Milwaukee's NFL history a blip in Packers' rise
JUL 12, 2012 1:43p ET
MILWAUKEE — The ghosts of Milwaukee football linger around this makeshift baseball diamond in Milwaukee's Clinton Rose Park. But you'd never know it unless you were looking.
It's a shabby field, five blocks from the expressway, and its actual location has very little to do with football or the sport's beginnings in the city of Milwaukee. But shortly beyond the outfield, where overgrown grass brushes up against the metal fence in center field, stands a sign — the only obvious remnant of a National Football League team all but erased from the consciousness of Wisconsin's largest city.
The sign is a commemoration of Borchert Field (known as Athletic Park until 1927), a stadium that used to sit pristinely, just a few blocks away, between W. Chambers St. and W. Burleigh St., N. 7th St. and N. 8th St. — home to what once was Milwaukee's one and only entrant in the NFL.
But just one line on the sign — a short, rather insignificant reference — publically indicates that the Milwaukee Badgers ever existed.
"The NFL's Milwaukee Badgers and Green Bay Packers also played football at Borchert Field," it reads.
The park surrounding the sign is mostly empty on this day, except for a handful of neighborhood kids who walk along the outfield fence. One stops to read the commemoration and says he's never heard of the Milwaukee Badgers. He's wearing a Packers T-shirt.
The kids gather in right field and break into two teams, tossing around a football. They have no idea that legends of the early 1920s NFL — players like Red Grange, Lavvie Dilweg, Jimmy Conzelman, and Fritz Pollard — starred just blocks away from their pickup game.
It's been almost 90 years since the Badgers last played at Borchert Field, their disappearance seemingly dooming any hopes of professional football being a staple in Milwaukee. Green Bay, even after almost a century, continues to flourish as a rare remaining vestige of the early NFL even though it's roughly 15 percent of the size of Milwaukee.
Meanwhile, the mere memory of the Milwaukee Badgers — beyond a meager mention on a sign — is a ticking clock, it seems.
"The NFL really isn't focusing much on their history," says Ken Crippen, executive director of the Pro Football Researchers Assocaition. "It's rare that you see them acknowledge anything before Super Bowl I. A lot of people don't even know it was played in the 1920s. It doesn't surprise me that it's disappeared. I wish people out there would realize that there is a storied history to a lot of these teams."
But as time slowly passes, and the football landscape continues to change, are the Badgers and the history of professional football in Milwaukee destined to be forgotten?
Bright sunlight pours out of bay windows in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee alumni house as Michael Benter carefully pushes six years of work in a binded manuscript across a long oak table in front of him.
Benter had always had an acute interest in the beginnings of pro football. Since he was young, he has collected newspapers that included major events in Green Bay Packers history — a copy of the paper from the day Green Bay won Super Bowl I still hangs in his house today. He's written books on other things besides football, but for six years of his life the beginnings of the sport were at the forefront of his mind.
He doesn't give much other reason for having chosen the Milwaukee Badgers — and their brief five-year stint in the NFL — as the subject of his most recent book, other than the fact no one had written about them before. In fact, he said, not much record of the Badgers exists outside of hard-to-find newspaper clippings and peculiar snippets of information available only to those specifically looking for them. So for six years, Benter went digging.
He searched through old collegiate yearbooks, public records, newspaper archives, Chicago cemeteries and phone books looking for clues. He described it as a "10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle." Soon, he had consumed himself with the history of a team that its city had largely forgotten.
For six years, he felt like he could transport himself to that time through his research. There, in his mind, were the paint-chipped walls of Borchert Field and the crowds of a few thousand lining the bleachers of the rectangular field. But it was a piecemeal vision, one that took years for him to formulate.
Benter treasures the minute details and eccentricities; you can hear it in his voice as he shares stories about the team. As he speaks, he puts faces to the names, the records and the numbers. He speaks organically of the football scene in Milwaukee in the 1920s, as the town fell in and out of love with the sport. The city questioned pro football then, wondering if it would last.
One hundred miles up I-43 — the highway that paved over the former grounds of Borchert Field — a professional football team that may not have survived if Milwaukee's Badgers had remained still flourishes today. The Green Bay Packers are a staple of the NFL, while the Badgers exist only on the fringes of folklore, with Benter as one of their few remaining storytellers.
Eighteen working class men are lined up in three rows at the beginning of football season in 1924, most of them wearing leather helmets and dark sweaters. They pose for a team picture in front of a scoreboard at Milwaukee's Borchert Field, all of them sternly looking at the camera.
For the Milwaukee Badgers in this picture, things seemed to be looking up. They finished the 1923 season in contention for the NFL championship with a 7-2-3 record, led by quarterback, head coach and future Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman. Conzelman had been the key cog for a fledgling team that had seemingly started to put its roots down in the new NFL.
Just two years earlier, Ambrose McGurk — a young former player for the Chicago Cardinals — had gone in with his friend and former teammate Joseph Plunkett to put together a football team north of Chicago. They were by no means rich men — Plunkett came to the NFL meetings in Chicago with his $100 team entrance fee in his shoe, too nervous to carry that much money around — but they sought to make Milwaukee a natural rival to the Bears and Cardinals in their former town.
McGurk and Plunkett struggled at first to garner interest in the Badgers. But after a banner 1923 season, the team seemed to be on the right track. In a city with a strong football structure — from youth leagues through the college ranks — the Badgers looked as though they might find a place.
