Historic City Stadium a living memorial
BY JEFF ASH
Every summer, while school is out, you see them.
Every summer, during Packers training camp, you see them.
Every weekend the Packers play at home, you see them.
They drive into the parking lot behind Green Bay East High School. They get out and walk over to the black gates, then peer through them. They take pictures of the sign and the red brick pillars and ticket booths and the field, perhaps hoping to capture a sense of the football legends who played there.
That is the lure of City Stadium, where the Green Bay Packers played from 1925 to 1956.
Curly Lambeau played and coached there. Don Hutson became the NFL’s greatest receiver there. Bart Starr started his first game there.
But increasingly few Packers fans – perhaps only two generations of them are left now – remember seeing that in person.
City Stadium was the Packers’ third home field. It sits behind East High School, which also was new in 1925.
The Packers defeated the Hammond Pros 14-0 in the first NFL game played at City Stadium. A crowd of roughly 3,000 saw the game on Sunday, Sept. 20, 1925. Verne Lewellen scored the first points at City Stadium on a touchdown pass from Charlie Mathys in the second quarter.
Built solely for football and finished just in time for the 1925 season, City Stadium seated about 5,700 fans when it opened. It was expanded to about 7,500 by 1927, to about 9,000 by 1929 and to almost 13,000 by 1930. Lights went up in 1935, as did a small wooden locker room for the Packers under the south stands. City Stadium was expanded to almost 17,500 by 1937 and to more than 22,000 by 1938.
During its glory days, City Stadium was a low-slung, U-shaped wooden horseshoe of a football field, with the open end behind the west end zone and the scoreboard above the stands in the east end zone. A low white wooden fence ran around the perimeter of the field after the 1937 expansion. Players dreaded running into it. The Packer Lumberjack Band performed in a bandshell that sat in the northwest corner of the grounds.
Fans entered City Stadium from the west, along Baird Street. In 1940, a 400-foot-long sandstone wall was built along Baird Street. Fans entered through turnstiles in the 12-foot-high, 17-inch-thick wall and spilled into a courtyard where souvenirs and concessions – Reimer’s Smoke Toasted Wieners and Coca-Cola beverages among them – were sold. From the courtyard, they walked to the west end of the stands. When games ended, fans simply came down out of the stands and walked across the field to the nearest exit.
If you didn’t have a ticket and were adventurous enough, there were ways to see games at City Stadium. Some fans climbed trees that rose above the north rim of the stadium. Others climbed atop the curved roof of the stone garage and storage shed at the northwest corner of the stadium. Still others simply snuck in wherever they could.
In its earliest years, City Stadium had neither locker rooms nor restrooms. The Packers dressed at the high school. Their opponents dressed at their hotel. Men walked under the stands to relieve themselves. Women? Well, sorry, ladies. Expansion eventually brought both restrooms for fans and a locker room for the Packers. But a visitors’ locker room? Well, sorry about that, too.
Even so, City Stadium was once considered one of the NFL’s best stadiums. Fans were close to the action. Players loved its well-kept field, save for that low white fence.
“I loved City Stadium. Number 1, it had one of the best playing fields I ever played on. It was a fast, quick field. And it was easy to get in and out. It was like playing in your back yard,” Packers great Tony Canadeo told Cliff Christl, now the team’s historian, in 2003.
But time caught up with City Stadium, which lasted barely a decade after World War II ended.
As the NFL grew, with larger venues in its big-city markets, Green Bay’s City Stadium increasingly was no longer up to league standards. Visiting teams didn’t want to play there because its relatively tiny capacity meant smaller gate receipts. City Stadium’s size, Green Bay’s weather and the sharing of home games with Milwaukee often dictated a schedule that often saw the Packers play just once in Green Bay in November or December.
But there simply was no room to expand City Stadium, which was boxed in by East High School and the East River.
Time ran out on City Stadium in 1956, when Green Bay voters approved building a new stadium for the Packers on the city’s southwest side.
City Stadium was only three-quarters full for its last NFL game on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1956. There wasn’t much excitement for a game between two teams who seemingly were out of the Western Conference race two-thirds of the way through the season. The Packers came into the game with a 2-5 record. The San Francisco 49ers were 1-6.
A crowd of 17,986 watched rookie quarterback Bart Starr stake the Packers to a 6-0 lead on a 39-yard touchdown pass to Billy Howton in the first quarter, but the 49ers defeated the Packers 17-16.
Packers quarterback Tobin Rote scored the last touchdown at City Stadium on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter. Fred Cone’s extra point kick was the last point scored at City Stadium.
The Packers returned to City Stadium for a cameo appearance in 1961, playing their intrasquad game at their old field.
But after the Packers moved on to new City Stadium in 1957, old City Stadium was dismantled over the next decade. The last significant pieces, the press box and bleachers on the west side next to the high school, were torn down 50 years ago, in the late summer of 1966.
That said, City Stadium lives.
It’s the home of Green Bay East football, as it has been since 1925. The Red Devils played their first City Stadium game against crosstown rival Green Bay West on Nov. 26, 1925, which was Thanksgiving Day. It’s one of the nation’s oldest high school rivalries, dating to 1905. East and West played at City Stadium every year except one from 1925 to 1956, and have played there roughly every other year since 1964.
The East football team practices on the same fields the Packers once did, adjacent to and just southeast of the stadium and the high school. A wooden fence once surrounded the practice fields. Young fans perched on that fence to watch the Packers practice, and older fans simply stood along the sideline.
The Packers returned to City Stadium for a practice in 2007.
Green Bay East boosters take pride in their shared history with the Packers. They’ve lovingly restored parts of the stadium to preserve memories of a time when it was packed with NFL fans. The last remaining piece of the original City Stadium is a red-orange sandstone building at the northwest corner of the field that’s used as a Green Bay School District garage and warehouse.
City Stadium was rededicated on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2002, after completion of a $340,000 project that included a sign recognizing its place in Packers and NFL history, a brick-and-wrought iron entrance and a courtyard with memorials commemorating the Packers and significant Green Bay East alumni. The NFL donated $100,000 to the project. Starr and the Green Bay Packers Foundation also were major donors.
Jim Belongia, a retired East teacher who helped lead the City Stadium renovation in the early 2000s, recalled the buzz surrounding it as he tended to the courtyard earlier this summer.
“Tony Canadeo, Lee Remmel, they were so excited about it,” Belongia said of Canadeo, the Hall of Fame player, and Remmel, who covered the Packers for the Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1945 to 1974, then joined the team as director of public relations and team historian.
The City Stadium courtyard is open only when there are events at the stadium.
Among the memorials in the courtyard is one recognizing the 12 Pro Football Hall of Famers who played or coached at City Stadium as Packers: Curly Lambeau, Johnny Blood (John McNally), Cal Hubbard, Mike Michalske, Arnie Herber, Clarke Hinkle, Don Hutson, Walt Kiesling, Tony Canadeo, Jim Ringo, Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg.
Lambeau also has his own memorial in the courtyard, one reflecting both his time as a player and coach at Green Bay East and as a co-founder and coach of the Packers.
City Stadium’s history is still being written. A fund drive is underway to raise $3.5 million to install artificial turf fields at City Stadium and three other Green Bay public high school football fields. Information: www.wi-gbapsd.fields.huterra.org