We all know about the Needham-Wellesley Game. But autumn is a good time for another – less famous – Needham football story. While we can boast of the longest-running football schedule, we also own one of the shortest.
When we say “Football” and “Needham,” everyone naturally thinks of the Needham-Wellesley High School rivalry. But, since I have posted “The Secret History of the Needham-Wellesley Game” more than once over the years, I decided that it was
The Needham-Wellesley Thanksgiving game has been going on, more or less continuously, since 1881 – making it the longest-running public high school football rivalry in the country. So just ignore the quibbles from the jealous folks at Boston Latin, or those places in Connecticut.
But while we can boast of one of the longest-running football team schedules, we also own one of the shortest. In the late 1930s, Needham was home to a semi-professional football team known as the Needham Merchants.
The Needham Merchants were mostly made up of players from Needham Heights, and many were recent or first-generation immigrants from Poland, Italy, Lithuania, and Ireland. Most were recent graduates of Needham High School, who had played on the football team. They wanted to keep playing, but were unable to afford college. The players approached Al Tocci, who had been a star at Needham High School (he scored two touchdowns to help Needham beat Wellesley on Thanksgiving Day in 1928) and had also played some semi-pro football.
Al Tocci and High School coach Phil Claxton agreed to coach the team. Coach Claxton was football and athletics coach at the High School from 1929 to 1969, and a valued mentor to many young men. Many of the Merchants players had been on his high school teams a few years earlier. In addition to football, Claxton coached track and field, wrestling, baseball, and basketball at the high school. He coached youth sports teams in Little League and PeeWee Rockets football, and also helped to create the town’s Park and Recreation Department. Claxton Field was named in his honor.
Since the football team had no money and no uniforms, they approached the local merchants for funds to purchase the uniforms and supplies. The response was generous, and in return the team called itself the Needham Merchants.
The Merchants had a brief, but successful, life – they were one of the best amateur teams in the area. They were undefeated in 1937, their first season. They were hugely popular, and fans flocked to their games. They played on the high school field, and drew larger crowds than the high school team. An audience of 2,000 spectators was not unusual. At the end of the 1937 season, the local merchants hosted a banquet for them at the Needham Paramount Theater and awarded them a silver victory trophy. The trophy is on exhibit at the Needham History Center.
A roster card from the October 1, 1941 game gives the schedule and lineup for the team. They played against similar town and semi-pro teams in the area. The October 1 game was against the Norwood Merchants on their home field of Memorial Park, and was a rare night game (how did they manage the lights?). Normally the team played on Sunday afternoons. So far that season, they had beaten the Newton Merchants (19-0), Gath’s Guards of Watertown (19-0) and the Neponset Town Team (19-6). After the Norwood game, they were scheduled to play the Auburn Athletic Association, the Brockton Athletic Association, Fratus Motors of Quincy, and the Milford Trojans. The last three dates (November 9, 16, and 23) on their schedule were still open.
In the end, the team lasted for only a few years. They broke up after the 1941 season when Al Tocci left, having started a job that involved travel. Then, with the War starting, many of the players enlisted in the service, and moved on with their lives.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum