August 11, 1919 America’s Team

No other club in professional football history has won three consecutive championships. The Packers did it twice:  1929–1931, and 1965–1967.

The story begins with a sidewalk conversation sometime back in 1919, between Earl “Curly” Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun. It went something like this: “Why don’t we start up a football team?” “Ok, what do we need to do”.

Curley LambeauLambeau worked for the Indian Packing Company in those days, making $250 a month as a shipping clerk. The two went to Lambeau’s employer and got a commitment for $500 for team uniforms, provided that the team use the company’s name. Today, “Green Bay Packers” is the oldest team name still in use in the NFL.

The team was founded on August 11, 1921, when Lambeau and Calhoun gathered with a group of young athletes, in the editorial room of the old Green Bay Press-Gazette building.  The team did well that first season, playing on an open field with no fences or bleachers. The money came from spectators “passing the hat”, while watching the team play to a 10-1 record.  You can imagine how that worked out.

The Packers became a professional franchise when they joined the newly formed American Professional Football Association on August 27, 1921. The league revoked their franchise at the end of the season, when the Packers were revealed to have used college players in a game. It turns out that the man who told the league about it was George Halas of the Chicago Staleys, which became “Da Bears” the following year. The incident began one of the most intense sports rivalries in history, one which rivals the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and lasts to this day.

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1919 Team

In 1922, Lambeau obtained additional funding from a group of Green Bay businessmen, “The Hungry Five”, and bought the franchise back for $250, including $50 of his own money. Financial troubles continued through 1922. One game was rained out, and the insurance company wouldn’t pay off because the official amount of rain was 1/100″ short of the amount specified in the policy.

The Green Bay Football Corporation was formed to run the team in 1923, and continues to do so to this day. Other teams are owned by publicly traded corporations, such as the Atlanta Braves [Liberty Media, previously Time Warner], New York Rangers [Cablevision], and the Seattle Mariners [Nintendo of America], but the Green Bay Packers are the only franchise in American professional sports, directly owned by the public.Green Bay Uniforms

Financial troubles and micro-management persisted through the war years.  The club posted a dismal 1-10-1 record in 1958, one of the worst in league history. They hired away an assistant coach from the New York Giants that year, to be the new Head Coach.  His name was Vince Lombardi.  The first day on the job, Lombardi said “As of now, I’m in charge”.  The era of the front office running the game, was over.

The 1959 season got off to a good start, shutting out Chicago in the opener, and finishing 7-5 for their first winning record in 12 years. A 21-0 shutout of Washington on November 22 of that year, was the last Packers game to this date that didn’t sell out.

Green Bay has a population of only 105,139 according to the 2016 census, making it less than 1/10th the population of the typical NFL city. The Packers following comes from well beyond Green Bay, drawing crowds from all over Wisconsin and the Midwest. In fact, as late as 1995, the Packers played three home games a year in Milwaukee, one in pre-season, and two regular season.

SportsIllustrated_10jan1966No other club in professional football history has won three consecutive championships. The Packers did it twice:  1929–1931, and 1965–1967.

Green Bay won in 4 out of 5 Super Bowl victories, tied at 3rd with the New York Giants, behind the Pittsburgh Steelers with 6, a three-way tie at 5 each for the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers & Dallas Cowboys.  They’ve won 13 championships since the ‘20s, more than any team in professional football history.  Chicago comes in second with only 9.  The last three seasons have been rough on Da Bears, where rumor has it that a recent game was called due to an unknown white substance on the field.  Play was resumed after it was determined that it was only the end zone.  It was unlikely that anyone from Chicago was going to run into it again, anytime soon.

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August 6, 2011 NFL Films

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2011. Steve delivered a tribute to his father, explaining the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever”.

Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol came home from WWII and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided a decent living for his family, but his heart was elsewhere.  What he liked more than anything, was to watch his son Steve play high school football.

Sabol would take a motion picture camera, a wedding gift, and film the games. He found that he had a knack for it, and founded a small film production company called Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, Blair.

Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. The game was played in cold so severe that camera operators suffered frostbite, and a wind so strong that it blew the ball off the tee three times before opening kickoff.  Despite all that, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.

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The league’s 14 owners rejected commissioner Pete Rozelle’s proposal to buy Sabol out, instead giving him $20,000 apiece in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight film for each team.

NFL Films production style is unmistakable: the “tight to the spiral” shot of the ball leaving the quarterback’s hand, the on-the-field close-ups and slow motion shots, all of it “mic’d up” in a way that let you hear every hit, every sound, as if you were on the field.

With the orchestral score and the stentorian tones of John Facenda’s narration, “the voice of God”: “They call it pro football. They play it under the autumn moon, in the heat of a Texas afternoon.”  NFL Films became “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history” according to Salon.com television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “An outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.”

