Reprinted from The Telegram, January 27, 1999
“Telegram publisher played with Thorpe”
By Dean Shipley
Telegram Staff Writer
MECHANICSBURG—- Marketers and merchandisers spend—and make—millions of dollars every year to promote the National Football League with “tons” of team logo-bearing merchandise.
You name it, from caps to socks, from mugs to miniature helmets, NFL team merchandise is available in stores, by mail and on the Internet.
A public radio sports story noted that it’s the Atlanta Falcons’ first trip to a conference championship and now to the Super Bowl had made their products hot. So hot retailers couldn’t keep them in stock. All these products promote the team.
But what if the team was used to promote a product completely unrelated to football?
Such a turnabout may seem like an odd marketing ploy as we approach the year 2000. But it actually happened here in Central Ohio with an Ohio pro team some 77 years ago. And a former Mechanicsburg resident played a role in this marketing endeavor.
In 1922 and 1923 an early and unique National Football League team was used as a promotional tool for another business. The team was the Oorang Indians and it was the brainchild of its owner, Walter Lingo, a breeder of Airedale dogs out of LaRue, Ohio. For those two years he used the team to promote the sale of his dogs.
The situation was not all that was unique. The team’s personnel made the team one of a kind: The players were all American Indians.
The Oorang Indians NFL team was described as “more colorful, uniquely different, on and off the field, than any other professional team in the history of the NFL”
The story of this team is the subject of a book written by Marysville author Robert L. Whitman, “Jim Thorpe and the Oorang Indians: The NFL’s Most Colorful Franchise.”
This town’s connection to the NFL is through Leon Lou Boutwell, who played for two years for the Oorang Indians. Following his professional football career, Boutwell lived much of his life here and was an active member of the community.
Boutwell was born Oct. 3, 1892 in Orr, N.D. His mother and grandmother on his father’s side were both Chippewa. He was given the name Nodinance, which in Chippewa means “Little Cyclone.”
Boutwell was raised in Minnesota and left there as a young man to study music and printing at the Carlisle Institute in Pennsylvania, a trade school specifically for American Indians. It and other trade schools had been set up around the country to acclimate native Americans into “the white man’s world” by offering education in various trades.
In addition to studying a trade there, Boutwell also played sports there as did others.
It was from this pool of talent Walter Lingo, a dog breeder from LaRue, created the Oorang Indians. Lingo had been friends for a number of years with the great Jim Thorpe. This friendship prompted Lingo to recruit Thorpe to be the team’s coach.
Thorpe drew in two other professionals who were also American Indians. Joe Guyon and Pete Calac had played with Thorpe on the tough Canton Bulldogs. The rest of the players included some college players from Carlisle as well as the other trade schools around the country.
In 1922 the NFL was still “a toddler,” as it had been born three years before. Actually the National Football Association had existed previously but changed its name to the NFL in 1921.
Thorpe had been the NFA’s president. He later became a charter member of the National Football Hall of Fame and has since been named to John Madden’s “Football Team of the Millennium.”
Thorpe by then was in his 30s, but still fit enough to play. Lingo paid him $500 per game to coach. Thorpe eventually wound up playing, much to the delight of fans.
Lingo, quite a promoter in his own right, knew Thorpe was a draw. People would pay good money to come to stadiums and see him.
The idea of an all-Indian team also was a drawing card. American Indians in those days were still perceived by the population as mystical, “wild and savage.” That of course, they were able to work to their advantage.
As Boutwell himself put it, “White people had this misconception about Indians. They thought they were all wild men, even though almost all of us had been to college and were generally more civilized that they were.
“Well, it was a dandy excuse to raise hell and get away with it when the mood struck us. Since we were Indians we could get away with things and whites couldn’t. Don’t think we didn’t take advantage of it,” Boutwell is quoted in Whitman’s book.
Lingo’s scheme was to have the Indians play two halves of football. But at halftime, rather than have them relax in the locker room and prepare for the second half, the Indians literally trotted out the dogs. They’d wear elaborate, colorful costumes and perform tricks and stage elaborate demonstrations for the crowd, all designed to show off the marvelous diversity of the airedale.
Lingo figured the fans would be impressed and line up to buy one of these marvelous canines. He was correct. His sales skyrocketed, Whitman wrote.
As a professional football team the Indians were mediocre at best. At the end of the first season, they had won four, lost seven, They had no real home field and would play as many as three games in eight days. They were tough competitors, Whitman writes, but were worn down by the grueling schedule.
The second season was not as good. Several key players left, weakening a team already thin on talent. Thorpe did his best as a player and at times carried the team. But even the great Jim Thorpe could be injured.
Though season two was a losing effort, it ended on a winning note with the Indians defeating the Louisville Brecks, 19-0. The Indians wound up 2-10 in 1923.
But boy, were they selling Lingo’s dogs. His yearly output rose to nearly 17,000 dogs per year. Lingo’s efforts were clearly to sell dogs, not field a winning team. So for his reasons of promotion, the Oorang Indians succeeded. Their few field victories, though, came by way of Thorpe for the most part.
Boutwell, who played quarterback (a different position for the modern quarterback) was one of Thorpe’s confidants. Whitman reports an incident in which Thorpe confided in Boutwell regarding his lost amateur status for the Olympics and his subsequent forfeiture of his Olympic medals.
“Lee, they took those trophies but I told the truth about playing for money,” Thorpe said. “There were some college men on the Olympic team too that played for money but under assumed names. I was playing for peanuts, playing to eat. They can have them. Anyway, I showed them what I could do!”
Boutwell proved to be a well respected member of the team. The Indians would return to LaRue between games to practice and work with the dogs.
The Indians wove their way into the fabric of the community. The postmaster in the small community became acquainted with them all. Of Boutwell, postmaster Hazel Haynes said, “He was as bright as shiny silver dollars. He was very genteel, reserved and friendly.”
After his brief, but colorful professional football career, Boutwell pursued the trade he had studied at Carlisle, printing. He came to Mechanicsburg in 1924 to become a linotype operator for the Telegram. Boutwell bought the paper in 1930 and became the editor and publisher.
Boutwell was described as a religious man and was active in the Church of Our Saviour Episcopal church. He became a lay leader in the church and would preach as the occasion arose.
He was a 32nd degree Mason and directed the Mechanicsburg 20-piece community band.
Boutwell lived out his life in Mechanicsburg. He never lost his love of sports, but traded his football spikes for golfing spikes.
He served as football coach one year at the high school and could be prompted to talk fondly about his brief but colorful time in the NFL. He died on his birthday, Oct. 3, 1969 at the age of 77.
Credit the Oorang Indians for helping to build the NFL into what it is today.
Whitman said, “Perhaps most importantly, the Oorang Indians were most successful in promoting the growth of the recently formed National Football League. The great Jim Thorpe and his Indian teammates gave the NFL color when it was badly needed!”
The rest, as they say, is history.