denis gullickson | talking titletown | sept. 2017
Part Two of a Three-Part Series
Last issue we launched this series to walk readers through the five-football season stretch — 1917-1921 — that gave birth to the Green Bay Packers. (This writer also suggested that any self-proclaimed die-hard Packers fan should know the team's creation story or return their replica jersey and dismantle the Packers shrine in their living room.)
On letterhead he used in 1922, Packers Coach Curly Lambeau referred to the 1917 Green Bay City Team with “Wisconsin Professional Champions Since 1917. The Green Bay Football Club-Formerly Packers.”
Now there was a mouthful — wide open for discussion and debate. That 1917 team was hardly “professional” — even by that day's standards. Rather, it was a motley crew of volunteer football talent that mustered just one game — albeit a decisive win over the Marinette Badgers.
While reflecting his own biases — including thinking the 1922 team was his to decide things like that and his distaste for the name “Packers” — Lambeau reaching back to that year and that 1917 team as the roots of the 1922 club is historically significant.
There was also a certain bravado in suggesting that the single game that 1917 season — even against a quality Marinette eleven — comprised a “state championship” contest. Arguably, however, the stirrings of the 1919 team that first played as the “Packers” and evolved into the 1921 squad that joined the national professional ranks could be found in that 1917 lineup.
By the following year, 1918, that lineup had matured quantitatively — stabilizing its financial and organizational footing, having a declared coach in Chicago-implant Art Schmael, scheduling significantly more games and largely crushing the competition on the field of play.
They turned-out under at least a couple of names — ostensibly representing Green Bay as that year's version of a “city team.” But they were never played that year as the “Packers.”
Those “1918 Packers” [sic]
So, it's interesting that somewhere along the way, the name “Packers” was retroactively assigned to that 1918 unit. Somehow, somewhere in the past, an ancient hand committed a historic, but curious faux pas. Having clipped out photos of the guys on that 1918 team from at least four different sources, that hand then labeled the resulting photo array “The 1918 Packers.”
According Cal Calhoun's Press-Gazette accounts, that team started out as the “Skidoos” defeating an East De Pere eleven, 13-0, and then reorganized as the “Whales” after Curly Lambeau and others headed for college.
This was Lambeau's second college try as he'd returned to Green Bay the previous fall when freshman football was canceled at UW-Madison. Now, he was off to Notre Dame and his football pals in Green Bay would have to carry on without him.
And, boy, would they.
They next creamed a refitted Marinette Badgers assembly, 42-0, and followed that with a 72-0 beatdown of an up-to-that-point undefeated Appleton team, a 70-0 whipping of a Clintonville team and a 64-0 thrashing of a Kaukauna team.
Scuttlebutt in Green Bay was that this was a “real” state championship team — based on a handful of clear wins, not one — now looking for a showdown with whatever team stuck its head out from behind cover and decided it was good enough to post a counterclaim. Heck, these Skidoo/Whales guys had yet to be scored on.
And that's the way it worked back then: As the season progressed, some teams would begin to dominate and others would fall by the way. Every team clambered to scale the ladder in terms of wins as wins begot spectators who, mostly, paid at the gate (stories abounded about folks sneaking in). Spectators begot more games as the best teams could toss “defis” back and forth and guarantee another winning team some of a substantial take at the gate. Eventually a champion would emerge — unchallenged — or a championship game would be played — usually on Thanksgiving Day.
For regional football talent, the 1918 Green Bay team was star-studded — including a mix of older, familiar football talent and new. The Abrams brothers — Nate and Izzy, the Zoll brothers — Carl and Martin, Andy Muldoon, Gus Rosenow and Riggie Dwyer were joined by a young Flatley, Sauber, Cohen, etal. Nate Abrams, Curly Lambeau's longtime chum, captained the unit, which, at the time, meant that he primarily directed the team on the field.
The Green Bay team also experienced its share of promised contests that dissipated as other teams realized that they didn't stand a chance and a trip to Green Bay or hosting a contest with the home guys being humiliated just wasn't worth the hassle.
Eventually, something of a 1918 title-contest did take shape. A skilled and undefeated Menominee, Mich., unit came calling and the Green Bay team was lucky to escape with a 25-17 win — what with the Doyle boys from that northern locale joined by long-time Green Bay footballer Jimmy Coffeen knocking the Green Bay guys around.
A rematch was in order with a $100-guarantee on the line. The ensuing contest was everything it was expected to be: tough, tense, tenacious; the Menominee guys had loaded up their roster with some arch-rivals from Marinette and — according to Calhoun — at least a couple of imported “Jackies from Norfok training station.” The result was a 0-0 tie.
That begged for yet another clash between the two teams that never materialized. Shortly, the snow began to fly and that was it for football 1918-style. With an impressive 5-0-1 record and a tally of 216 points scored against just 17 surrendered, the groundwork had been laid for the 1919 city team — one that would actually play under the moniker “Packers.”
One can't really fault the revisionist history — that “1918 Packers” thing. It wasn't part of some grand conspiracy to befuddle contemporary Packer fans and historians; it was probably prompted by someone's earnest sense that the oomph and origins of the 1919, '20 and '21 teams could be traced to that 1918 city team and, even, to that ragtag 1917 team before it.
Could that hand have been one of the players on the '17 and '18 teams? A family member? An archivist working in the creaky old library? A staffer at the Stiller company which took most of the early team photos? Or someone else entirely?
It wasn't the only tampering of the record that would confuse this stretch — considering Lambeau's letterhead.
The 1919 “Packers” Up and Running
The success of the 1918 team had folks circling Green Bay on the football map. The competition to date had come primarily from Northeastern Wisconsin, but teams from other corners of the state had taken notice. Quality football was being played elsewhere in the Badger State as well — especially along the Wisconsin-Illinois border where a proximity to larger cities and countless colleges created a hotbed for football action.
The direction was upward and outward in terms of improved competition and a wider region in which contests would be found. As something of a “throw-forward” (not “back”), the Packers had built enough reputation to be a draw at the gate even when they took to the road. By season's end, the 1919 Packers would experience how unkind that road could be when they toed up against a Beloit Fairy team that was anything but delicate — or “fair.”
The 1919 season started off, as usual, with Calhoun firing off word-salvos to potential opponents. For the better part of two weeks, he got into it with a like-minded scribe from La Crosse. “Packers management is mapping out a schedule which will include games with the best professional gridiron elevens in Wisconsin,” began one of Calhoun's August columns. He listed La Crosse among them.
Two weeks later, a retort came in the pages of the La Crosse Leader-Times. That retort prompted Calhoun to write that “defeating Green Bay in football would be La Crosse's greatest pleasure.” The Leader-Times retort had read: Over in Green Bay, where they eat once in a while in the autumn between football games and football controversies merely to keep the spark of life within the body, they have organized a city-football team of former college stars. The team is seeking games and is anxious to land a contest with some La Crosse aggregation. This is the dope, fellows: “If you feel inclined, there is plenty of football material here for a winning football team and defeating Green Bay at anything would be a pleasure.”
Next Issue: Those Last Town Team Days and the APFA.
Summer's tank is nearly empty as school begins and another Packers season gets underway. Author, educator, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson writes about all things Titletown from a farm west of town and a stone cottage near Lakewood. News Flash: “The Vagabond Halfback” returns to the stage November 3-5 at Ashwaubenon's beautiful new Performing Arts Center. Watch for details!