How Lambeau Field saved the Packers in Green Bay
GREEN BAY – The proposal, so conceived, was to give the Green Bay Packers a beating heart. Sixty years ago, they were no longer America’s darling. On their deathbed, the Packers were barely the pride of Green Bay.
By 1954, County Stadium in Milwaukee was a year old. Its 45,000 capacity enticed the Packers to permanently move two hours south. In a league in which most professional football franchises played in big-league baseball parks, Green Bay’s rickety high school field was no longer acceptable.
The city needed a new stadium. Its future with the Packers depended on it.
From that crossroads, Lambeau Field was born Sept. 29, 1957 when the Packers hosted the Chicago Bears. The new City Stadium wouldn’t be renamed after franchise founder Curly Lambeau for eight years. It seated 32,500 at capacity, a 30 percent increase from old City Stadium. Nationally, it was considered the first venue built exclusively for professional football.
As Lambeau Field expanded over the years, so did its significance. It’s a cathedral not only for Packers fans, but all the NFL. It’s an annual family reunion, generations bonding under foam cheese hats. It’s putting your baby’s name on a waiting list. It’s passing season tickets through your will.
It’s a charcoal grill and cooler full of beer. It’s metal bleachers, seatbacks optional. It’s outdoors in sub-zero wind chill. It’s not giving a damn.
It’s the house of champions, of MVPs, of Hall of Famers. It’s Bart Starr’s sneak. Brett Favre to Kitrick Taylor. Where “we want the ball and we’re going to score” met Al Harris’ pick-six. It’s setting a clock 15 minutes ahead, because that’s Lombardi time.
It’s the Lambeau Leap.
It’s more than football. It’s the cultural epicenter of Titletown. A museum. A banquet hall. A wedding chapel. Go on a stadium tour, and they’ll tell the story of a woman new to town. She was driving Green Bay’s streets lost, but knew her way home from the stadium. What did the woman do? She used that giant "G" behind the scoreboard as her beacon, they say. Drove to Lambeau Field, then found her way home.
It’s the only stadium to house professional football six decades. Only Fenway Park and Wrigley Field have hosted professional American sports franchises longer.
More than anything, it’s the reason this town of barely 105,000 is a player in the country's biggest sports industry. Without Lambeau Field, there are no Green Bay Packers in 2017.
This is an oral history of how a football stadium saved its franchise:
By the 1940s, old City Stadium was outdated. Made of wood and chicken wire, it had been the Packers’ home since 1925. With a capacity of 25,000 fans, teams became reluctant to play road games in Green Bay, fearing the trip could not generate a large enough gate.
The misery of playing at the East High School facility was shared among players and fans. There were no toilets. The visiting team didn’t even have a locker room.
Don McIlhenny, Packers halfback 1957-59: I played my first year in the league with Detroit, and I have one memory of that old Green Bay stadium, is just how minor league it was. I was just sort of awed with everything going on in the NFL, but a visit to Green Bay to play in a high school stadium didn’t impress me.
Zeke Bratkowski, Bears quarterback 1954, 1957-60; Packers quarterback 1963-71: We stayed at the Hotel Northland downtown, and we dressed there. From the time we got there to well after the ballgame, it rained. I remember going out on the field, and there was water standing on the field. There was no tarp or anything, it was muddy. You couldn’t do a lot of things, and field position and staying on the ground, because it was hard to throw the ball. Then we went back to the hotel and showered, and went home.
Packers players, unlike their opponents, actually had a locker room at old City Stadium. Their experience hardly was better.
Fred Cone, Packers fullback 1951-57: It’s where I played six of my seven years in Green Bay. We dressed in the local, I guess the high school dressing rooms there. It was pretty primitive.
Gary Knafelc, Packers end 1954-62: It was terrible there because you just had wire-mesh lockers, wide open on both sides, and wooden benches that you sat on, and the showers were real tiny. Only about eight or nine guys at a time could shower because it was so small.
Cone: We didn’t have knit caps or anything to pull down over our heads. If it was a cold day and the wind is howling around there, we’d cut the sleeves off our old sweatshirts and pull it down over our head and cut eye holes in there. Times were tough back in those days.
