BY CHRISTOPHER WOOD
Having written this column for four-and-a-half years, it’s been a good ride, as my father used to say!
In considering different approaches for my farewell missive, I decided to go with what I would consider being our “Top Ten” columns during my time as Publisher. From the beginning, above all, it was my intention to make the column “unusual and interesting,” with a somewhat novel approach to collecting Packers artifacts and memorabilia, which I knew something about. Having been a long-time collector of Packers and Beatles memorabilia and artifacts, I thought by weaving in some appropriate historical background related to the particular topic at hand (and always exploring the musical side of things), our take on it would be “distinctively different” and one that wouldn’t be available elsewhere. In deciding which columns would make the cut for the “Top Ten,” we based it primarily on the feedback we received thereafter, as well as what I’ll admit is some personal bias relating to the “fun factor” in writing them! So without further adieu:
This was more about the Packers old Hall of Fame, and its humble beginnings as a display of small exhibits and artifacts in the Brown County arena concourse back in 1967. Vince Lombardi gave the idea his blessing when it was presented to him by Bill Brault, the Executive Director of the Green Bay Area Visitor and Convention Bureau. Brault wanted to satisfy what had become a constant barrage of requests during the Glory Years for more information about the Packers and their interesting, extensive and somewhat speckled past; by tourists from coast-to-coast and around the world! This story was also about the first archivist Brault hired in the 90s to work on acquiring, cataloging and preparing the historical items for display; namely Mr. Tom Murphy. By December 2015, Tom had decided to step down from the archivist post while still retaining his position on the HOF Board of Directors. We felt there was a good story within the 25-plus years that he had held the archivist position, and especially because he was the Hall of Fame’s very first!
When the Collectors’ Corner column debuted in 2013, we had enlisted Tom’s expertise. We wanted to determine that the values we’d ascertained through our research and due diligence before assigning them to Packers’ collectibles, artifacts and memorabilia, were accurate and spot-on. When it came to evaluating such things such as autographs, old programs and bobble-head dolls, we figured who would know better what the current market values for these items were than the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame archivist?! So once again, we thank you for your assistance in this endeavor, Tom!
Back in the day when Green Bay had two daily newspapers, the “second-read” known as the Green Bay News-Chronicle had a talented, local cartoonist by the name of Lyle Lahey. While he had plenty to say with his hard-hitting, acerbic editorial cartoons when he felt it was called for and appropriate, he also penned a variety of cartoons about the Green Bay Packers during that time. Having drawn them for nearly a 30-year continuum when the Packers returned to the Super Bowl in 1997, he compiled “the best of the bunch” for a book entitled The Packer Chronicles published at that time.
We decided to revisit it on its 20-year anniversary and reprinted some of the gems that “you had to be there” back then to really appreciate for the old-timers in our audience. We also included a few of those that are timeless, and which will still elicit a smile, chuckle or laugh from readers viewing them for the first time today!
Maybe this one should have been titled: from the ‘You Never Know Until You Try’ department. It’s about how a facetious, invitation to Yoko Ono to attend a high-school class reunion in the 90s, resulted in her sending a beautiful, floral arrangement with a card and letter to those attending the event that evening. And it became a 10-year “pen-pal” relationship soon after that …
This was an unusual case of “not seeing the forest nor the trees” until Dr. Don Sipes came along. He had noticed an old, weathered, goal post at the East High School practice field while walking Hagemeister Park in 2005. He was doing some research on the Hagemeister Park football field to demonstrate to friends that it was, in fact, the real, original Hagemeister Park football field; which had been confused with Bellevue Field in a couple of books.
Sipes figured out this old goal post had been used at Hagemeister Field for the Packers’ first four seasons, which had been played there. It stood on the same spot where Curly Lambeau and the rest of the team had left it behind in the early 20s when they moved to Bellevue Field for the ‘23 and ‘24 seasons. They finally settled in at nearby City Stadium in 1925, which they would call home for the next 30-plus years. Hagemeister Park field ended up becoming a practice area for the East High School football team after the school was built on the site and opened in 1925.
