Breaking NFL Ground With Film

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | march 2016

Part One of a Two-Part Series

Sunday, October 14, 1923 dawned fair on Green Bay. Temperatures had dipped well below freezing the night before and it took awhile for the day to begin its warmup. By late-morning, though, the sun and a soft breeze were promising a gorgeous afternoon – just as local weather observer J.W. Conrad had proposed.

Otto Stiller – two weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday – headed down the steps of his boyhood home at 1133 East Walnut Street. Into the backseat of his car, he set his Cine-Kodak “flicker" camera, tripod and canisters of film.

Driving east on Walnut, Otto turned left onto Baird. There, he could see the work that had begun on the site of the new East High School building. At Main Street, he hung a right and wended the half-mile along the East River toward Bellevue Park baseball field.

The day was warming nicely.

On the Field

The Packers had moved their home games to Bellevue Park to make way for the new school and a new football field alongside it where the team planned to resume play with the opening kickoff of the 1925 season.

Entering Bellevue Park a sliver before noon as the gates opened, Otto exchanged greetings with Packers player-coach Curly Lambeau. Up against a 1 p.m. kickoff, Curly was prepping his troops. Across the field, the Chicago Bears were honing last-minute preparations themselves.

This Packers-Bears contest had been ballyhooed by the national press. From his digs in Columbus, OH, even NFL commissioner Joe Carr was hailing this game as one of the weekend's best. Other dustups had Akron in Chicago to face the Cardinals, Toledo at Cleveland, Dayton at Canton, Buffalo at Columbus, Racine at Milwaukee, Rochester at Rock Island and Hammond at St. Louis.

The league had seen membership jump from 14 franchises in its inaugural season to 21 teams in '21, 18 in '22 and 20 in '23. Some of those teams had barely hung on – eking out just a game or two for an entire season. Others managed a full-fall's worth of action. All of the teams knew that their existence was about as steady as an outhouse in a tornado – one blizzard or torrent could turn away paying spectators and send the thing toppling to the ground.

Pumped by sports writer Cal Calhoun, Green Bay's Press-Gazette had touted this Packers-Bears contest as “one of the most important games of the day" in a touched-up wire piece. “The Green Bay club, this year is rated as a contender for the National championship and the dopesters around the 'Pro' circuit are looking for them to pull a surprise on the Bears," the article read.

It was an old ploy of Calhoun's: Hype the opposition, hype the home team, rev the engine of competition and fire-up the interest at the stadium gate. He'd been working the same gambit since the Packers had first taken to the field – Green Bay's 1919-version of a city team.

Back then, he'd flung the gauntlet strictly the way of other Wisconsin and Upper Michigan towns and their teams. Some shot back – usually to their own chagrin as the Packers steamrolled their regional opponents.

In those first two years – 1919 and 1920 – it was a wonder if the other team even scored on the Packers; while the Packers racked up scores in the 70s and 80s with regularity. Over that biennium, the team had racked up nearly 800 points while surrendering fewer than 40.

David vs. Goliath

On this 'Pro' circuit, however, the competition was typically up to the task. The Packers had experienced a reality check after joining the national league in 1921: That season, they'd gone 7-2-2 overall, but a modest 3-2-1 against other squads in the American Professional Football Association. In '22, they'd posted an anemic 4-3-3 record, dropping back a spot, to 8th, in league rankings – the APFA now rebranding itself as the NFL.

The '23 campaign had started off with a preseason contest against the Hibbing All-Stars that the Packers won by an unimpressive 10-0. That was followed by a 12-0 league-win against the Minneapolis Marines and a scoreless league-draw against the St. Louis All-Stars. It was the APFA's general custom to get the games out of the way early in the season in its northern-most member towns.

Meanwhile, the Bears – playing in the semi-pro wheelhouse in 1919 as the Decatur Staleys – had walloped their foes by a collective 293-13. In 1920 – that first APFA season – they'd done quite well for themselves, still under the Staley moniker, but now matriculated to Chicago. At season's end, they held a 10-1-2 mark – good enough for second place, just behind the Akron Pros.

In 1921, the Staleys ended the APFA's second season in first place with a 10—1—1 overall and 9—1—1 in league play. One of their wins that season came in a November 27-showdown at Wrigley Field against an upstart newbie in the league, the Green Bay Packers. In front of a spirited crowd of 7,000 – including several hundred Packers fans – that storied David-Goliath matchup commenced with the Packers losing to the Staleys, 20-0.

In 1922 – now playing as the Bears – the team etched a 9—3—0 and finished second again, this time to the Canton Bulldogs. They didn't toe-up with the Packers that season.

The Bears' player-coach, George Halas, and the Packers player-coach, Curly Lambeau, represented nearly parallel universes: Both had been topflight athletes in their teens and both had led their respective town teams onto the national stage – one representing a city of 3,000,000; the other a small town of 30,000.

While the Bears could cull fans from that sort of populace, tiny Green Bay had only managed to hang onto its franchise with a public stock sale the previous August. According to Calhoun, however, on this fine October day in 1923, the stars were aligned for the Packers to pull the upset – for David to slingshot Goliath to the turf.

