When West Allis Crowned the World Champs: The 1939 NFL Championship Game at State Fair Park
Most of Milwaukee will be glued to the nearest television screen this Sunday when the Packers take on the Falcons for the right to advance to Super Bowl LI. But the Cream City area has actually played host to postseason Packers football on two different occasions. In the run-up to this weekend’s matchup with the Falcons, What Made Milwaukee Famous is taking a look back at these games.
In 1939, the championship game of the National Football League was a much different affair than it is today. It had only been since 1933 that the NFL used a playoff game to determine a champion. Previously, the crown was merely awarded to the team with the best record at season’s end. But now, the league was split into East and West divisions, with the top teams in each advancing to a mid-December title game. The Green Bay Packers, three-time champions of the league pre-playoff, had won the championship game in 1936 and narrowly lost it in 1938. And as they won three straight games in November 1939, led by all-world end Don Hutson, they needed only a win over the Lions in the season’s final week to clinch the West and a championship birth.
Home-field advantage was not yet something teams placed a great deal of importance upon. A playing site was most significant when it came to a team’s bottom line. More seats in a venue meant more tickets and a greater share of the gate for the clubs involved. Thus, when it came time to determine a potential site for the 1939 title game, the clubs in contention were focused more on seating capacity than familiarity. As the Pack’s final game against Detroit neared, the Giants and Redskins were battling for the Eastern Division crown. Packers coach Curly Lambeau indicated that he was open to granting Washington the rights to host the game, but was dead-set against giving the match to the Giants. Even though the New Yorkers, who had beaten the Pack in the ’38 title game, played at the massive Polo Grounds, Lambeau held a grudge over their refusal to travel to Green Bay over the past several seasons. The Packers’ boss was determined to force them to finally to come west.
In the run-up to the season’s final week, the heads of each club still in contention met in Pittsburgh to hash out the possible sites for the championship. Lambeau was expected to lobby for Green Bay to host the game. But, in order to alleviate concerns over City Stadium’s low seating capacity, he instead put forth State Fair Park in West Allis, where the team had been playing a home game per year since 1934. The other team heads bought into the plan and it was officially announced that if the Packers made the title game, it would be held at the fairgrounds. The move was obviously controversial. Green Bay fans felt they had been stabbed in the back and lost their rightly-earned chance to host a major national sporting event. Milwaukee fans were overjoyed and began to promote the game as their own. Fans in West Allis were also thrilled, but found the national press ignoring the technicality that the game would be held in their city and not Milwaukee. Meanwhile, the Wauwatosa town council put forth a statement declaring that the game was being held in not West Allis or Milwaukee but actually in ’Tosa, despite maps claiming otherwise. While the localities beefed over territory, the Packers upended the Lions 12-7 and clinched the state’s first professional sports championship game.
The day after the win over Detroit, Milwaukee football fans lined up outside the Milwaukee Journal building on State Street, where a makeshift box office had been installed. In 24 hours, fans in the city and in Green Bay snapped up 30,000 tickets as the team scrambled to find a way to cram more seats into the rickety grandstands surrounding the fairground gridiron. Giants owner Tim Mara had been vocal in his displeasure with the West Allis site the week before, moaning that the high admission prices set by the Packers ($1.10 to $4.40 per seat) would stifle sales. He groused that the team would be lucky to sell $40,000 worth of tickets. By mid-week, the game had already grossed twice that amount.
In the days before the game, people began to pour into Milwaukee. Downtown nightclubs and restaurants were packed and hotel rooms became scarce. The Giants had arrived in the city several days early, staying at the Ambassador Hotel on West Wisconsin Avenue. Owner Mara now complained that the tickets had gone so fast, he was not able to find any to leave for his friends from New York. When the Giants were denied a request to practice at State Fair Park, they were forced to settle for Borchert Field. Team captain Mel Hein bristled at these perceived slights, calling the Packers “inhospitable mugs.” Lambeau kept his squad in Green Bay until the day before the game, preferring them to spend their evenings away from the bustle and nightlife of Milwaukee. A number of field agents of the Internal Revenue Service were also circulating throughout the city. Both to be on the lookout for fake tickets to the game and to politely remind ticket scalpers (who were selling passes at two to three times face value) that 10% of their ticket-selling profits were due as tax to the federal government.
On game day, over 32,000 fans crammed into State Fair Park (with another 1,500 turned away because of fake tickets, despite the efforts of the Feds), filling the grandstands, aisles, and the track surrounding the field. The tiny press box, perched on the grandstand roof, was also packed as newsmen from across the country and ten radio broadcasters (including the legendary Red Barber) called the game for Midwestern and East Coast stations. Spread out across the roof were a dozen movie cameras to capture the action for the newsreels. It was, without a doubt, the highest-profile sporting event the city had yet seen – and would remain so until the Braves battled the Yankees in the 1957 World Series.
Highlights of the game, December 10, 1939.
The Packers struck first with an Arnie Herber touchdown pass in the first quarter, giving the team a 7-0 lead that lasted through the half. At halftime, Wisconsin Governor Julius Heil dedicated the stadium as the “Diary Bowl,” saying “Los Angeles has the Rose Bowl. Dallas has the Cotton Bowl. New Orleans has the Sugar Bowl. It is therefore fitting that here in Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, we also have an athletic field that shall be typical of this great dairy state.” The name, however, never became official, even after Heil conducted the halftime marching band with a bottle of milk. In the second half, the Packers ran away with the game, posting a TD and a field goal in each quarter to complete a 27-0 thrashing of the New Yorkers. At the final gun, the fans rushed the field to congratulate the now-five-time champion Packers. Within an hour, all but those too drunk to stand up had filed out of the fairgrounds to corner bars and taprooms all across the city. West Wisconsin Avenue was alive with people celebrating the title and at the Hotel Schroeder – where the Packers occupied a block of rooms on the 15th floor – so many people tried to go up and visit their heroes that the hotel manager ordered the elevators to be disabled.
The Packers continued to play home games at State Fair Park until 1951. The ’39 title game was the last alternate site championship game until Super Bowl I was held in Los Angeles in 1966. It would not be until the Packers beat the Giants for the NFL title in 1961 – the Pack’s 41st season – that a playoff game was held in Green Bay.
Check back later this week for the story of the other Packers postseason tilt held in Milwaukee.