Murphy Takes 5

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Why no championship trophies from 1929-31 in Packers Hall of Fame?

Posted Jun 22, 2017

Plus Portsmouth's challenge to the Packers' 1931 NFL Title


I’m going to answer only Lambeau Era questions this month. They’ve been piling up in my Q&A inbox.

Chris from Sydney, Australia

I had an opportunity to visit Lambeau Field last October and found it odd that in the final room of the Packers Hall of Fame with all the championship and Super Bowl trophies there were no trophies for the 1929, 1930 and 1931 championships. Was it because there were no official trophies given out then?

There were no official trophies presented so that’s certainly part of the reason. That said, at the NFL’s annual meetings in 1930, 1931 and 1932, the minutes on file at the Ralph Wilson Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center in Canton, Ohio, show the Packers were given money to buy their own trophies.

Here’s what was written in the minutes of the Jan. 25, 1930, meeting at the Van Cleve Hotel in Dayton, Ohio: “Motion by Mr. Halas seconded by Mr. Haines that the League officially award the championship for 1929 to the Green Bay Club and that the Treasurer be instructed to forward to the President of the Green Bay Club a check covering the amount provided in the League rules to purchase suitable trophies for the Club and its players. Carried unanimously.”

The minutes from the July 11, 1931, meeting at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago and the July 9, 1932, meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., include similar entries.

Neither the Packers nor the Packers Hall of Fame owns any trophies from those championship years, individual or team, and if anybody else does, I’m not aware of it. By now, you’d think one would have surfaced in an auction, someone’s attic, wherever, if any existed.

So where did the money go?

As you may know, those championships were determined by the final league standings. There was no gate from a championship game for the players to split. Thus, the Green Bay Press-Gazette led community fund drives to raise money for the players. In 1929, each player was given $220 plus a watch from the more than the $5,000 that was raised. In 1930, they were each given $200. In 1931, the Packers’ board of directors voted to give each player a $100 bonus.

Maybe the Packers put the trophy money into those funds. Maybe they used it to buy the championship banners or pennants that flew from the flagpole at old City Stadium. Both Brent Hensel, our curator, and I have seen stories and/or photos of the flag-raising ceremonies that took place after the Packers won their first two titles, although Brent tells me the only championship banner we have is one from 1936. Who knows? Maybe the Packers simply needed the money and banked it.

That’s one of those mysteries that will likely never be solved.

Anyway, your point is well-taken and there have been some discussions here about finally spending the money given to the Packers more than 80 years ago to buy three more championship trophies for the Hall’s trophy room.

Willie from Hayward, WI

I’m going through offseason withdrawal and read a book that discusses the controversy over the Packers’ 1931 NFL championship. The Packers refused to play the Portsmouth Spartans after losing to the Bears because it might have cost them the championship. The league backed the Packers because the game had been “tentatively scheduled.” I was not aware of this issue. Any color you can add?

The NFL schedule was set during a league meeting held in July 1931, and when the Packers announced their 14-game slate, it ended on Dec. 6 with a matchup against the Chicago Bears.

On Nov. 29, the Packers beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, 7-0, at Ebbets Field and, the next day, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the Press-Gazette and The Associated Press declared them champs for a third straight year. The Packers were 12-1 at that point, while Portsmouth was in second place at 11-3. The Spartans had beaten the Bears, 3-0, that same day and, for whatever reason, the Chicago Tribune and several other newspapers, including some in Wisconsin, reported that Portsmouth still had an outside shot at sharing the title.

Even the Press-Gazette seemed to add to the confusion with a story it ran in its Nov. 30 sports section under the headline: “Packers-Portsmouth Contest Will Not Be Played Dec. 13.” The story stated that Dr. W.W. Kelly, a member of the Packers’ executive committee, had announced that morning that the “tentative game” between the Spartans and Packers wouldn’t be played.

“We have won the championship and there is no logical reason why we should play Portsmouth,” said Kelly. “The directors of the Green Bay Football Corporation have voted against the game and Portsmouth has been so notified. Some of the players on the Packer team are anxious to go home after the Bear game in Chicago next Sunday and they will be accommodated.” Portsmouth officials had called Kelly that morning and informed him if the Packers agreed to play in Portsmouth, the game would draw a large crowd and swell both teams’ coffers. The Packers’ directors were skeptical. They worried about the possibility of bad weather and taking a financial bath.

