Talmud Torahs vs. Swastikas

The combination of words was eye-catching. And image-generating: holocaust, horrors. But on the sports pages of the Minneapolis Tribune? In 1921?

There they were, two teams competing in the 125-pound division of the Minneapolis Amateur Football Association: the Swastikas and the Talmud Torahs. But this was before the Nazis stigmatized the swastika, which had Sanskrit origins and had been used around the globe for millenia as a symbol of good luck or success. It was a good word, a positive symbol. It was only a year earlier that the German National Socialist Party had adopted the swastika as its symbol and it would be nine years more until Adolph Hitler created the famous red, white and black swastika flag.

I haven’t been able to find any information on who sponsored the Swastika team or what part of the city they came from. I know more about the Talmud Torah teams. The Talmud Torah was a Hebrew free school, established in 1893, that instructed Jewish children in Hebrew language and literature and the history and traditions of the Jewish people. Students attended the Talmud Torah after their regular day of study at public schools.

Talmud Torah, 725 Fremont Avenue North, ca. 1950, sponsored sports teams in park recreation leagues beginning in 1919. (Minneapolis Star Journal Tribune, Minnesota Historical Society)

In 1915 a new Talmud Torah opened on Fremont and Eighth Avenue North. The original Talmud Torah had been supported by the Keneseth Israel congregation, but the school in the new building had a wider base of support than a single congregation. According to an article in the Minneapolis Tribune, January 10, 1915, the school “will make Minneapolis famous as the only city in which practically all the people of the Jewish race have united in providing an institute … for Jews of any language and social condition.”

The first sports score I can find for the Talmud Torahs was a basketball victory at their gym in December 20, 1919, when they defeated the Eagle A. C. 56-4. Nice debut. (Minneapolis Tribune, December 21, 1919.) But the Talmud Torahs — that’s what newspapers called them, just as they referred to the “Bottineaus” or “Powderhorns” for teams representing those parks — showed up in the sports pages of the Tribune especially during the football season. That was presaged perhaps by an article in the Minneapolis Tribune, November 28, 1915, which announced that the Newsboys Club of some 300 boys “accustomed to the life of the streets” had been taken under the wing of the social settlement house also established at Talmud Torah and that they would be instructed by University students that were “expert in football.” Those newsboys may have been the foundation for later Talmud Torah teams. Perhaps the most famous newsboy of that neighborhood is Sid Hartman of the StarTribune sports page, although he isn’t quite old enough to have been in the club at that date.

The home football field of the Talmud Torah teams was Sumner Field, just two blocks east of the school on Eighth. The school sponsored one to three teams each year in the early 1920s.

The weight divisions in those days were determined quite differently from today, when most restrictions on youth football are based on a weight limit. Only players under a certain weight are allowed to play in that league. It was different in the late 1910s and 1920s. Then each team registered with 16 players on its roster. The players were weighed and the average weight of those players determined the league they played in. Leagues ranged from 95 or 100 pounds to 140 pounds. increasing in 5 or 10 pound increments, with a “senior” division in which weight did not matter. Also interesting is that the weight classes applied without apparent regard to age. For example, an article in the Tribune about a 135-pound league game in 1921 noted that the match-up featured several former All-City high school stars.

The first Talmud Torah football team, 1920 (Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, jhsum.com)

In 1920 the Talmud Torah team played in the 140-pound league and deep into the season was undefeated and unscored upon. In 1921 Talmud Torah had two teams, one played in the 125-pound league with the Swastikas  — and won their division, a playoff with the winner of the other 125-pound division was snowed out — and the Talmud Torah Cubs played in the 100-pound league. The next year Talmud Torah sponsored three teams, one each in the 130-, 100- and 90-pound divisions.

In 1922, the Talmud Torahs were joined in park football by another Jewish team from the Judea A.C. Later Judea football teams were sponsored by the Emmanuel Cohen Center, a social service center established in 1924. The first Judeas team played in the 90-pound division — along with a Talmud Torah team — which is not likely the weight classification in which these fellows played.

The Rise of Activities Councils

If you happen by a soccer field in the fall or a park gym in winter now you’ll see nearly every team in uniforms with a name that ends in AC. Whether the uniform says WESAC, MFAC, SWAC, SIBAC, or something else, the AC stands for “activities council.” Activities councils — call them boosters or volunteers — associated with parks are a phenomenon that began with the creation of the Minnehaha Falls Activities Council (MFAC) serving Keewaydin Park in 1936. In the booklet, “Recommended Procedures for Park Area Recreation Councils” published by the park board in 1971, Robert Ruhe, park superintendent at the time, wrote that the councils were to his knowledge “unique among park and recreation departments in the United States.” The councils were and are independent of the park board recreation staff but work closely together to finance teams, buy equipment and provide coaches. The 1971 document lists the creation dates of 27 activities councils, many of which still exist.

While MFAC was the first booster club that promoted activities park wide, the idea of booster clubs was given a boost itself in 1951 and 1952 when new playgrounds were opened at Waite Park and Armatage respectively. Both school/park combinations were joint projects of the park board and the school board from the ground up. New parks were fertile ground for booster clubs and one was created at both parks. They were soon followed by the Southwest Activites Council (SWAC) in 1953 that covered two parks: Pershing and Linden Hills. SWAC was one of the most successful booster groups, providing a model for other parks. Two early activists in SWAC later became park commissioners, Inez Crimmins and Leonard Neiman, for whom the sports complex at Fort Snelling is named.

The booster clubs organized by park gradually replaced the more loosely managed efforts of players or businesses to put togther teams and secure equipment and create schedules. The job of organizing teams was more complicated then also because park recreation centers, other than the Logan Park Fieldhouse, were open and staffed only in the summer. There was no such thing as a year-round playground staff or recreation supervisors

For more photos and information  about 1920s park football see this story about the football team from Bottineau.

This Camden team won the 1922 senior or open division of the Minneapolis Amateur Football Association managed by the park board recreation department.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

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