Travis Williams never duplicated half-year stardom

Newspaper coverage helped save Packers in Green Bay


GREEN BAY—Thanks again for all the questions. Several of you asked about the Packers' first few seasons and the role of the packing plants, so that's going to be the focus of this edition of Cliff's Notes. Also, one other reminder, please include your hometown with your questions.

Jeremy from Evansville, IN

Love the work you've been doing for the Packers. We need more of it! A few years ago, I learned that my hometown of Evansville used to have a professional football team that joined the league the same year as the Packers, in 1921. We traveled to Green Bay that season, but, as the story goes, many of our players were not able to get out of town for the weekend, and we played the game with several replacement players, getting walloped, 43-6, by the Packers. What would be the top three books that you would recommend to learn more about these kinds of stories?

Interesting that you asked. I happened to stop at the Evansville Public Library last month and looked at microfilm of the cities' two papers back then – the Press and the Courier – to see what I could find about that game. Not only was Evansville admitted to the American Professional Football Association (forerunner to the NFL) the same year as the Packers, but also the same day. At the time, Evansville had more than double the population: 85,000 plus to 31,000 plus. It also had a better ballpark, Bosse Field, one of the most historic baseball stadiums in America today. Yet, Evansville folded in the midst of its second season. Why? How did Green Bay survive and not Evansville? The Evansville-Green Bay game was played Nov. 6, 1921, and I only had time to look at papers for about a two-week period before and after the game. But what struck me was how little coverage there was of the Crimson Giants. In fact, neither paper carried results the day following the Giants' game against the Packers. Two days later, the Courier devoted three paragraphs to it. I realize it was played in Green Bay, but the Press-Gazette ran several days of stories beforehand, essentially promoting it, and George Whitney Calhoun covered the game in depth for Monday's paper. One of the reasons I stopped at the library was to get the Evansville version of how the game came about. It was scheduled just a few days before it was played when Hammond, Ind., asked the Packers for a week's postponement of a game originally scheduled for Nov. 6. There were a couple of nuggets to be found in the Courier, but not a lot. To digress here, one of the more fascinating things I've uncovered in the last few years is that many of the teams the Packers played in 1919, their first semi-pro season, were organized on a week's notice and some didn't play another game the rest of the season – or no more than one or two. In fact, the Packers' very first game was played against an unknown opponent – not the Menominee North End A.C., as the record books say. The Packers actually played a neighborhood team from Marinette that might have been thrown together in a matter of days. (There will be more on the website about the 1919 season in the months ahead.) But the Press-Gazette built those games up as though the Packers were playing worthy opponents stockpiled with former college and high school stars. So Calhoun or whoever was writing the stories in 1919 was essentially selling snake oil football. But the Packers drew fans and survived. Better that than being ignored. Better that than the fate of the Crimson Giants. That's what makes the Packers' story so special – so many side stories that defy belief. As to the Packers-Crimson Giants game, I didn't find anything in the Evansville papers about players not making the trip. I'd be curious where you read that. Maybe the link below was the source. It's probably as much information as you'll find anywhere about the Evansville Crimson Giants.

Guy from Mesa, AZ, and Jeff from Victorville, CA

Guy: According to the history of the Packers, the Indian Packing Co. was their first sponsor. How did Acme come into play? Jeff: Shouldn't the merchandise in the Packers Pro Shop say Acme Packers, established 1919 rather than 1921?

The Indian Packing Co. sponsored the Packers in 1919 and was involved again in 1920. The Acme Packing Co. of Chicago agreed to purchase Indian in December, 1920, and the sale was finalized in January, 1921. (Some Packers history books have incorrectly stated that Acme was the sponsor in '20. Not so. The sale was negotiated following the season.) Acme sponsored the Packers in 1921, their first season in what is now the NFL.

Ayn from Fridley, MN

A few months ago, I was scouring the Internet looking for information on when the Acme Packers became the Green Bay Packers. When and why did the change take place? I assume this is when the colors switched from navy and gold to green and gold.

As stated above, the Acme Packing Co. sponsored the Packers in 1921, their first season in what became the NFL. In fact, the official minutes from the Aug. 27, 1921, APFA meeting notes that the Acme Packers of Green Bay had been admitted as members. The 1921 team picture also shows some of the players wearing jerseys with the lettering, Acme Packers. But Acme's sponsorship lasted one season – if that. In early 1922 when Green Bay was reapplying for membership in the NFL after being booted out for using college players under assumed names, the Press-Gazette reported on more than one occasion that J. Emmett Clair, who had run the local Acme plant with his brother, John, actually had title to the franchise. At this point, I can't give you an explanation as to why. The packing plant was a wartime industry in Green Bay. Business boomed during World War I and shortly after, but then a lot of people apparently lost money on the venture. Later in 1922, after the Clairs finally surrendered title to the franchise, Green Bay was readmitted to the NFL without missing a season. The Green Bay Football Club with Curly Lambeau as president ran the team and disassociated itself from the Clairs and Acme. In fact, the group's letterhead included the words, (Formerly Packers), and the Press-Gazette almost never referred to the team as the Packers during the 1922 season. If the paper used a nickname, it was Bays or Blues or some combination of the two. But other papers continued to refer to the team as the Packers and the name stuck. The official name of the first nonprofit corporation created in 1923 was Green Bay Football Corp. When the corporation was reorganized in 1935, that's when the official name was changed to Green Bay Packers Inc. But, in essence, they've been the Green Bay Packers since 1919. As for the uniforms, they wore blue into the 1950s, while also wearing green at times.