The Packers also didn’t want to risk losing their championship. “The team is not in the best of shape physically and they would be pretty well ‘bushed’ by Dec. 13 as the Bear game is certain to be a hard fought one,” the story noted.

Three days later, Curly Lambeau announced the Packers might be willing to play Portsmouth, but wouldn’t decide anything until after they played the Bears that Sunday at Wrigley Field. “We do not plan to put our title in jeopardy, but if the Packers defeat the Chicago Bears, thereby clinching the pennant, we may follow through with a game against Portsmouth Dec. 13,” said Lambeau.

On Dec. 6, the Packers lost to the Bears, 7-6, and their record fell to 12-2, a game ahead of Portsmouth, which beat the Columbus Taxicabs, 101-7, in a practice game that day. For the record, the Packers and Spartans hadn’t faced each other that season in what was then a 10-team NFL.

Lee Joannes, president of the Packers, told the Chicago Tribune, “Green Bay never signed a contract to meet Portsmouth next Sunday. The whole proposition was verbal and tentative. Our boys have played 14 games this fall and we believe they have had enough football.”

Not surprisingly, the Packers were criticized in some quarters for not playing. “Outside of Green Bay the championship of the Packers is a hollow one, as empty as broken eggshells,” Bob Hooey wrote in the Ohio State Journal. Nevertheless, league president Joe Carr announced on Dec. 11 that the Green Bay-Portsmouth game was off and declared the Packers league champions. Carr said the Packers had merely exercised their right to cancel a game that was not on the official schedule.

As a sidelight, those worn-down Packers formed a barnstorming team and played not one, but back-to-back games the weekend of Dec. 12-13. They beat the Ische Radios of Milwaukee, 44-0, at Borchert Field on Saturday and the Fort Atkinson Black Hawks, 21-2, in Janesville on Sunday.

Brad from Milwaukee, WI

I recently acquired this letter from 1932 and was wondering if you could tell me more. The letter from Curly Lambeau to Mike Michalske basically says, “You’re going to take a pay cut or be suspended.” Curly gave him only 10 days to respond. Was this a sign of the times? A message to an agent? Did they even have agents? There seems to be a story behind this and I’m interested in what you can tell me.

I’m assuming it was standard for Lambeau to write such threats to his unsigned players, but those also were dire times. On Aug. 1, 1932, the date on the letter, the country was deep into the Great Depression and, no doubt, that was having an impact on the Packers’ bottom line. On Aug. 18, they would announce after their annual shareholders meeting that they were reducing the price of a box seat season ticket from $25 to $20 and a reserve ticket from $15 to $12. Curiously, what they didn’t announce was that they would be playing six home games plus an exhibition against Grand Rapids, Mich., compared to eight league games the year before.

Anyway, according to the Aug. 30, 1932, Press-Gazette, Michalske spent the offseason working for a trucking company in Cleveland. That also was 29 days after the letter was written and he was still unsigned.

While the Packers might have won three straight NFL titles in the previous three seasons, it would have been out of character for Lambeau to be tossing money around. His players thought he was cheap, and he probably was even more unbending when they held out. Wasn’t it fellow Hall of Fame lineman Cal Hubbard who once said of Lambeau, “They won’t be able to find six men to bury the …”?

As for agents, there were none.

How did this all play out in the end?

The Packers opened practice on Sept. 1 at Joannes Park with 22 players on hand. Michalske was not among them. He reported four days later and played against Grand Rapids on Sept. 11. The first league game was played Sept. 18.

Salary figures were rarely divulged back then. Therefore, I have no idea how much Michalske signed for or whether his holdout did him any good.

I can tell you, however, he had other things on his mind beside football. On Sept. 17, Mrs. Katherine Luke of Green Bay announced the engagement of her daughter, Doris May, to Michalske. The wedding was set for October.

Here’s another tidbit. The Catholic School Football League for Green Bay and Allouez grade schools was organized that fall and Michalske helped coach St. Mary’s of the Angels.

Andrew from Rockford, IL

I’m trying to find out what number Johnny Blood wore for the Packers. Do you know what the organization considers to be his uniform number?

Blood played at a time when many players changed numbers frequently. According to the Packers media guide, Blood wore No. 24 in 1929-30; No. 20 in 1931-32; No. 14 in 1933; No. 26 in 1935; and No. 55 in 1936.

