“The Old, Original Penns Grove Red Devils”
by Eleanor Peak Zane
For year people around Salem County have talked about a legendary football team known as the “Old Original Red Devils.” That group of men captured
the attention of fans and sports writers, and lives in the memories of those who heard the stories, or lived them. This is their story.
In September of 1924, at the Borough Hall in Penns Grove, a meeting was held to organize a football team to be known as the Penns Grove Athletic
Association. This meeting was called by Charles “Lolly” Dolbow, and twenty-four men, from all walks of life, responded to this call. James Loos was
elected Football manager, and Vernon Ayar and Fred Summerill elected to Finance Committee. Powell Bradway was selected as Secretary, and Willian
Calahan was to coach. Practice would be held on Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. Games would be scheduled so as not to conflict with the schedule
of the already formed DuPont Tigers who played at the DuPont field. The Club planned a fundraiser for the purchase of equipment. They would sell
tickets to the Broad Theatre for 25 cents. The picture playing was “Hospitality” with Buster Keaton. It is not known how much of that money went to the
The season opened on October 4 that year, but the team suffered defeat at the hands of a more experienced Paulsboro A.A. team. However, the score
was not to be ashamed of, it was 6 – 0. The Penns grove team put up a valiant fight, in the words of a reporter from the Penns Grove Record, here is
how that game started the long list of football stories that would follow this Penns Grove team for years.
“The third quarter was a punting duel with Harold Peterson (Penns Grove) outdistancing his opponent. Most of his punts went back to the goal line. One
he had placed there from his own 35 yard line, and Hendrickson (Paulsboro) soon started to carry it down the field only to be downed one foot outside
the line. Mattson, (Paulsboro) the 230 pounder, insisted it was behind the line, and that it should be put on play on the 20 yard line. The referee did not
agree with this , so Mattson replied with a heavy fisticuff and was ruled out of the game. The town could not stand this, so the referee was fired. Mayor
Vaneman, who had been Head Lineman, was given his place, and Raymond Burke generously consented to be the Lineman. In the final period, another
punt in which Peterson gave Penns grove a good lead, but there were more fumbles and a slip of bad luck which let Paulsboro hold them in mid-field
until the end.”
From the many reports of sports played in those days, fighting seemed to be an ordinary part of the game. It is surprising, however, to learn that it may
not have been unusual to simply fire the officials if the fans did not agree with the rulings.
1924 and 1925 were so-so years for the Penns Grove A.A., but they started off the 1926 season with a clamor that made all sports fans in South Jersey
stand up and take notice. This team became the sports writers dream team. Glowing reports of all the games can be found in local papers as well as
Camden and Gloucester papers.
The team was now being coached by John M. Summerill, Jr. who had been a football star at Rutgers University. He was known to most local folks as
“Plug.” He began coaching the Penns Grove High School football team in 1921, and led them for four years with only one defeat. When the Penns Grove
A.A. was formed, he was selected as coach for that team. Now he would have on this team some of the boys that he had coached in high school. He had,
from that great team, such fellows as Emerson Cunningham, Jack Homan, Julian Martell, Reynolds Catts, Art Blasioli and Art Collins. At this same time,
Mr. Summerill had opened a law office in Camden, but devoted week-ends to whipping the team into shape. It is interesting to note that Mr. Summerill
enjoyed a long career as an attorney, and later would go on to become President of the New Jersey Senate. During the first two years he coached this
team, Penns grove scored 455 points and only had 32 points scored against them. They never had been defeated or tied during that time. The years
were 1926 and 1927.
The team had now purchased new uniforms of red and white with vertical red and white striped jerseys and white stockings. Practices were held at the
Delaware Ordinance Depot. The games had been scheduled for Sundays at that field, but due to the objection of Oldmans Township,they were barred
from playing Sunday sports on the Ordinance grounds. They arranged to play on Saturday at the Sack property in Penns Grove. The team became so
popular it became evident that the crowds attending needed more space. So the team began to play at Camp Benson in Pennsville. Most of their games
were played there. When the team practiced at nighttime, they used a field in the Friendship area, parking their cars on the sidelines and shining the
headlights on the field.
