When Green Bay almost lost the Packers

Gas rationing during World War II threatened the franchise 

Packers coach and general manager Curly Lambeau poses at his desk during the 1940s.

When gas rationing was enacted during World War II, it restricted travel in the United States.

It also almost cost Green Bay its National Football League franchise, if not permanently, at least temporarily.

Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the focus for American civilians turned from producing consumer goods to full-scale war production. The problem was that no material was more important to prepare for war than rubber, nearly all of which was being imported from Malaysia and other Far East countries. The U.S. didn't have the plants to produce synthetic rubber at the time, and the Japanese had taken control of production in those other countries and cut off the sources that had previously supplied the U.S. with most of its raw rubber.

Within six weeks of Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, attack, a national dialogue started over the need to conserve rubber and drastically reduce the country's use of it for everything but the war effort. By mid-May, 17 eastern states had passed mandatory gasoline rationing to reduce public demand for tires and gas, which also was in short supply, mostly along the eastern seaboard. But voluntary rationing efforts in the rest of the country weren't working.

A national committee headed by Bernard Baruch was created to study the issue and by fall it determined the military's need for rubber – as well as gasoline – was so enormous that it would be impossible to meet it without all but eliminating non-essential driving and the general public's need for tires and gas. Finally, by December, president Franklin Roosevelt bowed to the pressure of military leaders and government agencies, and ordered nationwide gas rationing no matter how controversial it was.

In a nutshell, it worked like this for the average person.

Local boards issued gasoline stamps for each household's automobile. People who were considered non-essential travelers were allotted no more than three gallons a week. The government also passed a mandatory 35-mile-per-hour speed limit to conserve on tires and gas.

Although rationing had yet to be enacted, that was the backdrop when NFL owners met in late March 1942 for their first war-time meeting. Only days before, commissioner Elmer Layden declared the league planned to proceed as normal and play the 1942 season. That in itself was controversial – that the NFL not only planned to play football, but would be using able-bodied men who could be put to better use in the armed services.


Yet another dilemma for the NFL as discussion over rationing heated up and it prepared for its annual meeting in New York was what to do about Green Bay.

On one hand, Curly Lambeau was one of the strongest proponents of proceeding with the season, just as if it was normal times. "I feel confident that baseball will go through during 1942 and this means that football will, too," Lambeau told Braven Dyer of the Los Angeles Times in late February during his annual sojourn to the West Coast.

On the other hand, the NFL was a compact 10-team league at the time and Green Bay was the only franchise not located in a heavily populated area. Many of its fans also drove long distances to its games.

What's more, Green Bay was the furthest removed of the NFL's eight cities. For the record, Chicago had two teams, the Bears and Cardinals, and New York had both the Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Teams traveled almost exclusively by train then, but, still, only Chicago and Detroit were located within 500 miles of Green Bay, and Detroit was close to a 500-mile drive.

When Layden announced before the meeting it would be business as usual for the NFL, he made the point: "From Aristotle's time on down we have been told, and it has been demonstrated, that sports and entertainment are necessary for the relaxation of the people in times of stress and worry. The National league will strive to help meet this need with the men the government has not yet called for combat service, either because of dependents, disabilities or the luck of the draw in the Army draft."

Tire restrictions and other transportation issues, emphasized Layden, shouldn't have much effect on attendance, at least in seven of the eight cities.

"With the exception of Green Bay where there are extenuating circumstances, National league teams are located in the nation's largest metropolitan centers," Layden continued. "Parks are all easily accessible by street cars and busses, with handy connections to suburban traction lines and railroad terminals."

The morning of the first session the United Press reported what to do with Green Bay was one of the thornier issues facing the owners.

"(The Packers) draw their patronage from the bushes and farm centers," wrote UP's Jack Guenther. "With the automobile rapidly becoming as extinct as the Ptolemy family, the Packers may either farm out or play on the road."

Even before the war, other owners had become increasingly reluctant to play in Green Bay because City Stadium held no more than 25,000 people and if you weren't the Chicago Bears or maybe the Detroit Lions, you were likely to play before a less-than-capacity crowd there. In fact, a year earlier, eight months before Pearl Harbor, Lambeau returned from the league's annual meeting with only two owners, George Halas of the Bears and Fred Mandel of the Lions, willing to bring their teams to Green Bay for games. Eventually, Chicago Cardinals owner Charles W. Bidwill Sr., relented and the Packers were able complete their three-game allotment for Green Bay. Their other three home games were played in Milwaukee.

Now, with rationing on the horizon, there was even more apprehension among owners about scheduling a game in Green Bay, if fans couldn't travel there from Milwaukee, the Fox Valley and lakeshore, west to cities along the Wisconsin River, north to Marinette and the U.P., and also from Door County, all bastions of Packers support.

Even at home, the concern about the future of the franchise was real.

"Just what effect the war, and especially the tire shortage, will have on attendance at Packer games is worrying many a loyal Green Bay fan," Green Bay Press-Gazette sports editor Ray Pagel wrote in his column as the meeting in New York drew to a close.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Sentinel's Stoney McGlynn reported some owners wanted the Packers to play as many games as possible in Milwaukee.

In the end, the Packers were given five home games for 1942, only one less than they had played in the previous six seasons, and three were scheduled for Green Bay.

Upon his return to Green Bay, Lambeau met with Pagel in his office in the downtown Northern Building and spelled out the battle that had ensued at the league meeting.

"Curly must have had quite a fight getting those five games," wrote Pagel. "At one time during the session it looked as if Green Bay wouldn't get anything but the Chicago Bear game, the league moguls being afraid of the transportation situation for next fall. Curly had offers to play some of the games in Buffalo and another in Akron."

"But I wouldn't give in," Lambeau told Pagel.

A year later, the Packers lost yet another home game, leaving them with only four and just two in Green Bay. But Green Bay was given a third game again in 1944 and things returned to normal when the war ended.

As a final footnote, however, gas rationing, at least in a roundabout way, played a part in the Packers' purchase of Rockwood Lodge in 1946.


Built by the Norbertine Fathers, Rockwood opened in the fall of 1937 to cater to Catholic families. The Norbertines were operating the Columbus Community Club, a recreational center in downtown Green Bay, and wanted to offer their members a year-round social center out in the country, as well.

The concept was well received and the lodge was a popular gathering spot until war erupted and gas rationing was enacted. Located just south of Dyckesville, the lodge was about 15 miles northeast of Green Bay. Thus, when the government started controlling gas consumption through the use of coupons, people were discouraged, if not prevented, from making the trip. As a result, the Norbertines sold the property to Frank De Meuse and Harry Daul, and the Packers, in turn, soon bought it from them as a season-long training facility.


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