Dougherty: Fledgling Packers needed unlikely lifeline to survive, soar

Pete Dougherty
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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The first Packers team in 1919. (Green Bay Press-Gazette archives)

The small-town Green Bay Packers are as great a story as there is in professional sports.

And as they prepare to celebrate the start of their 100th season, which begins in little more than two weeks, this is as good a time as any to revisit an indispensable player in their history that most Packers fans and employees probably don’t know about or at least fully appreciate.

As hard as it is to imagine today, with the NFL a behemoth and the Packers one of the most storied franchises in North America sports, the fact is that a local, small-town newspaper is as responsible for the team’s existence as anything or anyone save the legendary Curly Lambeau.

Yes, we’re talking about the Green Bay Press-Gazette, employer of yours truly.

“No Press-Gazette, no Packers,” said Cliff Christl, a 1965 graduate of Green Bay East High School who would go on to be Packers beat writer and then sports editor for the Press-Gazette, and now is the team’s official historian.

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Lambeau of course was the driving force behind the franchise and the biggest reason the Packers occupy their beloved, one-of-a-kind, community-owned status in major pro sports in this country.

But it’s hard to overstate the role the Press-Gazette played in the team’s founding and then survival through hard times that felled all the other small-town teams in the NFL early last century. We’re talking mostly about the 1920s, which the team never would have made it through without the Press-Gazette, though the newspaper played a significant role at other critical junctures in the '30s, '40s and '50s as well.

It wasn’t until Vince Lombardi built a dynasty (five NFL titles in seven years) in the 1960s that the Packers no longer needed their local newspaper.

But before that, the Press-Gazette served as their business hub and protector. The team was founded in the Press-Gazette building in August 1919, and for the first 30 years of the franchise, until the Packers finally got their own offices, most of the team’s business was conducted, often by the newspapers’ employees, within the Press-Gazette’s walls.

Key figures

Two Press-Gazette figures in particular were indispensable to the Packers’ survival: George Whitney Calhoun, the crusty reporter/editor/columnist who was an inveterate organizer of sports teams and tireless promoter of the fledgling Packers franchise, and Andrew Turnbull, the business savvy, community-minded publisher who rescued the team financially on several occasions with its survival in the balance.

It’s impossible to do justice in this short form to the roles they and others played, but following are the broad strokes, based mostly on a long interview with Christl and his coffee-table book, “Packers Heritage Trail,” which is dense with important details, context and myth-busting research on the team’s first 50 years. Christl’s career-long dive into the archives includes having read on microfilm every Press-Gazette from Jan. 1, 1919 through May 1, 1962, as well as either the Milwaukee Journal or Sentinel from Jan. 1, 1900 through April 30, 1950.

Former Press-Gazette reporter/editor/columnist George Whitney Calhoun played a key role in the survival of the Packers.

As for Calhoun, he goes back to the team’s founding. Essentially, he and Lambeau started the franchise in August 1919. The details are shaky and misinformation abundant on how things started. For instance, Calhoun and Lambeau very well might have had a street-corner conversation in early August that led to their founding meeting in the editorial offices at the Press-Gazette on Aug. 11, 1919. But it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing.

The Press-Gazette’s sports columnist, Val Schneider, played on the same team as Lambeau in a new city baseball league that had been founded at the Press-Gazette late in the spring of 1919. Schneider thereafter wrote four times of budding excitement about a possible new city football team.

Calhoun, in the meantime, had a history of forming teams and leagues in both Buffalo and Green Bay. And Schneider had regular contact with Lambeau in baseball and Calhoun at work, so it’s not hard to connect the dots.

No proof survives as to who was at the first meeting – the Press-Gazette’s story about it two days later was unusually vague in that it named no participants – and no accounts from years later withstand scrutiny. But it seems a given that Lambeau and Calhoun were there, and possibly they were the only two.

