Curly Lambeau in stone outside Lambeau Field. Raymond T. Rivard photograph

1 day to Green Bay Packers football: Earl 'Curly' Lambeau

With 1 day left until the start of the NFL season, our countdown to the big day winds down.

Tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 4, is the day when the Green Bay Packers travel to Seattle to take on the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks.  

Over the  course of the next day we focus on the loneliest number that represents the days remaining … for today we take a look number 1.

Most recently we looked at numbers 3 and 2 – numbers worn by Tony Canadeo and Charles Mathys, two of the pioneers of Packers football.

Earl “Curly” Lambeau, the man who was the first of the pioneers who helped start it all – the team’s face from 1921 through 1949.

But today we finally get to number 1, a number worn by none other than Earl “Curly” Lambeau, the man who was the first of the pioneers and started it all – the team’s face from 1921 through 1949.

Curly was born and died in Green Bay, so fitting for the man who was the Green Bay Packers for the team’s first decades and whose name adorns the greatest of the National Football League’s shrines in Lambeau Field.

There are many reasons for his name being affixed to so much history.

But we’ll let John Maxymuk, the author of “Packers by the Numbers: Jersey Numbers and the Players Who Wore them,” tell us about who Lambeau was and why he is so important to Green Bay Packers football:

Lambeau Field is one of the most recognizable stadium names in sports, but the man who gave the field its name is largely forgotten today.

Moreover, much of what is commonly recalled about Earl “Curly” Lambeau is untrue.

 

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The story goes that Lambeau came up with the idea of forming a professional team in Green Bay, got his boss to pay for the uniforms, and installed himself as the team’s first coach.

[The story goes like this] In their third year, the Packers joined the fledgling National Football League. In 1922, the Packers were thrown out of the NFL for using illegal college underclassmen, and Curly had to borrow money from a friend to pay the reinstatement fee. The friend raised the money by selling his car in return for the promos to be able to play for the team that far.

This account of Curly Lambeau‘s formation of the Packers is entertaining, but not very accurate.

Larry Names’ well-researched four-volume “History of the Green Bay Packers” refutes many of the myths that have grown up around Lambeau and the team’s founding. Green Bay football is rooted in the town teams that were annually formed throughout the early years of the twentieth century.

Hometown hero Curly Lambeau was the Big Man On Campus at Green Bay’s East High School, even coaching th team in 1917 his senior year when regular coach Joe Hoeffel (remember that name) was serving in World War I.

Lambeau matriculated at the University of Wisconsin, but soon dropped out to work for his father’s construction business. In the fall of 1918, Curly enrolled at Notre Dame on a football scholarship and played in the Fighting Irish backfield alongside the fabled George Gipp of “win one for the Gipper” fame.

Unknown-1Meanwhile back in Green Bay, Lambeau’s friend, Nate Abrams, reinstituted a town tradition by forming a town team again.

Curly came home in December suffering from tonsillitis and never returned to South Bend. Instead he took a job with the local Indian Packing Company in 1919 and got married to his high school sweetheart, Marguerite. That fall, Curly joined up with the men reorganizing the Green Bay football tam. Due to Lambeau’s prowess and stature, he was elected captain and he arranged with his boss at Indian Packing, Frank Peck, for the company to sponsor the team by paying for uniforms.

Th team’s coach was William Ryan. The Indian Packing Company was taken over by the Acme Packing Company, run by brothers John and Emmett Clair, in 1920, and continued to sponsor the semi-pro Packers.

In 1921, at Lambeau’s urging, the Clairs successfully applied for a franchise in the American Professional Football League as the NFL was then called. Joe Hoeffel (remember Lambeau’s high school coach?) was named coach and Lambeau was once again captain. At the time, coaches were not permitted to send in plays from the sideline so the captain’s job was at least as important as the coach’s.

The Packers went 3-2-1 in their first season in the league, but then had their franchise revoked because they had used underclassmen for a game late in the season. That was not an unheard of practice at the time, but it was against the rules.

At this point the Clairs bowed out of the picture.

Lambeau himself was granted a new franchise by the league in July and was now running the team. He enlisted the help of others – especially of Green Bay Press Gazette sportswriter George Calhoun had served as team manager and publicity agent for the team in 1919 to raise money.

He did not have his friend Don Murphy sell his car to loan Curly the franchise stake in return for a spot on the team. By the middle of the 1922 season, though, the undercapitalized Packers were in financial turmoil again. Calhoun brought in Press Gazette publisher Andrew Turnbull who ultimately used a stock sale to raise money and got the team finally on firm financial footing by converting them into a non-profit publicly-owned corporation.

Lambeau was in charge of the team on the field.

Unknown-2Eventually, Turnbull, Lambeau and three other community leaders (businessmen Leland H. Joannes, Dr. W. Weber Kelly, and attorney Gerald Clifford) became known as “The Hungry Five” and they managed the fortunes of the team for several years.