That's Otto Stiller atop the roof of the Bellevue Baseball Park grandstand roof. The Packers played home games there in 1923 and 1924 while a new East High School and City Stadium were being built. Otto is up there with his new Cine-Kodak Model A movie camera shooting what is very likely some of the first film in the nation of NFL football action intended to be used for training purposes. Photo Courtesy of the Neville Public Museum of Brown County.Up on the Roof

Otto Stiller decided on his best vantage point from atop the Bellevue Park grandstand. He and Curly had determined that Stiller would shift from taking still photos to movies so that Lambeau could review the film with his players.

Now Lambeau had grown up in Green Bay, but he was undaunted by the distance of the horizon. His stint at Notre Dame had opened him up to a broader world under coach Knute Rockne. Yes, Curly had been a celebrated athlete at East High School and his position in the ND backfield with the legendary George Gipp had been both honoring and humbling, but nothing had quite prepared him for the rigors of football competition on this elite level.

The top teams were loaded with players hewn at prestigious football colleges by cutting-edge coaches. Even the very best players were simply tall trees in a very large forest.

Lambeau's arc connected him to untold success, but he didn't know that in 1923. By the end of the decade, his team would Three-Peat as champions in 1929, '30 and '31. But as he took the field this day, he knew that he was up against the Chicago Bears – a team that had already worn the laurels of a league crown.

In order to taste that success himself, Lambeau had taken steps that the folks of Green Bay noticed. In a town that prided itself on not seeming outwardly proud, Lambeau seemed to stand out. By 1922, he and Carl Zoll were the only Green Bay guys still on the team. Lambeau had jettisoned the rest in favor of guys who would have been branded as “cracks" in the town team days – guys who'd come to town for no reason other than to play football.

Lambeau also insisted on things being first-class for his minions. They wore suits and stayed in quality hotels on the road. Their accommodations on trains were also first class. Later, his would be the first team to travel by air.

The difference between the teams at the top of the NFL were slight – a player or two, the ability to implement and defend the pass, an edge in training techniques. Lambeau realized that game film of his team might give him that edge.

With that, Otto Stiller scaled the supports of the roof with his equipment in tow – ready to capture the day's game.

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Bellevue Baseball Park, on what was then Manitowoc Road, served as home for the Packers during the 1923 and 1924 seasons while City Stadium and a new East High School were being built. Here fans mill about outside the ballpark just prior to the game. Photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.The autumn sun neared its peak as Otto Stiller ascended the roof of the Bellevue baseball park grandstand; his mackinaw coat and tweed driving cap would keep him snug when the October 14-afternoon dimmed toward game's end.

He made his way along the third-base run of the grandstand roof. Nearly to the end, he positioned his tripod and camera. From here, he would shoot the game film just as he and Packers player-coach Curly Lambeau had planned. He adjusted the camera's aperture to the daylight.

He'd bought his Cine-Kodak movie camera earlier that year and was pleased to put his purchase to such practical use. Like his four brothers, Otto was fascinated by inventions and technology. He was considering forwarding some thoughts he had on improving the phonograph to one Thomas Edison.

Now movie-camera prototypes had first appeared in the late-1880s; by the mid-1890s, they became a practical possibility; about 1910, the “Aeroscope" camera made using them a practical reality.

In January, 1923, Eastman-Kodak Company introduced the truly-portable Cine-Kodak – its first-ever movie camera. It used “reversal film on cellulose acetate (safety) base" converted to 16-mm film stock – a far less-expensive alternative to the 35-mm stock used professionally. Those developments reflected and triggered a further boom in amateur movie making – though the initial price made it a consideration for serious students of film only. Pictures “in motion," said Eastman-Kodak's advertising, could be made “just as easily as your folding camera now gives you 'stills.'"

For $335 – about the cost of a Model T coupe with electric start – Otto Stiller was now the proud owner of the camera, a tripod, film splicer, “Kodascope" projector and screen. The camera featured a single “Anastigmat" 1:3, 3-25 mm lens.

One O'clock Start

On the field below, Otto watched the Packers and Bears mass for the opening kick. 4,451 fans buzzed from the ballpark's jam-packed 3,600 seats and many rows of temporary benches strung along the first and third-base lines.

Otto double-checked his tripod, aimed his “flicker" with the eye-level viewfinder and began turning the camera's hand crank. Without a motor, the camera's operator had to turn the film by hand at two revolutions per second to achieve the 16 frames per second required for “real time." Slower or faster would produce the reciprocal effect – faster or slower – as the film spun through the projector. Hand-cranking jostled the camera terribly, however; the tripod was vital for holding the thing still.

With that, Bears kicker Hec Garvey booted the ball. It sailed through the autumn air and the tilt was on. The first quarter saw the two opponents slogging back and forth across the field – sizing each other up; feeling each other out. The stingy tone set by both defenses would hold throughout the game.

Lambeau, Buck Gavin and Charlie Mathys took turns running the ball to little effect for the Packers; Jake Lanum and Dutch Sternaman took turns running the ball to little effect for the Bears. Near quarter's end, Cub Buck tried a 35-yard field goal for the Packers that went wide.

