Sneak preview: Lambeau Field neighborhood very different back then

A quick glance at some Chapter 5 highlights of the definitive history of the Green Bay Packers

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City Stadium

Packers team historian Cliff Christl is the author of "The Greatest Story in Sports," the definitive and comprehensive history of 100-plus years of Packers football, set to be published later this fall. In this weekly "Sneak preview" series, Cliff will provide various treats and tidbits from each of the book's 11 chapters.

1950-1959

A Picture Worth 1,000 Words – When what is now Lambeau Field was built in 1957, the neighborhood was much different than today. It was surrounded by farm fields, including a farmhouse and barn in the stadium's west parking lot.

A Bite of Text – The ride from Lambeau to Lombardi included a takeover attempt by Lambeau and other private investors, a destructive fire, a bitter end to a 31-year reign, a franchise-saving stock sale, a cultural milestone, endless losing, four coaching changes, blockbuster trades, fruitful drafts, a contentious battle over the site for a new stadium that would become the lifeblood of the franchise, a decade-long tug-of-war over organizational control and structure, and a six-week coaching search that ended with the best second choice ever.

Robbing the Databank – When new Green Bay City Stadium – now Lambeau Field – opened in 1957, the Packers were hoping to sell all 32,000-plus seats on a season-ticket basis. They fell short by about 8,000 tickets, despite warning fans that now was the time to buy – otherwise, they'd lose out on the option of renewing their seat location forever. The price range for an adult season-ticket package that first year ranged from $6.75 to $14.25.

A Secret to Share – The Packers became community-owned in 1923 when the Green Bay Football Corporation was created. They reorganized in 1935 as The Green Bay Packers, Inc., after the original corporation went into receivership. However, the stock sale that year was limited in scope and shares were purchased almost exclusively by large local companies and downtown businesses. The total number of shareholders was 111 or a number very close to that. The 1950 stock sale, the third in team history, reached out to the masses and was when ownership of the Packers truly fell into the hands of the average fan.

Celebration during the 1955 Lions game
Celebration during the 1955 Lions game

Memory to Cherish – Packers fans were so hungry for victory by the time the 1955 season opener was played, they stormed the field at old City Stadium with 20 seconds left in the game when Gary Knafelc scored the go-ahead touchdown against three-time Western Conference champion Detroit. 

Deathbed Moment – The 1-10-1, 1958 season. The Packers were benefiting from their new stadium and television money, but the season was such a disaster and the organization was in such disarray, the franchise's future was at stake.

If You Were a Fan – Fan excursions to the Packers-Bears game in Chicago and also home games in Milwaukee on Chicago & North Western and Milwaukee Road trains might have reached the peak of their popularity in the 1950s. The trips were often sponsored by local taverns, and the railroads would convert empty baggage cars into bar cars for a party on wheels.

Shattering Myths – The conspiracy theorists who have tried to sell their readers on the seemingly absurd notion that someone connected with the Packers burned down Rockwood Lodge don't tell you that a fire inspector had warned caretaker Melvin Flagstad only weeks earlier that faulty wiring in the building needed fixing; the fire occurred in broad daylight on a rare January day in Wisconsin, where there was freezing rain, thunder and lightning, and 25-mile-per-hour winds fanning the flames; the closest fire department was nearly 15 miles away; the lodge sat on a ridge that would have made it extremely difficult for anyone to sneak up to it; six people were inside, including four kids 12 and under; and the cost of operating Rockwood was very little in comparison to the skyrocketing salaries resulting from bidding wars with All-America Football Conference teams.

Best Player – Bobby Dillon. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection, and he also made at least one of the three major news service all-pro teams (first team, not second) in five different seasons. His club record 52 career interceptions still stands, although he retired after eight years and played when NFL seasons consisted of only 12 games.

