Original Home of the NFL Spartans (Detroit Lions)
Today's Spartan-Municipal Stadium began its life as Universal Stadium in the summer of 1930, when Harry Snyder, the largest share owner of the Portsmouth Spartans, began its construction as part of the deal that brought an NFL franchise to the Peerless City.
When a stadium referendum lost for a third time, Harry N. Snyder, owner of Universal Contracting Co., proposed to build the stadium with private funds and profits from ticket sales. Snyder, however, insisted that he could only move forward with the project, as its primary investor, if the Spartans organization secured a franchise from the National Football League.
The Portsmouth Daily Times reported, "The fate of the stadium was hanging in a balance as the Stadium Corporation announced that they would not go ahead with the project unless the Spartans entered the National League. They were of the opinion that without National League teams to play here the Spartans would not be able to draw sufficient of a crowd to support a stadium. As soon as the agreement was made to sign a note as an entrance fee to the league, the stadium people, who attended the meeting, stated that they were ready to go the limit with their plans and that as soon as the city awarded them the lease on the field they would begin work. The granting of the lease on the Labold Field will mark the close of more than a three-year fight for an athletic stadium here. At first popular subscriptions to build a stadium failed, then three bond issues failed when the matter was brought before the voters. A private enterprise has agreed to go ahead with the work and accept the responsibility."
On 23 July 1930, "city officials, officials of the stadium company, heads of the Portsmouth school systems and heads of many other organizations interested in athletics," were on hand when Mayor Robert G. Bryan turned the "first dirt," marking the start of the stadium's construction. Various delays, however, meant that Universal Stadium was largely a "wooden structure" when it first opened in September, 1930.
Coleman Grimes of the Times reported, "The only concrete that will be poured will be in the box seats and for the footers. Twenty tiers of wooden stands will be erected before the first game, September 14, and the stands will be so erected the super-structure will be turned into forms for pouring the concrete."
Snyder assured the Times that before the next season, baseball diamonds, a track, and an additional ten tiers of seating would be built. For the season opening, Universal Stadium would be ready to hold 8,000 visitors. "The south end of the field will be enclosed and will be reserved for children. Youngsters up to 14 years of age will be admitted to all games for twenty-five cents."
The Spartans made their NFL debut with their home opener and they won, defeating the Newark (New Jersey) Tornadoes. Soon the Spartans would host their first night game, though not the first in the history of the NFL -- that honor belongs to the Providence, Rhode Island Steam Rollers. Nevertheless, Universal Stadium hosted the first night pro football game in Ohio and one of the first in all of the National Football League. And, would be the scene of the greatest football game ever played in Portsmouth, Ohio -- the Iron Man Game of December 4th, 1932.
It was here that Potsy Clark's immortal eleven defeated the Champion Green Bay Packers 19-0 with out making a single substitution. Eleven Spartans played both offense and defense, the full sixty minutes of the game. The Iron Man Game, as it has since become known, marked the largest crowd to ever attend an event at the stadium, with an estimated 13,000-plus in attendance. Such gate numbers, however, were extraordinary.
The well-laid plans of Harry Snyder and the Spartan organization, however, did not pan out as expected. Ticket sales were never enough to cover the team's and the stadium's operating expensives, let alone the completion of the stadium's construction. In 1934, when Snyder explained why he and the board of directors had decided to sell the team franchise to Detroit, he noted that "the team lost $27,000 in 1930, $16,000 in 1931, $5,000 in 1932 and $14,000 in 1933."
On April 5th, 1934, the Portsmouth National League Football Corp. held a stockholders meeting at the Selby Auditorium, where a vote was taken on whether to sell the team's NFL franchise to "a group of Detroit men, headed by George A. Richards." The Times reported that Detroit would pay $10,000 "for the team and all of its equipment." When the ballots had been counted, 49 favored the sale and 31 opposed it.
Snyder explained that $3,000 would be used to pay salaries of the players, $3,300 to pay federal taxes, and $1,058 to pay a debt owed the Chicago Bears for their share of the gate "for what turned out to be the last National league game in Portsmouth." The remainder was "used to pay a few commericial bills and the rest applied to payment of $6,000 in notes held here."