Bratkowski: The thing I remember is the proximity of the people to you. You’re sitting on the bench, the only thing right behind you was a post with one string of wire, and then the fans were right there. Way back in those days, guys wore those fancy hats and coats and ties and all of that, and ladies were more dressed up to go to the game. There weren’t any encounters. They were just loud. You could hear them. Players that had been there for a long time, they knew them by one name and were yelling at them.
Cliff Christl, official Packers historian: There were important people in Milwaukee who were helping to support the Packers, yet really with the hope that they would be forced to move to Milwaukee, because they had a better facility. Yet if you look at the attendance figures from those years, the Packers didn’t draw all that well in Milwaukee. I don’t believe they were drawing any better there than they were in the old stadium here, but at least there was the potential to draw more people there. So there were other NFL owners, including George Halas, who began putting pressure on the Packers.
Around 1954, the debate changed. It was no longer about metal bleachers over wooden. It was bigger than installing toilets for fans. In Green Bay, the message sent from the league was clear: build a newstadium, or lose the Packers.
Initially, there was a proposal to expand old City Stadium. That fizzled, according to an Aug. 31,1955 report in the Press-Gazette, when the Green Bay Traffic Commission warned there weren’t enough parking spaces to accommodate more seats.
On April 3, 1956, a referendum was called to approve a $960,000 bond for building a new stadium, half of which the Packers would pay. The proposal passed 11,575 to 4,893, but not without prodding. Three days before the referendum, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell published a threatening letter in the Press-Gazette, warning Green Bay what would happen if the referendum did not pass.
Bert Bell, NFLcommissioner, in March 31,1956 edition of Press-Gazette: We have firm offers for a franchise from many cities whose stadiums can accommodate larger crowds. There is no doubt in my mind that the Green Bay Packers could sell their franchise (God forbid) for a maximum of three quarters of a million dollars. Therefore, it is my opinion that it would be good business judgment on the part of the citizens of Green Bay to approve the referendum for a new stadium.
Christl: Just as important was George Halas’ visit to Green Bay, and he basically told people who showed up at the Columbus Club on the Saturday before the vote that, "You either pass this referendum, or you’re going to lose your team." But members of the executive committee had been telling citizens of Green Bay that, and they said in that 1954-56 time frame, they started making references to the fact, "We’re not talking about just building a new stadium, we’re talking about saving this franchise."
Knafelc: I don’t think we ever considered that the referendum wouldn’t pass. Knowing the people in Green Bay, I don’t think that was even a minor question, let alone a major one. I don’t think the people of Green Bay would’ve allowed that to happen.
Dignitaries from the world of sports, entertainment and politics attended that first game against the Bears. Red Grange, the legendary Bears halfback, flew from San Francisco to Green Bay after covering a Stanford-Illinois game for NBC. Actor James Arness, beloved for his portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon in the television series "Gunsmoke," and Miss America Marilyn Van Der Burmarshaled a 2 1/2-mile parade with more than 70,000 in attendance.
Richard Nixon, vice president at the time, called Green Bay “the best-known little city in the United States” in a halftime address and sat eight rows behind the 50-yard line.
Nixon, in Sept. 30,1957 edition of Press-Gazette: I have never been in a stadium built more for football so the spectators can see than the Green Bay Stadium here today.
Jack Brickhouse, veteran sportscaster forWGN, in Sept. 30,1957 edition of Press-Gazette: Dedication of this stadium is just another chapter in a story which never fails to amaze me. The Green Bay Packer story reminds me of the athlete who makes up with spirit and determination what he lacks in physical prowess. Where else could a town of this size support a professional football team all these years? And what other city of comparable size could build a stadium like this one?
Pete Helf, child concession vendor at new City Stadium: I lived on the east side and hung around the old City Stadium. In ’63, I was captain of Green Bay East’s football team. So my heart is in old City Stadium, the old wooden place where we used to sneak in. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but when we were kids my older brother and a bunch of kids that lived around there, we used to go dig holes under the stands and then mark them with an X, and then put potato sacks and cover them up. Then we had guards around there, and we’d brush and pull the potato sacks and slide under. You’d see us walking around because we’d all have dirty bellies for the game, but they wouldn’t kick us out once we were in. That was kind of the fun part of the old City Stadium. When they moved out to the west side, that was like going to another world for young kids, but we went to the games.
Jerry Helluin, Packers defensive tackle 1954-57: It was such a transition coming from the old stadium, that I guess you would describe it as awe-inspiring. Just the fact you had a modern facility. You’re coming from wooden bleachers to this thing, and you were proud to be in it.
