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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Oct. 31, 2014

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In Sports

Old City Stadium in Green Bay was far too small for the 1939 NFL Championship. Under protest by fans, the game was played in Milwaukee.

In Sports

Along with NASCAR and open-wheel championships, Curly Lambeau's Packers won a title at the Milwaukee Mile.

West Allis, Mile hold places in NFL history book


In 1939, the National Football League was far from the behemoth it is today. There was no multi-billion-dollar national television contract -- the technology had just recently been introduced -- the internet was decades away from its advent and while radio was the predominant source of family entertainment, nobody had yet to realize the concept of 24-hour sports talk.

The game of professional football, itself, was still in its formative stages. In the late 1930s, it was the college game that transfixed the nation. The NFL was just starting to emerge from its days as a collection of teams in small, Midwestern hamlets like Green Bay and settle into larger, more populated markets like New York.

The two teams have faced off 53 times in the 80-year history of the series and today's NFC Championship game will mark the sixth post-season contest between the Giants and Packers, as well as the first in 45 years.

But it's the teams' second championship meeting -- Dec. 10, 1939 -- that stands out as the Packers' coming-of-age.

When the Packers -- who had already claimed four of the 20-year-old league's championships -- traveled to the Polo Grounds to face the Giants in the 1938 Championship game, it was billed as a "David vs. Goliath" type of affair.

While the Packers dropped that game, 23-17, they came back to win it all the next season, again against the Giants.

That time, though, the venue was different. The game was to be hosted by the Packers. But old City Stadium, a wooden structure attached to East High School, seated around 25,000 fans and had only recently added toilets.

The game was moved to Milwaukee, where the Packers had been playing a handful of regular-season games since 1933. The racetrack at Wisconsin State Fair Park would play host to the NFL Championship, right on the Milwaukee Mile (the field was located roughly where the media center is today, the 50-yard-line is right about where the current finish line is today).

The grandstand had a capacity of roughly 30,000 and was located in the much more urban and accessible market of Milwaukee, ensuring a significantly larger gate for the NFL.

The move angered many Green Bay residents. According to the book "Curley Lambeau: The Man Behind the Mystique," people were so upset with the decision that some area grocers stopped accepting groceries from Joannes Brothers Company, a wholesale grocer that was owned by Lee Joannes, the president of the Packers' board of directors.

Nonetheless, Lambeau agreed to move the game to Milwaukee after a discussion with Milwaukee Journal sports editor Oliver Kuechle, who assured the team that there would be plenty of customers.

There were. The game drew 32,279 fans -- a record at the time -- to the recently-finished grandstand. The best tickets to the game cost $4.40; a king's ransom at the time for a professional football game. Although the complaint of the day was that the seats closest to the field, which were situated on the actual race track, were the worst in the house. The$3.30 seats were called "the worst gyp this town has seen in a long time" by Journal writer R.G. Lynch.

Members of the media were also less than thrilled with the facilities. New York writers scoffed at the press box atop the grandstand and sat in fear as it shook in the 35-mph winds.

"For a day, at least, professional football dipped back into its unsavory past and did itself uncalculated harm," wrote Stanley Woodward in the New York Herald Tribune.

Players weren't happy with the accommodations, either. The Packers' locker room was a dismal space located atop the southern end of the grandstand. The small room was about 30 sq. ft. with a 10x12-ft. shower room attached. A single, small window looked out over the grandstand.

"It's hard to believe that professional football players used that room," explained Wisconsin State Fair Park Historian Jerry Zimmerman, who as an 11-year-old, snuck into the game. He gave media members a tour of the facility before the grandstand was torn down in 2002 and recalled what "a sad-looking room it was, hardly a place for players to get ready for a championship."

The complaints were soon forgotten as the Packers prevailed in a game remembered for its poor conditions. It was cold, and the winds swirled around the field. Paul Engebretsen and Ernie Smith kicked field goals while Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell each threw for a touchdown in the 27-0 victory.

The game was just as much a success for the Packers. The team set a record by generating nearly $80,000.

Zimmerman recalls sneaking into the game and watching the Packers' victory. He was able to get up close and personal, watching the game from the tunnel the Packers entered and exited the field from.

"What I remember most of that game was being in the entryway at the south end, Zimmerman said. "Where I was standing was the way the team came to the locker room at halftime.

"I recall standing right next to the steps that took them up the grandstand to the locker room. I had never stood beneath such monstrous men and have never been that close to a football player. I remember the shoes with the cleats."

Zimmerman says people often have no idea that the park, known more for its fried foods and animals, once hosted a game that would eventually turn into the Super Bowl.

"I think they're more aware today than when I first started," Zimmerman, who started archiving the State Fair's history in 1996. "It never ceases to amaze me to find out that people are blown away that the Packers played there and won a championship there."


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