denis gullickson | talking titletown | oct. 2017
Part Three of a Three-Part Series
In the last two issues, we looked at how the huddles of the 1917 and 1918 Green Bay city football teams produced the 1919 Packers, This month, we'll look at how the pieces assembled in 1919 and 1920 led to the organization that joined the professional football ranks in 1921 and gave us today's Packers.
That 1919 City Team
“City" (aka “town") teams had first appeared a generation earlier when college football was king and prideful towns cobbled together what were sometimes called “semi-pro" outfits to further football action and bragging rights.
Not so very different — at the heart of it — from today's NFL franchises, these “city" teams represented the honor and elan of their hometowns. They typically organized by a coalescing of former high school stars who'd stayed in town and gone to work, teammates who'd gone off to college and returned to pursue their careers and a few “ringers" who were good enough footballers for a local company to hire them while they fortified the city team lineup.
As just such a menagerie, the 1919 Packers were quite simply the best around.
Echoing the tone set by a single, decisive victory in 1917 and a juggernaut season in 1918, bolstered by East and West high school stars and headlining Curly Lambeau — they went on a tear, demolishing their opponents by a total of 565 points to 12. Even teams that had once given the Green Bay lads a hard tussle left town whimpering.
At the Press-Gazette sports desk, Cal Calhoun got his typewriter fired up early in 1919. The rat-a-tat-tat of Calhoun's typewriter was like the Thompson machine gun that first appeared in 1918: Cal would strafe in a 360-degree circle as he warned potential opponents of their impending doom at the hands of the Packers. Some teams would take cover never to reappear, some would poke their heads out and wish they hadn't, others would bravely take the field knowing they had no chance.
The team's organizational meeting the night of Monday, August 11 at the Press-Gazette offices is legend. Bill Ryan was named coach and Lambeau captain. In the lineup were familiar surnames from prior skirmishes — Abrams to Zoll.
After rattling off scores of 53-0, 61-0, 54-0 and 87-0 in their first four contests, Packers' opponents hit the dirt. The Crescent City Athletics of Appleton, for example, talked tough and then discovered they had better things to do that Sunday than get waylaid by the Packers.
The Packers' secret formula lay in the forward pass. First legalized in 1906 and improved through rule changes in 1912, the pass had ushered in a new age. Lambeau's coach at Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, had been a proponent, but Lambeau had taken a shine to throwing the ball even as a kid. It was a pretty simple caveat: Teams that passed to ball knew how to defend against it — those that didn't, didn't. The Packers worked it to their advantage.
The Green Bay boys would also expand their horizons considerably in the 1919 season — traveling to Michigan's U.P. for mix-ups against Ishpeming and Stambaugh. In those northern locales, they'd run into the class of those mining and lumbering regions. The Ispheming crew hadn't lost a home game in five years; Stambaugh had a reputation reaching back to at least 1902.
Those clashes would be the Packers' roughest of the year: Still shutout wins — they'd clip Ishpeming, 33-0, and Stambaugh, 17-0 — Lambeau would later remark, “Those miners were tough."
On a swing southward to Beloit for the season's penultimate contest, the Packers would finally stumble — mostly because they were tripped. There, they would lose, 0-6, to a high-quality Fairbanks-Morse company team thanks mostly to “homer" ref Baldy Zabel who robbed the Packers of a touchdown on three consecutive scoring plays with questionable penalties.
1920 and Beyond
Other than that referee-orchestrated fiasco in Beloit, the Packers 1919 season had been a triumphant one. Would the trend continue in 1920 — the Packers' last year in the city team ranks?
Football was becoming popular — not only in Green Bay, but across the state. That, evidenced by the fact that the sport was given ink in the sports pages earlier and earlier. Previously, baseball had held sway until after Labor Day when football elevens began to organize — often in the baseball dugouts as the season ebbed. The first games on the gridiron were not usually seen until sometime in mid to late-September.
In 1920, football was splayed across the sports pages on August 4 by the Press-Gazette headline, “Pro Football to Boom This Year in State Cities." The piece went on to identify just about every city of size as a football epicenter — from Superior to Janesville and Beloit; Eau Claire to Marinette and Milwaukee.
Now coached by Jack Dalton, managed by Neil Murphy and again captained by Lambeau, the 1920 Packers would continue their winning ways — mostly. They'd also encounter a better class of opponents across some hard-fought scrums. By season's end the record was an earthly, 9-1-1, and the point tally wasn't nearly as impressive as the year before, at 227-24.
Still, the Packers had notched a few strategic accomplishments: They'd shored up their roster, expanded their base of operations, spread their reputation across the state, held their own against a tougher grade of opponent and solidified their management — all the things that would position and propel them to next rung in the ladder: membership in a national, professional football league.
The American Professional Football Association (APFA) had organized in Canton, Ohio, in 1920 and played that season with 14 member teams — the Chicago Bears (nee Decatur Staleys) and Arizona Cardinals (Racine Cardinals) among them.
The APFA's founding in Ohio made perfect sense. Ohio as well as the surrounding environs of New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois had seen some of the first independent, professional football teams form around the turn of the century. It was, literally, a hotbed in which teams organized and competed at the highest levels for the young sport.
Even on that grand stage, however, things weren't so very much smoother than the days of sandlot football — at least in terms of organization. Teams came and went and the league itself flickered as a result.
As the 1920 season unfolded, teams scheduled their own contests — just as they had done prior to joining the APFA. Win-loss records were tracked and, at season's end, the Akron Pros were named champions with an 8-0-1 record. The Staleys took second with a 10-1-2 record — suggesting that the league's use of a percentage to determine the championship presented some room for improvement. Since APFA teams arranged their own schedules, concerns also arose over the consistency of quality represented by each team's opponents. What was an undefeated season against lesser teams when compared to a decent season against all-APFA squads, for instance?
In 1921, the Packers joined the fray. With good reason, one might aver that it had been Lambeau's intention all along — to join the ranks of a national football league. His lone season at Notre Dame in 1918 had put him in the current of football energy pulsating across the nation's midsection. That, combined with the winning football tradition being simultaneously cemented back home, made joining this national league a given when all the stars aligned. By 1921 — they did.
Jettisoned in the transition would be some homespun relics of the past. Just six of the men to represent the city in that first APFA season were from Green Bay, the rest were imports brought in to play the game. By 1922, that number would be two.
The 1921 APFA season would test the Packers' mettle. Ending with a 3-2-1 mark, the team would find the competition on this national stage far more daunting. They'd best the Minneapolis Marines, Evansville Crimson Giants and Hammond Pros, but get whacked by the Rock Island Independents and Staleys while tying the Cardinals. They'd rank 7th of the 21 teams doing APFA battle that year. Not bad for a premier campaign, but hardly what Packers players and fans were used to. Not to worry; by the end of the decade, they themselves would be champions … three years in a row.
1917 to 1921 — a key stretch in Packers history that would see the team join the national league where they remain the best story and most-successful franchise to this day.
Another Wisconsin autumn is upon us as things cool down and the Packers season heats up. 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. See the ad, this page.