When Green Bay was admitted to the American Professional Football Association in 1921, it was the second smallest city of the league’s 21 members.
Green Bay’s population was 31,017. Tonawanda, N.Y., located north of Buffalo, had a population of 10,068. However, its twin city, North Tonawanda, had a population of 15,482.
Thus, the two APFA franchises represented communities of comparable size.
The Green Bay Packers have since played 1,392 league games. The Tonawanda Kardex played one.
Last fall, during a trip to upstate New York, I spent two days at the North Tonawanda Public Library and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, trying to determine why the Packers survived and the Kardex didn’t.
Here’s what I found.
The newspapers of the two cities certainly had something to do with it.
Both Tonawanda and Green Bay were admitted to the APFA on Aug. 27, 1921.
That was a Saturday and the Green Bay Press-Gazette didn’t publish on Sundays at the time. But on Monday, the paper ran a six-column headline, “Admit Packers to ‘Pro’ Football League.” Beneath it was a two-column subhead that read, “Green Bay Team in Fast Company; Will Book Games With Strongest Elevens.” A second subhead read, “Lambeau’s Squad Only Pigskin Aggregation from Wisconsin in Famous Gridiron Organization.”
Green Bay being admitted to what became the National Football League a year later wasn’t the top story in the sports section. It was summertime and amateur baseball was still perceived as being more important. Therefore, there was an eight-column headline over George Calhoun’s story about Green Bay beating Two Rivers in the Lake Shore League.
But the two short stories that ran under the football headline listed the other teams in the pro league and revealed how the Packers were attempting to schedule a number of games that the Press-Gazette promised “will open the eyes of the football fans throughout the state.”
The Evening News of Tonawanda-North Tonawanda first reported on its team getting into the league two days later, on Wednesday Aug. 31, and credited the Buffalo News with breaking the story.
The Evening News, a daily paper except for Sunday, reported Tonawanda’s APFA entrant would be a traveling team.
“THE NEWS is informed by Tonawandans on the inside of the proposed league that the Twin City team will play no home games,” the Aug. 31 story stated.
At the time, it wasn’t unusual for teams to organize with the intent of playing all or most of their games on the road.
The Hammond Pros, charter members of the APFA, played two home games in seven years. Even the famed Canton Bulldogs played seven of their 10 games on the road in 1921. The Columbus Panhandles, who traced their roots to 1901, played eight of nine games on the road.
The Evening News explained there was money to be made in the big cities, not playing before small crowds in small towns.
“There will be eight or 10 such teams to do the touring to the big cities, where the large ‘dough’ lies,” the paper’s Aug. 31 story further explained.
Green Bay had different plans.
“Numerous offers to go out of town have been received by the Packers but the management is endeavoring to play all the contests at home with the possible exception of one date late in November,” the Press-Gazette reported on Sept. 8.
Nevertheless, scheduling those games was no easy task, or so it appeared.
The Packers played four non-league games before their first APFA game against the Minneapolis Marines on Oct. 23. In all, the Packers played six league games their first season, including four at home. Ten of the other 20 teams played more games, with the Buffalo All-Americans leading the way with 12.
Many, if not most, of the APFA games were scheduled week to week.
In the Packers’ case, they announced on Aug. 31 they had scheduled their first game against the Marines. On Sept. 6, they announced they had arranged a home game against Rock Island for Oct. 30.
Three days later, they announced Muncie would play at Hagemeister Park on Nov. 13, but the Flyers folded before then. On Sept. 15, the Press-Gazette reported Tonawanda was seeking a game with Green Bay, but it was never scheduled.
When the Packers beat the Marines, 7-6, in their league opener, they had only two other league games scheduled, including the one against Muncie.
Thirty-five years later, Green Bay historian Jack Rudolph wrote “it was generally believed at the time that the Packers’ membership (in the APFA) was conditional and that if they didn’t show well in their first league encounter … the franchise didn’t count.”
When teams signed contracts committing to games, management’s overriding criterion, whether it was home or road, was whether it could make money. For example, when the Packers scheduled Rock Island, they guaranteed the Independents a $2,500 cut, or more than $35,000 in today’s money.
The long and short of it was that to afford paying that kind of sum, the Packers needed to draw well. And to draw well, they needed to win.
Two days after the Minneapolis game, Calhoun in his “Cal’s Comments” column wrote, “The Packers are not side stepping any teams but in these days of professional football the almighty dollar has to be taken into consideration.”
On Oct. 30, the Packers lost to Rock Island, 13-3, but also announced in “The Dope Sheet,” their official program and publication, that they had closed a deal to play Hammond in Green Bay a week later.
However, the Hammond-Chicago Cardinals game on Oct. 30 was rained out and the next day it was announced that the two teams had rescheduled for the following Sunday. With Hammond banking on making more money playing in Chicago, it backed out of its game in Green Bay and rescheduled for Nov. 13.
On Nov. 2, the Packers announced they had filled their Nov. 6 void by scheduling the Evansville Crimson Giants on four days’ notice.
While the Packers beat Evansville and Hammond on back-to-back weekends, they drew poorly and were too deep in debt to continue playing at home. Seats at Hagemeister Park sat empty for the Hammond game despite local fans trying to come to the rescue by organizing a Booster Club. In turn, club members revealed the Packers had yet to draw as many as 3,000 fans to a game and needed bigger gates to survive.
A day after the Hammond game, Calhoun described the crowd as “small sized” and “a disappointment.” He also stated it would be the last home game of the season for the Packers.
What could have been a death knell turned into a blessing in disguise when the Cardinals booked the Packers for a Nov. 20 game at Normal Park on five days’ notice. The Packers were 3-1 in league play, 7-1 overall, and the Cardinals must have figured their visitors could draw a crowd in Chicago.
