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A Survey Course in Green Bay Packers History: Part I

Amateur football had been played in the Green Bay region for years, but it wasn’t until 1919 that the city had a legitimate professional team of its own, when Earl “Curly” Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun co-founded the Packers.

The team was brought to life inside a room at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, where Calhoun was a a cigar-smoking editor. Initially Lambeau’s employer, the Indian Packing Company, sponsored the team, paying $500 to provide uniforms. Two years later the company was absorbed by the Acme Packing Company — ironically, an Illinois company. The relationship between the Press-Gazette and the Packers was paramount; both likely kept the other viable at certain times over the years.

Outside Lambeau Field, 2016

The Packers went 19-2-1 in its first two seasons as an independent team, playing mostly in-state competition, but joined the NFL in 1921 (called the AFPA at the time; founded in 1920). Indeed, the Packers were blessed with success from the very beginning. It was in 1922 that the team first faced financial hardship, but was saved (for the first time) by the fans via a stock sale.

It wouldn’t be the last time the fans kept this franchise alive, a unique thread woven throughout this team’s history.

Throughout the rest of the 1920s, the Packers went on to challenge the conventional way football was played and, under Lambeau’s control, instituted more forward-passes into their offense. Lambeau was a player and coach until 1929, when he decided to focus solely on being the head coach and general manager (which he would do for the next two decades).

In the 1920s and 1930s the Packers developed a healthy (and violent) rivalry with the Chicago Bears to the south. The two teams first met on November 27, 1921 and the Packers lost 20-0. It wouldn’t be until 1925 that the Packers would finally beat the Bears. The first case of ejection for fighting in NFL history came in a Packers-Bears game in 1924.

The rivalry, as most people know, is still very much alive today. Big city vs small town, the two sides of the Midwest at odds for the greater good of the league.

Over the first thirty years of the franchise’s existence they were known as the Indian Packers, the Blues, the Big Bay Blues and the Bays before settling on the green and gold uniforms and being known simply as the Packers in the early 1950s.

The Packers rattled off eight consecutive winning seasons to begin their NFL tenure from 1921-1928 and tailback Verne Lewellen was one of the team’s best players, along with end Lavern Dilweg and tackle Cub Buck. But the team’s fortunes really changed when tailback Johnny Blood, tackle Cal Hubbard and guard Mike Michalske joined the team in 1929. In their first three years with the team, the Packers won three-straight World Championships (with the best record in the NFL). All three are, fittingly, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The 1929 Packers went 12-0-1 and remain the franchise’s only undefeated team.

In 1930, Arnie Herber became the team’s starting quarterback and in 1935, end Don Hutson joined the Packers after starring for the Alabama Crimson Tide. He became the first great modern wide receiver in league history with Herber throwing to him. He was named First Team All-Pro eight times and broke nearly every career receiving record in the NFL. He changed the way the game of football was played; many routes he invented are still used today.

GBP Hall of Fame, 2017

During the Hutson era the Packers won three more World Championships (1936, 1939, 1944). Cecil Isbell and Irv Comp also threw to Hutson (a two-time league MVP) later in his career. In 1938, the Packers fell in the NFL championship game.

Herber retired following the 1940 season and would eventually suit up for the New York Giants before retiring for good.

Isbell was an elite passer, like Herber, as the Packers became even more known for their unmatched quarterback play. This trend would continue for much of the next 80+ years.

The Hutson era was marked by two legendary ball carriers. First came Clarke Hinkle (a star in the 1930s) and then Tony Canadeo (a star in the 1940s). Both of those players, along with Hutson, were named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Guards Buckets Goldenberg and Russ Letlow (Green Bay’s first ever draft pick in 1936) both deserve to be remembered for paving the way for those backs. Hinkle has a practice field named after him beside Lambeau Field and Canadeo’s No. 3 is retired.

Make no mistake, the city of Green Bay became known as “Titletown” because of the Packers of the 1930s and 1940s.

Those teams’ ability to run and pass with such effectiveness was their true strength. Despite the success on the field, though, the Packers were still often on the verge of bankruptcy. The team had to be saved by the good graces of the fans and some good luck. From 1933-1994 the Packers played part of their home schedule in Milwaukee, a tradition that was started to keep the team financially prosperous.

The Green Bay Packers eventually became the last vestige of the old NFL as the only small-town team left in the league. In the NFL’s early days, other small cities like Duluth, Racine, Canton, Rock Island, Muncie, and Hammond, among others, had professional teams. One by one all of them died out as the Chicagos, New Yorks and Pittsburghs of the world took over the NFL. The bright lights of the country’s biggest cities attracted the NFL and it’s endless desire to grow.

Yet little old Green Bay remained.

Keeping the team alive wasn’t an easy road at all. After Hutson retired, the Packers fell into an era that some refer to as “The Wilderness.” From 1945-1958, the Packers turned from a proud franchise into a relative joke as fullback Ted Fritsch, tackle Buford “Baby” Ray, and center/linebacker Charley Brock did everything they could to help keep the team respectable. But by the 1948 season, the wheels really fell off for the first time in franchise history.

From 1929-1944 the Packers never went more than four seasons without a championship. However, after the 1944 championship celebration, the team went for fifteen consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance.

In 1949, the Packers hosted a glorified scrimmage on Thanksgiving in an attempt to raise enough money to save the team, and they fans did save it, for the time being.

Lambeau’s final year with the Packers came in 1949, after coaching the team for decades. The franchise seemed directionless. Green Bay didn’t register a winning season from 1948 to 1958 despite quarterback Tobin Rote, wide receiver Billy Howton, and safety Bobby Dillon’s impressive play throughout the 1950s. Financial struggles continued to haunt the Packers.

As the decade unfolded, some thought the last small-town team would finally fall out of the league.

In 1956, Chicago Bears founder George Halas, the figurehead of the Packers’ most bitter rival, urged Green Bay residents to vote yes on public funding for a new stadium in 1956 (via Chicago Tribune). If not for the new stadium, the team surely wouldn’t have been able to survive. The Bears knew they needed the Packers. Both teams understood the symbiotic nature of their relationship. In fact, years earlier, the Bears accepted a $2,500 IOU from the Packers when the Bears were facing financial struggles during the Great Depression (via Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). That gesture kept the Packers’ nemesis from folding in 1932.

These two teams, no matter the hatred that exists, need each other. They’re like brothers that have been battling since the roaring twenties. However Halas’ good deeds definitely were motivated, primarily, for his own self-interest.

Although a new stadium came in the late-1950s (what is now known as Lambeau Field), it alone wouldn’t revive a long pathetic team on the field — even though its first game was a Packers win over the Bears.

The team still had failed to recover its once proud history out on the gridiron.

But then came a savior.