Packers at 100 | In the beginning: A look at how the Packers began

From the Packers at 100 | Celebrating 100 seasons of Green Bay Packers football series
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Packers at 100 | In the beginning: A look at how the Packers began

GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers, who will mark the 100th anniversary of the franchise’s founding on Aug. 11, faced multiple fights for their survival in their early years. There were times when those involved wondered if they’d even last half as long as they have.

“The Packers could have folded several times — just about all the way up until Vince Lombardi arrived,” Packers official historian Cliff Christl said recently in an interview for the upcoming book, “The Big 50: Green Bay Packers.” “The fact that it survived is almost a miracle. And that’s what makes it such a great story.”

It’s also a story that has a host of fuzzy details about how it all began. It’s widely accepted that it all started with a meeting on a warm Monday night — Aug. 11, 1919 — in the second-floor editorial offices of the Green Bay Press-Gazette newspaper building on Cherry Street in downtown Green Bay.

1919 team formation

The Aug. 24, 1919, edition of the Wisconsin State Journal reports on the formation of a new pro football team in Green Bay.

“There are some things we will probably never know,” said Christl, a Green Bay native who has followed the Packers personally and professionally for his entire life — having covered the team for four decades for various newspapers before taking the historian job in 2014.

“We know there was a meeting on Aug. 11, but we don’t know for sure how many guys were there. We know there was another meeting on Aug. 14.”

Earl “Curly” Lambeau, a former Green Bay East High School star who played college football at Notre Dame for legendary coach Knute Rockne, and Press-Gazette city editor George Whitney Calhoun are credited with co-founding the team.

Legend has it that Lambeau, home from Notre Dame after contracting tonsillitis and working at the Indian Packing Plant, met Calhoun on a street corner and the two hatched a plan to start a team in town. Lambeau went to his boss at the Indian Packing Plant, a man named Frank Peck, and asked him to sponsor the team — providing equipment and a practice field next to the plant on Morrow Street.

A few days later, in the Wednesday, Aug. 13, 1919, edition of the Press-Gazette, was this headline: “Indian Packing Plant Squad To Represent City — Great Football Eleven in City This Fall; All Star Team Is Available; Best State Teams Will Be Seen Here; Second Conference of Gridiron Men At Press-Gazette Thursday Evening.” The story read, in part:

“The Indian Packing Corporation will be the representative semi-pro football team in Green Bay this fall. It will be the strongest aggregation of pigskin chasers that has ever been gathered in this city. The football fans of Green Bay are going to be treated to an A1 class of pigskin chasing during the next three months. According to the present plans, the season will open Sunday September 14 and the final game will be played on the Sunday following Thanksgiving day. This gives ten playing dates and the strongest teams in the state will be scheduled. All the home games are to be played at Hagemeister’s park and plans are now underway to rope off the playing field and keep it in A1 condition.”

At the Thursday night meeting, Lambeau was elected captain and Calhoun was named as the team “manager.” The first practice was Sept. 3; the first game, Sept. 14.

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The Packers won that first game 53-0 over the Menomonie North End Athletic Club at Hagemeister Park, where they “passed a hat” to collect spare change from attendees. They won their next nine games but lost their season finale at Beloit 6-0 in a controversial finish.

Playing an independent schedule in 1920, the team went 9-1-1. Just before the 1921 season, the year-old American Professional Football Association — the predecessor to the National Football League — granted a franchise to the Acme Packers of Green Bay, after the Chicago-based Acme Packing Co. purchased Indian Packing earlier in the year. While Packers fans today are well-acquainted with the Acme name, the company was minimally involved with the team.

The Packers were one of 21 APFA members and the second-smallest market until the Tonawanda, New York, team folded after one game. Led by Eau Claire native and former University of Wisconsin star Howard “Cub” Buck, whom they recruited away from the Canton Bulldogs, the Packers went 7-2-2 overall (3-2-1 APFA), finishing seventh in the newborn league.

Cub Buck signs

The Packers' signing of former University of Wisconsin star "Cub" Buck is reported in the Sept. 18, 1921, edition of the Wisconsin State Journal.

In the final game of the season, an exhibition against Racine Legion, Lambeau used three Notre Dame players, who played under assumed names because they had college eligibility remaining. That violated APFA rules on college players, and the Packers were initially kicked out of the league for it. The league later changed its mind because of the team’s success.

More trouble followed in 1922, and the NFL took the franchise away from Green Bay in January 1923. That led to the formation of the Green Bay Football Corporation, a community-owned, nonprofit entity which sold $5 shares of stock. Led by local business leaders, the Packers staved off extinction.

Packers stock framing

A 1923 stock offering raised money for the Green Bay Football Corporation. Shares also were offered in 1935, 1950, 1997 and 2011; this photo shows a 2011 certificate being framed. As of 2018, there were 361,169 shareholders combining to own 5,009,562 shares that include voting rights but no dividends or appreciation. No shareholder is allowed to own more than 200,000 shares.

In 1927, they did it again when the NFL raised the franchise fee by $1,000 to $2,500, and team president Andrew Turnbull, the Green Bay Press-Gazette editor, rallied local businessmen to again pony up much-needed funds.

“For my money, it’s the greatest story in the history of sports,” Christl said. “It’s just an unbelievable story how this team was started, survived and became the most successful franchise in the league. It really is a miracle, and I don’t know how you can argue with the statement that it’s the greatest story in sports.”

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