When several hundred fans from Green Bay followed the team there and the Packers tied the Paddy Driscoll-led Cardinals, 3-3, it caught the attention of George Halas.
His Chicago Staleys were in a tight race with Buffalo and Akron for the league championship and needed victories. The first-ever Packers-Bears game, as its now listed in the record books, was played Nov. 27 and also scheduled on five days’ notice. Halas agreed to play the Packers even though it was the Staleys’ second game in four days.
By now, the Packers were basically following Tonawanda’s original game plan. They also had a game booked in Milwaukee for Dec. 4 against non-league Racine.
In essence, the Packers had become a traveling team of football gypsies forced to practice in Chicago, rather than Green Bay, because their players were living throughout the Midwest. Once the Packers started league play, they began importing players with pro and college experience to replace the local high school products who had formed the nucleus of their 1919 and ’20 teams.
Meanwhile, three weeks after the Evening News reported on Tonawanda’s entry into the APFA, it announced its local semipro team was being reorganized and would play mostly home games.
A year earlier, in the APFA’s maiden season, there were 14 teams in the league, no official standings were kept and what records there were included games against non-league opponents. Three of those games involved Tonawanda’s semipro team. It played one against Buffalo and two against the Rochester Jeffersons, all on the road.
In 1921, the All-Tonawanda team, as it was called by the Evening News, figured to be overshadowed by the newly organized Kardex, but wasn’t.
The All-Tonawandans went unbeaten in four home games before the Kardex even played its only league game. “The Twin City home-playing eleven,” as the Evening News described the All-Tonawandans, beat Lockport, N.Y., the Akron Indians, Cleveland Panthers and East Buffalo.
The Evening News reported the local semipro team had a distinct local flavor, comprised of mostly former Tonawanda and North Tonawanda high school players. In turn, the paper typically wrote about it at least twice a week.
As for Tonawanda’s APFA team, it was hardly mentioned in the local paper.
However, on Sept. 28, 1921, three days after the Packers played their first game, an exhibition against the Chicago Boosters, the Evening News reported the Kardex was negotiating to play the following Sunday and had lined up a “big array of former college stars” to fill out its roster. Thereafter, the plan called for the Tonawanda team to go on tour, starting in early October, the paper also noted.
On Oct. 9, the day the Packers played their third non-league game at home against the Chicago Cornell-Hamburgs, the Tonawanda Kardex finally played its first game against a non-league foe and settled for a scoreless tie against Syracuse.
For the record, the Kardex name stemmed from American Kardex, a Tonawanda company that manufactured cutting edge office equipment.
As of Oct. 26, three days after the Packers played their first APFA game, Tonawanda had yet to book a league opponent.
“Tonawanda has had a hard time booking games with pro teams this fall, and was booked to meet Frank McNeil’s Buffalo All-Americans a week from Sunday,” the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported on Oct. 26. “McNeil, however, has canceled the game with Tonawanda and it is said that he will take on Jim Thorpe’s Cleveland Tigers on that date.”
Then, a week later, the Democrat and Chronicle announced Rochester would play its first APFA home game against the Kardex. Over the previous three weeks, the Jeffersons had dropped three straight road games against the Staleys, Buffalo and Akron.
On Nov. 6, 1921, Tonawanda played its first and last game in what is now the NFL at Rochester’s baseball park and was thumped by the Jeffersons, 45-0. Of the nine collegiate stars hailed as new recruits by the Tonawanda paper a month earlier – from such schools as Ohio State, Notre Dame and Penn State – only three were listed in the Kardex lineup.
While the Rochester paper reported the crowd was the biggest of the season, it wasn’t big enough for the Jeffersons to break even.
“Pro football is a fine venture for the players, who usually reap the profits and leave the promoter holding the bag,” the Democrat and Chronicle noted in its “Sports of all Sorts” column.
Meanwhile that same day, the local Tonawanda semipro team played its fifth home game and lost for the first time to the Buffalo Prospects, 21-7. There was no mention in the Evening News of the crowd size, but the paper again carried a relatively detailed game story under a large one-column headline. On Saturday, the day before the game, the Evening News ran a story previewing it with an even larger headline.
No results of the Tonawanda-Rochester APFA game could be found in the Evening News the day after it was played.
On Nov. 24, Thanksgiving Day, what was clearly Tonawanda’s biggest football game of the year, drew an estimated 3,000 fans, despite being played on a field that was described by the Evening News as a “sea of mud and water.” Tonawanda High School shut out North Tonawanda, 22-0, in their annual rivalry.
Thirteen days earlier, on Armistice Day, Green Bay East, coached by Curly Lambeau, beat Green Bay West, 21-0, in their rivalry.
The day before the game, the Press-Gazette devoted a full page to preview what it called “The Greatest Ever” game, not just that year but every year in Green Bay. On the morning of the East-West game, the paper reported that each school’s parade through the city’s downtown had attracted roughly 1,000 fans.
Not unlike Tonawanda, the local high school football rivalry in Green Bay was bigger than any pro football game.
But at least in Green Bay, the pro team was given almost daily coverage in the local paper along with the high schools and it had backers, starting with Lambeau and Calhoun, who were driven to see it survive. More importantly, Lambeau recruited a formidable enough team to stir interest in other cities, as well as Green Bay.
Keep in mind, semipro football didn’t die in Green Bay when the Packers joined the APFA. By 1922, the Packers had replaced most of their local players, and some of them joined Green Bay’s city team, the Boosters. The Boosters played their home games at Hagemeister Park and drew what the Press-Gazette described as a “fair sized crowd” for their opener against Sheboygan.
But the Boosters didn’t steal headlines from the Packers or threaten their existence.