Did You Know Milwaukee Had a Pro Football Team 100 Years Ago?

In the ragtag, leather-helmet early days of the NFL, Milwaukee had a pro club that aspired to rival the Packers. It didn’t quite work out.

OCT. 22, 1992

THE DEBUT SEASON of the National Football League, previously known as the American Professional Football Association, was three weeks old. The winless Green Bay Blues – a reformed version of the Packers, who had been booted from the loop after the ’21 season for illegally using college players – faced off against the Milwaukee Badgers in front of 6,000 rooters at Athletic Park on Milwaukee’s North Side. The Badgers, coming off a clobbering of the Racine Legion for their first-ever victory, were drawn into a four-quarter shoving match with the Blues, neither squad able to find an advantage and the Badgers badly missing injured back Frank “Fritz” Pollard. A muffed Green Bay field goal attempt was the only scoring threat, and the match ended in a 0-0 tie. The Badgers missed a chance to strike a blow against the more established Green Bay team, with whom the Milwaukee owners hoped to form an attention-grabbing rivalry. That, too, would not come to pass; the two teams would meet nine more times over the next four seasons, and the Packers would win all of them.


 

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Professional football was still something of a novelty in 1922. The sport had been prominent at the college level since the turn of the century and by the Roaring ’20s had gained a dedicated local following for company, club and high school squads. But the pro game was slower to find its footing and still mostly limited to mid-sized industrial cities and towns in the East and Midwest. When Ambrose McGurk and Joseph Plunkett, two Chicago sporting promoters, were granted a franchise for the 1922 season, Milwaukee became the third-largest city in the NFL.

The league saw great promise in Milwaukee. With a ready-made home in Otto Borchert’s Athletic Park (also home to the baseball Brewers of the American Association) and a built-in football fanbase from the success of the city’s active amateur leagues – whose games drew an estimated 150,000-200,000 spectators each year – it was hoped that McGurk and Plunkett’s pros could earn a following in the Cream City. College football, played with pride and pageantry on Saturday afternoons, drew most of its revenues from the upper classes – alumni and others who had the pleasure of not working on Saturdays. The working classes flocked to the neighborhood and company clashes held on Sundays. It was on Sundays that the pro game hoped to make its mark

Fritz Pollard (left) and Paul Robeson; Photo courtesy of Public Domain
Frank “Fritz” Pollard; Photo courtesy of Public Domain
Duke Slater; Photo courtesy of Public Domain

Dubbed the Badgers, Milwaukee’s pros were a surprisingly diverse team. Their star in 1922 was the halfback Pollard, an African American who’d excelled at Brown University. Their other key offensive threat was end Paul Robeson, who’d turned to the pro game to earn extra money while attending law school and would eventually gain worldwide fame as an actor and singer during the Harlem Renaissance and as a prominent civil rights activist. A third African American player, bruising lineman Frederick “Duke” Slater, also appeared in a pair of games with the Badgers in 1922. Both Pollard and Slater would eventually be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

“The Badgers players and the Milwaukee fans were wonderful to me.”

-FRITZ POLLARD


Even while starring on the field, the Badgers’ Black players were subject to taunts and threats on the road and condescension in the local press. (“They may be dark, but they are bright when engaged in grid combat,” went one typical write-up.) But Pollard recalled his stint in Milwaukee as a moment of peace in a turbulent time. “The Badgers players and the Milwaukee fans were wonderful to me,” he said long after his retirement, “In other cities, I was taunted, ridiculed and subject to racial abuse.” 

director of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project. “If that was it, why aren’t there similar problems in other states?”


DEC. 9, 1923

OND DAY AFTER beating the Lapham Athletic Club team 10-0 in an exhibition game (the match against the local amateur powerhouse was dubbed the “city championship”), the Badgers traveled south for their season-ending match with the Chicago Cardinals. Like the Packers, the Cardinals had been a powerful independent squad before joining the NFL. The Cardinals had the look of champions for most of the 1923 season until a pair of November losses bumped them from contention. The Badgers had won six games against two losses (both to Green Bay) and three ties. Led by coach and offensive star Jimmy Conzelman, who threw one and caught another of Milwaukee’s two 50-plus-yard touchdown passes, the Badgers held on for a 14-12 victory. The win tied them with the Packers for third place in the final standings and claimed them a piece of the unofficial professional state title. Only the twin losses to the Packers kept them from being legitimate NFL Championship contenders.

