In the early 1900’s there was a multitude of semi-pro and professional football teams scattered across the United States. The states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York saw the highest concentration of clubs and fan interest, along with the Pacific Northwest.
Curly Lambeau and George Calhoun worked for the Indian Packing Company in Green Bay, Wisconsin - a meat processing plant that was sold to the Acme Packing Company in 1921. The two men were high school rivals and later good friends. They got the idea to start a professional football squad and play other teams within the Midwest. At the time there was an abundance of nearby teams to gather a schedule.
The pair approached their employer about a sponsorship to which they were given $500 for uniforms, equipment and a practice field behind the factory (which would double as a game field). As part of the fund allocations, the team would be named for the sponsor. In 1919, the Green Bay Packers were born.
Back then most football teams were owned by sponsors, small businessmen or civic leaders trying to garner their city some national exposure.
The National Football League (NFL) began in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association (APFA). The first commissioner was the legendary Jim Thorpe. There were several goals in forming a new league such as to eliminate players jumping from one team to another during a season. Another was to stop the process of college players suiting up for their squad on Saturday and then playing professionally on Sundays under an assumed name. With this new league, both of those situations became league policy.
The Packers did not join the APFA in 1920 and played independently just as they had done since their birth. The club went 10-1-0 their first season and 9-1-1 in 1920.
They did join the league for the 1921 season. Most of the original Packers played for one of the local high schools in past years. The rest of the roster had players that did have college or past pro experience. That first season the club went 7-2-2; five of those contests were against non-league opponents, so in the official standings, they compiled a 3-2-1 record.
In 1921, the APFA appointed a new commissioner in Joe Carr. Among the league goals, Carr felt that if the league was to become known as a major organization and earn national media recognition, the franchises located in small-to-medium cities would have to be weeded out. The owners gave Carr exclusive power to enforce regulations set up by the league and to fine or suspend any player, owner or team as he saw fit. As the commissioner, he did not govern with an even hand and showed favoritism to the franchises located in the larger cities. His aspirations were for the small city teams to relocate to more metropolitan surroundings.
For example, any ownership group that wished to apply for a league spot would have to pay an entrance fee. To prospects in vast cities, Carr charged $500 (what Tim Mara of the New York Giants paid) while medium-to-small towns the fee was a disproportionate $2,500. Often he would tack on an additional “territorial fee” if the new small city team was in close proximity of an existing club.
Back then it fell upon each franchise to make their season’s schedule with as many (or as few) games needed. Also, the league was devoid of any college player draft so clubs put together teams by any means possible. During the first APFA season of 1920, clubs would still play college players consistently under a false name. Carr despised this and let it be known that this practice was no longer tolerable and would have repercussions if franchises were caught.
On December 4, 1921, the Packers were scheduled to play a home game against another Wisconsin club called the Racine Legion. It was billed as the “state championship” and projected a large crowd. Hagemeister Park, the Packers’ home field, was basically a glorified sandlot devoid of any bleachers or ropes to keep fans out who didn’t pay. Neither team wanted to miss out on an expected large gate, so the contest was moved to Athletic Park in nearby Milwaukee, home of the AA baseball Brewers.
After a 3-3 final score, the next day the Racine Journal-News reported that Green Bay had used three undergraduate college players from Notre Dame. On the lineup cards published in three local papers, there were three positions with three new starters. Eight days later the South Bend Tribune reported that the three players were indeed all Notre Dame players with eligibility left.
For the three players, the result was that each was stripped of their football letters. For the Packers, it would be much worse.
At the January annual meeting at league offices in Canton, Ohio, George Halas of the Decatur Staleys (later renamed the Chicago Staleys and then the Chicago Bears) informed the other owners and Commissioner Carr about Green Bay’s incident and demanded action. Carr handed the Packers a $50 fine and expelled them from the league.
Lambeau, then player/head coach, had the money for the fine and wanted his team to be reinstated to play in the 1922 season. The problem was, he didn’t have any travel funds to get to Canton where the league offices were. His friend, Don Murphy, said he would come up with the money if Lambeau would allow him to play in an actual game. Murphy sold his car, and then he and Lambeau traveled by train to Canton and bought back the franchise.
But Carr delayed the reinstatement action. Still operating under the belief that the league would be better off with franchises in larger cities and the need to scale down the small-town teams (which Green Bay was), he used the college eligibility player rule as a motive to delay reinstatement and help a large city team.
Lambeau had been a teammate of one of college football’s best players and the Packers were a lock to sign him. Since the college season was completed, players were free to sign with any team that offered contracts. Halas had just moved the Staleys to Chicago - a major plum for the league which had the Chicago Cardinals and now the Chicago Staleys. He asked Carr to delay Green Bay’s reinstatement so that he could approach the player about a contract. Carr did just that and informed Lambeau that the Packers new application for admission into the league was “pending further consideration.” Halas then signed the player.
This situation is where the Packers-Bears heated rivalry began.
At this same owner’s meeting, the APFA changed its name to the “National Football League” beginning with the 1922 season. The Packers got their franchise back and proceeded to go 4-3-3 playing only league squads.
And in the first game of the 1922 season in a 19-14 loss to the Rock Island Independents, Murphy played the first minute at tackle.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.