New book 'Baptism by Football' recounts critical year for Packers, Green Bay

Richard Ryman
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - The NFL in 1922 included the Toledo Maroons, Racine Legion, Oorang Indians and 15 others. Three remain: the Chicago Bears, the Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals and the Green Bay Packers.

"Baptism by Football," written by Tony Walter, looks at Green Bay and the Packers and their search for identity in 1922.

There is no reason to believe the Packers should have lasted any longer than the Milwaukee Badgers, the Dayton Triangles or the Louisville Brecks. Why and how they did is embedded in the story of Green Bay in 1922.

Tony Walter, former sports editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, chose that year for his book, "Baptism by Football: The Year Green Bay and the Packers Forged Their Futures."

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After retiring in 2012, Walter, like seemingly every former reporter, decided he had a book in him. He researched Press-Gazette and Milwaukee newspaper microfilm archives for a year with the intention of writing about the Packers' first 10 years.

"I got up to 1922 and it hit me, there was no reason to go any further," Walter said. "I thought, 'There's your story.' "

It is the story, he said, of a team in search of survival and a community in search of an identity. Walter said many Packers fans are aware of the so-called "Hungry Five," local community leaders and businessmen, including Curly Lambeau, who supported the Packers in their earliest years.

"I just thought there was more to this story," Walter said. 

A lot more, as it turns out. Walter tells the story month-by-month, recounting as much of Green Bay's as the Packers' history. The team started the year with a suspension from the American Football League for having used college players in games, a common practice at the time. Meanwhile, Green Bay was trying to determine its place in the grand scheme. It was a topic addressed frequently in the pages of the Press-Gazette. 

"One of the things that struck me was the perception of (Press-Gazette editor) John Kline," Walter said. "It's like he wrote these editorials knowing I was going to do this. He set it up for me so nicely."

Tony Walter, former Press-Gazette sports editor, talks about his book, "Baptism by Football: The Year Green Bay and the Packers Forged Their Futures."

Just before the end of 1921, Kline raised questions that would be relevant today. 

“If we could come back to Green Bay, even 100 years hence, what would life be like? What would be the division of labor? Into what new fields would electricity have led us? What would be the achievements of science and invention? What would be the status of social and spiritual life? What would be the conditions of health? To what extent would the intricate economic methods of today be simplified or developed?

“It seems probable that future civilizations will have a system so complicated that the best auditors of 1921 could not grasp its workings," he wrote.

Green Bay was just becoming a paper-manufacturing city. It anticipated — decades early, it turned out — the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and contemplated — decades early, it turned out — the best use of its riverfront. It was a transportation hub based on railroads. There was no Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport because Straubel was still a student at Green Bay East High School.

Familiar names appear throughout the year, including Dr. J.R. Minahan, Dr. Julius Bellin, Andrew Turnbull, George Calhoun, Lee Joannes, Austin Cofrin and more.

Prohibition was not much of an issue in Green Bay, because it was pretty much ignored, Walter found. On the other hand, while people turned a blind eye to alcohol, priests and ministers took to the pulpits to rail against the immorality of dancing cheek to cheek.

And in the category of the more things change, the more they stay the same, Green Bay's city council railed against the growth of jitney's — unlicensed taxis — which were taking business from city streetcars operated by Wisconsin Public Service. Can you say Uber?

As De Pere native Walter explains at the end of the book, the history of the Packers and Green Bay was his history, too. In addition to other roles, Walter was Press-Gazette sports editor from 1977-84 and 1994-96. His father, John, also was sports editor of the Press-Gazette from 1935-41, and his grandfather, V.I. Minahan, an editor of the Press-Gazette and publisher of the Appleton Post-Crescent, was an original Packers shareholder. 

At 119 pages, the book is not a hefty read — Walter's writing style is direct and to the point — but it is full of fascinating facts about the Packers and the town whose identity is inextricably tied to the franchise that almost didn't happen.  

Book signing

Tony Walter will sign copies of “Baptism By Football: The Year Green Bay and the Packers Forged Their Futures,”  from 3-5:30 p.m. June 2 and 9-11 a.m. June 3 at Bosse’s News & Tobacco, 220 Cherry St., Green Bay.

The book is available at Bosse's, the Packers Pro Shop, Reader's Loft, and Barnes & Noble in Appleton, Green Bay and throughout Wisconsin. 

Packers reading list

There are many, many books about the Packers. Here are a few that might be of interest:

» "Green & Gold Memories: Growing up in Vince Lombardi's Green Bay," by Roger Dier. The title says it all. Dier grew up in Green Bay during a time when interaction with the Packers was frequent. Like Walter's book, it is as much about Green Bay during a specific time as about the Packers, and how each influenced the other.

» "Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre," by Jeff Pearlman. Pearlman interviewed 573 people – former teammates and coaches, lifelong friends, family members – and took two years to write the book. Even without Favre's participation, he dives deeply into his life and career.

» "When Pride StillMattered : A Life Of Vince Lombardi," by David Maraniss. Pulitzer Prize-winner Maraniss was raised in Madison. He knows Wisconsin and the Packers and he knows how to cover big subjects. There is no better biography of Lombardi.

» "Mudbaths and Bloodbaths: The Inside Story of the Bears-Packers Rivalry," by Gary D'Amato and Cliff Christl. Why?Because its Packers and Bears. D'Amato writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Christl,former sportswriter for the Press-Gazette andJournal-Sentinel, is the official Packers historian. 

» "Green and Gold Moments: Bob Harlan and the Green Bay Packers," by Dale Hofmann and Bob Harlan. A view from the top by one of the most important executives in Packers history. It's as if Curly Lambeau had written a book, only with more humility. 


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