Hundreds of people saw the goal post there on a daily basis for decades before Sipes realized it was one of the originals from Hagemeister Field! However, proving that was an entirely different matter, requiring more than just photographic evidence to verify without question that it was a goal post which had been made nearly a hundred years ago!
Don realized the only way to get it done was with metallurgist testing, which would determine whether the trace metals in a sample from the goal post matched up with what was being used in the manufacturing process for such items back then. He sent a sample to Russ Cochran, a metallurgical engineer in St. Louis who determined through testing that the material dated back to the 1920s, or even earlier. Knowing some colleagues who had done tests on the Titanic wreckage, Cochran sent the sample to them, which came back with the same results: the metal was similar to that used in the construction of the Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912! This proved the goal post had been made back in the day when American professional football was just getting started.
The Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame has since made samples of this truly remarkable, historical, artifact available to members of the public in return for a donation. There are still a very limited number of pieces available … but once they’re gone, they’re gone!
I’d never understood why people made such a big deal about getting autographs and bothered to go out of their way in order to get them from “celebrities” of any and all stripes. After all, as I had assumed everybody knew, celebrities were “just people famous for being famous,” weren’t they …? Big deal, I thought!
Until that is, the day my father showed me the letter he had received from John F. Kennedy back in 1960, when he was a senator from Massachusetts who had decided to seek the presidency. We were cleaning out “the den” or office he had kept in our old house in Denmark, Wisconsin because he and Mom were moving to De Pere after having raised their family there for the previous 30 years. I’d heard about the letter a time or two in the past while growing up, but I had never seen it before.
It was a response to one Dad had written to Senator Kennedy, as a weekly newspaper publisher/editor from Denmark (population: 1,106) in which he let Kennedy know he wanted to support his quest to seek the highest office in the land.
Kennedy wrote back expressing his appreciation for Dad’s “active support”—especially with the upcoming Wisconsin primary just two months away. His quest to win the presidency as the youngest man and first Catholic ever had been history in the making, and here I was, holding a letter he had written to my father about it!
It was not lost on me that I was holding a piece of history–quite literally–right there in my hands! It was a truly personal connection my father had to President Kennedy and our historical past.
This was a learning experience about being persistent in two parts, which took place over a period spanning nearly a decade.
It all began in the spring of 2008 when we were preparing the Tailgate Tunes II album for release that fall. We wanted to have a version of the oldest Packers fight song in the lineup, which dated back to 1931 when it was composed by Wisconsin resident Eric Karll. As it turns out, “Go! You Packers Go!” was also the very first fight song of any NFL team! However, we were unable to locate a recording anywhere with the lyric portion being sung and contacted the Karll family to see if they could provide us with one. Somehow, the instrumental version, which was a nice enough RCA Victor recording in and of itself released in 1960–just didn’t make the grade because this was, after all, a professional football team’s fight song!
They weren’t able to give us one because to their knowledge, none existed. This meant
we would have to record one for use on the album, which we did at our own expense. At first listen, they thought it sounded awesome, but had second thoughts a few days later and asked us not to release it.
We honored that request and it remained unreleased until we did another version three years later, with a crackerjack local wedding band playing it from the sheet music. We released it but felt the vocal track still left something to be desired, and made up our minds that we would record yet another version of it, which we did a couple of years later. We contracted with The Vocal Fury Barbershop Quartet to record the new, vocally-superb version at Made Ya Look studio in Green Bay. It has been available locally for several years and initially debuted at the Packers Pro Shop.
Fast forward three years, and The Bradford Exchange, LTD came calling. They were seeking a deal to license a version of the song for use on a newly developed collectible; the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Champions Carousel. This too is available at the Pro Shop as well as on the web, and we receive a royalty on every copy sold. This was persistence “paying off in some unexpected ways” a second time around much to our elation and surprise!