Sabols, 2004 Sports Emmys
Steve and Ed Sabol at the 2004 Sports Emmys

NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings are small relative to the $18 billion in revenue the NFL earns from television alone, the real value of NFL Films is how it promotes the sport. Many credit NFL Films as a key reason that the National Football League has become the most watched professional sports league in the United States.

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2011. Steve was suffering inoperable brain cancer at the time, a condition which would take his life the following September.   In delivering his tribute to his father, Steve Sabol explained the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever”.

Sabol_Notes_Quotes

July 17, 1914 Last to First

The Boston Braves were in dead last place in July 1914, with a record of 26 wins and 40 losses, 11½ games behind the first place Giants.  As with the last ten years straight, the view this year was shaping up to be one from the basement.    

Boston was a two-team town in 1914, when the American League Red Sox hired 6’2″, 200lb left handed rookie George Herman “Babe” Ruth from the Baltimore Orioles. The American League hadn’t yet adopted the designated hitter rule, they wouldn’t do that until 1973. The Red Sox started Ruth as pitcher, but it was his bat that made him one of the best. Unlike most power hitters, Babe Ruth maintained his high batting average, ending his career with a .342 lifetime average.

Four years later, Red Sox owner and theatrical producer Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the arch-rival New York Yankees, to finance the production of a Broadway musical. Thus began an 86-year World Series drought, ending only in 2004.  To this day, Boston-area mothers use the “Curse of the Bambino” to scare wayward children into acting right. But that’s a story for another day.1914nl

On the National League side, the Boston Braves were in dead last place in July 1914, with a record of 26 wins and 40 losses, 11½ games behind the first place Giants.  As with the last ten years straight, the view this year was shaping up to be one from the basement.    The Braves didn’t even have a home field advantage for the playoffs that year, they had abandoned their 43-year old home at South End Grounds that August. In post-season the Boston Braves were renting Fenway Park from their cross-town rival Red Sox.

The turnaround started on this day with a three game road trip to Redland Field, in Cincinnati, where the Braves won three consecutive games with 1-0, 6-2 and 3-2 victories over the Reds.

The Braves played 37 games through the end of the regular season, winning all but two.

They must have been underdogs going into the World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics, who had just won their fourth American League pennant in 5 years, 8½ games ahead of second place.

1914 WS card

Game one in Philadelphia was a Boston Romp, ending with a 7-1 victory. Game two had to be a cliff hanger, going into the 9th inning with the score tied at 0. Infielder Charlie Deal found himself on second when A’s center fielder Amos Strunk lost the ball in the sun.  Deal scored the game’s only run on Les Mann’s two-out single to center field.

Game 3 in Boston was the real thriller. The score was tied at two at the end of regulation play, with the Athletics scoring two runs in the top of the 10th. Boston came back with two runs in the bottom of the inning, and won the game in the 12th when A’s second baseman Donnie Bush threw a wild ball past third, with outfielder and pinch runner Les Mann scoring the winning run from second.braves

It was two outs in the 5th inning when Braves shortstop Johnny Evers hit a two-run single to center field, putting Boston ahead 3-1 in game 4. The A’s never responded.

The “Miracle Braves” had emerged from dead-last to defeat the defending World Champion Philadelphia Athletics, in the first four-game sweep in World Series history.

In 2011, a descendant of shortstop Johnny Evers consigned his ancestor’s 1914 World Series ring to auction, raising an intriguing question. Today we take team-issued Championship rings for granted, but the practice is not thought to have begun, until many years later. Prior to that and dating well back to the previous century, World Series winners were rewarded with team-issued pins.

This was the second such ring known t exist, the first issued to shortstop Walter James Vincent “Rabbit” Maranville.  It may be that Evers and Maranville had the rings made for themselves, or maybe players were offered a choice of reward. Perhaps rings were offered to all players, but only at their own expense, causing most of them to pass.

Perhaps these two rings are merely the only two known to have survived.  Be that as it may, at least some players had begun to associate rings with championships, long before their first official issue, in 1922.

June 29, 1950 Miracle on Grass

If you cared to bet on it, book makers posted 3–1 odds on the English winning the Cup.  The American team was 500–1.

In 2016, the British soccer world was cast into the abyss when the mighty English football club went down to defeat at the hands, err feet, of Iceland, a nation whose entire population falls short that of New Orleans.

It’s hard to think of anyone who could have deserved it more.  About 8% of the entire country turned out to watch the finals that year, in France.  CNN reporter James Masters wrote that it was the most humbling defeat for English soccer, since their 1950 defeat by the Americans.

