Milwaukee's NFL history a blip in Packers' rise
JUL 12, 2012 1:43p ET
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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