When the referendum was approved in the fall of 2000, it called for a half-percent sales tax to be collected for 15 years in Brown County to pay for residents’ share of the stadium project before “sun-setting” the tax. When that time (finally!) arrived in 2016, we decided to take a look back at the referendum, because it had been a very contentious issue for county voters before narrowly being approved by a 53-47 percent margin. It brought back all kinds of memories like enlisting the aid of my two boys, then ages 6 and nearly 2 respectively, to form the Team Lambeau Sign Brigade. There was also the one about the News-Chronicle editorial staff being split right down the middle over the issue. I had written an editorial titled “Thank you, Green Bay Packers!” making “a case for the cause” and publisher Frank Wood had penned one opposing passage of the referendum. Of course, rank has its privileges and his piece was on page 3, while mine was buried back on page 18!
While the referendum barely passed, the changes it enabled the franchise to engender have made a huge difference for not only the Packers but also the city of Green Bay and the state of Wisconsin; all to the tremendous benefit of all three entities!
With the new, modernized Lambeau Field and the Atrium offering many additional Packeresque options, activities and entertainment choices, it was just the beginning. Green Bay quickly became a “destination city” for football fans everywhere, many of whom had now made getting to see Lambeau Field an item on their “bucket lists.” One could easily spend two or three days at the Atrium without seeing and doing it all. Additionally, the greatly expanded Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame and the newly enhanced Lambeau Field stadium tours added to the appeal in making Green Bay a year-round destination. Not to mention the hugely expanded and improved Packers Pro Shop, which is a money-minting machine for the team. Soon thereafter, the historical Heritage Trail opened with stops all over town, and contributed to truly making Lambeau Field a “beacon that beckons” to football fans from coast-to-coast and the world over!
When the Packers were preparing to play the Denver Broncos in their second Super Bowl appearance of the modern era, a Denver radio station took out a half-page ad in the Green Bay Press-Gazette Super Bowl Week section in the Monday, Jan. 19, 1998 edition.
While it looked innocent enough on the surface with its “Go Broncos” and “Broncos Are #1” message, there were three lines of type at the top of the ad about the “Future World Champs Rock the Cheeseheads & Carve Brett Favre.”
Some of us who had been loyal readers of the very irreverent (and proud of it!) Mad Magazine in the 60s, were somewhat suspicious of the namby-pamby message the station had paid a substantial sum of cash to run. Radio stations–even in larger markets like Denver– weren’t known for their deep pockets and spendy ways back then. Clearly, to spend that kind of money on a newspaper ad suggested they must have had something they really wanted to say very badly to the Packers and their faithful fans. The thought crossed some people’s minds that just maybe there might be a hidden message contained therein, like the old inside back cover “Mad Fold Ins” used to have many years previously. In checking it out by folding the ad in the manner that we used to do with the magazine cover many years ago, we discovered that we were, indeed, correct in that assumption; and there was a naughty message directed at Packers fans. Having saved a copy of the original newspaper ad, we decided to run it again nearly 20 years after the fact; telling the story of which most Packers fans had been completely unaware of.
And now, for some full disclosure: I remember the “wonderment” going around the office at that time, being something akin to the effect of: “How could they possibly have missed that?!” at the Press-Gazette. However, there were a couple of old-timers who speculated that “they didn’t miss it at all” but just decided to “take the money and (let it) run!”
When that issue of Packerland Pride hit the streets in March of last year and word got out about that story, copies flew off the racks and were snatched up very quickly. Predictably enough, it became an instant collector’s item.
Whatever connection could the iconic, blues artist Muddy Waters possibly have with Packers music, you’re probably wondering and understandably so! Well, it’s a long story but we’ll try to give you the Cliffs Notes version here …
There is currently a group of over 50 Packers songs comprising the Green Bay Packers Song Collection at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, D.C. How they got there is interesting: It all came about because of a call to the Library seeking information about some old blues 78s (records), which they (the LOC) had issued in the early 40s – one of which happened to be the first recording ever made by a McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters.
Judith Gray was the staff person answering the questions about the recordings. She happened to originally be from Wausau, Wisconsin, and since the Packers were about to take on the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, soon enough the conversation got around to talking football. We had made several cassette tapes of Packers songs to share with family and friends back then and told her about them, whereupon she asked us if we’d loan them to her. I told her we had the technology to make copies she could keep for her very own and sent them off several days later.