The second quarter wasn't much different: The Packers started with the ball, but kicked it away. A “bomb" by the Bears fell incomplete. The Packers were penalized for five yards, but tackled Lanum the next play for a 10-yard loss.

Then, Lambeau picked off a Bears pass and the Packers looked to be in business. Nothing came of it and the Packers punted again. With that, the Bears made a few gains before Sternaman set up at the 15-yard line and dropkicked the ball through the uprights – Bears 3-Packers 0.

While the third quarter showed some promise for the Packers and the Bears had their moments, neither team managed a score. Near the end of the frame, Lambeau dropkicked for the tie, but the ball again sailed wide.

In the fourth quarter, the tide seemed to be turning toward the Packers. Near the middle of the quarter, Lambeau gained eight yards around the left end and followed that with a pass to Mathys for another 24 yards. The Packers faithful sensed that David was about to smite Goliath right between the eyes.

It didn't happen. The Packers ended up punting the ball and what looked like a golden opportunity, fizzled. The Packers got the ball back as the clock drained to zero. A final pass try by Lambeau was picked off and the whistle blew the game dead.

With that, the oversized crowd filed out of Bellevue Park and disappeared into the fading daylight along Manitowoc Road leading back into town.

While the Packers had indeed lost, 3-0, Cal Calhoun's rambunctious report in the next day's Press-Gazette celebrated the Packers' play against their “Famous Foe" – suggesting that the Bays had made things “interesting." Calhoun trumpeted the Packers surging role in the league, quoting ref Bobbie Cahn on his experience in Green Bay, saying, “It was wonderful."

It was “[N]o wonder," added Calhoun, that NFL commissioner Joe Carr “called Green Bay the 'best little' football town in the country." Calhoun cited Cahn yet again, stating that he'd “never worked before such a 'fair' crowd. Pro football as it is played and supported in Green Bay does more to put the game on a firm foundation than anything else."

That same day, Otto Stiller shipped the film he'd shot that afternoon to the Eastman-Kodak laboratories where it was developed and returned – a part of the film's purchase price.

Lambeau Views Footage

Where Curly Lambeau eventually watched the game film shot by Otto Stiller that Sunday, October 14, 1923, could only be a matter of conjecture. No known record exists. Perhaps it was at the Stiller brothers' store on Cherry Street – perhaps at the Stiller or Lambeau homes or another location altogether.

Wherever that early “film session" occurred, it was almost-certainly a matter of breaking new ground – in Green Bay and, possibly, anywhere else in the nation.

Lambeau could now revisit – again and again – the Bears-game action while studying each play and each player's performance on each play. He could also view a single frame at a time and run the action in reverse. All this, from a broad perspective above the field.

No, Lambeau didn't have the advantages of digital technology. In fact, he was dealing with some rather crude “moving pictures." Through the lens of 1923, however, this was revolutionary.

With the information he could garner from Stiller's film, Lambeau could tweak his strategies and his players' execution of those strategies. He could address fundamentals like blocking and tackling; running, throwing and catching; and positioning on the field. He could also study the Bears' propensities on particular plays that might suggest a pass or run or a defensive formation that might be exploited.

The Packers ended the '23 season in 3rd place – 8—2—1overall and 7—2—1 in league play. The Bears closed shop in 2nd place at 9—2—2 overall and 9—2—1 in league standings – just behind the undefeated, champion Canton Bulldogs.

Otto Stiller continued to film Packers games and practices until the early 1960s. Eventually, he'd assemble a crew to assist him. Harley Green, a member of those crews, looked at Otto as “a second father" and shot film with Stiller through the dismal fifties into the Vince Lombardi era. According to Harley, shooting film – even in later days – was dangerous duty. There would be more roofs and slim ledges – often working around guy wires and girders.

Harley has made it his mission to see Otto Stiller recognized for his groundbreaking role as an important “Contributor" to Packers history.

How much Stiller's film from that October day in 1923 and beyond assisted the Packers in their success over the rest of the twenties and into the thirties and forties is anyone's guess. Without that success, however, it's quite possible that Green Bay would have lost its team.

Despite the team's success on the field, it took stock sales in 1923 and 1935 to keep the team afloat – speaking volumes about how tenuous it was for a tiny town – any town for that matter – to hang onto its NFL franchise.

One thing is certain: The film that Otto Stiller shot that day and other sepia-toned, flickering days in the early twenties impacted the game dramatically. Sadly, that film's current location – if it exists at all – remains a mystery.

Watch for Denis Gullickson's “The Vagabond Halfback" coming to a stage near you in 2016. A play in two-acts produced by newly-founded Green Bay Theatre Company, “The Vagabond Halfback" celebrates colorful Packers Hall of Famer Johnny Blood McNally and the Packers own unique story as the team traveled by train from small-town sandlots to the gridirons of the early NFL. It's a historically-accurate depiction of life, love and football set against the backdrop of the tumultuous Roaring Twenties in the face of the Great Depression. Gullickson also continues as an educator, author, farmer and horseman.

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