A Mystery Postcard and the 1919 Southwest Championship Game
I periodically buy old postcards with one sort of football theme theme or another. Some postcards show game action shots, others have players posing in the equipment or stadiums of the past, and some feature team pictures. Almost all are Real Photo Past Cards (RPPCs), photographic images printed on postcard stock by commercial, yearbook, or amateur photographers. Campus bookstores often sold RPPCs; students sent them to friends and family with quick notes on the latest happenings. RPPCs were the tweets or Facebook posts of their day, sent to one follower at a time.
Most of the RPPCs I buy illustrate a specific aspect of football history. I used fourteen RPPCs as illustrations in How Football Became Football to document the points being made and to help readers visualize the same. Conversely, I sometimes buy RPPCs despite having little or no knowledge of the depicted scene, planning to undertake the detective work needed to identify the people, location, or action captured. Such was the case when I acquired the RPPC shown in the banner above.
My initial attraction to the postcard stemmed from the dust kicked up by the players on the field. Images showing dusty fields remind us the gridirons of the past were not as well maintained as they are today. The postcard also held potential for my detective work to be successful. The label in the lower left corner (see full image below) indicates the game was played in Long Beach, and the distinctive buildings in the background offer assistance in confirming the location. Finally, the player uniforms suggested a game played sometime around WWI, and the large crowd indicates it was an important game, but what big games were played in Long Beach back then? Did Long Beach State or another college team play in Long Beach during the WWI era?
A bit of searching through newspaper archives and online images of the period helped identify the buildings in the background as Long Beach Polytechnic High School, which has one of the nation's storied athletic programs. Long Beach Poly had over 4,000 students at times, giving it a fair chance for athletic success if the right systems and coaching are in place.
After confirming the stadium was at Long Beach Poly, I realized it held a potential connection to my first book, Fields of Friendly Strife, because one of Poly's head coaches during the era was involved with the Camp Lewis team. Long Beach Poly hired the young Edgar H. Kienholz as their Physical Director in 1916. Eddie lettered at Washington State from 1910 through 1912 and earned a Master's degree there in 1915. He also taught classes and was an assistant coach for the Washington State team that beat Brown in the 1916 Rose Bowl.
Kienholz inherited a Poly team with little experience, going 3-4-1 in 1916. As practice was getting underway for the 1917 season, Kienholz was drafted into the Army and sent to Camp Lewis, near Spokane. There he became the camp's assistant athletic director and an assistant football coach for the all-star camp team. Kienholz scheduled intramural leagues and helped arrange games for the base all-star team against outside competition, including Camp Lewis' appearance against the Mare Island Marines in the 1918 Rose Bowl. (Kienholz entered the 1918 Rose Bowl as a substitute, making him the only man to play in a Rose Bowl after coaching in an earlier Rose Bowl.) While in the Army, Kienholz also coached Long Beach Poly football remotely, sending written instructions from Camp Lewis.
Kienholz returned to Long Beach Poly after his discharge in 1919 to find an abundance of talent. Nine of the 1919 team's eleven starters went on to play major college football, as did some substitutes. Poly started the season with several dominating wins and just kept going, giving up only seven points during the regular season. They won their first four state playoff games 58-0, 47-0, and 41-0 (twice), setting up a December 27, 1919 battle for the California high school championship versus Berkeley High. Played at Tournament Park in Pasadena, the site of the annual "Rose Bowl" game before Rose Bowl Stadium was built and named, Berkeley gave Poly all it could handle, but Poly came out the winner, 21-14. Five days later, the city honored the team by having them ride on a Tournament of Roses parade float that trundled through the streets of Pasadena on New Year's Day.
After winning the state championship, Long Beach Poly accepted the challenge of playing the Arizona state champion, Phoenix High School, for the championship of the Southwest. Scheduled for January 10, 1920, the Long Beach community quickly built bleachers and borrowed others from a circus to handle the 12,000 attendees who came from far and wide to witness the big game. (It was claimed to be the biggest crowd to ever watch a prep football game in the U.S. It came in a year USC's largest home crowd had 9,000 attendees.)
Because the Southwest championship game was such a big deal, images of the game found their way into books of the time and later school histories. One of the images published in those books matches the postcard, allowing me to confirm the image shows game action from the Long Beach Poly-Phoenix game. Looking at the postcard again, it is unclear which team is on offense or defense, or what point in the game the image captures, but there is a good chance Poly scored on the play since they overwhelmed Phoenix. Poly ran the ball up the middle, ran reverses -a play the Phoenicians had never seen- and double reverses, which the Phoenicians had not even imagined, with Poly coming away with a 102-0 win.
Their performance in the 1919 season was impressive, but Poly was just getting started. They pounded through the 1920 season in similar fashion before opting not to participate in the 1920 state playoffs since they had already beaten many likely opponents. Instead, they took on Washington's Everett High School, a team that had not lost in eight years. Unfortunately for Poly, they lost to Everett, but the school went to win more California state titles than any other school and claims to have had more alums play in the NFL than any high school in the nation.
Coach Eddie Kienholz, meanwhile, left Poly to take over the Santa Clara University football program in 1923. After two years there, he moved to Occidental College as the football coach and athletic director, before returning to the high school ranks in the 1940s as an administrator.
So, a mystery postcard that lured me in based on the dust kicked up by the players revealed a tight connection to a player and coach I already knew. Moreover, it revealed the story of Long Beach Poly, an early high school playoff system, and America's fascination with football. The couple of bucks I spent turned out to be a good investment.
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