Sunday, July 20, 2014

How the Packers Began

1921 Green Bay Packers
The birth of the Packers’ franchise and other professional team franchises involves a long evolution of city and town teams that had played amateur and semiprofessional football for decades. Untangling the roots of the professional team family tree is tedious work.  Once exposed and disentangled, these roots lead to a series of fits and starts rather than a clear line of ancestry.  Teams begin, end, and resume again sometimes with some of the same players, sometimes with the same name, sometimes with the same coach or manager.  Unlike a human bloodline, that once it ends, ends forever, a team’s ancestry is often traced through tenuous connections.  Team history is especially murky before formal leagues existed to collect it.  Historians often disagree on the basics, such as how a professional football player and team are defined.  Most people would not think of a local team that plays another local team for a round of drinks and a wager as professional.  However, some writers call such a team professional if they bring in a few ringers from out of town.  

In pro football, it is far simpler to go back to the time when the NFL (originally called the American Professional Football Association (APFA)) was itself established and work forward.  No one disputes the validity of the National Football League as a league of professional teams and players.  This approach allows clarity. The National Football League was also the first league to have national aspirations.  The Packers started in professional football on what might be called the “Abrams to Lambeau to Peck to Calhoun” play.  An old pal of Curly Lambeau, Nate Abrams, whose family had a cattle business, played on a team in Green Bay called the Green Bay Whales.  Lambeau joined. Teams like the Whales popped up year after year, but often they were organized from scratch each season. Abrams introduced Lambeau to an acquaintance of his, Frank Peck, who ran a meat packing company called the Indian Packing Company. Peck signed Lambeau on staff as a high priced shipping clerk.  Lambeau also got to know newspaper reporter, George Calhoun, who had managed the Whales and was actively involved in Green Bay sports.  Lambeau was the local talent who just might make a professional team work .  Together, Lambeau and Calhoun planned a new team.  Some would say they continued the remnants of an existing one that was now sponsored by Frank Peck’s Indian Meat Packing company.  Sponsorship that year was not much more than what is required of a business that sponsors a local softball team today.  On August 14, 1919, the team officially began and it was Lambeau doing much of the managing.  

Abrams could certainly be considered the chief catalyst, a Lambeau friend, and supporter from the earliest days—introducing Lambeau to some key players and helping Lambeau through some rough financial times.  Peck bankrolled the team in its first season, paid for the uniforms, and helped establish its early identity by association with his packing company.  Calhoun was the chief alchemist—it was his tireless work in the press that turned the team from a minor amusement to a national institution.  If Calhoun had not successfully beaten the bushes for fans and supporters, the Packers might never have gotten off the ground.  Lambeau of course, was the field general and chief of staff— the father of the Packers.  He led the football revolution with his own blood and sweat.  Many others helped the Packers survive and thrive over the years, but it was these four who did the most in that first year.  

In the local Press-Gazette, George Calhoun referred to the new team as the “Packers,” shorthand for the “Indian Packing Company Team.” But in the early days, they were often called the “Bays” and a few other names.  Team nicknames attached themselves over time.  Even in the more established sport of professional baseball, team nicknames were often slow developing and some changed over the years depending upon what was going on with the team.  Often, the newspaper writers used several names and eventually the fans and the team settled on one over the others.  The Packers played a limited number of teams within a confined area who were not highly skilled. Some called such teams, “town teams”—they had been around for decades. In a place with more than one team, a town team would often be a kind of all-star team that grouped the best players together for certain contests with other towns. In their first year of operation, the Packers played in Hagemeister Park, which had no bleachers at the time.  Fans stood behind ropes that secured the sidelines. Primitive perhaps, but the spectator experience was up close and personal. It also provided good exercise! Fans ran up and down the sidelines to see each play progress. During halftime when the teams sat on blankets at each end zone, fans would come over and circle the players and listen to the discussion.  Calhoun “passed the hat” around and shared the proceeds with the players at the end of the season.  

 In 1921, stands were built at Hagemeister Park and tickets were sold for admittance.  As the Packers grew in popularity, Green Bay’s venues grew in size.  Much of the construction work done on Green Bay “stadiums” over time was done by Lambeau’s father.  Initially, this work was modest. Later projects became more ambitious. 

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press.   This post is taken from a new book called Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey--available at  Burghardt's Sporting Goods in Wisconsin,  a growing number of select stores in Illinois such as Lake Forest Book Store, Millikin College Bookstore, C & A Inspirations in Champaign, Love Christian Center in Kankakee, the Little Way in Crystal Lake, St. Anne's Gift Shop in Orland Park,  the Christian Shop in Palatine, and more.   The book can be bought online as well on Amazon.