Tom from Pine River, WI

I’ve read so much about the Packers’ connection to Hagemeister Park that I thought I’d provide some insight about the brewery. According to Jerry Apps’ book, “Breweries of Wisconsin,” the brewery was founded in 1866 and by 1880 was producing 2,500 barrels a year. It was located on the Manitowoc Road in the township of Preble. It did not reopen after Prohibition.

Thanks for passing that on. There is some confusion about the Packers’ first two ballparks. From 1919 to 1922, the Packers played at Hagemeister Park, which was located on the current site of Green Bay East High School and City Stadium. In 1923-24, they played at Bellevue Park, which was next to the Hagemeister Brewery, across the East River from Hagemeister Park.

When the National Prohibition Act was passed in 1919, Hagemeister Brewing Co. changed its name to the Hagemeister Products Co. and started making ice cream in addition to the soda products it was already producing. Ostensibly, its most popular product line was Bellevue Ice Cream.

While you’re correct that Hagemeister Brewery didn’t reopen after Prohibition, it didn’t stop brewing beer during Prohibition, either. In 1925 and ’26, federal prohibition agents raided the Hagemeister Products Co. and found vats of raw beer and near beer and padlocked the place. Thereafter, Hagemeister Products changed its name again, this time to Bellevue Food Products Co.

Ross from Newcastle, WA

Awhile back I met the grandson of Gil Skeate, who played two games for the Packers in 1927. Skeate went to school at Gonzaga University and was supposedly recruited by Curly Lambeau and George Halas. How much did the Packers recruit out West in those days and what more can you tell me about Skeate? Also, he was invited back for a game on Oct. 20, 1929. Do you know why?

Lambeau recruited everywhere. That was one of the keys to the Packers’ success and survival. In fact, I gather that Skeate was recommended to Lambeau by Tiny Cahoon, a former Gonzaga teammate. Cahoon played tackle for the Packers from 1926-29.

Skeate had played for Gonzaga from 1921-23 and then apparently for a semipro team in Tacoma, Wash. In 1927, the Packers were short on fullbacks – Rex Enright played a full 60 minutes in each of the first two games – and Cahoon spoke highly of Skeate’s ability as a “line plunger” in a conversation with Lambeau, the Press-Gazette suggested.

At the time, Skeate was working in a lumber camp 10 miles outside Aberdeen, Wash., and the Packers had difficulty reaching him. Skeate finally wired on Sept. 20, “Leaving for Green Bay tonight,” but didn’t report until eight days later.

He played his first game against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 2, filling in for Enright. The next week, Skeate started against the Duluth Eskimos and that was the end of his NFL career.

I couldn’t find any explanation in the Press-Gazette for what happened. Myrt Basing, another fullback, missed the first four games with an ankle injury and returned against the Chicago Cardinals on Oct. 16. That might have had something to do with it. Or maybe Skeate got hurt. In the Press-Gazette’s play-by-play against the Bears, it appears all of his carries came in the first quarter. Back then, if a marginal player was injured, he was cut loose so the Packers wouldn’t have to pay him.

The Oct. 20, 1929, game against the Minneapolis Red Jackets at City Stadium was a homecoming game for Packers alumni. Invitations were sent to about 40 players.

Incidentally, Hector Cyre, a tackle from Gonzaga, played for the Packers in 1926 and Roger Ashmore, another tackle from Gonzaga, played for them in 1928-29. Hall of Famer Tony Canadeo, the “Grey Ghost of Gonzaga,” came years later.

Hector from Friday Harbor, WA

Hector Cyre, my dad, played for the Packers in 1926. He told me this story in the 1950s or ’60s. At the end of that season, the Packers played the Frankford Yellowjackets on Thanksgiving Day. My dad played at Gonzaga and so did Houston Stockton, who was playing for Frankford. As Green Bay prepared for the game, Curly Lambeau asked my dad what he could tell him about Stockton. My dad told him Stockton was the best passer he had ever seen.

That didn’t sit well with Lambeau, who thought of himself as the best passer ever. As it turned out, Stockton had a banner day and Frankford beat Green Bay. My dad said Curly was so po’d he didn’t speak to him for two weeks. And my dad wasn’t one to make up stories.

Thanks for sharing, and I trust your dad was telling the truth. Lambeau was a terrible loser and the Packers fell to Frankford, 20-14, in the final five minutes on a 38-yard pass thrown by Stockton.


 
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