The Works Progress Administration Completes Construction of Stadium
Long before the sale of the Spartans to Detroit, Snyder and Portsmouth officials were pursuing an alternative means to complete the construction of the stadium, one that would not rely on ticket sales, but rather an infusion of Federal moneys via Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).
As early as June 1933, the City’s Engineering Department began working on a new set of blueprints that would be part of a WPA project proposal — Universal Stadium would be finished as a part of a larger recreational center that could be used by the public and the local high schools, and also serve as the possible home of a professional baseball team. This was a return to the original vision of 1925, when the City first voted down the stadium levy.
The Engineering Department revised Snyder’s original plans for the Stadium and the City Manager submitted the new drawings as part of the larger WPA project. The final design work was all done with the NFL Spartans in mind. The Daily Times would announce in late September 1933, during the last season of the Spartans: “Portsmouth’s municipal stadium project has won the approval of the Ohio public works administration and the plans have been forwarded to Washington for approval or rejection.”
Even though the Spartans met with great success on the field, ticket sales disappointed and Harry Snyder found the Spartans facing bankruptcy. While Snyder was consulting with potential buyers in New York City and Detroit in January 1934, the Times reported that City Manager Frank Sheehan had received word from Columbus that the “stadium project” would be funded through the “public works program.” The Federal government would provide $27,000 and the city, $63,000 for the improvement. To pay for it the city would “issue bonds to cover its portion of converting the stadium into a recreational center and the government would take the bonds under a loan proposition. The city would retire the bonds from the revenues collected at the stadium. City officials said Saturday that no tax levy of any kind would be necessary.”
WPA construction of what became then known as Portsmouth Municipal Stadium began in December 1935, with a total cost of $99,114. The Times reported, "with the addition of 10 rows, the seating capacity was increased from 4,200 to 6,500. It contains 30 rows instead of 20 when originally built by Harry N. Snyder, former head of the Portsmouth Football Corp."
"The stand is 300 feet long, 72 feet wide and 39 feet high. Materials in the stand included 2,000 tons or 1,481 cubic yards of gravel; 1,200 tons or 889 cubic yards of sand; 2,300 barrels of cement and 350 barrels of prepared mortar; 53 tons of steel and 210,000 brick. The concrete mix was one portion of cement, two portions of sand and four portions of gravel. The stand was designed to carry a load of 3,500 pounds per square inch. The concrete tested 3,850 pounds per square inch. The fence required 300,000 brick. There is a quarter-mile track inside of the stadium. The seating capacity can be increased to 9,000 or 10,000 by erection of bleachers. .... The promenade beneath the stand is so roomy that automobiles and trucks may be driven through it with ease."
The original Universal Stadium was designed by Arthur Wall, assistant city engineer. The Times noted that "a large portion of the plan" was used by the WPA in their final design. Wall had been "commissioned by Mr. Snyder to draw the plans and prepare the estimates." Erik Strindberg, working for the City, would revise the designs in November 1935 and these would be used by C. H. Samson, the WPA's general foreman.
Thus, thanks to the WPA, Universal Stadium would be completed in 1936, alongside the construction of a baseball stadium, which has since become known as Branch Rickey Park. The new complex and fully-concreted stadium would be dedicated on September 25th, 1936. The ceremony was organized by the Civic Forum and opened with "a concert by the Portsmouth High School State Championship Band." Mayor Joseph L. Kountz and Forest Williams, president of the Portsmouth City School Board, made opening remarks, with Francis Schmidt, the coach of The Ohio State University football team delivering the primary address.
Following the ceremonial opening, the Portsmouth High School Trojans played their first game in the new Municipal Stadium against the Hamilton High School Big Blues, with the teams battling it out to a 7-7 draw. PHS would play their games here until the construction of their new sports facilities, including the Portsmouth Collosium, in 2009. Today, Spartan-Municipal Stadium is home to the Notre Dame Titans, Portsmouth's private Catholic higheschool. And, it remains a popular venue for public sporting and entertainment events.