SABR

Earl Potteiger

This article was written by Brian McKenna.

Earl Potteiger was the head coach of the New York Giants when they first won the National Football League’s championship. He grew up where a large percentage of professional football and baseball players did, in the heart of Pennsylvania. After attending Ursinus and Albright Colleges, where he played each sport plus basketball, Potteiger had professional careers in both baseball and football. As one would imagine, he was tough and aggressive, often playing through injuries that would derail most other athletes. He was also violent at times, a man to be reckoned with if crossed. Fines and suspensions dotted his baseball career as did physical altercations with opposing players, teammates, managers and umpires.

Potteiger kept himself busy playing baseball, basketball and football every year well into his thirties. On the gridiron, he darted out of the backfield for some strong coal league teams and eventually found a place in the NFL through much of its first decade. On the diamond, Potty played in the minors, industrial leagues and for some strong Chicago-area semi-pro clubs. He even gained the interest of major league executives, signing with the St. Louis Browns and New York Yankees. Other opportunities with the Philadelphia Athletics and with the Browns again presented themselves, but no major league career was forthcoming. In frustration for failing to advance through the minors, Potteiger jumped his Worcester club to manage and play for several clubs outside the scope of Organized Baseball. He eventually returned as a manager for several clubs after gaining re-admittance. After his sporting career, he settled back home in Pottstown. To supplement his income, he supplied several speakeasies and roadhouses with beer and liquor. Arrested several times, he was facing three years in prison at the time of the repeal of the Prohibition laws.

William Earl Potteiger was born on February 11, 1893 in Pottstown, a borough in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, located about forty miles northwest of Philadelphia. He lived his entire life in the area. He was the seventh and final child of Henry R. and Sarah C. Potteiger, both Pennsylvania natives. William, known as Earl for much of his life, was born about twenty years after the couple married in 1874. Only two of his siblings survived infancy; the youngest of the two, Hattie, was thirteen years older than Earl. Henry supported the family first as a farmer and later as an employee in a local mill.  

Earl attended local public schools in Pottstown, entering high school in 1906. In 1909, he was the star back and team captain of Pottstown High School’s football team. Even in his youth, Potteiger was known for his toughness on the gridiron, suiting up and playing after suffering multiple broken ribs. That year, he began his semi-pro baseball career, playing catcher and third base for clubs in Hershey and Myerstown. Potteiger continued playing semi-pro baseball throughout his college years. In 1910, he attended Perkiomen Seminary, a college preparatory school in the nearby borough of Pennsburg.

The following year, Potteiger attended and played sports for Ursinus College located in Montgomery County. The next school year, 1912-13, found him playing football, basketball and baseball for Albright College, a Methodist institution then located in Myerstown. He played right halfback on the gridiron, guard on the court and right field on the diamond. Albright’s athletic director and coach for all the sports was Charles “Pop” Kelchner. Kelchner had served Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s as a scout from 1909-11. He then worked the rest of his life with the St. Louis clubs, first the Browns from 1912-17 and then the Cardinals for four decades beginning in 1919.  

Potteiger, at 5’7” and 170 lbs., was tough, fast and agile. In baseball, he would settle into the centerfield position where his speed could be best utilized. Strong, he was a hard-hitter. He was also typically among the league leaders in stolen bases and would become a respected fielder, though somewhat less graceful than one might expect.

In 1912, Potteiger, known as Dutch or Potty, played baseball for an independent Pottstown nine. That August, he was signed for the St. Louis Browns by Kelchner but in the end was never utilized by the club. After the college baseball season ended, Potty made his professional debut at age 20 on July 4, 1913 with the Charleston Seagulls in the South Atlantic League. He lasted ten games in right field with the club that month, batting a meager .194. In early August he was picked up by York of the Tri-State League after the club’s top hitters, Charles “Home Run” Johnson and Joe Knotts, were each suspended. He appeared in fourteen games for the club in centerfield, batting .217 before being benched at the beginning of September when Johnson returned to the lineup.

With his college career over, Potteiger began his professional football career in 1913 with an eastern Pennsylvania club. In 1914, he was invited to spring training by Lowell of the New England League. The Lowell Sun assessed his abilities during the preseason: “Potteiger has every appearance of a bull in a china closet when he takes his place in the outfield. His manner in going after a ball would suggest that he was not at all familiar with the job but it will be noticed that none of the long drives have gotten by him. His one-hand stabs have proved a feature of every exhibition game played thus far. He is awkward acting, all right, but nevertheless pulls them down no matter where they may be.”

