The Green Bay Packers have two opponents to thank for their survival in the National Football League. One is their archrival, the Chicago Bears. The other is the Packers’ upcoming opponent, the New York Giants.
When Green Bay joined what was then the American Professional Football Association in 1921, it had a population of roughly 31,000 and was the smallest of several small Midwestern cities among the 21 members. The only smaller city was Tonawanda, N.Y., which played one road game and folded. Other than a few brief periods in the 1920s, Green Bay has remained the NFL’s smallest city ever since.
The Packers’ loyal and fanatic fan base is often credited for keeping the team alive and justifiably so – to a degree.
What was more important through World War II when Curly Lambeau’s teams won their six NFL championships was how well the Packers drew on the road, particularly in New York and Chicago, the league’s two biggest cities.
When the Packers played the Giants in New York on Nov. 21, 1937, attendance was 38,965. The Packers-Bears game at Wrigley Field that year drew 44,977 fans. The Packers’ largest crowd at Green Bay’s City Stadium that season was 17,553 for the Detroit Lions. Credit: Packers HOF archives
During the 1920s, the Packers struggled to outdraw Green Bay’s East and West high school games. The 1927 East-West game drew an estimated 10,000 fans; that year’s Packers-Bears game at City Stadium drew about 5,500. In 1939, when the Packers won their fifth title under Lambeau, they sold only 2,345 season tickets for a four-game package to the games in Green Bay.
“A few years ago, before the Packers started playing games in Milwaukee, there was a lot of talk going around the league of making the Packers a traveling club and eliminating their home games altogether,” Curly Lambeau told a gathering of Green Bay’s industrial leaders in 1941.
What Tim Mara in New York and George Halas in Chicago, in particular, didn’t want to lose was the Packers’ drawing power in their cities. They probably weren’t any more excited about playing in Green Bay than the other NFL owners, who often left City Stadium with no more than a $5,000 check, the visiting team’s minimum guarantee in those days.
But as far back as the 1920s, the Packers were cash cows for the Giants and Bears when they went on the road. And there’s no understating how important it was for Green Bay to have the owners of the league’s two flagship franchises in its corner.
By 1928, the Packers were drawing well enough in Chicago to convince Halas to play them three times a season, including twice at home. That year the two Packers-Bears games at Wrigley Field drew 15,000 and 14,000, more than the 10,000 that showed up for the Bears-Chicago Cardinals game there.
The Bears continued to entertain the Packers for two home games for the next five years, or until a year after the NFL owners voted to divide into divisions and play home-and-away series within them.
Meanwhile, the Packers played in New York against the Giants for the first time in 1928 and drew 12,000 fans.
As the Packers won three straight NFL championships from 1929 to 1931, their appeal in New York and Chicago exploded. During those three years, only six NFL games drew crowds of 30,000 or more and the Packers played in three of them.
Credit: Packers HOF archives
The league’s biggest crowd in 1930 was 37,000, which turned out for the Packers-Giants game in the Polo Grounds. The biggest crowd in 1931 was 35,000, again for Packers vs. Giants in the Polo Grounds.
Those also were the NFL’s two largest crowds over that three-year period. Tied for the fourth biggest crowd was the 30,000 which watched the Packers play the Bears at Wrigley Field in 1931.
During those three seasons, from 1929 to ’31, there were a total of 203 NFL games played and only 44, or 22%, attracted crowds of more than 12,000. The Packers played in 11 of the 44, including eight at New York or Chicago and three at home against either the Bears or Giants. But keep in mind, their biggest home crowd was only 14,000 for the Giants in 1931.
It was on the road where their purses spilled over.
Three things seemed to bring out the crowds.
Obviously, one was the Packers’ success. Due, at least in part, to his charm and eye for talent, Lambeau had built a powerhouse. Green Bay was the first NFL city to not only win three straight titles, but also three in all. The Canton Bulldogs had won two.
Two, the stakes were as high as they could be, at least in 1929 and ’30.
The 1929 Packers-Giants game was a showdown for the title when the league champion was determined by the final standings. When the two teams met at the Polo Grounds in late November, the Packers were 9-0 and the Giants, 8-0-1. In the end, the Packers won the title by a half-game, finishing 12-0-1 to the Giants, 13-1-1.
In 1930, the Packers and Giants split their two games, each team winning at home. The Packers finished 10-3-1 and captured the title by .004 percentage points over the 13-4 Giants.
The 1931 Packers compiled a 12-2 record, a game ahead of the Portsmouth Spartans, while the Bears finished third and the Giants fifth.
Three, the Packers were the darlings of the New York press when radio was in its infancy and before there was such a thing as commercial television. There were nine daily newspapers in New York City in 1930, and they all seemed to find the David vs. Goliath angle of a Packers-Giants game irresistible.
If Packers fans were polled today – at least those fans who are stewards of the team’s history – and asked to pick the franchise’s signature game, the guess here is the Ice Bowl would win in a landslide.
Clearly, it would be hard to argue with the choice.
But, in truth, it probably shouldn’t be that clear cut of one.
The Packers’ 20-6 victory over the Giants on Nov. 24, 1929, might have been the most important of all in terms of their survival. More than any other game, it was the one that secured Green Bay’s spot on the pro football map.
Not only did it lead to the Packers’ first NFL title, but it also created a buzz that has never really been silenced.
“The battle with the Giants engaged national attention,” a Green Bay Press-Gazette editorial crowed the next day. “The country’s best football experts and sports writers witnessed it, hundreds of thousands of persons heard it described over radio. Today, Green Bay is in the headlines of metropolitan newspapers. Ever more and better advertising.
“What is all this worth to Green Bay? We say it is worth plenty.”
The Packers used only 12 players. Ten starters played the full 60 minutes. The 11th played 59 minutes before he was removed for a sub.
Verne Lewellen, a halfback who had to fill in at quarterback for an injured Red Dunn, was hailed as the star of the game for his punting, passing and running.
But the New York writers gushed even more about the overall strength, the never-say-die fight and precise execution of the entire Packers team.
“The whole blamed team is an all-American eleven, to my mind the greatest football team in the world today,” wrote Ken Smith in the New York Graphic.
This Sunday’s game will be the 60th meeting between the two teams. Four were NFL championship games, three of which the Packers won: One under Lambeau in 1939 and two under Vince Lombardi in 1961 and ’62.
But if not for the football fans of New York pouring through the turnstiles in those early years to watch the Packers play, there’s no telling if there’d be a game at all Sunday night.