Thanksgiving Game That Helped Save Packers

The Packers have played 35 times on Thanksgiving over the years but the one game they played on the holiday not in the record books might have been the most important one of them all. Our Matt Tevsh takes a look a back at Nov. 24, 1949, and the days leading up to it. (Getty Images)

The Green Bay Packers were a pro football franchise in turmoil – both on and off the field.

Gone but not forgotten were the memories of championships past. Replacing some of those warm feelings was the bitter taste of losing, which, for the first time in 30 years, had become the expectation.

In 1949, the Packers had won just two of their first nine games to mark the worst start in franchise history. Head coach Curly Lambeau had lost some of the magic to motivate and manage his team, and his relationship with the executive committee of the publicly owned Packers had turned cold.

There was one other pressing issue, as well. The Packers were $90,000 in debt and needed money fast.

Could they be saved? Again?

In the early years, the Packers faced perilous financial times. Tales tell of “passing the hat” around Hagemeister Park, the Packers’ home field from 1919 through 1922, to collect money for the team. There was also a big lawsuit filed against the team from a spectator who injured his back when the City Stadium bleachers collapsed during a 1931 game. And on top of it all, the nation was being gripped by the Great Depression as fledgling pro football tried to compete with the more popular college football game.

Through this and much more, the Packers found ways to survive off the field (with the help of two stock sales) while thriving on it. They won six world championships during their first 26 years of existence, building a powerhouse passing team under Lambeau. They won an unprecedented three straight championships from 1929 through 1931 and posted just one losing season until 1948, when the bottom finally dropped out. That season, the Packers finished just 3-9.

By the next season, the Packers were nearly in free fall. It got so bad that there were rumors the team was going to lose its franchise. While fan loyalty remained strong in Green Bay for games at City Stadium – in three home games they had drawn at or near the estimated capacity of 25,000 – attendance at three games at State Fair Park in Milwaukee, the alternate home site, had fallen off precipitously. A Nov. 20 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers drew just 5,483 where in previous years it was not uncommon to draw more than 20,000 or even 30,000 at State Fair Park.

The Packers tried to cut expenses elsewhere – Lambeau himself even took a pay cut – but it was clear they needed to do more. Thus late in the season, the team’s executive committee and area businessmen came together to form a campaign to raise $50,000 (nearly $500,000 in today’s dollars) to help reduce the debt and allow the Packers to finish out the season.

The difficult part was that they only had 11 days to do it.

And so it began. One by one, the people responded and donations came in. Area businesses lent their support. So, too, did Green Bay Mayor Dominic Olejniczak, who later became president of the Packers. Jimmy Choles, a local factory worker, contributed $100 cash, his loyalty flooring the Packers’ brass. And a man named Gordon Olm of Brillion sent a $10 check to the Green Bay Press-Gazette offices with a note saying, “I didn’t know whom to make it payable to but I know you will see that it gets to the Packer Backers.”

The Packer Backer campaign, as it was known, gained national prominence. By its conclusion, it was called “the most successful financial effort in modern Packer history” by Press-Gazette sports writer Art Daley. But to complete the task, the Packers needed one last push. As a climax to the campaign, Lambeau was asked to stage an intrasquad game on Thanksgiving Day at City Stadium, three days before the Packers were to face the Cardinals in Chicago in the third-to-last regular season game. Lambeau agreed.

All ticket proceeds from the game (seats were $3.60, $2.40, and $1.20 apiece depending on location) would go to the fund drive. And while advance sales did well, the success of the whole campaign came down to the gate receipts the day of the game.

Throughout the 11-day period, the Packers gave updates on how much money they had raised. In the days leading up to the intrasquad game, the Press-Gazette ran headlines saying the fund drive had hit $31,116, then over $35,000, and finally over $40,000 by the day of the game.

The 1949 Thanksgiving Day game in Green Bay would be unlike any other. It would provide more of a carnival-type atmosphere. That was evident by the buildup which promoted a halftime show with “performances” by notable Packers alumni. Wisconsin Gov. Oscar Rennebohm was also to attend. The team’s Lumberjack Band would play. And there would be hundreds of donated gifts to be given away - among them were a 1930 Chevrolet sedan, cases of beer, a refrigerator, cartons of vegetables, lumber, butter by the pound, and fittingly, cheese and turkeys.

The game itself would not turn out to be much of a game at all. By today’s standards, it was played at a Pro Bowl-effort level. Jug Girard’s “Blues” beat Stan Heath’s “Golds,” 35-31. The 1949 team was split up to form a contest of the veterans vs. the “newcomers.” Girard quarterbacked the veterans and first-round pick Heath quarterbacked the “newcomers.”

Packers star back Tony Canadeo, in the midst of the franchise’s first 1,000-yard rushing season, did not play until late in the fourth quarter. That was when the Blues called a timeout to insert Canadeo. They made a comedic scene out of his entrance “patting him with towels” and “brushing off his shoulders” along the way. In the biography on Lambeau by author David Zimmerman, Canadeo remembered the game on a snow-covered, slippery field this way: “We faked the hell out of that game. It wasn’t even as rough as a touch ball game or tag game.”

The box score for the game listed four “honorary alternates.” They included Don Hutson, who kicked an extra point in the game, and Charley Brock, who participated at center. Hutson had retired four years earlier and Brock (1939-47) was a part of two championship teams in 1939 and 1944.

Nearly all of the members of the first Packers team in 1919 also attended and took part in halftime ceremonies. Notables on hand from the “three-peat” championship run included Johnny “Blood” McNally, Lavvie Dilweg, Red Dunn, Jug Earp and Verne Lewellen. Arnie Herber and Hutson were also a big draw. In fact, the latter duo, the game’s top passing combination in the late 1930s, re-created their famous 83-yard touchdown connection against the Chicago Bears in 1935 that started it all. Fourteen years later, neither looked like they had missed a beat.

The other alumni also demonstrated their “gridiron specialties” in what turned out to be a rousing halftime equipped with a master of ceremonies. Even Lambeau, during a tumultuous time in his long Packers tenure, found an occasion to smile and joke putting on a leather helmet for a picture with the alumni players at halftime. His contract as head coach and general manager of the Packers was set to expire Dec. 31.

Most importantly, the turnout was what the Packers had hoped. Despite having a rough season, and with the temperature in the mid-20s with a 10-15 mph wind, the Press-Gazette reported the attendance at 15,000. Two home dates in Milwaukee on the 1949 regular season schedule failed to draw as many. When it was all over, the headline in the paper the next day read, “Campaign for $50,000 Goes Over the Top.” The goal had been met.

The Packers would finish out the regular season with three more games, losing them all, to finish the year 2-10, the worst season under Lambeau. While Lambeau would stay on past his contract expiration, he would eventually resign Feb. 1, ending his 31-year association with the Packers to become vice president and head coach of the Chicago Cardinals.

Only a week earlier, Lambeau’s training camp home for the Packers, Rockwood Lodge, located 14 miles northeast of Green Bay, had been destroyed by fire. The Packers, with Lambeau’s urging, purchased the housing facility and training grounds in 1946 for $25,000 (according to the Packers media guide) and were able to cash in their insurance policy for $75,000.

On April 12, the Packers launched the third of the franchise’s five stock sales in history. Still feeding off the good vibes from the Thanksgiving Day outing, a total of $118,000 was raised putting the Packers on stronger financial ground.

The Pack was back.

Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at

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