My favorite pro sports team, the Green Bay Packers, once again is gearing up to sell stock to the public. Nothing new about that. The club has held numerous sales of shares since the 1920s when it was organized as a nonprofit corporation with backing from several local business leaders.
In the early years, sales of shares kept the team alive, often just barely. Recent sales financed major improvements at Lambeau Field, allowing the Pack to pick up considerable extra revenue from home-game crowds and special events. That money has helped the franchise compete with those owned by billionaires in big cities.
Hanging on a wall of my office is one framed share of stock issued in 1997 by Green Bay Packers, Inc. I bought it for $200. It has proved to be a horrible or great investment, depending on how you view such things. The dollar value is zero. The value of the bragging rights is immense.
Much has been written and said about Packers history since the big team representing the little city burst upon the national stage back in the 1960s. Championship years arrived just as color television came into millions of American homes and professional football emerged from the shadows of sports to become somewhat of a national mania.
I’m not an expert on Packers' lore, but I’ve read much of what has been written about club history, attended the first game in Lambeau Field in 1957 (we beat "da Bears" 21-17), and have followed the team’s fortunes more or less closely for nearly 65 years. Here are some of my favorite trivia, some factual, some based on rumor and questionable recollections. A few items correct erroneous statements by current news people, mostly television announcers:
- Television talking heads frequently state the Packers are the “only professional sports franchise owned by the community.” Wikipedia makes the same statement. The statement is incorrect. I am one of 112,158 shareholders, living all over the world, who own the team. Obviously, all the owners do not live in Green Bay. This relatively unimportant error may be caused by confusion between team and home field ownership. The City of Green Bay, not the Packers, owns Lambeau Field, which has become somewhat famous in its own right.
- Accounts of the dire financial straits faced often by the team in early days are not exaggerations. Perhaps the most desperate situation occurred when a section of the wooden grandstand in old City Stadium collapsed during a game. (at its largest, old City Stadium seated 25,000 when all stands were upright). The collapse caused many injuries. The Packers’ insurance company couldn’t handle the volume, went bankrupt, and thus defaulted on many claim payments. A stock issue raised enough money to pay the claims and save the franchise.
- It often has been said that if the corporation was to be liquidated, an unlikely event, all proceeds would go to an American Legion Post in Green Bay, because the post bought a block of preferred stock many years ago that gave it special ownership rights. The legality of that assertion never will be tested, because Packers’ management a few years ago changed the charter to clarify things. If the Packers went out of business, all assets remaining after creditors were paid would go to a charitable foundation. That would be a rather nice deal for charitable causes, because the franchise today is valued at a bit more than $1 billion, and debt is minimal.
- My $200 investment in reality was a donation. The share has no cash value and cannot be sold. It can only be transferred to members of my immediate family. I can attend the annual stockholders’ meeting with about 30,000 other fans, listen to the head coach, general manager, and finance officer field questions, and vote for the board of directors. The board mostly is a figurehead body that includes Wisconsin business leaders and heads of sports organizations, plus a few former Packers players. They select an executive committee. The committee appoints a club president and approves the president’s choice of a general manager who runs the show. Because of the large number of interested shareholders, the annual meeting is held in Lambeau Field.
- When a hands-on billionaire owner such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys jumps up from his front-row perch in a luxury box and yells, “Run a damn screen,” an attempt at a screen pass is likely to occur soon on the field. When I leap from my stool at Rhino’s Sports Bar with a similar demand, the message goes no further. We little Packers owners have no power to influence policy or play. A provision in stock offerings limits the number of shares a single entity can own; assuring the present limits on stockholder power will be permanent.
- Many current histories state or at least imply that E. L. (Curly) Lambeau, Packers co-founder and coach and general manager for 32 years, was a wonderful guy revered by all who knew him, and area residents rushed to name their new stadium for him in 1957. The facts, and the rumor mill when I lived in the Green Bay area, say otherwise.
- Lambeau, without question, was an important figure in the early development of what now is the National Football League. His teams pioneered the passing attack. He led the Packers into post-season exhibition games in the South and on the West Coast, often against the arch-rival Chicago Bears. The teams often traveled together. These contests created interest in pro football and helped pave the way for expansion teams some years later. The rumor mill said a side benefit of the excursions to the coast were close encounters between Lambeau and several Hollywood starlets. Giving credence to that story is the fact that one of Lambeau’s three wives was a former Miss California. A personal history that included a couple of divorces probably was not exactly endearing to many football fans in Green Bay, most of whom were Roman Catholics who at that time considered divorce a serious no-no.
- Rumors abounded that Lambeau was notorious for late or no repayments of debts. Several times when I asked older De Pere residents (I edited the weekly newspaper there) if they knew Curly Lambeau, they smiled and pulled from their wallets scraps of paper that said, “IOU $10” (or $15 or $20). Each was signed, “Earl Lambeau, or simply, "Curly.” None was marked paid.
- The famous founder-coach became somewhat of a traitor in local eyes when he abruptly left Green Bay in 1949 to coach the rival Chicago Cardinals. The rumor mill maintained that whatever was in a depleted Packers treasury left town at about the same time. Whether that is true or not, the Green Bay club was forced to make a major stock sale in 1950 to continue operations.
- What is now called an “historic playing field” was not named for Lambeau at the start. When I attended the 1957 opener I was seated in City Stadium. Some locals called it “new City Stadium” to make the distinction between it and the old arena near Green Bay East High School where the Packers played for years. I heard of no one campaigning to name the new field for Lambeau. That did not happen for eight years, until after Lambeau died in 1965.