Jimmy Conzelman and Bo McMillin; Photo courtesy of Public Domain

Both the game and business of football in the time of the Milwaukee Badgers would be hard to recognize for the modern fan. The passing game was still in its infancy. The rules required a passer to be at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage, and an illegal pass resulted in a turnover, as did incomplete passes in the end zone. Yardage came hard, and punting was a key part of controlling field position. Hash marks did not yet exist, meaning carrying the ball out of bounds set up the next play with the center snug against the sideline. 

Nor was there a schedule set by the league. Teams simply made arrangements on their own, so clubs could play as many games as they could fit between the start and end dates of the season, though they needed to play at least seven different league opponents to qualify for the NFL title. That title was officially awarded months after the season’s end, in a vote by team owners. The champion was typically the team with the league’s best record. 

After the Badgers’ 10-7 loss against the Packers in Milwaukee on Nov. 18, with the team too far back in the standings for a real title run, the Badgers were unable to coax any rival teams to Milwaukee for a share of whatever mediocre gate receipts the team would be able to earn. Despite having a breakout season, the Cream City’s football faithful paid them little mind, flocking instead to amateur city league clashes while the local papers paid far more attention to the cross-state University of Wisconsin Badgers. 

The NFL then was a working-class outfit all-around – fans, players, even owners. But even in such a slapdash enterprise, the Badgers’ lack of revenues was apparent. Owner McGurk was “a nice enough guy,” said Johnny McNally, who played under the name “Johnny Blood” for the Badgers in 1925 and would later star for the Packers. “But he ran a shoestring budget.” The league capped per-game pay for a team at $1,200, but the Badgers rarely needed such limitations. “Guys were working other jobs,” McNally recalled. “We had three players who would come in from Chicago on the train, get the signals at noon and play at 2:00.” On at least one occasion, McGurk himself dressed for a game just to make it seem as though the team had more depth. After the end of the 1923 season, McGurk returned to Chicago to work as a general laborer.

A postcard featuring Athletic Park (later Borchert Field), the home of the Milwaukee Badgers; Photo courtesy of Public Domain

NOV. 9, 1924

AFTER A SOLID WIN in Chicago against the Cardinals, the Badgers – led in 1924 by Milwaukee native and former Marquette star Joseph “Red” Dunn – came home to Milwaukee to face the Minneapolis Marines. In four seasons as an affiliated pro team, the Marines had won just four games. They were 0-4 so far in ’24 and would play just once more after the game in Milwaukee before folding. Behind the fine running of Conzelman and Dunn, the Badgers racked up a franchise-record four touchdowns to beat Minneapolis 28-7. The win bumped their record on the season to 4-3, respectable but just outside of title contention. It would be the last time the Badgers could ever boast of a winning record.

A month into the 1924 season, Milwaukee Journal sportswriter Manning Vaughan reported that McGurk and his partners were $3,000 in debt and “getting tired of digging.” The Badgers had talent and could hold their own against better-funded clubs (so long as they didn’t come from Green Bay) but nothing they had yet done seemed to arouse interest among local gridiron fans.

“Milwaukee was the city they wanted. It was a good city. Players gravitated to it. The league pushed it hard and heavy. They wanted it to succeed.”

-JOE HORRIGAN, FOOTBALL HISTORIAN


Following the win over Minneapolis, the Badgers would play just one of their final six games at home, a 17-10 loss to Green Bay. The Packers, led by tailback and coach Curly Lambeau, drew a crowd of 4,000 to Athletic Park – the highest home attendance of the season for the Badgers – and the bulk of the crowd was likely backing the “Bays.”

The Packers would move into a new home park in 1925, 6,000-seat City Stadium. Between 1929 and 1931, they’d win three straight league titles and by 1934 they were the last of the mid-sized city teams left in the league. “That was a fluke,” football historian Joe Horrigan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1999 of the Packers’ rise to prominence. “It really was. No one expected it. Milwaukee was the city they wanted. It was a good city. Players gravitated to it. The league pushed it hard and heavy. They wanted it to succeed. They got scheduled well. It was just not meant to be.”

