That Time that the Memphis Tigers beat the World Champion Green Bay Packers

In 1923, Clarence Saunders, the founder of Piggly Wiggly, lost everything in a stock market gamble. A few years later, he began a new grocery store chain named “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores.” By 1928, there were nearly a thousand “Sole Owner” stores across the country, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue. Saunders, having lost his first estate with his first fortune, designed and built a second one that he called “Woodland” to the east of Memphis. He also purchased a professional football team that year. The team practiced at “Woodland” where Saunders would arrive in his business suit and catch punts. He renamed the team “The Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Tigers.”

Saunders at woodland

Saunders at Woodland…which is now the Lichterman Nature Center

 In 1929, the National Football League was in its 10th year. The league consisted of 12 teams, including the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Independent professional football had also spread to the South and West, but the teams there did not belong to the NFL. Although the NFL played a regular season and a championship, they were also free to play teams outside of the league. These games earned the NFL team money and drew attendance for the home team.

The Sole Owner Tigers, as they were called, were managed by Memphis sports legend Early Maxwell. The Tigers played a 12 game season with all but one game in Memphis. All home games were played at Hodges Field, which was located at the current site of the Memphis Veterans hospital. When it was filled to capacity, the field could accommodate 8000 spectators.

For most of the 1929 season, the Sole Owner Tigers drew moderate crowds to see the Tigers play pro teams such as the Nashvile O. Geny Greenies, the St. Louis Trojans and the Hominy Indians (who were all Native Americans from Oklahoma). In addition, Saunders and Maxwell negotiated with two NFL teams to play in Memphis. The Chicago Bears were to appear with their star player Red Grange, followed by the Green Bay Packers.

On November 23, Saunders hosted the Chicago Bears. A crowd of 6,500 crammed into the stadium. At one point in the third quarter, the Sole Owner Tigers closed to within 1 point of the Bears, but the Bears scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win 39-19.

On December 15, the week after the NFL season ended, the Green Bay Packers, undefeated NFL champions, came to town for what they expected to be an easy exhibition game. After all, opponents had scored only three touchdowns against the Packers all season. But Saunders and Maxwell had been negotiating a surprise. When the NFL season ended, Saunders paid two league players to come to Memphis. One of them was Joe Kopcha from the Chicago Bears. 8000 fans jammed the stadium and the sidelines. The Memphis fans were thrilled to see the Tigers manhandle the Packers with a 20 -0 lead going into the last minutes of the fourth quarter. The Packers avoided total humiliation by scoring in the final minutes but were shocked by a 20-6 loss.

Saunders wanted one more shot at the Chicago Bears. He negotiated a final game against them which was played three days before Christmas. Joe Kopcha stayed with the Sole Owner Tigers for this game against his regular season team mates. He scored a field goal and two touchdowns leading the Tigers to a 20-6 victory.

The next year the NFL extended an invitation to Saunders to join the league. Saunders refused saying that he would instead construct a 60,000 seat arena in Memphis to play only home games. Saunders may have meant it when he said it, but one has to wonder if he thought that he could do it better than the NFL, just like he had done in the grocery business and had attempted to do on Wall Street. We’ll never know…within three years Saunders lost his second fortune to the great depression and with it Memphis lost the “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Tigers.”

For more information about the 1929 season see
Tigers Roar in Tennessee: Memphis Stands Tall in the Early Years of Pro Football
By Bob Gill


Fugitive at the Museum

October 24, 1950, started as a normal day at the Memphis Museum. Visitors explored the galleries and looked at exhibits of animal heads, glass, documents and fossils. One of those afternoon visitors was James Eddington who made a trip to the museum as part of his vacation to Memphis. Eddington lived in Kentucky and worked as the farm manager at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, KY. As he walked through the exhibits, he noticed another museum guest who looked familiar. He recognized the man as an escaped prisoner from the Kentucky Reformatory.

Chester Merrifield was serving prison time for robbery when he decided to make an escape. He had been in Memphis for a few days and struck up a “close friendship” with a Memphis businessman. The police elected to withhold the name of the “well known Memphian” who drove Merrifield to the museum. When Eddington recognized Merrifield, he called the police, who drove to the museum and arrested Merrifield as a fugitive. The warden of the Reformatory confirmed that he was a wanted escapee, and Eddington cut his vacation short to return Merrifield to LaGrange, KY.

Merrifield was later released from prison and resumed his life of crime. He was convicted of robbing an October 1952 Nashville society party. A witness said that Merrifield and his four accomplices robbed the sixty guests of their money and jewelry. The “Chester Merrifield Gang” got $75,000.00 in gems from the heist. Other victims of robberies in Indianapolis and Omaha testified about similar thefts. He was also convicted of killing Louisville policeman Alvin Keown in a 1953 altercation in a night club parking lot. He was executed in the electric chair on December 23, 1955.


