The new Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame opened at Lambeau Field on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. (Aug. 21, 2015) Kyle Bursaw/Press-Gazette Media
The Vince Lombardi era gets the most space in the new Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame that opened Friday in the Lambeau Field Atrium.
Rightly so. Those five championships in seven seasons, at a time when the NFL's popularity was taking off, mark the high point of this history-rich franchise.
But many of us have heard and read the stories from those years. So while it's still fascinating to get a close-up view of those times, in many ways, the parts of the Hall that I found most interesting were exhibits that chronicled the early years of the franchise, from its founding in 1919 through the 1930s.
The NFL was small-time in those years, struggling to make its way into the national consciousness against the sports that dominated the scene: Major League Baseball, college football and boxing.
And it's what Curly Lambeau's Packers accomplished in those early years, with financial assistance from the citizens of Green Bay, that allowed the Packers to miraculously survive as the NFL transitioned from a mostly small-town league in its early years to the big-city league it became by 1934.
I spent about two hours going through the Packers' new Hall on Friday, and it is impressive. It's big (two floors, 15,000 square feet), dignified, thorough and honest.
There's a chronological history of the team that spans several rooms and includes numerous, informative placards and memorabilia from key figures and dates. There's also an exhibit for every Packers member in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are histories of the team's uniforms, numerous interactive stations and even a replica of Lombardi's office. And of course there's a room with replicas of all 13 NFL championship trophies.
But what especially jumped out to me were three items from the section on the '20s that marked critical events to the franchise's success. They include names that even Packers cognoscenti might know only in passing. But they are the early-year greats who built the franchise's foundation and were products of the vision and ambition that Lambeau brought to the team he co-founded. There would be no franchise in Green Bay today if not for Lambeau's audacity and salesmanship.
The first item was the black-and-white picture of a chunky, goofy looking man in a football uniform named "Cub" Buck. You might not have heard of him, but he was Lambeau's first marquee signing.
Buck was an Eau Claire native and hulk of a man who starred as a lineman at the University of Wisconsin, and then from 1916 to 1920 was a key player for the most famous team in the haphazard world of semi-pro and professional football, the Canton Bulldogs. The great Jim Thorpe was the Bulldogs' star, and Buck was one of his most impressive teammates.
Buck was a big name in football when Lambeau signed him for the Packers' final game of 1920 and then again for the 1921 season, the Packers' first in the league that soon would take on the name NFL. Buck was considered a giant for his era, though his true size appears lost to history.
In a story in the Milwaukee Journal from Dec. 2, 1965, he said his playing weight was 289 pounds, which would be astounding. In Eric Goska's statistical history of the Packers, "Green Bay Packers: A Measure of Greatness," Buck is listed at 6-feet-3 and 250 pounds in each of his five seasons, from 1921 through '25. And "The Football Encyclopedia" lists him as 6-0 and anywhere from 255 pounds to 265 pounds, depending on the season.
For some perspective, Buck's listed weight of 260 pounds in 1925 tied with one other player for heaviest in the league. The next highest was 245, and the majority of players were 200 pounds or less.
Regardless of his actual size, Buck was considered one of the game's strongmen. And signing him in '21, at a reported $75 a week, showed Lambeau was serious about fielding a team that would be competitive nationally. It gave the Packers instant credibility around the NFL. One team historian has likened it in that regard to the Packers' signing of Reggie White in 1993.
The Packers finished above .500 in each of Buck's five seasons, no small feat at a time when some teams were scheduling games week to week. He was their best defensive player in a defense-oriented game, and versatile enough to also punt and kick at times. In 1946 and '57, when the Packers' first two all-time teams were named, he was one of the 11 chosen for each.
The Packers didn't win any NFL titles with Buck, but they did soon after when they made Green Bay famous by becoming the league's dominant team with three straight championships. An exhibit panel in the Packers' Hall recognizes the crucial five-week span in the summer of 1929 when the charismatic and energetic Lambeau signed three future Pro Football Hall of Famers who would play key roles in those titles: Johnny Blood, Cal Hubbard and Mike Michalske.
Blood and Michalske were available because their teams from the previous season, Pottsville and the New York Yankees, respectively, had folded. Lambeau purchased Hubbard from the New York Giants.
They joined three underappreciated stars who are recognized on another nearby exhibit panel: Verne Lewellen, Lavvie Dilweg and Red Dunn.
Blood and Lewellen were triple-threat halfbacks and return men who scored the bulk of the team's touchdowns in those three seasons. In an era when scores were low — in 41 games from '29 through '31, the Packers allowed more than 14 points only four times — and field position was everything, punter was among the game's most important positions, and Lewellen was perhaps the league's best.
Dunn was the quarterback and primary place kicker. Dilweg was a two-way end who stood out on both sides of the ball. And Hubbard and Michalske were highly respected linemen who are enshrined in Canton.
Those three straight Packers titles aren't just a prideful part of the team's history. They also tangibly helped the franchise survive in the early, uncertain, wild-west years of the NFL.
Because the Packers were one of the league's best teams dating back to the mid-20s, they were one of the best road draws. Newspaper reporters in the league's big cities found the David vs. Goliath storyline irresistible, which helped draw crowds. So the Packers had strong backing among league ownership, because they made money for their teams.
In '31, for instance, the Packers drew 35,000 fans when they played the Giants at the Polo Grounds. The Giants drew more than 30,000 only one other game that year. That same season, the Packers-Bears game at Wrigley Field drew 30,000, the Bears' highest-attended game of the season.
Those titles and crowds proved that the NFL was viable in the small city of Green Bay. That's before the great Don Hutson, before Lombardi and before the franchise's revival in the 1990s that continues to this day.
It took talented people — flesh and blood, not odd looking men in black-and-white photos — to make all that has followed possible. It took the likes of Cub Buck, Johnny Blood, Mike Michalske, Cal Hubbard, Verne Lewellen, Lavvie Dilweg, Red Dunn and, of course, Curly Lambeau to make a franchise possible in Green Bay.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.