A program for the 1924 game between the Milwaukee Badgers and the Green Bay Packers; Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions, HA.com

DEC. 10, 1925

BY THE TIME a ragged collection of a dozen or so men and boys calling themselves the Milwaukee Badgers trotted onto the turf at Chicago’s Normal Park to face the 9-2-1 Cardinals, hardly anyone in Milwaukee was still paying attention. The Badgers had played just one home game that season (a loss to the Packers, naturally) and been outscored 132-7 over the course of five brutal losses. After opening at 0-2, the team sat idle for three weeks while trying to secure a third game. After a 40-7 pounding at the hands of the Rock Island Independents, a game that was hardly mentioned in the Milwaukee papers, the players – convinced the season was over – made their way back to their hometowns or found other work. So it was indeed curious when McGurk agreed to face the mighty Cardinals on such short notice. Using a team of players culled from the streets of Chicago, McGurk’s squad was crushed, 59-0 with Red Dunn, sold off by the Badgers earlier in the year, tossing four TD passes. The game, for which the Cardinals didn’t even bother to charge admission, raised immediate suspicions.

Packers Hall of Famer Joseph “Red” Dunn spent one season with the Milwaukee Badgers; Photo courtesy of Public Domain

Just four days before the Cardinals dismantled the supposed Badgers in front of a sparse crowd of freeloaders at rustic little Normal Park, the Cardinals had hosted the Pottsville Maroons at Comiskey Park, the 28,000-seat home of baseball’s White Sox. The Cards sat atop the NFL standings at 9-1-1 with the Maroons in second place at 9-2. The game was billed as an “affair to settle without question the champion of the league.” The Maroons upset the Cardinals 21-7 and claimed, so it seemed, the league crown.

But there were two weeks remaining for teams to schedule league games. Two more wins would give Chicago the edge on Pottsville and could land the Cardinals the prize they truly sought – a scheduled matchup with the Chicago Bears, whose rookie sensation back Red Grange was easily the game’s biggest drawing card. The Bears were in the midst of a grueling series of road games to earn every dollar possible from Grange’s fame, and the Cards felt that – with a top-of-the-heap record – they could land a showcase season-ender with their cross-town rivals. 

And so it was that McGurk, who was likely himself trying to curry favor with the Cardinals for a potential game in Milwaukee in 1926, traveled south with a dozen wool-knit uniforms and leather helmets but no team. The league began investigating the circumstances of the game almost immediately and found that four of the players used by McGurk that afternoon were high school students, violating a league rule against using players who still had college eligibility. Both teams were fined by the league, and the Chicago player who’d recruited the boys was suspended from the league for life. McGurk was given 90 days to sell his club and banned from owning any other NFL team. 

A ticket for the 1924 game between the Milwaukee Badgers and the Green Bay Packers; Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Two days later, the Cardinals – who had surprisingly not been disqualified from title contention – won another hastily-arranged game to overtake Pottsville in the standings. Pottsville still had one game left to play but ran into its own troubles with the league when it played a mid-December exhibition game in Philadelphia – the territory of the Frankford Yellowjackets – without league permission. The NFL suspended Pottsville for the remainder of the season, handing the Cardinals a league championship that its ownership was initially too embarrassed to accept. The franchise – yes, the one now based in Arizona – eventually would claim the title as legitimate, but Pottsville loyalists continued to press the NFL to change its ruling on the matter into the 1960s, long after the Maroons folded.

When Ambrose McGurk finally did sell his team, he got just enough to cover the $500 fine the league had levied for his use of illegal players. Taken over by Frank Mulkern, one of Milwaukee’s top boxing promoters, the Badgers managed to survive the entire 1926 season, even staging six home games (including one against the Cardinals). But the Badgers stumbled to a 2-7 record and once again found themselves without willing opponents or interested fans. The team’s ownership attemped to return to the league for the 1927 season, but at the league meetings that off-season Mulkern and company could not raise the cash for the annual membership fee. 

“They played football because they loved it as much as they hated the Bears and Cardinals and Packers,” football historian Michael Benter wrote in The Badgers, his wonderful 2013 book on the team. “All for maybe a hundred bucks a game, a few beers and a ham sandwich or two after. … Some of the fortunate noticed.” 


Matthew J. Prigge wrote “The Year of the Flapper” in the January issue.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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