Cliff Christl came out of retirement over four years ago to continue to pursue his two passions: football and history.
The award-winning sportswriter’s decorated career spanned more than 35 years with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Green Bay Press-Gazette, primarily covering the Packers as a beat writer and columnist.
Christl was enjoying retirement with his wife, Shirley, and researching the team history as a “hobby,” continuing a labor of love he pursued since the 1990s. In February 2014, that turned into a full-time job.
The Packers offered him the position of team historian, following in the footsteps of Packers legend Lee Remmel, who had a 62-year association with the team.
Since then, Christl has immersed himself in researching the Packers history, answering fans’ historical questions, and writing articles on former players, coaches, and officials that are published weekly on the team’s website.
Christl, 71, is in the midst of the biggest project of his illustrious career — writing a book on the team’s history that will be published next year in association with the franchise’s celebration of its 100th season.
“The Packers couldn’t have a better guy as their team historian,” said Bud Lea, former Milwaukee Sentinel sports icon, in a phone interview last week. “He’s a darn good journalist and sportswriter, very thorough and detailed, a true professional. Always asked the right questions, the tough questions, and told it like it was.
“A big guy with red hair who never got riled, just did his job. We were competitors for a time on the Packers beat. I think of Cliff as one of the best the Journal ever had.”
Timing is everything, and Christl said the time was right to share the fruits of his labor and set the record straight on Packers history.
“With my job as Packers historian, it forces me to start sharing this with readers and other people,” he said. “I guess that was the deciding factor for me. It’s time to do something with all the research and all the interviews that I had done. I guess I spent, by then, almost 20 years researching Packers’ history.
“I knew myself well enough to know that I could continue researching until I was dead and never get a book written. Just because there’s so much to dig into.”
The following is a Q&A with Christl about his current role with the Packers, his memories growing up and covering the team, and his part in the celebration of the team’s 100th season:
Q: How did you become Packers team historian?
A: “Somebody in the organization mentioned to me I would be a good fit for the position of team historian. I guess I was just recently retired and loved retirement and really had no plans to ever go back to work. I really just dismissed it. Didn’t have any interest at that point. Then I got involved into the Packers Heritage Trail and creating that and really got into my research. Aaron Popkey (Packers Director of Public Affairs) mentioned it to me about going to work as Packers historian.
“The timing was great because the Packers were just a few years away from celebrating their 100th anniversary. I guess the Cardinals celebrated their 100th at some point, but I don’t think anybody remembers it because they haven’t been in one place long enough for people to appreciate their history like Packers fans can.”
Q: What best prepared you for the role of Packers historian?
A: “No question, I look back fondly at my 36 years as a newspaper man. I covered the Packers for more than a decade as a beat reporter and a number of other years in other capacities, including as a columnist. And that’s invaluable. Living history is something you can’t experience just by doing research or interviewing people. That’s what gave Lee Remmel such a great insight on the history of the franchise. He lived the history for 60 years. I can’t match that, so I have to try to catch up by doing research.”
Q: What stands out about your long relationship with Lee?
A: “I worked with Lee for a few years and then replaced him on the (Packers) beat when he went to work for the Packers. I’ve listened to him tell stories for 35-plus years and always enjoyed and appreciated it. He was always very helpful to me. I also just recently counted and I conducted more than 15 oral histories with him, interviews where he shared a lot of his information.
“He was extremely loyal to the organization and the people he worked with. Lee and I though also discussed the fact that he never did any research really. The tools weren’t available to him that are available to us today, but I always found that kind of interesting too that he wasn’t curious about some of those things. Therefore, he admitted that the stories he told, for example, about the formation of the franchise were just things that he would pull by Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun, the co-founders, because the two have been credited as being co-founders and I think rightfully so. But Lee said he often thought might have exaggerated his role and he told me Lambeau was a congenital liar, so he knew that those stories weren’t necessarily true.”
Q: You have conducted extensive research on the Packers early history. Why is it important to you to set the record straight?
