Sports were always a draw at Indianola.
Tennis courts were the germ from which Indianola Park grew. Park founder Charles E. Miles installed tennis courts back in 1904 to lure potential customers to the Indianola Summit real estate development.
Tennis courts remained a feature of Indianola Park from the beginning to the end.
Indianola's tennis teams were very competitive and several state and local tournaments were held on the park's courts.
Indianola also hosted men and women's swim teams that competed with swimmers from elsewhere around Central Ohio. There's some indication that the park might have also hosted diving competitions in which local athletes participated.
In 1918, the park provided a home for the Ohio State University basketball team.
The team had been driven from its court by World War I soldiers attending various military training programs on campus. Indianola stepped up and the team finished its 1917-18 season on the hardwood floor of the Indianola dance pavilion.
For seven seasons, from 1909-15, Indianola Park was home field for The Columbus Panhandles, an early professional football team.
On Sunday afternoons from October to early December, hundreds of fans gathered at Indianola to watch the Panhandles take on rivals like the Westside Muldoons, the Pittsburgh Lyceums, and the Fort Wayne Friars.
The Panhandles played a brutal, bone-crunching version of football with no protection but a leather helmet. Mass formations were popular. Passing was a novelty, restricted, and little used. Opposing teams slammed into each other at full speed and hoped to knock the other side down.
Early football was a bloodsport. Injuries were commonplace and players were frequently hurt seriously enough to require hospitalization. In 1905, 19 football players died, 149 were grievously injured, and the game was almost banned.
In a violent game, The Panhandles were some of the most violent. The Panhandles didn't just defeat their opponents. They beat them up.
Football in the 1910s from William H. Edwards, Football Days (1916)
The backbone of the team was a set of five unusually large, strong, and quick brothers, the Nessers. Goliaths of their day, Frank, Fred, John, Phil, and Ted Nesser struck fear in the hearts of the teams that opposed them.
The smallest of the brothers was 5'11" and weighed 200 lbs. This isn't huge by contemporary standards but at the time the average adult American male stood 5'8" and weighed about 150 lbs.
The brothers all worked as boilermakers for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The team's organizer. Joe Carr, was a former railroad employee turned sportswriter and most of the rest of the team were railroad men. The team took its name from the rail line that connected Columbus and Pittsburgh and its team logo (a keystone) and colors (maroon and gold) were those of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Panhandle Division.
The years at Indianola were the franchise's best. The team had winning seasons five of the seven years.
The team enjoyed its best year in 1909, going 7-1-1. The Nessers were the terror of the Midwest. Their opponents failed to score in six games. In the remaining games, the Panhandles allowed only 13 points total. Cleveland was beaten 57-5. Canton took a 34-0 whipping. The team's single loss was 0-3 in a slugfest with Pittsburgh that went down to the wire.
The years 1914 (7-2-0) and 1915 (8-3-1) were also strong ones for the team.
In 1916, The Panhandles left Indianola for Neil Park for reasons that remain obscure. The team only saw one more winning season and was disbanded after the 1922 season.
The Panhandles were a charter member of the National Football League and team boss Joe Carr helped organize the league and served as its president until his death in 1938. The Panhandles played the Dayton Oakwoods in the very first NFL game in the fall of 1920.
An excellent account of The Columbus Panhandles was recently published. The Columbus Panhandles: A Complete History of Pro Football's Toughest Team, 1900-1922 by Chris Willis is a thorough-going account of every aspect of the team's history.
It wasn't just the pros who played at Indianola Park in the 1910s. Area high school teams practiced and played at Indianola. Football was still a new sport at the high school level and many schools did not yet have football fields. High school teams played Saturdays on the same field The Panhandles occupied on Sundays.
As quarterback for East High School, future Ohio State football phenomenon Chic Harley played several times on Indianola's field. Little remembered today, Harley was an incredible athlete who put Ohio State football on the map.
One of Harley's most memorable games, the one that first got people noticing his extraordinary abilities, took place at Indianola Park. It was September 6, 1913, the first game of Harley's junior year of high school. East was taking on West High. Harley scored three touchdowns and led his team to a 32-6 victory. Harley breezed through the West defense like it wasn't there. He was fast, strong, agile, smart, and unflappable. His punts and throws went exactly where he intended them to go. He was unstoppable.
Superman wouldn't be invented for another 25 years but football fans at Indianola that September Saturday got a foretaste. Fans and foes stood amazed. Sportswriters went to their thesauruses to look up new superlatives. The Dispatch writer enthused that Harley: shone above the other men on the field as a blue diamond would if surrounded by so much coal.
Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, Harley triumphed again at Indianola the following Saturday in a game against London High. Harley caught the kick-off and ran it 90 yards for a touchdown in the first 30 seconds of the game. He scored twice more and led his team to a 59-0 victory. The papers started referring to East as Harley High. East High went undefeated in 1913 and won the Ohio-West Virginia Conference.
In 1914, Harley's senior year, Indianola would again provide the backdrop for an important event in the young athlete's career. October 24 found Harley facing West again before a huge audience. In the stands was Ohio State football coach John Wilce. Harley and East demolished West 42-0 with three Harley touchdowns, including one 55 yard run. Wilce decided that Harley had to play for Ohio State.
Harley's career at Ohio State is legendary. Victory followed victory. Records were set. Ohio State at long last defeated its nemesis Michigan. Ohio State won the Western Conference title. Ohio State, which had previous struggled to draw 2,000 fans to its football games, found games mobbed by crowds of 20,000 or more.
Harley brought Ohio State football to national attention, a tradition was born, and on the strength of its popularity Ohio Stadium was soon built.
And it all started at Indianola Park.