By WAYNE ALLEN
PDT Staff Writer
A piece of Portsmouth history was featured this week on the popular television show Pawn Stars. A program from the 1932 Portsmouth Spartans vs. Chicago Bears playoff game was pawned in Wednesday’s episode at the Las Vegas shop for $2,750.
That contest was believed to be the first playoff game in professional football. At the end of the 1932 regular season the Bears and Spartans had identical records so they played each other to see who would be the champion.
“The game was originally scheduled for Wrigley Field; that’s where the Bears played all of their home games. It was blizzard conditions that day so they moved the game indoors to Chicago Stadium,” said Mike McConnell, a former Portsmouth resident, avid sports memorabilia collector and a Pro Football Hall of Fame volunteer. “That game changed a lot of things about the game of football. It caused a change in the rules concerning the forward pass and was the first game hash marks were put on the field.”
McConnell said the program featured on Pawn Stars had been listed on eBay with an asking price of $7,500.
The seller, who was unidentified by the show, said he wanted to sell the program to restore some posters. He said he got the program from a nephew of an employee of the Chicago Bears and he received the collection from his uncle.
“This is the day where professional football was almost like professional wrestling. There were probably 100 different leagues in different states,” Corey Harrison said during the show. “The Spartans were a cool team. They were from Portsmouth, Ohio, which even back then was a small town for a football team. They were asked to join the NFL and three years later they were sold to some guy in Detroit and changed to the Lions.”
For four seasons Portsmouth stood among the elite of professional football as a host city of the National Football League and left a brief, but enduring footprint in the sports’ history.
The first NFL night game came at Universal Stadium, now Spartan Municipal Stadium, against the Brooklyn Dodgers on Sept. 24, 1930. That was five years before the more recognized Major League Baseball nighttime debut at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in May 1935.
“Up until 1932 there was no postseason and the team with the best record was the NFL champion, but (George) Halas and the Portsmouth executives came to an agreement to play the game to determine the champion that season,” said Chris Willis of NFL films and author of Old Leather: An Oral History of Early Pro Football in Ohio, 1920-1935. “It was not an exciting game and was limited by the dirt floor and shortened playing field.”
Portsmouth lost 9-0 without their best player, Dutch Clark. The signature play of the game came on a Bronco Nagurski touchdown pass to Red Grange. That pass and the Spartans’ subsequent objection to Nagurski throwing the pass while within five yards of the line of scrimmage, a penalty at the time, led to broad changes to NFL rules the following season.
“It was one of the top four or five games in NFL history,” Willis said. “It led to rule changes, including the implementation of hash marks in an effort by league leadership to open the game up to the caliber of athletes that were coming in. You can’t talk about the history of the NFL without talking about the Spartans and that game.”
Corey purchased the program from the buyer for $2,750 under some skepticism of other cast members.
Later in the show a sports collector estimated the program was worth $10,000.
“I was surprised the program was appraised at $10,000 in that condition. If it had not been burned, I can see it getting that much. Evidently there are only two or three of those programs in existence. I know there is one in the Hall of Fame, beyond that I am not aware of any others,” McConnell said.
For more information on the history of the Portsmouth Spartans, visit PortsmouthSpartans.org.
Wayne Allen may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 208, or firstname.lastname@example.org.