Honoring the Yellow Jackets

The Frankford Yellow Jackets

Most football fans in the Philadelphia area have heard of the Frankford Yellow Jackets and some even know that the team won an NFL championship, “…back in the 30’s or something.” Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of common knowledge regarding this ball club, and it’s a real shame. Far too few people are aware of the fascinating story of this organization that was once both a dominant force on the gridiron and a vital part of the community…

In 1922, a ragtag group of football clubs in the Northeast changed its name from the American Professional Football Association to the National Football League. Famous college football players like All-America halfback Red Grange began to sign NFL contracts, and the professional game began to grow. The National Football League grew quickly across the country, and by 1925 the NFL was comprised of 23 franchises.

The Frankford Yellow Jackets, hailing from the Frankford section of Philadelphia, were granted an NFL franchise in 1924. Although the Yellow Jackets were new to the NFL, the team was not a new face in the sport of football. The Frankford football team was a part of the Frankford Athletic Association, which had existed in some form since 1899. The game of football in the late 1800s was a little different than the one played today. The contest was divided into two full halves rather than four quarters, both touchdowns and field-goals scored five points and the on field action more closely resembled a rugby scrum than the display of precision choreography we witness every Sunday. Yet this was the time and the game that spawned a team that would eventually evolve into the National Football League champion Frankford Yellow Jackets. By the early 1920s, the Frankford Yellow Jackets football team was one of the finest independent teams in the country.

The Jackets were tested in 1922 when they played a scrimmage against their first NFL opponent, the Rochester Jeffersons. Although they were still an independent team, Frankford came away from the match with an easy 20-0 victory. The Yellow Jackets scrimmaged several more NFL teams in 1922 and 1923, compiling a respectable 6-2-1 record. It was not long before the NFL recognized the talent of the Yellow Jackets, and the team finally joined the league in 1924.

Frankford Stadium
Credit: John J. Fenton, Ghosts of the Gridiron

Frankford , home of the Yellow Jackets, seated 9,000 fans but was severely damaged by fire in 1931.

The Yellow Jackets took the NFL by storm, soundly defeating the Rochester Jeffersons 21-0 in the opening game of the 1924 season. Frankford went on to complete the season with an 11-2-1 NFL record, finishing third in the standings. In the early days of the NFL, teams had to play a minimum number of games per season but were free to schedule more. Between 1924 and 1931, Frankford scheduled more games than any other team in the league, including many non-league games. When the Yellow Jackets played at home, they usually attracted a capacity crowd of 9,000 at Frankford Stadium. At a cost of $100,000, Frankford Stadium was built in 1923 on a converted horse track at Frankford Avenue and Devereaux Street, in the Northeast section of Philadelphia.

Frankford often had to contend with grueling back-to-back games on Saturdays and Sundays. Because Pennsylvania blue laws prohibited the team from playing at home on Sundays, the team was forced to schedule home games for Saturdays. Most other teams in the NFL played on Sundays, so Frankford players would usually play at home on Saturday, ride a train all night to a different state, and play a road game on Sunday.

Despite the team’s demanding schedule, the Yellow Jackets were one of the most successful NFL teams of the 1920s. A large part of Frankford’s success was the team’s ability to attract some of the best players of the era. Some of the best Yellow Jackets were tackle Swede Youngstrum, fullback Houston Stockton and quarterback Harry “Two Bits” Homan. Although he was one of Frankford’s finest players, Homan stood just five feet five inches tall and was the smallest player in the league. In 1925, Frankford reached an agreement with Guy Chamberlain, a phenomenal All-American out of Nebraska. Chamberlain had been a player-coach for the Cleveland Bulldogs for the past two seasons, leading that franchise to back-to-back NFL championships.

Guy Chamberlain Running Play
Credit: Rich Westcott
Frankford player/coach Guy Chamberlain (far left) chases down an opposing player during a match against the Dayton Triangles.

Chamberlain immediately made an impact in Frankford. As a player, coach and captain of the 1926 Yellow Jackets, Chamberlain led the team to a 12-1-1 record heading into the most important game of the season against Red Grange and the undefeated Chicago Bears. Although each team still had two more games scheduled for the remainder of the season, Philadelphia newspapers were already referring to this showdown as the NFL championship game.

The game was a grueling defensive battle. The Bears finally broke a 0-0 tie with a touchdown in the third quarter, but Frankford’s Guy Chamberlain managed to block the extra point. With only a few minutes remaining in the game and the Bears leading 6-0, Frankford faced a critical fourth down and three just outside the Chicago end zone. On this vital play, Houston Stockton managed to complete a touchdown pass to “Two Bits” Homan to tie the game at 6. The Yellow Jackets successfully kicked the extra point and finished the game alone atop the NFL standings. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer said of the win, “Oh, what a bedlam, as hats and other miscellaneous articles were tossed in the air, and the crowd threatened to break forth in its demonstration in true rabble fashion on the gridiron.”

Frankford went on to finish out the season with a 14-1-2 record, making them the undisputed 1926 NFL champions. Eleven of those victories were shutouts. This spectacular season marked the first time in history that a Philadelphia team won a national football championship. Frankford’s 14 wins that season remained an NFL record that would not be broken until 1984, nearly 60 years later, when the San Francisco 49ers achieved a 15 win season.

The Great Depression had a severe impact on the communities from which the Yellow Jackets drew support. Unemployment rose as local textile mills and factories closed, and many of the businesses and individuals that had long supported both the Frankford AA and the team were finding it more difficult to do so. As a result 1931 would be the final season for the Yellow Jackets.

Before the season Frankford Stadium was severely damaged in a fire forcing the team to play home games at other locations in the area including Philadelphia Municipal Stadium and Phillies’ Ball Park. While these last two fields were located well outside of the Frankford area, making attendance difficult even for those local fans who could still afford the expense, it was hoped that the team would draw broader support from Philadelphia at large. And while some in the press had taken to referring to the team as the Philadelphia Yellow Jackets, the much needed support from the rest of the city never materialized.

The Yellow Jackets played only one more game before it was announced that the team was disbanding for the remainder of the season. This prompted many reminiscences about the Yellow Jackets, including one by noted Philadelphia sports writer Gordon Mackay, hoping against hope for the survival of the team. Unfortunately that was not to be, and shortly thereafter the franchise was forfeited to the league.

Now 85 years later as part of American Indoor Football the Philadelphia Yellow Jackets are returning to the gridiron once more.