“There’s no way 25 years later that these people remembered that meeting distinctly,” Christl said, “because they had no clue what they were creating.  It was one of several meetings over the course of several days. Calhoun and others were organizing hockey leagues, the baseball league meetings were at the Press-Gazette, there were all kinds of meetings there. I’m guessing six months after the fact these people couldn’t distinguish one meeting from another for sure.”

Regardless, a second meeting at the Press-Gazette on Aug. 14 drew nearly 25 players, as was reported in the newspaper. And Calhoun was in on the ground floor. He managed the team and passed the hat at games that first season. From Day 1 he also served as the team’s de facto publicist from the Press-Gazette newsroom.

On the brink

The early years were especially treacherous and the team always seemed on the brink of folding. Early in the 1921 season, the Packers’ first in the NFL, their sponsor, now called Acme Packing Co., went belly up. Then in a game at the end of the year, Lambeau was caught using college players under assumed names in a non-league game, which got the franchise kicked out of the league.

So in 1922, with no sponsorship and facing a new league-mandated $1,000 guarantee against using college players, Lambeau and Calhoun invested in and formed the Green Bay Football Club along with two other local businessmen.

Then things really got dicey when rain killed attendance at two late-season home games, including one where the rain was three one-hundredths of an inch short of allowing the Packers to collect an insurance policy.

This is where the newspaper publisher, Turnbull, stepped in for the first time. The Packers were deep in debt and considering canceling their final game, which was non-league, but Turnbull convinced them that to do so would end professional football in Green Bay. He promised to get financial backing from the local business community if the Packers played the game, and he and a local attorney took the lead in creating the Green Bay Football Corporation, the original community owned non-profit that ran the team until 1933.

That first stock sale raised more than $5,000 to pay the team’s debts, and Turnbull became the franchise’s first president, serving in that role until 1928 and on the team’s executive committee until 1949.

“If not for his efforts then, the Packers almost certainly would have folded,” Christl said.

Then in 1927, the 22-team NFL tried to weed out the small towns – Green Bay was the smallest – by jacking up the franchise guarantee from $1,500 to $2,500. Turnbull again called local businessmen to a meeting at the Press-Gazette and raised the money to cover the extra $1,000, which was no small fee at the time.

In the meantime, Calhoun, who also was a member of the team’s board of directors, was a one-man band promoting the Packers nationwide. Because of their small fan base, they didn’t draw well at home, but they were a hit on the road, where the larger gates provided critical source of revenue for their survival.

They drew well on the road in part because Lambeau built good teams, but also in part because of Calhoun. His specialty was going to cities like Chicago and New York, filling his hotel bathtub with bottled beer and regaling sportswriters with tall tales. That directly helped draw crowds on game day.

“(The sportswriters) loved it and couldn’t resist the David vs. Goliath angle,” Christl said. “The Packers probably got more ink than any other (road) team.”

Though the Press-Gazette’s role diminished some in the later '30s and into the '40s and ‘50s, it still was vital to the organization’s survival. It was out in front pushing for a new stadium (what’s now Lambeau Field) to ensure the team’s survival in the early 1950s and advocated for the bond issue that raised half the revenue for the stadium in a municipal referendum in 1956. The newspaper also was a huge promoter of the 1950 stock sale, the first that reached out to the ordinary fan and raised more than $100,000 when the team again was in big trouble financially.

That the Packers survived their early, turbulent years is nothing short of a minor miracle. That countless people played roles big and small in that minor miracle is not under dispute.

But it’s been a long, perilous ride from Calhoun’s meeting with Lambeau on Aug. 11, 1919 to a 2018 season in which the small-town Packers are among the favorites to win the title in the biggest sports league in this country today. And there’s no denying a small-town newspaper’s essential role in the Packers surviving that ride.

“(Lambeau) is more responsible than anyone for the survival of the franchise and certainly the success of it,” Christl said. “But if not for Andrew Turnbull and George Whitney Calhoun and perhaps many others who worked at the Press-Gazette, there’d be no Packers today.”


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