When the season opened, Potteiger was in centerfield but only lasted a couple of games with the club before being released near the end of May. He was soon picked up by league rival Worcester. Worcester was managed by longtime local favorite and future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett. Since Burkett took over the club in 1906, it hadn’t finished lower than third place. Worcester finished in second place in 1914. In 101 games Potteiger batted .317. He had a rough final couple of weeks though. On August 25, he broke a bone in his right heel. Tough, he continued to play until being beaned by a Henry King (Manchester) pitch on September 7, which laid him up in a hospital with a concussion. Despite his injuries, Potteiger played football in the fall as he would every year until the 1930s.

Earl held out in the spring of 1915 seeking more money and believing that his fine year in 1914 warranted a sale to a higher league. He received the former but ended up back in centerfield for Worcester and Burkett. In one of many on the field altercations, Potteiger was tossed from the game on July 29 for fighting Mike Lynch, Lynn’s shortstop. Potty was batting near .300 the entire season until an injury slowed him down; he finished with a .272 average in 107 games. The club slowed as well, falling to fourth place.

Potteiger filed a grievance with the National Association, the minor league’s ruling body, after the season. He was owed $300 back pay. The ruling went in his favor; Worcester either had to pay up by January 1 or declare their centerfielder a free agent. Trying to avoid paying the player, Worcester looked to sell him off. Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A’s was interested, offering $500 which would allow Worcester to net $200. Unfortunately, Potteiger was injured in a football contest in December. An opposing player bit him and he developed blood poisoning. Into February, physicians feared that they would have to amputate his left arm. That cancelled Mack’s interest. Worcester was forced to pay up rather than lose his services.

Hall of Famer Billy Hamilton replaced Burkett in 1916 after the previous poor season, as the club moved into the Eastern League. Potteiger had an off year, playing with a broken finger nearly the entire season. In 107 games he batted .216. The team tanked as well, falling to fifth place with a 61-60 record. Tempers ran high all season. On September 11, Potteiger missed a sign to steal home and was berated by Hamilton. The centerfielder proceeded to beat the tar out of the manager in the clubhouse. Hamilton should have known better; the previous week Potteiger had knocked out teammate Gus Gardella. Earl was fined $50 and suspended for the rest of the season. Undaunted, he just played football with the Conshohocken Athletic Club, despite the broken finger. After the football season, he had a doctor re-break the finger and set it properly. Potteiger stayed with the Conshohocken through 1919 as its main workhorse out of the backfield. The eleven won the Eastern Pennsylvania championship in 1919.

Potteiger didn’t want to return to Worcester in 1917, though the club was now managed by Jim McMahon. He held out but eventually joined the club, which refused to trade him. In 106 games he hit.269. The team finished in fifth place with a losing record. Unhappy in Worcester, Potteiger refused to join the club in 1918; he had repeatedly asked the club to trade him over the last couple of years. He declared his hand injury on his draft registration card, so he wasn’t among the top draft possibilities during the war. Instead, he went to work at the Lebanon, Pennsylvania plant of Bethlehem Steel. There, he could also play baseball. Of all the industrial leagues nationwide, the Bethlehem Steel League was perhaps the strongest. Its rosters were filled with dozens of past, current and future major leaguers plus a strong contingent of men with minor league experience. The Lebanon club employed such familiar names as Sam Agnew, Steve O’Neill, Del Pratt, Dick Rudolph, Babe Ruth and Joe Schultz. The nine was managed by Pop Kelchner who likely was the reason for Potteiger’s presence. In 24 at bats, he placed only four hits for an unimpressive .167 batting average.

In late May 1919, Potteiger agreed to return to Worcester, though he didn’t want to; it was his only option if he wanted to return to Organized Baseball. In his first game back on May 30, he placed four hits and made six putouts in the outfield. He kept on hitting the ball well, batting .349 for the season over 72 games. However, he didn’t accrue enough at bats to officially lead the league. The club shined as well, failing to capture the pennant by only a game and a half.  After the strong showing, it was announced on September 21 that Potteiger was sold to the New York Yankees and invited to spring training. Manager Miller Huggins later decided against the move and returned him to Worcester. Perhaps his acquisition of another outfielder, Babe Ruth, left little room in the New York outfield. Over the winter, Potteiger worked as a tire maker.

