the New York Giants recording three touchdowns. In 1926, Bomar collected two touchdowns in eight games for the Giants.

Tidbit Two: There have been 77 former Vanderbilt football players to have played in the National Football League. None are in the Hall of Fame and only John North (1942, 1946-47) became an NFL head coach. North was the New Orleans Saints head coach from 1973-75. Vanderbilt end Dick Plasman (1934-36) was the first Commodore selected in the NFL draft in 1937 as the eighth pick in the third round. Plasman played for the Bears (1937-41, 1944) and the Chicago Cardinals (1946-47). Several Commodores were Pro-Bowlers and played in the NFL Championship Game and in the Super Bowl.

If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email



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