About six months after that, she wrote back to say she had been listening to the songs and was really enjoying them! She also indicated they were being entered into The Folklife Center Archive at the Library of Congress as the Green Bay Packers Songs Collection because they are “in the business of documenting ways in which people identify themselves as members of various groups” at the LOC, and Packers fans constitute one of those groups!
Several years later, I happened to be in D.C. for a conference and stopped by the Library to visit Judith. I also listened to some of the songs while I was there, just to make sure it worked all right and simply for the experience of having done it.
Last but not least, this is our Number One story from the time of the Collectors’ Corner column’s debut in 2013 until now.
A gift of Emil R. Fischer Sr.’s papers had been made to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame when his son passed on in 2014. The elder Fischer had been president of the franchise during some of its most trying and difficult times in the late 40s and early 50s, which proved to be the final years of the Curly Lambeau reign. The papers had been inherited by Emil Fischer II when his father passed on and were then bequeathed to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame by Gail Fischer, his son’s widow after he passed in 2014.
We were given the opportunity to examine them first-hand and do a story about the last years of the Lambeau era. They had become extremely trying and tumultuous after he won his last NFL Championship in 1944.
Emil Fischer Sr. was elected president by the board of directors in July 1947 after Lee Joannes resigned. Joannes had served with honor and distinction for 18 years, guiding the team through the depression and some rough years following in its wake. There was discord at the management level, mainly between Lambeau and the executive committee. In 1947, Lambeau terminated Dr. W.W. Kelly, who had been the team physician for over 25 years. He also terminated George Whitney Calhoun as publicity director shortly thereafter. Kelly and Calhoun were some of the people who had raised money and kept the team afloat during the difficult times. Calhoun had been with Lambeau from the very beginning and had pretty much given his life to the Packers; he was very hurt by it as was Dr. Kelly. Making matters worse, Lambeau hired George Strickler from the Chicago Tribune as Calhoun’s replacement. Strickler was considered an “outsider” but had served as Lambeau’s behind the scenes PR operative for some time. These moves were not well-received by the executive committee, since Lambeau had acted unilaterally without having had any discussion with members beforehand. When we wrote the story after examining the papers, Hall of Fame archivist Tom Murphy went even further, saying about Fischer and the others: “They’re responsible for the fact that that they’re still the Green Bay Packers today and didn’t go the way of the Canton Bulldogs,” a reference to one of the many town-sponsored teams that became extinct after the 1920s. In addition to the discord between Lambeau and the executive committee, things were going very badly on the field; with the Packers going 3-9 in the 1948 season just one game ahead of the hapless Detroit Lions … (Hm-m-m, somehow that rings a bell, even today!) It was their worst record ever and their first losing season since 1933. Lambeau thought he could reverse the slide but it went from bad to worse with them posting a 2-10 record in ‘49 representing another new, record, low. On top of that, there were huge financial problems with the team being $90,000 in debt, broke and in need of some substantial cash in a hurry. In a twist of fate, Rockwood Lodge the Packers training facility northeast of town burned to the ground on Jan. 25, 1950. They had been trying to sell it for some time because it had never worked out very well but didn’t have any interested buyers.
Fortunately, nobody was injured in the blaze and it became a blessing in disguise because it paid out $75,000 in insurance money, helping to allay some of the team’s financial woes.
Lambeau submitted his letter of resignation as head coach and general manager a couple days later, effective Jan. 31, 1950. He had accepted the head coaching position and vice presidency of the Chicago Cardinals, leaving the team he had formed over three decades earlier. He’d developed it into a professional football powerhouse and a one-of-a-kind franchise in professional sports; coaching and managing it for 31 years. We received more kudos and compliments on this piece than any other we have ever done, by far. Professional people, football fanatics and numerous others let us know they found it very interesting, extremely enlightening, and some said it made them appreciate “the specialness” of the Green Bay Packers franchise even more so! As one gentleman put it, “It was your finest hour.”
After giving that some additional thought, I would not and could not disagree!