Knafelc: Our lockers were perfect. We had little benches we could sit down in front of our lockers. The showers were huge. You could almost fit the whole team in there. Everything was such a big change. It was like playing on a dirt field and walking onto a grass field.
Helf: One of the benefits of the new stadium was they had a kids’ section, and the tickets were real cheap. It was on the northeast in the corner of the end zone about to the 10-yard line. It was a smart move that they made to get the kids in one section. The parents could sit where their tickets were, and the kids in their section. I think it generated a next generation of Packers fans.
The Packers were big underdogs against the Bears, who had just lost to the New York Giants in the 1956 NFL Championship game. They came back from three deficits to win 21-17 on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Babe Parilli to Knafelc. Parilli replaced starting quarterback Bart Starr earlier in the game.
Knafelc: I think we were something like 21-point underdogs. It felt like even more. We all got together prior to kickoff, and all of us, every single one of us said, "It’s not going to happen today." It wasn’t that we didn’t like them, we hated them. And they in turn hated us. It wasn’t like now. You don’t pat each other on the back and say "hi" to each other. You didn’t talk to those people. It was a grudge battle.
Christl: Honest rivalries, true rivalries, mattered so much more back then than they do now.
Cone: The opening game there, it seemed like we were in another world. It was just really nice to be in a nice stadium to play in.
Helluin: The County Stadium in Milwaukee was designed for baseball primarily. In other words, when we played in there, you had part of that infield that you had to put up with, and it was just — it wasn’t like the new stadium, let’s put it that way.
Bratkowski: It was a typical Bears-Packers game, as they all are. Of course, getting into the locker room, it’s not good to get beat. Basically, that’s all I really remember about it. It was a Bears-Packers rivalry, it was in the new stadium, a lot of hoopla because everybody was in town and the opening of it.
Knafelc: Babe was a very good quarterback. We were in the huddle together, and there were about four of us all talking together about what plays we could use. He said, "What can you beat him with?" I said, "I could beat him with the post.’"He said, "We’re going to go with Gary." And that’s what we decided to do.
Bobby Watkins, Bears halfback1955-57, in Sept. 30,1957 edition of Press-Gazette: This field was a dream field to play on. Your team was really inspired by the big crowd and its new home. That might have been the difference in the two teams today.
Billy Howton, Packersend 1952-58, in Sept. 30,1957 edition of Press-Gazette: It just wouldn’t have been appropriate if we hadn’t won.
Sixty years later, Lambeau Field is the birthplace of the Packers’ modern success.
It’s easy to trace a line from Sept. 29,1957 to the franchise’s growth. Had the city waited any longer, it may have been too late. The Packers hired Vince Lombardi two years later. He ushered the franchise into the Glory Years of the 1960s, and Green Bay remains home to one of the NFL’s iconic franchises today.
Christl: Lombardi’s arrival and success obviously was another savior of the franchise, and really cemented it for many years after. Without that stadium, I’m guessing they may not have been able to hire — they probably couldn’t have lured Lombardi to Green Bay. I doubt if he would’ve come here to coach at the rickety, old high school football stadium.
Bratkowski: The comparisons from now to then, it’s unreal. It’s just unreal. Once you get in there, you always think only as high as the stadium was when you were there. It’s amazing, and then you look up and see all the things that are surrounding it and say, "This is really neat." Really, compared to a lot of stadiums that are a little older and everything, there’s no comparison from a standpoint of food available, bathrooms available, all those little details that they’ve included. And it’s all clean. I mean, it’s clean, clean.
Helf: The only thing recognizable is the cinder-block tunnels that you walk out into the stadium.
Christl: As things were in 1956, could the Packers have continued to survive for a time in that old stadium? Perhaps, but as things changed rapidly after the so-called greatest game ever played, the 1958 championship between the Colts and Giants, the overtime game, when the popularity of pro football mushroomed, the Packers, the NFL and other owners would not have put up with playing in that stadium beyond that point.
Helluin: It was just one those things that happened that you were a part of. When you sit back and think about it now, you think, "Well, that was, we might’ve thought back then it was just ordinary, but it was kind of awe-inspiring."
Old School Packers
Read the original newspaper accounts of the first game at Lambeau Field, along with dozens of other momentous games, milestones and news in Packers history, in our "Old School Packers" archive.