On January 21, 1920, another announcement had Hartford trading pitcher Al McClellan and cash for Potteiger. Jim McMahon later reneged on the deal. He had opened negotiations with the St. Louis Browns for his centerfielder’s services. That deal fell through as well. Disgusted with being bounced around and still being property of Worcester, Potteiger refused to rejoin his club. In March, he declared himself retired from Organized Baseball; he was going into the paint business. As a consequence, he was declared ineligible by both Hartford, who believed that had properly dealt for his services, and Worcester. A couple weeks later, Potteiger was named player-manager of the Lebanon club of the Bethlehem Steel League. The industrial league was making another go at recruiting professionals from Organized Baseball. A few names were bandied about and some pros actually joined the BSL but the league posed a negligible threat to Organized Baseball.  

 Potteiger did gain some headlines early in the year when he attempted to sign Wally Schang who was holding out from the Boston Red Sox and Braves pitcher Joe Oeschger. He did land Wickey McAvoy and Norman Plitt, though. In the fall, Potteiger played right half back with the Union club of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. The left half back for a few games that season was future Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard. Potty also played two games for the Buffalo All-Americans of the American Professional Football Conference, the forerunner of the National Football League.

In 1921, he played left field for the Simmons Bedmakers in the Chicago Midwest (semi-pro) League. Simmons was a Kenosha, Wisconsin bedding company. Potteiger didn’t join the league until September. The season was curtailed only a few weeks later when a fire ripped through the team’s grandstand. He then joined the football Chicago Cardinals, appearing in a game during the NFL’s second season. He also played for the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Early in 1922, Potteiger agreed to manage the independent Tamaqua, Pennsylvania club. However, he received an offer to return to Simmons as the club as player-manager and accepted on April 3. The team fielded past major leaguers Walt Kinney, Ollie O’Mara, Jim McAvoy and Ben Dyer.   On September 16, Potteiger resigned in order to join the Milwaukee Badgers in the NFL. He appeared in three games for Milwaukee.

Potteiger returned to manage Tamaqua again to kick off 1923. By June though, he was managing Shenandoah. In a game that month versus Mahanoy City, Potteiger got into a fist fight with the opposing pitcher, previous major leaguer Joe Finneran. The two threw each other around as the stands emptied onto the field. A fan kicked Finneran in the shin and he was unable to continue when play resumed. In the fall, Earl played with the Coaldale Big Green eleven, a dominant club in Eastern Pennsylvania that won the coal mining championship.

The Nash Motormakers of the Chicago Midwest League hired Potteiger to manage their baseball team in 1924. Nash, an automotive producer, was another Kenosha business like Simmons that heavily supported athletic teams. On July 7 in a game versus Niesan, he argued a strike call with umpire George Johnson and was thrown out of the game. At the end of the contest, Potteiger, half dressed, emerged from the clubhouse and attacked the umpire as he left the field. The umpire sustained several blows to the face, was knocked out for over a half hour and rushed to the hospital. Fans swarmed the field to corral Potteiger and protect Johnson. Nash’s manager was arrested, fined $100 and tossed out of the league for the season. His effectiveness in the field was waning as well. In 27 games and 78 at bats, Potteiger managed only 12 hits for a meager .154 batting average.

In September, Kenosha purchased the Toledo franchise of the National Football League. Most of the financial backing came from the Nash and Simmons companies. As happenstance would have it, the main scout and recruiter for the new eleven was George Johnson, the umpire Potteiger previously knocked out. Johnson wasn’t one to carry a grudge and inked Earl to a contract for the season.   As a former ballplayer in Kenosha, he was among the fan favorites that season and was named coach as well. His active season though didn’t last long, only three games; on October 19, he broke his arm in a game versus Hammond and was out the rest of the year. He coached the club to a 0-4-1 record before it dropped out of the league.