The team also had support of NFL commissioner Joe Carr, who had hoped to expand the league to bigger markets. But after one season of relative success, Milwaukee began to stumble. The media displayed a dislike toward McGurk, and crowds started to shrink. College football still was king, and pro teams without a leading attraction, like the Badgers, were often left hanging by a thread. Then, in 1926, the NFL cut the lifeline.
With the 1926 NFL championship on the line for the Chicago Cardinals, they suspiciously scheduled an extra game — against the Badgers — to strengthen their resume for the title. But with Milwaukee's team mostly disbanded for the season and the owners short of money, the Badgers were talked into using a ragtag group of fill-ins that included four local high school players recruited by the Cardinals. Milwaukee lost, 59-0, igniting the ever-lasting controversy of who rightfully deserved the 1926 NFL title while also dooming the Milwaukee franchise. Soon Carr uncovered the deception, fined McGurk $500 for using amateurs, ordered him to sell the Badgers and banned him from ever returning to the league.
"At that point, they were so far dead, they had no choice but to pack up and say that was it for Milwaukee," Crippen says. "And it never truly came back."
It wasn't unusual for an NFL team in that fledgling period of the league to fold, but Milwaukee was a large market that loved football. It had seemed like a good investment.
After being barred from the league, McGurk more or less disappeared. Records, according to Benter, indicate he went back to Chicago to become a stock yardsman, making no more than $100 per week. He was never heard from again in NFL circles. Some Badgers players, Benter found, seemed to follow suit.
"Some guys were forgotten, fell off the map," Benter says. "There's three players out of the five years of rosters that I just couldn't find anything on anywhere."
Plenty tried to rejuvenate football in Milwaukee over the years, but all were unsuccessful. Green Bay began to thrive, and the market was taken over by the Packers, whom the Badgers never managed to beat in all 10 of their tries. Some even believe Milwaukee's demise gave the Packers just what they needed to stay afloat. To this day, the Packers – who played some home games in Milwaukee from the early 1930s until 1994 -- recognize former Milwaukee ticket holders when they hand out season tickets. There's ample reason to believe the teams could never have coexisted.
"Even without the Badgers around, talk of moving the Packers to Milwaukee always seemed to surface during trying times," says Eric Goska, a columnist for the Green Bay Press Gazette. "Had the Badgers been in the picture, I think the push to consolidate the two would have carried the day, and the resulting entity would have continued to operate as the Badgers in the larger market. Right or wrong, the thinking probably would have been that Wisconsin wasn't big enough to support more than one pro football team."
But as the Badgers faded, pro football history in Wisconsin was to be written by the Packers, who won the first of their league-high 13 championships in 1929.
"(Milwaukee) made some attempts (to return)," Benter says. "They still had the Eagles, an independent pro team, they called it. Then, the Nighthawks. Then, the Milwaukee Chiefs, but it never stuck. The Packers came and they did well. The Packers just came out ahead."
With its start before the turn of the century, a few decades before professional football, pro baseball has already gone through a process of clinging to its distant past. Historians have tried to keep track of anyone and any team associated with the majors, but there's no doubt some memories and some players records have fallen through the cracks.
The NFL, Crippen says, has focused very little on the beginnings of the league, before the Super Bowl and television began to spike its popularity. Players and teams from before that time, he explains, will continue to be forgotten. He lists off at least a half-dozen NFL players who probably deserve to be in the Hall of Fame but aren't because of the lack of common knowledge from that era.
"As time goes on, more and more of those older teams and older players are just going to be forgotten," Crippen says. "No one is really pushing to keep those memories alive."
It's the product of the age we live in, as technology has made for an interesting paradox in remembering the teams and players that have long faded away. The Internet provides the information necessary to at least remember pieces of the Milwaukee Badgers. But the wealth of knowledge available about today's NFL drowns out the trickle of history from nearly a century ago. There's little interest in looking back as the NFL moves forward at a break-neck pace.
"You really don't have people focused on the history," Crippen says. "You take a lot of the newer players, newer people, newer generations, they just don't care. There's fantasy football and what they see on YouTube, and if it's not on any of those media, they're not going to know about it, and they're not going to care."
Crippen will champion the cause of recognizing history, but even he admits that the Milwaukee Badgers — and other teams like them — may be destined to be forgotten. And maybe that's the cruel truth in all of this: The history of one team is sacrificed so that another can be remembered. If any of the three other NFL teams that called Wisconsin home – Kenosha and Racine also gave it a go -- would have survived, would the Green Bay Packers be what they are today?
It's an impossible question to answer, but it intrigues Benter. He agrees that the result of only a few games could have very well changed the course of pro football history in Wisconsin. But now, the only proof exists in his orange, binded manuscript.
Benter's book will be published soon, but even the publishers understand how little in demand stories of the NFL's early history are. They held publishing his book because the subject "isn't temporally hot."
It's the last line of his last chapter that perhaps represents the forgotten time of the early NFL and a professional football team slowly slipping from consciousness.
"They played football because they loved it as much as they hated the Bears and Cardinals and Packers; all for maybe a hundred bucks a game, a few beers and a ham sandwich or two after the game. They played in Milwaukee at weathered, old Athletic Park, 1922-26.
"Some of the fortunate noticed."
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