Their line averaged about 190 pounds and the backfield about 175. The player bought their own equipment for every season except one. “We never
made money,” an old timer recalled. There is, however, an account of the team being honored at a banquet given at the Elks home on West Main Street
in November of 1927. During that program it was reported that when finances were totaled for the year of 1926, each player received $4 for the season’s
work. How’s that for big money?
A treasured keepsake is a program from the game between Penns grove A.A. and Paulsboro A.A. played September 23, 1928. In this program are ads
from no less than 62 local business places. In one ad there is a reference made to the team as the “Jersey Devils.” Not the Red Devils. Up to this point,
we could find no account of the team being called the Red Devils. However, in the newspaper reports of that game, the write-up did refer to them in this
way, and in all news articles after that, the Penns Grove A.A. became the “Red Devils.”
Jimmy Loos, who served the team as General Manager and Treasurer at the start, was the owner of the Elite Sandwich Company at 47 S. Broad Street.
Jimmy allowed the club to meet at his place of business, also, to munch on his sandwiches.
Jack McGrath, a follower of sports, served as the club trainer. He was referred to as “doctor.” George Martell, quarterback, was a graduate of Franklin
Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. where he was a star football player for four years. Later in life, he would be a favorite referee at local high school
games. George passed away in 1991. Fans remembered him for his brainwork at quarterback, which added finesse to the whole team. A clever blocking
back, he seldom carried the ball.
Butch Schlachter (later spelled Slater during his professional wrestling career) and “Ace” Holmes were the colorful tackles for the team. Often their
shenanigans caused more talk than the game play. Butch worked on a merchant ship, and usually his port was Philadelphia. Once when the ship was on
its way back to port, and Butch knew a game was to be played shortly, he jumped overboard in the Penns Grove area and swam to shore. He knew if he
went to Philadelphia it would be some time before the ship tied up and he arranged to get home. Not wanting to miss the chance to play ball, he barely
got dry before going into the game. ‘Before one big game, Butch and ace made a bet with each other over which one would make the first tackle in the
game. At the kick-off, there was a fumble, and “Ace” picked up the ball and started towards the goal. It looked as though the bet was off for the moment
and “Ace” might make a significant gain. However, Butch, who was supposed to be running interferenece, finally tackled his teammate ten yards from the
goal line and won the bet. In spite of that sort of horse-play, the Red Devils won the game. A fellow who played high school football during those years
tells of the times Butch would borrow his high school game pants and sometimes forget to return them in time for the high school game. He would have to
go looking for Butch to get the pants back before the game to stay out of trouble with his own coach.
Jack “Feets” Homan, the gentleman of the squad, who handled the kicking and ball snapping departments, but never got dirty, never. That is until “Ace”
and Butch, after wallowing therough a particularly muddy game, discovered him with only his feet dirty, and so proceeded to roll him in the mire.
Teammates claimed that Feets brought his uniform to each game neatly cleaned and pressed. They also recalled that he never made a bad pass from
center, and averaged 50 to 60 yards to each punt. His high school career was filled with such stories, and those years were probably the start of his
nickname, “Feets” because of the kicking prowess he showed in that area.
Nicknames were a dime a dozen among the old Red Devils. Reynolds Catts was known as “Rabbit” because of his hopping stride. But he sure got the job
done during the games. ”Ho-Ho” Bennett and “Hick” Wright added to the variety of nicknames, but the origin of those names is lost to us, unless some
reader can help us out.
Emerson “Sooner” Cunningham got his nickname, so historians say, because he would sooner sit down than run. Regardless of this fact, he was one of
the hardest hitting players on the team and specialized in running interference for the ball toters.
A teammate once described Julian “Doggy” Price as one of the fastest men on the squad and also one of the fairest. At Penns Grove High School, he
achieved records in football, track, and baseball which were outstanding.
Joe Patterson, otherwise known as “Jo-Jo”, had the reputation of being the “cleanest living” member of the team. He didn’t drink or swear and was
selected captain of the squad. Jo-Jo was one of the best backs the Red Devils ever produced. Patterson died of injuries in a plant explosion in
December of 1932. He was only 35 years old.