Lambeau was the front man. Without him there would have been no Packers, but without the others the team would not have been financially viable enough to continue.

On the field, Curly was a player-coach. As a player, he threw 24 touchdown passes and scored 110 points, both very respectable totals for the 1920s.

Three times he was a second team All League selection. As a coach, he was an early proponent of the forward pass as the great equalizer against bigger and stronger opponents.


 

His teams played a fast and exciting brand of football, emphasizing speed and trickery, and they featured colorful stars like Johnny Blood, Red Dunn and Clarke Hinkle.

He was one of the first coaches to hold daily practices and an early advocate of the use of game films for preparation and planning. The Packers would be the first team to barnstorm across Hawaii and the first to travel by airplane to a league game.

Above it all, his teams won.

He slowly built a championship team in the 1920s. In 1929 he acquired future Hall of Famers Johnny Blood, Cal Hubbard and Mike Michalske as the final pieces, and then won three titles in a row. Only Lombardi’s Packers have been able to duplicate that feat throughout league history.

When Curly signed Don Hutson in 1935, that led to winning two more titles in the 1930s and one last championship in 1944 during the war. Only the Bears George Halas can match Lambeau’s six NFL titles, and that is fitting. The Packers-Bears rivalry was used on the personal rivalry of two great competitors, Lambeau and Halas. Their teams would meet on the Hutson-Lambeaufootball field more than 40 times over three decades, but the two reportedly never once shook hands after any contest. Despite that gridiron enmity, the two did respect one another and each would come to the aid of the rival’s team during times of financial strife.

That competitive fire did not make Curly popular with his players. He was sometimes known as the Belligerent Belgian for his frequent screaming and yelling. One time when he was still playing, Curly was upset with the team’s passing attack and inserted himself in the lineup to show the players how to do it. On Cal Hubbard‘s instigation, the Packers’ line stood aside and let the defenders rush in freely and crush Curly.

Cal once wondered aloud how they would find six men to serve as pallbearers when Lambeau were to die. Longtime photographer Vernon Biever felt that Lambeau yelled more than Lombardi, and his fines could be extravagant. He once fined the entire team half their weekly paychecks after a subpar performance.

Once the Packers started to fade on the field, Lambeau’s self-promoting ways caught up with him. He was a bit of a dandy and was said to spend quite a bit of time in front of the mirror to make sure his hair was just right before going out on the town.

Curly had taken annual scouting trips to California in the off-season since the 1930s. He was especially attracted to the young starlets and spent an increasing amount of time in California. As the team deteriorated, Curly was said with recrimination to have “gone Hollywood.”

He abused his expense account. He fired longtime loyalists team doctor W. Weber Kelly and team publicist George Calhoun.

Off the field, Green Bay could not compete financially with the rival All America Football Conference. On the field, Curly’s offensive and defensive schemes were outdated – the Packers were the next to the last team in the league to move to the T formation.

Without a winning team, his domineering, spendthrift ways became intolerable, and he was pushed out. He would resurface almost immediately as the coach of the Chicago Cardinals, but that would last only two losing seasons. That term was followed by two years coaching Washington where he managed a winning record in the second year.

However, his two biggest stars (Eddie Lebaron and Gene Brito) left to play in Canada rather than listen to Curly’s bellicose blather. When Curly got into a shoving match with owner George Marshall over discipline issues, he was fired during training camp in 1954.

When the Packers job opened up again in 1959, Lambeau campaigned for it, but found the team had no interest in a return to the past.

For many years, Curly Lambeau was the Packers, but much to his surprise the team went on without him and eventually rose again. Lambeau may be largely forgotten today, but he was a giant in the early days of pro football. With all his success, Vince Lombardi was never comfortable in Curly’s shadow.

dt031111_1_1024Vince became extremely upset when shown the cover of the 1965 team yearbook that featured a picture of the recently-deceased Lambeau and virulently opposed to renaming City Stadium Lambeau Field.

But that was the right move to make.

Curly was not the sole founder or the first coach, but he led his hometown Packers for 29 years, most of them winning ones, and was elected as a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 – one of four Packers in that initial class of 17. As he stated in his brief induction speech that day, “I am deeply grateful and very happy to be honored here today. Forty-one years ago I came to Canton to get a franchise for Green Bay, Wisconsin. The franchise was issued by Joe Carr at that time, and it cost $50. And the last time I looked, the Packers were still in the league. Thank you.”

Curly Lambeau was a flawed man – vain, glorious, hot tempered, profligate, narrow-minded, and a three-time divorcee – but his team, his life’s work, is still flourishing in the league 50 years after those comments. Curly’s hometown is still the smallest market with the biggest heart.

 

Curly Lambeau’s career statistics

 

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