- Both Lambeau and the other legendary Packers coach/general manager, Vince Lombardi, were known as stern taskmasters who often emphasized their instructions with profanity. There the resemblance pretty much ended. Lombardi did not earn the nickname “Saint Vincent” entirely because his teams won a lot of games. Unlike Lambeau who enjoyed lavish living in his spare time, Lombardi was known to be a workaholic and a devoted family man in what off-duty time he allowed himself. He attended a Catholic Mass every working day before heading to the office or the practice field, a ritual that considerably enhanced his standing with many Green Bay residents.
- When Lombardi came out of retirement to lead the Washington Redskins, there was none of the animosity among Packers fans that was kindled by Lambeau’s defection to Chicago. The Green Bay fans were only disappointed that “Saint Vincent” chose did not return to the Packers.
- Lombardi often is portrayed as a ruthless bad guy by fans of rival teams, and other critics have contributed to that notion. However, in memoirs published by former players, all speak of a healthy respect for the coach’s work ethic and demands that they follow suit. Few disliked him. Perhaps the most famous quote attributed to him, often by critics, was “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Historians now doubt Lombardi ever said that.
- It is often said that the club shareholders and citizens of Green Bay are hidebound traditionalists who have prevented Packers management from selling naming rights to the stadium to a commercial enterprise, as other pro clubs have done. The truth is that Green Bay area voters approved a name sale in a referendum on the question. Packers’ executives are the traditionalists. They have ignored the will of the voters, preferring to give up millions of dollars of income in favor of maintaining the Lambeau Field name.
- The bitterness of the Packers-Chicago Bears rivalry is real, but historically there has been perhaps more of a love-hate relationship between the organizations' leaders than we are led to believe. Many old Packers fans think that Bears’ long-time owner-coach George Halas actually was an ally who stood firmly against other big-city owners when frequent calls were made to move the Packers franchise to Milwaukee or some other more-lucrative market than the small city (population 50,000 in 1957, about 100,000 now) on the bay (others say Halas backed a move to Milwaukee, at least once).
- My rumor mill said that when Halas retired, Packers fans threw a bigger party for him in Green Bay than his friends did in Chicago. It is a fact that Halas served as a pall bearer at Lambeau’s funeral. Some Packers fans were said to be offended, which seems silly indeed.
- Apparently, it is true that Lambeau and Halas refused to engage in the traditional post-game handshake during all or most of the 30 years when they were opposing coaches. One observer reports seeing “Papa Bear” shake his fist at Lambeau after a particularly hard-fought contest. Nevertheless, when the Bears faced serious financial difficulties in 1933, Lambeau loaned Halas half the Packers’ share of gate receipts ($1,500) from a game in Chicago. The act is said to have been a big factor in keeping Halas and the Bears solvent during that Depression time.
- Was some of the public inter-coach dislike displayed as part of a shrewd show by two skilled promoters seeking to increase interest in their struggling sport? I think so. If that is true, Halas and Lambeau were successful. Packers-Bears games continue to draw big crowds and lots of attention from national television viewers.
- The cost of the coming Packers’ stock sale is rumored to be $250 per share. The goal is to raise millions to pay for 7,000 additional seats at Lambeau Field, plus a new scoreboard and complete new electronic communication system. Buyers will be making a donation just as I did in 1997. Will the “worthless” shares sell? No doubt they will. Some current stockholders already have said they’ll buy shares as gifts to their grandchildren. They can’t very well buy their descendents a couple of season tickets, because the waiting list for tickets now stands at 81,000. Although Packers fans suffered through 27 years of mediocre play between the Lambeau and Lombardi eras, every game since the present stadium was built has been a sellout.
- Some fans have been waiting for years to become “owners” for the first time. Why? That’s the “bragging rights” part of it, I guess. There is a certain family feeling about the whole thing. The letter signed by the club president that arrived with my share of stock didn’t end with a standard line such as, “Thanks for your contribution.” It said, Thank you for joining the Green Bay Packers.”
- Of course, any pro football fan with even a touch of rationality realizes the games are between one group of hired athletes and another. Nevertheless, Packers fans are notorious for saying, “We scored twice in the second quarter,” or, ”We blew the coverage on that play.” There seems to be a personal feeling that “we” always are part of the team of little guys going up against the big city slickers, even though that attitude is unrealistic.
- Packers fans seem to have a little special streak of dedication that sometimes borders on craziness. After I had shown off my share of stock as much as possible, I told my son I was going to transfer the certificate to him so he could take a turn at bragging about being a pro team owner. He said, “Don’t bother, Dad. I bought one for myself.”
- Myths and facts pertaining to the career of Packers’ old-time pass catcher Don Hutson deserve mention in any discussion of Green Bay history, but this treatise is getting too lengthy for that. Television reporters who would know better if they did their homework, and show business personalities who can’t be expected to have a clue, routinely state that San Francisco 49ers’ receiver Jerry Rice was the greatest pass receiver of all time. As sometimes is said in locker-room comparisons of talented players, “Rice was a great receiver, but he couldn’t carry Hutson’s jock.”
- Don Hutson not only was the greatest receiver ever to play the game, but he probably was the greatest player in pro football history. I’ll try to prove that point with a post later in this season when the stars are right.