A: “I guess that was always my philosophy as a journalist. Do it right, get it right. I got into researching the history of the Packers when I was still working for the newspapers, so that was just a natural thing for me. Disproving something, I find, is a lot more difficult than proving something. That can be very time consuming. That said, there are so many official documents available, the Press-Gazette really supported the Packers and responsible for their survival for at least three decades or more, covered the team probably more thoroughly than any other newspaper in the country. So there are a lot of sources to turn to uncover that information.”
Q: You must enjoy the digging, the process?
“I guess that’s still the reporter in me. Seeking the truth.”
Q: Who influenced you growing up and how did you choose to be a sports journalist?
A: “My grandmother. My dad died when I was 13 days old, so we never saw each other. He died in a veteran’s hospital. His name was Clifford H. Christl. Mine is Clifford A. Christl. He had been a decorated soldier in World War II, fought in the Battle of the Bulge. So I never knew him. My mother eventually remarried, but when I was very young I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She had worked at the Wade House in Greenbush, the historical site, and she was extremely interested in history. I think she’s the one that got me interested in history — it was always my favorite subject in school. I didn’t really prepare myself to be a sportswriter until maybe my last year in college. I majored in political science and just took a few journalism courses in my last year at UW-Oshkosh. I was lucky to land a job at Manitowoc (Herald-Times in 1970) and my career took off from there. I was probably better prepared for the job I took when I was close to 70 years old, the (Packers team) historian, because of my grandmother.
“I also had a high school history teacher, Bill Mueller, at Green Bay East High School. He was another of my mentors in terms of my interest in history.”
Q: When did you start covering the Packers?
A: “In October 1971, I went to work for the Press-Gazette as the high school beat guy and Lee (Remmel) was covering the Packers and Len Wagner was the sports editor. In the spring of ’74, Lee took the job as the publicity director with the Packers and I was given the Packers beat. I was 27 at the time. It was a great break.
“Back then, it was basically a one-person beat. I’d have a little help. Other people would pitch in on game coverage, only for the home games. The Journal and Sentinel each had a beat guy, but they would only come up to Green Bay maybe a couple days a week.”
Q: Which sports writers did you admire?
A: “A guy I always had great respect for was Bud Lea (Milwaukee Sentinel’s Packers beat writer). I remember as a kid growing up, the people in Green Bay used to always say, if you want to know the truth about what’s going on with the Packers, read Bud Lea. So I grew up following the team and started going to games in the ’50s, saw my first game at old City Stadium. I followed the team really closely and tried to get my hands on the Sentinel as often as I could to read Bud."
Q: When did you attend your first Packers game?
A: “I actually think I went to a game against the Dallas Texans in 1952 and might have sat on my parents’ lap. The first game I remember was actually the last game at Old City Stadium. The Packers played the 49ers (Nov. 18, 1956; Packers won 17-16). George Whitney Calhoun was honored at halftime. I think there were like nine Hall of Famers in that game. I had no clue. That was my first recollection. I don’t remember a darn thing about the game, but I remember the halftime ceremony. They gave John Henry Johnson an award and Calhoun was honored. That was actually Bart Starr’s first start at quarterback.
“The next year, the Packers moved into new City Stadium, now Lambeau Field. Because the games were split between Green Bay and Milwaukee, they played only three games in Green Bay. The price of my season tickets was $2.25 — 75 cents per game because they had a kid’s section. I sat there for several years, starting in 1957 and went to almost all the home games during the Lombardi era.”
Q: What is your most memorable game at Lambeau Field and your favorite professional game overall?
A: “I went to the Ice Bowl, that’s considered the greatest game in Packers history. If I have a favorite game, it would be 1962. The Packers beat the Lions, 9-7, on Oct. 7, 1962. I think that I saw maybe the two best teams I ever saw, the Packers and the Lions, in the same game. That’s the book, “Run to Daylight,” centered on. Vince Lombardi called it one of the greatest games in the history of football, one of the greatest games he ever saw. It was a fierce defensive battle between two great defenses. The Packers won it in the closing minute with an (Herb) Adderley interception and a (Paul) Hornung field goal. If the Packers wouldn’t have won that game, which many considered the greatest Packers team ever — Lombardi’s best team — the ’62 Packers might not even have gotten to the championship game. Might not even have played in the postseason if they had not won that game. So that’s how important it was. If you ask a lot of Packers, Boyd Dowler, for example, who was the best team they ever faced? A lot of them say the ’62 Lions, even the ’61 Lions.”