In 1950, the English National Soccer team had a post-war record of 23 wins, 4 losses, and 3 draws. If you asked them, they’d have told you they considered themselves the “Kings of Football”.

hith-1950-world-cup-E

The American team had lost the last seven straight international matches by a combined score of 45–2. If you cared to bet on it, book makers posted 3–1 odds on the English winning the Cup.  The American team was 500–1.

The Americans were semi-professionals, most of the team holding down other jobs to support their families. Defender Walter Bahr was a high school teacher. Port-au-Prince native Joseph Edouard Gaetjens was playing forward while studying accounting at Columbia University on a scholarship from the Haitian government. Goalkeeper Frank Borghi drove a hearse for his uncle’s funeral parlor.  Prudencio “Pete” Garcia worked as a linesman.

The team had been thrown together on short notice, having only one chance to train together before leaving for the FIFA World Cup playoffs. On June 29 they would be in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, playing the self-styled Kings of Football in the first round.  Coach Bill Jeffrey captured what everyone was thinking, when he told the press “We don’t have a chance”.

It was thirty-seven minutes into a 0-0 game when Bahr took a long shot from 25 yards out. The English team had taken 9 clear shots on goal by this time.  This was only the second for the US team. Goaltender Bert Williams moved to his right to intercept, as Gaetjens dived at the ball, heading it to the left of the English goalkeeper. The crowd exploded as the US took the lead, eventually winning the game, 1–0.

Miracle on Grass

It was a double elimination format, and England lost their match with Spain. The Kings of Football had failed to make it to the second round, going home after the first round with a tournament record of 1–0–2.

International headlines trumpeted news of the upset, with the ironic exceptions of the American and English press. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter with the unlikely name of Dent McSkimming was the only American reporter at the game.  McSkimming wasn’t about to miss this match, even when his editor refused to pay for the trip.  A true fan of the sport, McSkimming  studied Portuguese for three days to prepare for the trip.

The British press was more interested by the English cricket team’s first-ever loss to the West Indies on the same day.

The US went on to lose their next match 5–2 against Chile, so they didn’t go on to the final round, either. But they had won the most shocking upset ever, until the 1980 US Olympic hockey victory over the Soviet Union.

The United States would not qualify another World Cup soccer team, until 1990.  This time, there were 100 credentialed American reporters, in attendance.

May 2, 1939 Lucky Man

The Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

The Lane Tech high school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920.  10,000 spectators had assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field.  New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park.  No 17 year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. It was the first time the country heard the name Lou Gehrig.

GehrigCUGehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters to set a team record.

The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who’d been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several eastern campuses, including a 450′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street and Broadway.

NY Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. Gehrig played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the NY Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season.  In 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”, the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, and a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr. Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam in August 1938, a record that would stand until fellow Yankee Alex Rodriquez tied it in 2012.

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. The Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”.  McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it.  The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19.  It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of fewer than three years.Ruth and Gehrig

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but he leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

LouGehrigDay, 1939Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939.  He was awarded trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers.  He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them.   Addressing his fans, Gehrig described himself as “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth”.

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, at the age 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium back in 2013, the week after the Boston Marathon bombing.  The sign out front said “United we Stand”.  With it was a giant Red Sox logo.  That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games since 1997.

I thought about Lou Gehrig.  I’ve always been a Boston guy myself, I think I’m required by Massachusetts state law to hate the Yankees.   But seriously.  What a Class Act.

April 25, 1976 Don’t Do it Around Me

Rick Monday was playing Center Field for the Cubs. Describing the “protesters”, Monday said “He got down on his knees, and I could tell he wasn’t throwing holy water on it”.

The bottom of the fourth had just started out in Dodger Stadium, when two “protesters” jumped out of the left field bleachers and ran onto the field.

The pair succeeded in soaking an American flag with lighter fluid, but they weren’t quite fast enough with the match.

Rick Monday was playing Center Field for the Cubs.  Describing the scene, Monday said “He got down on his knees, and I could tell he wasn’t throwing holy water on it”.Monday, possum

Monday dashed over and grabbed the flag, to thunderous applause from the 25,167 in attendance. All but two, that is.  By that time. those two were being led off in handcuffs.

When Monday came out to bat in the top of the 5th, he got a standing ovation from Dodger fans, while the message board flashed “RICK MONDAY… YOU MADE A GREAT PLAY…”

The arrested were identified as 37-year old William Errol Thomas, and his eleven year old son. Poor kid.  He’d be 52 now. I wonder how he turned out.

Thomas was convicted of trespassing, and ordered to pay a $60 fine or spend three days in jail. He was unemployed and didn’t have anything better to do, so he took the time.

