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.”
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