Gary from Green Bay, WI

Years ago, I worked at a place called Pauly Cheese on the corner of Morrow and Henry streets in Green Bay. I read where the Packers practiced there in their early years. Any truth to it?

Yes and no. In 1919 and '20, the Packers practiced next to the Indian Packing Plant, but west of it, not east of it, as one recent Packers history book stated. They didn't practice where the Pauly building stood, but they practiced down the block. At the time, Morrow ended at what is now Henry Street and that area was basically a swamp. The Pauly building was built later and located at the corner of Morrow and Henry. The packing plant buildings were west of Pauly. If you go to Morrow Street, there are three sets of railroad tracks that cross it near Henry. Look down the middle track and you'll see two big warehouses on each side of it with a small passageway at the top connecting the two. Those warehouses were there when it was Indian and then Acme Packing. There was an office and large garage in front that have since been razed, but you'll get a pretty good feel for what the grounds looked like in 1919 standing near the middle track. The practice field was to the west of the big warehouse on the right. The ground was level and it was an open field back then. In fact, the Indian Packing baseball team played there, as well. You can get an even better view of the bigger warehouse from the footbridge on the Kress Trail.

Adam from Long Beach, CA

Is the meat packing company still in business?

Americold, a temperature-controlled warehousing company, occupies the same buildings today, but the packing plant has been out of business for years. Acme Packing's assets were sold in 1927 as part of a bankruptcy proceeding. One of the organizers of the company held more than $500,000 in stock subscriptions. The bid for those subscriptions was $150.

Dan from Twin Lakes, WI (and Steven of Las Vegas, NV, with a similar question)

I don't disagree with your "High Five of Greatest Packers Who Never Were," but was disappointed Travis "Road Runner" Williams wasn't on the list. One can only wonder how great he could have been if not for that fateful injury. I was deeply saddened when I learned he died at too young an age, homeless and addicted. Any chance you could do a story on him?

No plans for a story, but I'll try to answer your question as best I can. Before I do, I'll admit you're the only person who has caused me to second-guess my list. I'm impressed with your insight into Packers history. Williams certainly deserved consideration, but here would be my counterpoint. Although he didn't really get a chance to play until the seventh game of his rookie year in 1967, he returned four kickoffs for touchdowns and led the NFL with a 41.1-yard average. That's still the league record almost 50 years later. Williams rushed only 35 times for 188 yards in the regular season, but he averaged 5.4 yards per carry and then sparked the offense in the Packers' big playoff victory against the Los Angeles Rams in Milwaukee. He scored the Packers' first TD on a 46-yard run and finished with 88 yards. He was a 210-, 215-pound back who ran a 9.3 100-yard dash in junior college. As a rookie he might have played bigger and faster than Ahman Green ever did – and that's saying a lot. But in Williams' second year, he wasn't the same player. He averaged 1.9 yards rushing and 21.4 on kickoffs. He played in all 14 games and injuries weren't a factor. Phil Bengtson had replaced Vince Lombardi as coach and Williams lost it – or so it seemed. He rebounded in 1969 and rushed for a career-high 536 yards with a 4.2-yard average. In other words, he had a good year, not a great year. In 1970, he started succumbing to health issues – two sprained ankles and an infection – and contributed almost nothing in seven games. He was traded to the Rams, led the NFL in kickoff returns again in 1971 with a 29.7-yard average, but contributed little else and never played again. I realize he was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1997, but, essentially, he was a half-season wonder. And here's why I didn't include him. Even after his big game against the Rams, Williams hardly played in the Ice Bowl and Super Bowl II. I think Lombardi had reservations about him. I think he was concerned about Williams' fumbling and his impatience as a runner, especially on the power sweep. Lombardi coached him only one year. Maybe if he had stayed, Williams would have realized his potential. But I'm not convinced of that. There were no drug tests back then and the details of Williams' infection were never reported, but I don't think he had the character or mental makeup to be someone special. Now, you might counter: Well, isn't that what the list was all about? I think the five people I listed had both the talent and character to be great players. I realize Eddie Lee Ivery had some personal issues, but those cropped up later, after his knee injuries. I guess my point is this: I don't think Ivery was destined to waste his talent. I think Williams was. He died in 1991 at age 45.

David from Madison, WI

You said in your last Q&A that Green Bay has always been the smallest NFL city. I don't think that's true. For sure Pottsville, Pa., was smaller than Green Bay in 1925.

You are correct. My mistake. And I appreciate you pointing it out so others don't repeat it. When Green Bay joined the NFL in 1921, it was the smallest city – other than Tonawanda, N.Y., a traveling team that lasted one game. Pottsville entered the league in 1925 and survived for four seasons. It had a population of roughly 22,000.

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