Art Collins had the reputation of being a quiet, reserved fellow, but it is said that once he was heard to complain, “I don’t mind these guys piling on, but I
hate to hear them walkin’ on my headgear.”
Harry “Knute” Peak was the prize tobacco chewer of the team. One day after a particularly rough tackle, he suddenly became ill…it turned out he had
swallowed his “chew.” Knute would later coach many teams in the town including the St. James’ teams and the Veterans’ team after world War II.
Boyd Smith was also known as “Flower Pot” because his father was a florist. He was also called the “Man with the Flying Hands,” because he always
came up with a foot (somebody else’s) in his hand.
James “Nazzo” Clemente was well known to the football fans before he joined the Red Devils, because of his school reputation. During the Salem –
Penns Grove game in 1924, he was pulled into the backfield from his end position and still scored three touchdowns. Penns Grove blasted Salem 42 – 0
that year. He would later coach many teams in Penns Grove.
Jake Dolbow was the team’s handyman. He played every position on the line, although his regular position was at end. In high school he participated in
track, football and baseball.
In September of 1930, the following was written in the Penns Grove Record…”Penns Grove Red Devils, Independent Football Kings of South Jersey,
Philadelphia, Montgomery and Delaware County in PA., and the State of Delaware, will begin practice to start a 4th undefeated year.”
By 1930, the Penns Grove “Imps” had also established themselves as a formidable team. The players from both teams often took the field together as
one Red Devil team, and they were a powerhouse, hard to beat. It was not unusual for 2000 fans to come out to see these local games. In November
1930, the Red Devils played the Atlantic City Olympics in Convention Hall. Both teams had been undefeated that year. To a crowd of at least 10,000
cheering fans, Penns Grove was defeated 13 – 0 in an exhibition game to aid Atlantic City’s needy.
One week later, in one of the most bitter contests ever fought by the two arch-rivals, Riverside A.A. defeated Penns Grove 7 – 0, breaking the four year,
undefeated reign of the Red Devils. To quote part of a news report:
“These two teams were playing for blood. Fights, both on the field and in the stands were numerous. The bad feeling reached its zenith in the final
moments of the game, when Penns Grove’s Jack Homan and Jake Pitkoe (Riverside) were evicted for pot hooking. The Brewer (PG) and Regal
(Riverside) staged a “Jack-the-Giant-Killer Comedy” which caused the spectators to pile out on the field for a free-for-all, delaying the game for ten
I can not pretend I know the actual meaning of the terms “pot hooking” and “Jack-the-Giant-Killer Comedy”, but I guess some of the old timers reading
this could tell us about it. Maybe we will get some enlightening phone calls or letters. Let’s hope so.
The Red Devils took the Championship South Jersey Class B Independent Title in 1926 and held it each year until 1931, when Riverside took over. The
Red Devils came back in 1932 and 1933 to win the title again as a last hurrah before the team began to break up. Having heard them called “Legends,” I
looked in the dictionary for the meaning. “Legends”: A story coming down from the past, one popularly regarded as historical, although not verifiable…A
body of such stories. We know from newspaper accounts that such a team did exist. But the stories of the men on that team, were they legendary? I
wish I could have seen them on the playing field. I would have loved to be one of the cheering fans. I can only imagine the pride one must have felt as
this local team came back week after week to thrill the crowds with the fast,hard game they took so seriously. They called it a game, but the football of
those years was tougher and more dangerous than it is today. Light padding, a light helmet, maybe spiked shoes, that was about it. These were not
professional athletes, paid a lot of money to participate in a big, revenue producing business. No. they were family men, business men, factory workers
and farmers, and they were not all young men. Several of them were in their late 30’s or early 40’s. This is the stuff legends are made of. These colorful
men and their love of the game that was rough and tough and the fans who loved it that way.
There are many more stories to tell and we will be searching them out, hoping to bring them to you at a later date. The Imps, the Cubs, the old DuPont
Tigers, they are all stories waiting to be told. Also, some of our local baseball teams have earned the title “legendary.” We have had some great local
teams and fine athletes who deserve to be praised and remembered.
HOMETOWN NEWS November 20, 1995