In 1925 the 32-year-old  Potteiger joined the New York Giants football team, playing and coaching for the club through 1928. In 1925, he played in two games before breaking his arm yet again. In 1926, Potteiger replaced George Maisel as manager of Wilkes-Barre in the New York-Pennsylvania League midway through the season. He had to obtain a waiver to grant his readmission into Organized Baseball, as he still resided on the ineligible list. The team ended up in seventh place with a 56-73 record. He also played in 51 games, batting .264. That fall, he appeared in one game for the football Giants and was an assistant coach as well. Over the winter, the Giants formed a professional basketball squad, using some footballers to fill out the roster. Potteiger managed the team.

Potteiger returned to Wilkes-Barre in 1927, spurring them to a second place finish with an 80-56 record. Though the club fell six games short of the championship, it was the financial strength of the league. In a league of eight teams, Wilkes-Barre accounted for a full 27% of the attendance. In 27 games, mostly in the outfield, Potty hit .286. That year, he was named head coach of the Giants and guided them to their first NFL championship with a record of 11-1-1. He appeared in seven games as a halfback in 1928 while also coaching the squad. After a dismal 4-7-2 record, Potteiger was dismissed. Over eight seasons in the NFL, he appeared in 21 games, starting only five. For the most part, Potteiger’s professional athletic career came to an end. He did briefly manage the Pottstown entry in the Inter-State League in 1932, and in 1948 he managed a Pottstown women’s softball team that made it to the national tournament.

After leaving sports, Potteiger worked as a garage manager. During World War II, he was employed with the local Spicer Manufacturing, a company which made castings for artillery shells. After the war, he was the highway foreman for the Pottstown borough before opening a tavern in 1949. To supplement his income, Potteiger also worked for roadhouses and speakeasies during the latter part of the Prohibition era. In 1930, he was arrested three times. In January and July, he was arrested in raids on roadhouses. In August, he was caught in Villanova, Pennsylvania, transporting a truckload of beer. The embarrassment of the legal troubles forced his resignation as manager of the Pottstown baseball team. Potteiger was convicted in December of violating the liquor laws and sentenced to a year in county prison. He appealed and was convicted again in June 1932; this time the sentence was three years. Another appeal delayed his incarceration. As 1933 wore on, Prohibition enforcement was waning and in fact officially ended that December. It doesn’t appear that he spent any time behind bars.

Potteiger may have been married three times. The 1930 U.S. Census indicates that he was married and divorced during the previous decade. At the end of the 1930s, he was married to Theresa Potteiger. They had two children, Gail Louise born in 1941 and Henry Earl born in 1942. Also, Earl was sued in 1947 for failing to support an illegitimate child. In the 1950s, he was married to a woman named Ethel. At some point, Potteiger and Ethel separated. He moved in with relatives in Philadelphia. He died there at University Hospital on April 7, 1959 at age 66.

Sources

Ancestry.com

Appleton Post-Crescent, Wisconsin, 1959

Atlanta Constitution, 1924

Baseball-reference.com

Boston Globe, 1914-20, 1925

Bridgeport Telegram, Connecticut, 1920

Chicago Tribune, 1922

Christian Science Monitor, 1916

Decatur Daily Review, Illinois, 1922

Daily Kennebec Journal, Augusta, Maine, 1924

Evening Independent, Massillon, Ohio, 1924

Evening Tribune, Albert Lea, Minnesota, 1930

Evening Tribune-Times, Hornell, New York, 1923

Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, Massachusetts, 1915-19, 1923

Grand Rapids Tribune, 1919

Hartford Courant, 1916- 24

Home.comcast.net/~ghostsofthegridiron/Conshohocken.htm

Lebanon Daily News, Pennsylvania, 1959

Los Angeles Times, 1914, 1959

Lowell Sun, Massachusetts, 1914-16, 1927

New York Times, 1920, 1930

North Adams Transcript, Massachusetts, 1924

Palmer, Pete, Ken Pullis, Sean Lahman, Matthew Silverman and Gary Gillette. The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia, First Edition. New York: Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., 2006.

Pfraforum.org

Pottstown Mercury, 1947-48, 1953

Racine Journal-News, Wisconsin, 1921-22

Sheboygan Journal, Wisconsin, 1959

Sporting Life 1912-14

Trenton Evening Times, 1922

Tyrone Daily Herald, Pennsylvania, 1932

Washington Post, 1926 30

Waterloo Evening Courier, Iowa, 1924

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