Many of you have asked questions about how the Packers got started and the role of the packing plants in their early history. I’ll field questions on those two subjects this week in a two-part Cliff’s Notes. Here’s part one.
J.J. from Los Angeles via Milwaukee, WI
Now that you have an official position with the team, any chance you can influence others to print and sell at least some merchandise with the correct date of when the franchise was established? I know civilization didn't exist before the NFL, but it irritates me to see any history rewritten when it falsifies a fact. I’m aware most people won't care, but it's a general slippery slope and erosion of standards. If the NFL insisted when you were a reporter that the Packers didn't exist before 1921 and you were told to write that, you never would have stood for it.
J.J., you’ll be happy to learn if you haven’t been to Lambeau this season that there’s now a graphic overlay that reads, “Established 1919,” and appearing on the video shown on the scoreboard just before player introductions. I’ve also been writing text for the new Packers Hall of Fame and there will be a sign as part of a larger display, not to mention other references, emphasizing the Packers were formed in 1919. I get your point. Not long ago I saw what looked like an officially licensed T-shirt that read: “Green Bay Packers … Established 1921,” the year the Packers joined what is now the NFL. I’m new here, but I don’t believe the league ordered the Packers to change their birth date. It was simply a case of the team’s early history becoming increasingly muddled over time, and part of the confusion has centered on when the Packers started. (See next question.) What’s important moving forward is that I think as an organization we’re committed to getting things right in the future. For example, I think we made a good start this year with changes to the Media Guide. But I also want to emphasize that I’m uncomfortable about rewriting history unless it can be proven something is incorrect or the evidence overwhelmingly suggests it. In a nutshell, the Packers’ story is a rare case where the truth is better than the myth. Some have tried, but you can’t make up a better story than the real one.
Nik from Milwaukee, WI
You, of all people, should know that Nate Abrams captained the same team in 1918 that Curly Lambeau did. And Tommy Skenandore won us our first informal title back in 1897. Why can't the Packers accept the pre-Packer sponsored history of Green Bay football?
First of all, Nate Abrams might have been captain of the 1918 city team, but even that can be disputed. Based on what I’ve read in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Art Schmaehl was the coach and person in charge. But on to your bigger question and when the Packers got their start. I haven’t researched the history of the Canton Bulldogs, Rock Island Independents, Columbus Panhandles and Chicago Cardinals, all charter members of what is now the NFL, but just from reading about those teams I was able to grasp how their roots could be traced back years before the start of the league. It was different in Green Bay. Green Bay fielded its first city team in 1895, but it had no real connection to the 1919 Packers, much less Green Bay’s first NFL team. Green Bay’s city teams were hit and miss. The Packers’ roots were more directly tied to local high school football. Most of the original Packers played for Green Bay East or West High, not previous city teams. East and West would draw up to 5,000 fans to their games and truly turned Green Bay into a football-crazed town. Some of Green Bay’s early city teams were playing nothing more than pickup games in a park. Just about every city and town in the East and Midwest had an amateur or semipro football team at some point. The Minnesota Vikings entered the NFL in 1961, but probably could come up with some line of descent that dates to a late 19th or early 20th century city football team. In the 24 seasons from 1895 to 1918, there were at least five where Green Bay had no team and another four where a so-called city team played no more than one or two games. There was no constancy of names, managers, coaches, players or anything else. To consider those teams part of Packers history would only cheapen it. What’s more, there has been plenty of shoddy research done on Abrams and others. Yes, evidence suggests Thomas Skenandore was the first player in Green Bay to get paid for his services. Yes, Harold Shannon, Green Bay’s first football historian, wrote more than a decade after the Packers were formed that Thomas Silverwood was the “Father of Football” in Green Bay – and understandably so, even though Silverwood was actively involved for no more than two years in the late 1890s. And, yes, I’m well aware that into the 1930s, the Packers Press Book included a short item each year about the team being organized in 1918. But then again, the Press Book never mentioned the team’s record or listed its scores in the record section. The records always started with 1919. George Whitney Calhoun, along with being co-founder of the Packers, was the team’s publicist and, by all accounts, wrote those early press books. Yet, in his real job with the Press-Gazette, he’d write that 1919 was the team’s first season. What to make of all that? The earliest story about the history of the Packers that I’ve found appeared in the Press-Gazette in 1922 and Calhoun might well have written it, although there was no byline on the story. In that piece, it was written that a 1917 Red Cross Benefit Game against Marinette “got the ball rolling,” as far as professional football in Green Bay. It then referred to the 1918 team as a semipro outfit and the 1919 Packers as Green Bay’s first professional team. Incidentally, the story also noted Schmaehl was both coach and captain in 1918, a team that started out the season as the South Side Skidoos (a neighborhood team), changed its name to the Green Bay Whales and then was simply called the Bays. So why did Calhoun write in the Press Book as late as 1933 that 1918 was the Packers’ first season? Maybe it was because he was the manager of the team, as well as in 1919. Surely, he remembered – even if others didn’t – that he was much more involved in 1918 than 1920 and maybe was looking out for his own legacy. Maybe it was because the Press-Gazette claimed the 1918 team won the state championship, a big deal back then, and Calhoun wanted to continue to stake that claim. We’ll never know the answer. But other than Calhoun managing the team and Lambeau playing in one game before he headed off to Notre Dame there was little connection between the 1918 Skidoos-Whales-Bays and the 1919 Packers. After all, fewer than 10 out of 40-some total players played both years. 1919 was the first year a team in Green Bay was named the Packers. It was the first year Lambeau played in more than one game for the city team, and the first year he had at least partial charge of it. And, most importantly, it was the first team that clearly evolved into today’s Packers.