Overlooked by History – With coach Lisle Blackbourn making the picks and talent scout Jack

Vainisi doing the heavy lifting, the Packers selected six future Pro Football Hall of Famers over three drafts in 1956, 1957 and the first four rounds in 1958. Prior to Vince Lombardi's arrival, both were criticized for their selections. Then when the Packers started winning under Vince Lombardi, sportswriters in Green Bay and Milwaukee tended to shower Blackbourn with praise for those drafts, overlooking Vainisi. More recently, Vainisi has been given the lion's share of the credit. In truth, they both had an eye for talent and deserve to share in the kudos.

Among the Chapter's Rare Photos – Rarer than any photo in this chapter is the information gleaned from Packers president Dominic Olejniczak's personal papers from the 45-day coaching search that led to the hiring of Vince Lombardi in 1959. The file was shared by Tom Olejniczak, Dominic's son, a local attorney and former member of the Packers executive committee. Tom Olejniczak wasn't alone, either, among those who contributed information and photos for "The Greatest Story in Sports."

Biggest Game – The dedication of Green Bay City Stadium on Sept. 29, 1957, which ended with the Packers beating the Chicago Bears, 21-17. The next day, the Green Bay Press-Gazette declared the events of the weekend were the most spectacular in city history.

Unsung Hero – Bob Mann made history in 1950 when he became the first modern-day African American to play for the Packers. Despite leading the NFL in receiving yards and finishing second in receptions while playing for Detroit in 1949, Mann was a 26-year-old Navy veteran and street free agent when the Packers signed him in late November.

Center of Controversy – When coach Gene Ronzani was fired with two games remaining in the 1953 season, he bunkered down in the Packers' office building for four days, then bought his own ticket and accompanied the team on its train ride to the West Coast, where he sat in the press box for two games predicting the plays in advance of the snap and second-guessing the coaches. Needless to say, it was an uncomfortable situation for interim coaches Hugh Devore and Scooter McLean.

Only in Green Bay – The fight over building a new stadium for the Packers lasted two years and centered on where to build it: East Side or West Side. The City Council consisted of 24 members, 12 from the East Side and 12 from the West Side, and they turned the project into Green Bay's ultimate turf war.

Sadly, but True – Co-founder Curly Lambeau all but begged to return to the Packers as general manager before Lombardi was hired in 1959. At the end of his interview with team president Dominic Olejniczak on Dec. 26, 1958, Lambeau asked him, "Ole tell me – have I got a chance?" The executive committee never seriously considered Lambeau.

Would You Believe? – The Packers offered Forest Evashevski, head coach at the University of Iowa, the positions of coach and general manager on Jan. 18, 1959. When he turned them down, they turned their attention to Lombardi but didn't pay him as much as they had offered Evashevski.

Rescued from Oblivion – The Women's Quarterback Club was organized in 1950 and touted as the first of its kind in the country. At a time when the Packers were desperate for fans, they reached out to women to buy tickets to the games and become more involved. The club was formed in response to those pleas. In their second year, members responded by inviting the players' wives to join and holding a style show; and, in their third year, by organizing a welcome-home celebration at the end of training camp and their own cheering section at the Packers-Bears game in Chicago. The club lasted five seasons.

A Life of Mystery – As his attorney and a nephew of Dr. John R. Minahan, Vic McCormick inherited the bulk of his estate rather than Minahan's second wife. By 1950, McCormick was wealthy enough to be Lambeau's primary financial backer in his effort to turn the Packers into a privately run franchise. Over time, McCormick's net worth grew to be an estimated $17 million. But in 1970, McCormick married a woman whom he had a rendezvous with in Quebec City, Canada – she was 42 years younger than him – and by 1980, his net worth had dwindled to less than $500,000.

A Quote to Remember – "We've always had patches on our pants and a mortgage on our house, figuratively speaking, and I hope we always stay that way – close to the little fellas who never fail us," former Packers president Lee Joannes said in celebration of the success of the 1950 stock sale.

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