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The Salem Trade School – Podcast #90

Get a load of these scores:

October 6, 1928 – Weymouth High School beat Salem Trade 13 to 6.

October 30, 1928 – Walpole High crushed Salem Trade 27 to 0.

September 21, 1929 – Winthrop High defeated Salem Trade 14 to 6.

September 29, 1929 – Chelsea High walloped Salem Trade 24 to 0.

This is just a random sampling of some of the games that the Salem Trade high school played. Do you sense some sort of trend here? At the time, Salem Trade was, by far, the worst team in the Boston area. Any opposing team that opted to play against them was nearly assured a win.

Then something highly unusual happened. On October 5th of 1929 Salem Trade beat Taunton High 6 to 0.  Holy cow!  They had never won a game before.

Salem Trade School Football Team
Salem Trade School Football Team. Courtesy of John Murphy, team member Stephen Murphy’s son.

One would think that fans from Salem Trade attending the game would have been screaming in joy at the team’s first-ever win.  But they weren’t. There was not a single student in the stands from the Salem Trade School.

Well, maybe no one from the school attended the game, but surely once the news got back to the school’s campus, there would be a joyous celebration of their victory.  That was not to be either.

Why? The answer to that question came eleven days after their big win.  The shocking news of October 16, 1929, was that while Salem Trade had their own football, baseball, and basketball teams, they didn’t have a school building.  In fact, there weren’t any classrooms, administrators, or teachers to teach the classes. In reality, there was no school at all.  It was a dummy school that existed solely to play sports and earn some money.

At no point during the six years that Salem Trade played legitimate high schools around the region had a single person ever bothered to check to see if they were a real school or not. The fact that the team always played their games away from home should have been a big hint, but no one ever picked up on it.

What finally exposed the team’s secret was that big win over Taunton High.  It turns out that all of Salem Trade’s students were not high school students at all.  They were all adults with other jobs.  One guy was a chauffeur. Another was a leatherworker.  And yet another was a tailor’s apprentice. Each player was paid to be on the team, which, of course, is against the rules of high school sports.

Their halfback, Mike Iwanicki, had scored the winning touchdown and now demanded to be paid $10 (about $140 today) per game for his services.  Soon, others on the team were also demanding to be paid anywhere from $2.50 to $10.00 per game.

The manager of the team, Harold “King” Burgess refused to give in to their demands and that’s when the players decided to blow the whistle on the scam.

They told the press that Burgess received advances ranging from $25 to $160 for each game that was played. As surprising as this may sound today, this was not unusual back in the 1920s. Many high school teams of the day were funded by sponsors and by a portion of the gate receipts.  This money was used to buy uniforms, equipment, pay for food and lodging, as well as to cover the cost of transporting the team from one location to another.

In exchange for playing the games, Burgess promised the players sweaters and letters at the end of the season, a trip to the Big Apple, as well as a post-season game to be played somewhere in Michigan. The whistleblowers claimed that they never saw any of the proceeds from the games. Apparently, Burgess had pocketed nearly all of the profit, although coaches for other teams later commented that there was probably little of it because the team was not charging enough for each game to cover its expenses.  The team had only received $90 (about $1250) to play in their winning game over Taunton High. Most likely, none of the players ever received a single penny for their efforts.

Salem Trade School Team Sweater and Diary of Stephen Murphy
Salem Trade School Team Sweater and Diary of team member Stephen Murphy. Courtesy of John Murphy, Stephen’s son.

The scheme worked something like this: The athletic director at each school would receive either a letter or phone call from either Harold Burgess himself or under one of his assumed names: Ritchie King, Richard King, or Ray King. No one had ever seen the man who made the arrangements directly.

Burgess’s trick to not getting caught was quite simple: The team was to try and keep the scores realistic, but under no circumstances were they to ever win a game.  To do so would bring unnecessary attention to the school, which they certainly didn’t want. It was a smart move on his part since the spotlight typically only shines on a winner.

So who was Harold Burgess?  Besides being the superintendent, principal, team manager, coach, captain, and quarterback for the fictitious school, in real life Burgess had only completed school up through the eighth grade, worked as an automobile mechanic, married, and was the proud father of a young girl.  And here’s the most amazing fact: Harold Burgess was only twenty-two years old when the story broke in the press. That means he was just sixteen years old when he came up with the idea to form the Salem Trade School team.

Harold Burgess
Harold Burgess of the Salem Trade School Football Team. Courtesy of John Murphy, team member Stephen Murphy’s son.

“Get this straight,” Burgess was quoted in the Boston Globe, “before you go saying that I didn’t play square with my men, I didn’t pay ‘em anything to save our opponents from being professionals. If I had paid the Salem Trade gang anything, then everyone, see, everyone, against whom we played would have lost their amateur status.  I kept my boys pure so that they wouldn’t contaminate the others.”

He added, “Sure, some of the fellows were a bit old, but after a year or so we were going to become a college.”  I guess there is nothing in the rule book to stop a non-existent high school from becoming an equally non-existent college.

One would think that would have been the end of the Salem Trade football team, but it was surprisingly not.  It was announced that they would play a previously scheduled game against Maynard High on November 23rd.

Maynard’s Faculty Manager and Coach Donald Lent stated that “It would be practically impossible to fill the Salem Trade date with a team of equal drawing power and we are going through with the game.”  In other words, if they can fill all of the seats in the stands, Maynard would see gobs of cash to help further support their team.

By game day, Salem Trade had a nearly new lineup.  Only Burgess and one other player remained from the original team. Even worse, they had never played together.  The Boston Globe reported, “Before the opening whistle Capt Burgess of Salem Trade team held a reception at a bench on the sidelines in order to acquaint the members of the team with each other.”

Needless to say, Maynard High was the decided favorite.

The game was not without some surprises. First, there was an uprising among the Salem ranks during the second quarter. This resulted in a former iceman named Red Grange replacing Burgess as the quarterback.

This was followed by a Salem Trade halfback sprinting with the ball toward the wrong goal line before being redirected by another player.

The game ended in a surprising 19-19 tie before “the smallest crowd that has attended a football game here in years.”  One could blame the poor attendance on the fake Salem team, but my guess is that people had bigger problems on their minds at the time.  Keep in mind that Black Tuesday had just passed a few weeks earlier and many people were sucked into that incredible vacuous hole known as the Great Depression.

Yet, the team kept going.  The next season Salem Trade was back on the field. On September 20th Salem somehow managed to shutout Chelsea High 2-0. After that, they lost game after game.

A short, one-sentence statement in the September 21, 1931, Boston Globe stated “Information here in regard to Salem Trade indicates that the team will not operate this season.”

Salem Trade was to never play another football game.

As for Harold “King” Burgess, he made a few more attempts at operating fictitious football teams, including The Parker School for Boys of Boston, Portsmouth, R.I. High, and also Greenfield, N.H. High School, which was exposed as being a fraud on September 30, 1936.

The Boston Globe caught up with Burgess 30 years after they first exposed the fraudulent team to the world. He offered up the following additional information:

“Nobody ever asked to see the school.”  He added, “I could have showed them easily enough, if I was forced.  I guess I was the only combined principal, coach, and athletic director who carried his buildings, his campus and his faculty around in his pocket.”

“It wasn’t much of a secret in Salem.  They were bound to know that there was no Salem Trade.  But mostly they went along.  Nobody bothered us, except maybe the cops who used to chase us off the common sometimes when we were practicing.”

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

There is more to this story: Salem Trade School Interview

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