Teamwork Made the Big Green(s) a Legend

Teamwork Made the Big Green(s) a Legend

(The Valley Gazette, December, 1973)

Nobody told the Rosebuds of Philadelphia how the small boys of Coaldale earned their way into the games of the Big Green(s).

The boys went out onto the field carrying buckets. When they filled the buckets with stones, they had earned the price of admission.

The Rosebuds got to Coaldale and took a look at the field. They looked at the stones the boys had gathered and they looked at the small stones still lying on the field, which looked hard. They walked on it, testing it. They stomped a little. The surface did not yield at all; it was like concrete. The field had been lined off with lime by men using small coal shovels.

The Rosebuds looked at each other and they talked it over. They decided to forfeit the $500 guarantee and they went home.

When the Big Greens played in Coaldale it sometimes seemed as if the whole town turned out for the game. The men who put aside their mine tools for football suits were the town’s heroes, the toughest of the tough, whose hard-rock style took them from total gross receipts of $3.75 in their first game to $12,500 for a game near their peak in 1923.

Their fans included the town’s firemen. The story is told of the time the fire siren sounded during a game at the Coaldale field. Police Chief Foag Gallagher summoned the firemen in the stands.

“Where’s the fire?” they yelled, intent on the game.

“Down behind Kearny Sharpe’s.”

“Let it burn!” came the reply from the stands.

There was no advance announcement of the football game that was to take place in Coaldale. Manager-Coach James H. Gildea knew there was sentiment against playing football on Sunday.

Gildea carefully avoided telling his father, the town’s burgess, of the plan. It was not complicated: advance on the field and start playing. Gildea and his rag-tag band of football players walked in a group over the streets of Coaldale toward the field. Police Chief Foag Gallagher was standing sternly on a corner, eyeing them.

When the bunch got to the next corner, Foag was standing there, too. But he didn’t interfere. The game went on. The Big Green(s) were born. Foag Gallagher would become one of their staunchest fans.


Who was best? He’ll go with Honeyboy Jack

(by Ed Gildea)

“Don’t write about me; write about the team,” James H. Gildea said as I was leaving him one October afternoon during which he sat in the office where he once published the Observer on Coaldale’s Ruddle Street and talked a lot faster than I could write about the Big Greens.

He calls them the Big Green; most people say Big Greens. Whatever you call them, they have become a legend and even with first hand accounts still available from people who saw them in action the record is not entirely clear.

Gildea, for instance, disputes the story about the boys picking buckets of stones off the field. He says the field was raked before games and the stones removed by the players. But the field is on an outcrop, he said, and it wasn’t long before there were as many stones on it as before.

With his newspaperman’s instinct for accuracy still intact, Gildea also took issue with the printed statement that the Big Greens were built around Blue Bonner. He said the secret of their success was teamwork. He’s also partial to punters and the best in the business in his book was big Les Asplundt—“The best kicker that ever kicked a football.”

“He had the biggest shoe I ever saw on a man,” Gildea said.

Asplundt, one of the few “imports” who bolstered the Coaldale team, also kicked field gaols and this issue of the Gazette includes a reprint from the Shenandoah Herald’s edition of Nov. 19, 1923, which tells how Les booted a 46-yard field goal which defeated Shenandoah, 3-0.

The best of the Big Greens? Backed into a corner, Gildea would probably go with Honeyboy Jack Evans, the roving linebacker who was called by one football expert of his era “The best football center that ever played football.”

“Honeyboy had football instinct,” gildea said. “He was where the ball went.”

Honeyboy Jack, Joe Garland and Blue Bonner are the names Gildea spoke in talking about the all-time stars of the Greens.

“I kind of think Honeyboy was the best of the three,” he said. “But you couldn’t discount Blue.”

Bonner was the Big Greens’ best ball carrier whose favorite weapon was a hip movement that sent would-be tacklers flying.

Garland was the burly tackle and kickoff specialist who was pressed into service as a line-crashing fullback when a few hard yards were needed.

As a team that pioneered the development of professional football, the Big Greens were instrumental in formulating the rules which now govern the sport. The status of the game was enhanced when Gildea, the Greens’ manager-coach, began a successful campaign to get impartial officials to handle the games. There was a time when he found himself on the field as referee for games being played by his own team. This kind of conflict of interest was erased and soon the top football officials in the nation, including Tiny Maxwell, were officiating in the coal region battles which were drawing spectators by the thousands.

Gildea recalled specific plays which occurred during Big Green games which he feels resulted in changes in the rules of professional football, including one involving a free ball in a punting situation and another regulating the on-side kick.

“Len Lithgow at quarterback was particularly good at the on-side kick,” Gildea said. “Later they changed the rule on that. I think that’s one rule we changed.”

The 1916 team is James Gildea’s favorite. They were younger then,” he said.

In looking over a team photograph, he picked out seven of the 10 players in the first row who were coal miners. Because their jobs kept them in good physical condition, the Big Greens didn’t do much in the way of conditioning exercises during their night practice sessions on the lot across from the Coaldale Borough Hall. There was no scrimmaging either. Gildea believed in saving the hitting for the games.

“We were a traveling team,” he said, especially during strikes.

The Coaldale team once played three games in three days and won them all. They were in Millville, N.J., on Saturday, in Atlantic City on Sunday and in Allentown on the following day, a holiday.

During their trips to Atlantic City they were hosted at Princeton University, whose head coach called them “The best straight football team he ever saw” after watching them defeat an Atlantic City team which was studded with imported college stars, Gildea noted.

During one of these games, Whitey Thomas landed a punch which broke Blue Bonner’s nose. Years later Whitey was in a hospital with cancer and told his wife that one of the things in his life that he always regretted was that he never got to apologize to Bonner.

Blue heard about it and not long after he was at Whitey’s bedside. He said Whitey actually did him a favor because his nose had been broken before and he was always bothered by loose cartilage. The fresh break cleaned out the cartilage, Blue said, and the nose never bothered him again.

“Whitey later told his wife that the best tonic he had while in the hospital was the visit from Blue Bonner,” Gildea said.

Men get old and legends sometimes fade, but the saga of the Big Green(s) keeps marching on.