Clarence Saunders Corners Himself In

Clarence Saunders invented the modern grocery store when he opened his first Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1916. Saunder’s stores cost less to operate, gave shoppers the opportunity to make impulse purchases, and had lower prices than any competitor could afford. Within a year, Saunders had patented Piggly Wiggly and sold franchises. Within five years, there were over 600 stores across forty states. Clarence Saunders changed the world in many ways, but his most spectacular financial adventure happened in the 1920s in the wild pre-1929 crash days of the New York Stock Exchange.

Saunders in hat

In February 1922, Piggly Wiggly Stores, Inc. was listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). 50,000 shares were sold at a total value of more than $2 million dollars. By November, the success of the company led Saunders to announce a second issue of stock.  Saunders, Piggly Wiggly and the corporation were at the top of their game. It seemed to everyone, including himself, that he had the Midas touch.

When a Piggly Wiggly franchisee in New York failed, Wall Street traders saw an opportunity to execute a “bear raid,” an attempt to make money when investors believe that a stock’s price is going to fall. They do this by executing a “short sale.”

Owned shares of stock are like money in a bank. They have a value and can be loaned and traded by brokers like money in a savings account. To short sell a stock, one borrows shares and sells them at the highest price possible. When the stock falls to a lower value, the short-seller buys back the same number of shares for less than they were sold. The shares are returned to the lender, and the short seller keeps the difference. However, when the lender calls for the stock to be returned, the short-seller must do so by the next afternoon. If the price of the stock rises, the short-seller must buy shares back at a higher price than they were sold, losing the difference in value.

Clarence Saunders saw the short-sellers as having insulted him, his company, Memphis and the South. In retaliation, he attempted to counter the bears by executing a corner in his own stock. A corner occurs when all of the available shares of a stock are owned by an individual or pool of individuals. It traps the bears by driving up the price of the stock and making it difficult for them to find shares to pay back what they owe. Saunders borrowed tens of millions of dollars, secretly drained Piggly Wiggly’s treasury, and used his personal fortune to purchase the stock. By March 1923, Saunders claimed that he controlled 198,872 shares of the outstanding 200,000.

On March 20, Saunders called for the delivery of all of his shares. The bears were trapped since he owned most of the shares they had borrowed. The price per share soared above $100. Saunders knew that the short-sellers could not purchase enough in time. It seemed that a stock trading rookie had beaten the market at its own game. Saunders’ profit on paper was in the tens of millions…at least for a few hours.

After the market closed that day, the Exchange announced a suspension in trading Piggly Wiggly stock and an unspecified extension of the normal one day that short-sellers had to deliver their borrowed stock. Saunders was incredulous. He still demanded that his stocks be delivered by 3:00 PM the next day at a price of $150 a share.

The next day, Piggly Wiggly was permanently stricken from the NYSE, and short-sellers were given five extra days to present the stock to Saunders. The first pronouncement hurt the company; the second ruined Saunders. The five extra days gave the short-sellers time to search out every available share of Piggly Wiggly. Small investors who had held onto the stock for the long term received offers to sell for a large profit. All of the short-sellers repaid Saunders in shares of now nearly worthless Piggly Wiggly stock by the new deadline. Saunders owed his creditors millions. The company’s treasury was broken.

In an ironic twist, the annual financial statement of the Piggly Wiggly Stores, Inc. was issued at that time. Profits and sales were through the roof, but the company itself was broke. Saunders cried foul. “Wall Street got licked and then called for ‘mamma’,” he said. And with some prescience he continued, “Of all the institutions in America, the New York Stock Exchange is the worst menace of all in its power to ruin all who dare to oppose it.” 

It is still a matter of some discussion as to whether Saunders was cheated. At the time, there were very few government oversights on the market. The laws of trading were the bylaws of the Exchange. By those rules, the Exchange had the right to suspend trading of any security. The real problem was the extension of time given the short-sellers. It was this extension that broke Saunders’ corner, giving them time to find all the outstanding shares they needed.

Despite his loss, Saunders was a hero to many Americans. He had, through his own cunning, taken on Wall Street and beat them at their own game. They only broke him by changing the rules. Even The New York Times wrote that it was…”bad news for a nation at least 66 2/3 per cent ‘sucker,’ which had its moment of triumph when it read that a sucker had trimmed the interests and had his foot on Wall Street’s neck while the vicious manipulators gasped their lives away.”

It was only a matter of time before Saunders was forced to put his stock, his company and his personal property, including his unfinished “Pink Palace,” on the public auction block to pay his debts.


Information for this story came from:

Clarence Saunders & the Founding of Piggly Wiggly: The Rise & Fall of a Memphis Maverick. 2011. Mike Freeman, The History Press

Annals of Finance. A Corner in Piggly Wiggly. John Brooks. The New Yorker. June 6, 1959

A Condensed History of Piggly Wiggly Corporation 1918-1935. Allen W. Pike. 1935