Duluth’s Sports: An Overview
From Zenith: A Postcard Perspective of Historic Duluth, copyright © 2005, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota.
Search the site formore information on many of the topics mentioned below.
Our Sports Archive is developing as we work on a book covering the history of professional sports in Duluth. Search the archive for sporting facilities, such as the Duluth Boat Club, Curling Club, Amphitheatre, Athletic Field, Wheeler Race Track, and more. Meanwhile, this summary will give you an idea of things to come:
Curling came to Duluth on Christmas Day, 1891, when the Duluth Curling & Skating Club through its first stone in a makeshift rink fashioned out of the burned-out ruins Elevator A where Third Avenue East met Lake Superior and continues to this day.
Duluth’s earliest success in competition came through the success of the Boat Club’s rowing team, lead by coach James Ten Eyck, Jr. During Eyck’s tenure between 1911 and 1923, Duluth rowers defeated their foes forty-seven times in fifty-eight tries (they were 22-0 before World War I interrupted the sport), bringing home the hardware in twenty national championships, plus nine second-place and one third-place trophies.
Duluth’s ski jumpers also rose to national glory. In November 1905, jumpers gathered at the St. Louis Hotel to start the Duluth Ski Club; a year later the club’s Ole Feiring won the national championship—and did it again the next year with a record jump of 112 feet, shattering the previous record by 30 feet. (Seventy years later, Duluth’s Jim Denney launched himself 325 feet at Squaw Valley, California, taking home another national title.) Duluth’s jumpers used facilities in Fond du Lac at Mission Creek near the old Krause brownstone quarry and at Chester Park. Between 1926 and 1979, Duluth produced twelve world champion jumpers. National and Olympic jumpers from Duluth include Jon Denney (1984), his brother Jim Denney (1972, 1980), John Broman (1980), Terry Kern (1976), Greg Swor (1968), Adrian Watt (1968), Gene Kotlarek (1960, 1964), Dave Hicks (1964), and George Hovland, Jr. (1952).
Ice hockey fans have a lot to love about Duluth—and they have since 1895. That was the year the YMCA first put a team together, followed a few years later by the Zenith Polo Club (hockey was sometimes called “polo on ice”). Local parks and the Curling Club played host to most games in Duluth. By 1906 Duluth’s Northern Hardware team took home the U.S. Amateur title. In 1917 a team from Duluth’s West End was champion of the American Hockey Association. In 1920 the Duluth Hornets formed, playing in the U.S. American Hockey Association. By 1924 the Hornets were fully professional and the town built an amphitheater for them to play in; they won the league title in 1927-28. In 1936 the Duluth Zephyrs were the first to join the International Amateur Hockey League and won the league in its inaugural season. When the amphitheater’s roof collapsed in 1939, so did the Zephyrs. Since that time, the game has been played in youth and high school leagues. Today Duluth hosts many adult leagues, but no national or regional teams.
The National Football League’s Duluth Eskimos started in 1923 as the Duluth Kelleys (named for their sponsor, Kelley-Duluth Hardware), later playing as the Eskimos from 1926 to 1928. They were a traveling team featuring future NFL hall-of-famers Ernie Nevers, Walter Kiesling, and Johnny “Blood” McNally (McNally also played for the Green Bay Packers). The Eskimos played against teams such as the Pottsville Maroons, the Milwaukee Badgers, and the Canton Bulldogs (as well as the Chicago Bears and the Packers).The 1926 Eskimos, featuring all-American fullback and Superior-native Nevers (a ticket attraction rivaling Red Grange), were called “The Iron Men of the North.” The team played twenty-nine exhibition and league games—twenty-eight of them on the road—and Nevers played almost every minute of every game. The team earned a 6-5-3 record that season and played from September until February. Nevers had a good year in 1927. He played professional football, baseball, and basketball that year—the only man ever to do so—scrimmaging with Red Grange and pitching against Babe Ruth. The Eskimos folded in 1928, and in 1929 the franchise was sold to New Jersey’s Orange Athletic Club. They were renamed the Tornadoes, played one season in East Orange, and moved to Newark in 1930. The National Football League then reclaimed the franchise and sold it to a Boston group who renamed it the Braves and, later, the Redskins. The Redskins moved to Washington in 1932.
(More about the Eskimos can be found in player biographies within the Zenith City Archive’s biography section. For the complete history of the Eskimos, see Chuck Frederick’s Leatherheads of the North: the True Story of Ernie Nevers and the Duluth Eskimos, © copyright 2007 by Zenith City Press.)
And of course no American city could go without a baseball team. Duluth hosted minor league teams affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1903 and the Chicago White Sox in 1904, 1905, 1908, and from 1913 to 1916; competing in the Northern League, the Duluth Dukes played here from 1934 to 1942 (and in 1941 moved into the new Wade Stadium), and from 1946 to 1955. Tragedy struck the team in 1948, when four of its players died and fourteen others were injured in a bus crash. Duluth and Superior shared a White Sox franchise from 1956 to 1958, and the Dukes again from 1959 to 1970. A new Northern League formed in 1993, and the Duluth-Superior Dukes took the field once more, playing until 2002. Currently, the Duluth Huskies play at the Wade.