Q: Your thoughts on the Ice Bowl?
A: “It was cold. I still have my ticket stub: Section 18, Row 13, Seat 15. I was 20 years old. The ticket was $12. I sat in my parents’ seats — they had season tickets going back to 1950. And when they built the new stadium they transferred those seats, and we as a family still have them to this day.”
Q: Where do you watch the Packers home games now?
A: “I’ve been going to the games and sitting in the stands since I retired from the Journal Sentinel in spring 2007. So I’ve sat outside ever since. Even though I work for the Packers and I probably could get a press pass as an old newspaper guy, I just don’t feel like I belong there. I’m not working. I’ve always considered the press box a sacred place, where people are working.”
Q: What surprised you in your research as your embarked on documenting the franchise history in a book after the Packers 100th season?
A: “I probably got over 250 oral histories of players and coaches that I started doing in the 1990s for work. Also, in the back of my mind I had this idea that at some point I would write a definitive history about the Packers. I started researching microfilm, again for some special projects for the paper, but also with the idea that maybe I’d write a book on the history of the team. So the research started more than 20 years ago.
“I certainly didn’t realize, and I don’t know that anybody can really appreciate how storied the Packers’ history is without also making it a life’s work. There’s so many stories, so many fascinating stories, that unfortunately most of them have been forgotten. And a lot of it is wrong. I don’t know of too many books — you can count on one hand, just a few fingers — that have gotten our history right. It’s kind of shocking.”
Q: The best Packers history books in your opinion?
A: “I consider Arch Ward’s book a classic. I mean he was a titan of the sports pages, but he was also a good friend of Lambeau, so he relied on Lambeau’s memory and truthfulness for a lot of things that turned out to be not right. I think John Torinus’ book offers a lot of insight because he was on the executive committee from 1949-’85, but John even admitted in his introduction that it was not a history of the Packers, it was more of his recollections. So again, some of the specifics aren’t right there. But those two books are as insightful as any.
“David Maraniss, and Michael O’Brien as well, wrote about Lombardi in such great detail and with such great accuracy. It’s really those early years, the 1920s especially, that have been muddled by historians. Some of the books are just almost total BS. I make more than my share of mistakes, but I don’t think the Packers got their history right in their 75th anniversary book. The Wisconsin Historical Society put out a book and didn’t get it right. People that you would think charged with getting the history right haven’t even done it.”
Q: You must have a wealth of resources to draw from with your newspaper experience and the Packers organization?
A: “Two bedrooms full in a condo in Green Bay. I tell people I have the best pro football library outside of Canton, Ohio. So I have a lot here. One of the advantages I had even before I took this job was the Journal Sentinel before the millennial had me do a 10-part series on the history of sports in Wisconsin. In preparation for that, I read either the Journal or Sentinel, on microfilm, every day from Jan. 1, 1900, through Dec. 31, 1949. And then I figured for the other five decades I had followed sports and I could wing it. Also, a number of Packers stories, especially stories I did on Lambeau, I looked at Press-Gazette microfilm from Jan. 1, 1919, and was into the spring of 1962. So I had read 43 years of Press-Gazettes as well — and I made copies of everything. I have countless file drawers filled with newspaper clippings from those two research projects.
“I copied the sports stories, but also news stories, society page stories, early history. What I learned on early stadium was from reading the baseball stories because what happened in terms of those early ballparks was done for the baseball team, not the Packers. Baseball was our national pastime.”
Q: How is the Packers history book, slated for publication in later 2019, coming along?
A: “The book is just part of what’s happening... things are being done on the website, things are being done on the scoreboard, to celebrate and inform people about Packers history. The first task I had as historian was to write all the historical text on the second floor of the new Packers Hall of Fame. Most recently, the Packers and a local company are working on a 10-part documentary on our history and I’ve been heavily involved in that. And now I’m working on a 100th anniversary book. I’m getting nervous about it because there’s so many other things going on that I get sidetracked more than I’d like. But somehow, some way, I’ll find a way to get it done.”
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