How the Packers Thrived, Despite the Great Depression

One of the craziest true stories ever told

Curly Lambeau - Unknown Photographer (Cropped); Public Domain

The Green Bay Packers were just one of many small town teams playing professional football in the midwest in the years immediately following World War I. But from the very beginning, prosperity on the field was a theme for this team.

They went 19-2 in their first two seasons in 1919 and 1920, playing small regional teams from Wisconsin and Michigan, helping build a foundation of success. The fans bought in, no doubt because of the early success.

In 1920 the NFL was formed (named the APFA at the time) and Green Bay joined the league in 1921. For each of the next eight years, the Packers posted winning seasons in the newly-formed league.

The major cities in the midwest and east coast had their NFL teams. Many people thought only those large market teams would ultimately remain in the league. Small town teams would join the league as quickly as others folded, but none of the small market teams had the consistent success the Packers enjoyed.

Curly Lambeau was the Packers’ co-founder, player-coach, and team captain. He, before most, experimented with the forward pass throughout the ’20s and ended up throwing 24 in his career, a massive number for the time.

In 1928 Curly Lambeau, their leader in every sense of the word, challenged the New York Giants to a game — at Polo Grounds.

“Who the hell is this rag-tag team?” The thought New York football Giants and their fans must have had.

The Packers won 7-0 on a Verne Lewellen touchdown and the nation had no choice but pay attention to these “Packers” from some town called “Green Bay”. Crazy Curly Lambeau didn’t seem so crazy anymore.

Life was good for the average person in eastern Wisconsin in those days; the war was long over and the nation was prospering. Their Packers showed they had guts and their fandom swelled. A league championship seemed like an actual possibility for the small-town team.

But the Great Depression hit on October 29, 1929.

By the time “Black Tuesday” fell, the American Football season was well underway. Of course, the country had no idea the severity of the impending hardships. Likewise the people of Green Bay had no idea what greatness was to come from their prized, if not underdog, team.

Just as America met what would become its lowest point, the Packers somehow reached their highest.

The Green Bay Packers’ first championship season ironically came in 1929, with the final two games coming after that infamous day on Wall Street. Their record of 12-0-1 reflected their dominance. As America, and the world, fell into a decade-long economic drought, the Packers transformed the city of Green Bay into Titletown — a city of champions.

That would be Lambeau’s final season as a player.

The Packers were crowned World Champions in the next two seasons as well, as their brand of football continued to befuddle more-skilled opponents.

Their three consecutive NFL championships cemented the fact that the Packers firmly belonged in the NFL.

When pain and poverty was all-encompassing, the Packers gave thousands something bigger to believe in. Their team come out of the Great Depression with the most championships in the NFL’s young history. Not even the feared Chicago Bears won as much as Green Bay during those somber years.

The Depression-era Packers went thirty-consecutive home games without a defeat (1928-1933) and that number still stands today as an NFL record today.

The raucous fans, an undeniably special throng of individuals from around the Green Bay community, cheered on Johnny Blood, Lavvie Dilweg, Cal Hubbard, Mike Michalske, Arnie Herber, Clarke Hinkle, Bob Monnett, Lewellen and the rest to unprecedented success.

Blood was the charismatic wild man that caught and ran the ball with ferociousness, but it was Hubbard and Michalske that paved the way for ball carriers.

Dilweg, Lewellen, and Monnett also loved the ball in their hands and Herber could get it to them on the ground and through the air. Herber’s passing ability, following Lambeau’s aggressive forward-passing play design, paved the way for the Packers’ success. They were different and unafraid.

However, fullback Clarke Hinkle was perhaps the best player of the bunch. Four consecutive First Team All-Pro seasons highlighted his career in which he retired with the most rushing yards in NFL history (3860).

From the ashes of economic turmoil, a juggernaut of a franchise was born. The unmistakable pride of Green Bay’s residents was conjured during the toughest times of this country’s post-war, post-roaring twenties existence. And that pride has endured to present day.

The inverse relationship of the Packers’ success and the country’s tumultuous economy could not have been more needed for the proletariat people of Green Bay.

Curly Lambeau played through that famed 1929 season and continued to coach the team throughout the Depression, and beyond, until 1949. And over those subsequent years empty-pocketed men, hapless and disenfranchised, became delighted “owners” of a world-renowned franchise.

Happiness favors the loyal.

Six years into the Great Depression, Don Hutson joined the Packers. As he forever-changed the game of football, the country followed suit in changing for the better. By the end of his career, the economy had found vigor once more and the league was more exciting than ever. As he set records; relative wealth returned to the average man.

The people of Green Bay, and the state of Wisconsin, had survived. And so did their fabled team.

Again in 1936, the Packers won the title. And once more in 1939. In all, Green Bay won five NFL Championships during the gloom of the Great Depression’s grip. When this country could hardly eat, the Packers feasted on the field. The team brought hope to the penniless people of northeastern Wisconsin.

But the success didn’t end with the Great Depression.

It continued as Hutson caught passes from Cecil Isbell en route to another championship in 1944, along with a new sensational runner in the backfield: Tony Canadeo.

Charles “Buckets” Goldenberg, Russ Letlow and Buford “Baby Ray” were among the unsung heroes of this era of Packers football.

When America fell, the proud Packers of Green Bay arose mightily. And with it the entire state of Wisconsin rose, if only metaphorically. Not only did the town, state, and team survive the country’s most tremendous era of monetary mayhem — a magical bond was built between them. When the country fell, all the two had were each other, not out of necessity but out of mutual adoration. That bond is just as cherished today.

As if this franchise’s history wasn’t unique enough.

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We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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