Rick-Monday-CubsRick Monday had served a tour in the Marine Corp Reserve, in fulfillment of his ROTC obligation after leaving Arizona State. “If you’re going to burn the flag”, he said, “don’t do it around me. I’ve been to too many veterans’ hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it.”

The flag Rick Monday rescued that day was presented to him nine days later by a Dodgers’ executive, during a pregame ceremony at Wrigley Field. He has been offered up to a million dollars to sell the flag.  As of this date he has declined all offers.

You can see the whole episode at the link below. My favorite part has to be that impotent little temper tantrum at the end, when the protester throws his little lighter at the outfielder’s back. Like a runt possum, hissing at a passing stallion.

April 9, 1974  Open Mouth, Insert Foot

At that moment a roar went up from the crowd, as a streaker jumped out of the stands and onto the field. That’s when he lost it.

The 1974 season opened on the road for the San Diego Padres, the series ending in a humiliating, 25-2 blowout at Dodger’s Stadium.

Padres’ new owner and McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc was anything but pleased with the 0-3 start, saying “They’re snake-bit, and they’ve got the yips. They’re overanxious, trying too hard, too tense”. Kroc was positive, though, at the home opener against the Houston Astros.  Stepping up to the field microphone, Kroc said to the crowd of 39,083 at San Diego Stadium, “With your help and God’s help, we’ll give ‘em hell tonight.”

The home opener at Jack Murphy (now Qualcomm) Stadium on April 9 was no better, ending in a 9 to 5 loss.  In the middle of the eighth, the Padres were well on their way to 0 and 4, when Ray Kroc opened the door of the public address booth and told announcer John DeMott he had something to say.

Kroc had bought the club only two months earlier, when San Diego was in danger of KrocRaylosing its National League team to Washington, DC.  Only moments before,  Padres’ President Buzzie Bavasi had to leave Kroc’s side to investigate concession area water in the clubhouse, when a leak was “promoted” to a flood.

Kroc had to have been cranky when he took the mic in the first place, but it quickly got worse.  “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I suffer with you.”  At that moment a roar went up from the crowd, as a streaker jumped out of the stands and onto the field.

That’s when he lost it.  “Get him out of here. Throw him in jail” Kroc shouted.  Then he continued.  “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the Dodgers drew 31,000 for their opener and we’ve drawn 39,000 for ours. The bad news is that this is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve ever seen”.

Padres radio announcer Jerry Coleman didn’t know how to respond.  “Ladies and Gentlemen”, he said, “that was Padres owner, Ray Kroc”.

It was a bad idea.  Player representative Willie McCovey spoke for the club. “I wish Mr. Kroc hadn’t done that. I’ve never heard anything like that in my 19 years in baseball. None of us likes being called stupid. We’re pros and we’re doing the best we can. His words will ring in the players’ ears for a long time.”

Players were so angry they threatened to boycott the next game.  San Diego dentist Steve Arlin was the losing pitcher that night.  “We were all embarrassed by it,” he said. “We weren’t playing well, but we didn’t need to be reminded”.

Even opposing players jumped into the fray.  Houston player rep Denis Menke said, “That was in bad taste.”  Menke went on to protest Kroc’s comments to Marvin Miller, head of the players’ union.

Miller thought Kroc’s actions were unacceptable, too.  “Imagine what would have happened if a player, after being taken out of a game, made an announcement over the P.A. that his manager was stupid. The player would be fined or suspended. I see a direct parallel in the Kroc case.”

Astros’ third baseman Doug Rader said, “He thinks he’s in a sales convention dealing with a bunch of short-order cooks. That’s not the way to go about getting a winner. Somebody ought to sit him down and straighten him out.” Within two weeks Rader had received so many angry calls from short order cooks, that he had to make a public apology.

Houston SpatulaBuzzie Bavasi did the most to defuse the situation.  Taking a cue from Rader’s comments, Bavasi designated the next game in the Houston series “Short Order Cook’s Night”.  Any Padres fan who came wearing a chef’s hat, would be admitted into the game for free.  Rader, the Astro’s team captain, took the lineup card to home plate wearing an apron with a chef’s hat, slipping the card off a skillet with a spatula and handing it over to the home plate umpire, like a pancake.

Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn later forced Kroc to make a public apology, but Sporting News columnist Melvin Durslag wasn’t buying it. “The reason (he’d never seen such stupid baseball playing) was largely due to his inexperience at watching baseball.  He knows as much about the sport as Willie McCovey knows about an Egg McMuffin.”

San Diego went on to lose 102 games that year, 42 more than archrival LA Dodgers.  The season wasn’t halfway over, when the new owner wondered what he’d gotten himself into.  I bought the team to have some fun”, Kroc said.  “But it is proving to be about as enjoyable as a wake.  Your own”.