Racine Legion/Tornadoes Play Their Final NFL Game, then Disband Due to Poor Record

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Racine Legion/Tornadoes Play Their Final NFL Game, then Disband Due to Poor Record

Logo of Racine (WI) Legion, member of NFL (1922-24, 1926)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military/Sports History: October 24, 1926

Today's posting combines two of my favorite subjects: military history and football. My story concerns a football team that played in the National Football League in the early, formative years of the organization. It's a quirky story, but I think you'll enjoy it. The Legion's involvement will be explained, so stay tuned…


Many sports historians still regard a "football" game between Rutgers and Princeton – played on November 6, 1869 – as the first collegiate football game (it was played using rules similar to soccer). However, the real story is that in 1874, Harvard played a home-and-home two-game series with McGill University of Montreal, Ontario, Canada. The teams played by Harvard's rules in the first game, with the Crimson winning 3-0. When the teams traveled to Montreal, they used McGill's rugby rules for the second game, which ended in a scoreless tie. However, the men of Harvard were enthralled by the McGill rules, and American football as we know it today began to evolve.

Over the next 20-30 years, semi-pro football teams began popping up in small towns and cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast. One of the first small-town amateur teams formed in Wisconsin was the Racine Regulars, founded in 1915. The Racine team played mostly other small-town teams from Illinois and Indiana. A year later, the team became known as the Racine Battery C after many of the players joined the First Wisconsin Reserve Artillery Battery C.

Because of the First World War and the ensuing Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the team took a break. It was reorganized in 1919 with sponsorship from American Legion Post #76 and William Horlick, president of his family's dairy company. [Mr. Horlick, an immigrant from England, invented malted milk.] The reorganized team was officially known as the Horlick-Racine Legion, but usually more simply the Racine Legion. The team played at Horlick Field, a stadium built for minor league baseball.

Horlick Athletic Field, Racine WI, home of Racine Legion (1922-24, 1926); Image courtesy of http://sportsecyclopedia.com/nfl/racine/legionpictures.html
Horlick Athletic Field, Racine WI, home of Racine Legion (1922-24, 1926)
Image courtesy of http://sportsecyclopedia.com/nfl/racine/legionpictures.html

The NFL Years

The founding of the American Professional Football Association in 1920 heralded a new era in American sports. A total of 14 teams were members of the APFA in its inaugural season. Over the next 5-8 years, teams would be created, join the new professional league, and then drop out or disappear.

In 1922, the league changed its name to the National Football League. At the same time, the league's leadership began soliciting semi-pro teams to join the NFL to provide strength and stability to the fledgling league. Four new teams joined the NFL that season; one of them was the Racine Legion. A large part of the NFL franchise fee of $100 came from Post #76.

In its inaugural season in the NFL, the Racine team posted a decent record of 6-wins, 4 losses, and a tie, which was good enough for sixth place in the 18-team league. During the course of the 1922 season, the Legion played in-state rivals the Green Bay Packers three times, yielding a record of 1-1-1. Five of the team's six wins were shutouts, with the defeat of the Louisville Brecks by 57-0 the season's highlight. [Prior to the Louisville game, the Legion gave away tickets to 200 young women to boost the attendance.]

Hank Gillo in action, photographer & date unknown;  Image courtesy of http://sportsecyclopedia.com/nfl/racine/legionpictures.html
Hank Gillo in action, photographer & date unknown
Image courtesy of http://sportsecyclopedia.com/nfl/racine/legionpictures.html

The Racine Legion was coached by George Gerhard "Babe" Ruetz. He led the team during its first three years, and also served as the general manager in 1922 and 1923. Racine boasted the league's leading scorer, running back/kicker Hank Gillo, who scored 5 touchdowns, 6 field goals, and 6 extra points, for a total of 52 points.

The Later Seasons…and The End

Though Racine got better every week during the 1922 season, the attendance did not. After drawing crowds of 4,000 and 3,600 in the first two games, the team's attendance dropped off to 1,400 a game. A fund-raising dinner organized by Legion Post #76 temporarily bailed out the team, and the Legion returned in 1923. They went 4-4-2 that year to finish tenth in a 20-team league. Racine kept treading water in 1924, with a record of 4-3-3.

The financial burden of running the team (with only tepid attendance in the upper Midwest) proved too much for the Legion. The club was sold to the Racine Exchange Club , and operations were suspended for the year 1925. But events in the sporting world brought new life to the Racine football club.

Harold "Red" Grange (1903-1991), c. 1925;  Photographer unknown
Harold "Red" Grange (1903-1991), c. 1925
Photographer unknown

In 1926, a rival league called the American Football League was formed. [Football historians refer to this league as the AFL I, to distinguish it from other AFLs which sprang up later.] One of the new league's main draws was former University of Illinois and Chicago Bear star Red Grange. To counter the threat of the up-start league, the NFL began beating the bushes, seeking new franchises to join and players to be signed to prevent their enlistment by the AFL. In addition, teams which had previously been members of the NFL were pressured to return to the league. As a consequence, the Racine team was revived and returned to the NFL.

With new coaching (player-coaches Shorty Barr and Wally McIlwain) and a new name (the Tornadoes), the reconstituted team opened the 1926 season with a 6-3 victory over the Hammond (IN) Pros. Things then went downhill rapidly, as they lost four consecutive games by a combined 89-2 scores. The Legion's last game was in Green Bay, October 24, 1926. After absorbing a 35-0 drubbing at the hands of their in-state rivals, the team folded. Its four-year record was 15-15-5.

Footnote #1: The NFL's 1926 Constitution and By-Laws declared that no team should pay out more than $1200 per game in player, coach and manager salaries. With teams generally consisting of 18 players, that meant the big bucks were hard to come by. In many early NFL games, players or coaches would pass the hat among the crowd to help make up for the players' $50 or even $100 per game salaries.

Footnote #2: Since the demise of the Racine Legion/Tornadoes, a number of other semi-pro/amateur football teams have represented this southern Wisconsin city. The most recent is the Racine Raiders, a team that as members of the Mid-States Football League has won 9 league championships since 1987.

Footnote #3: Built in 1907, Horlick Field is still being used today, not only for Racine Raiders football, but as a showcase for drum-and-bugle corps competitions. The ballpark was also used in the 1940s as the home field of the Racine Belles, a women's fast-pitch baseball team immortalized in the 1992 film A League of Their Own.

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