Imagine walking up to the Green Bay Packers ticket office just a few days before a regular season home game and reading this sign: “Have Tickets, Will Sell.”
Believe it or not, there was actually a time in the fabled history of the Packers when this was the case. Specifically, it came in late November 1959 at the downtown headquarters for the team on Washington Street in Green Bay. The Packers were enduring yet another forgettable season — this time under a stern new coach — that had many fans wondering if the fortunes of their beloved team would ever change.
The 1950s represent the worst decade in Packers football — four different head coaches, just one winning season and an overall record of 39-79-2, good for a winning percentage of just .333. Not even the sorry 1970s (.413) and 1980s (.438) were as bad.
Besides losing, there was another commonality the 1980s had with the 1950s — witnessing Lambeau Field at less than sellout capacity for a regular season game.
The situations, granted, were a little different. Lambeau’s aluminum bleachers looked oddly empty in October 1987 when replacement players took the field for back-to-back games during a players strike. More than 20,000 seats were exposed, giving each game the feel of an intrasquad scrimmage battle.
On Nov. 22, 1959, however, in an official league game against the Washington Redskins, just 297 tickets went unsold, so it was a little more difficult to notice even at the reduced capacity of 32,150 at the time. That was the last home game at the stadium — not counting the replacement games — that failed to sell out based on the team’s count of 317 straight games through the 2015 regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings.
Like recent postseason contests in Green Bay that had plenty of tickets available in days leading up, there was a public effort to push for a sellout for the 1959 Redskins game. The Packers were posturing to schedule more home games at new City Stadium (later renamed Lambeau Field in 1965). In 1959, they played four games at City Stadium and two in Milwaukee, continuing their long-standing tradition of also playing home games there. In 1979 — one year after the schedule expanded to 16 games — the Packers played five games at Lambeau. And in 1995, the Milwaukee tradition ended when the Packers played all eight home games in Green Bay.
A day before the game in 1959, the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s Art Daley — later a columnist for Packer Report — was selling twin goals for the team in his story by writing, “Four victories and four sellouts in City Stadium in 1959!”
It had already been a turbulent season for the Packers. The promise of a new season and a new coach, Vince Lombardi, led to three straight sellouts in Green Bay to begin the season and three straight wins. But then things turned sour, reminding some of the franchise’s worst season, a 1-10-1 slate the season prior under coach Ray “Scooter” McLean. The Packers were beaten in each of the next five games — three on the road and two in Milwaukee — before returning to City Stadium to face the Redskins. The Packers clung to some hope for postseason play in the tightly-contested Western Conference, but any early-season optimism seemed distant.
Lombardi was far from a legend to fans at the time, as was a quarterback of his, Bart Starr. Starr entered the league in 1956 and split time with other quarterbacks during a revolving period for the Packers. Lamar McHan was the starter in 1959 but Starr played well enough in relief at Baltimore for Lombardi to give him the starting nod against the Redskins while McHan recovered from a muscle pull.
The game was a pivotal moment in Starr’s career. He had endured plenty of losing his first three seasons while participating in only a few wins, but this was taken by reporters as his first victory at the helm. He was even asked about it after the game and replied, “That’s some record, isn’t it? Be around four years and one victory.” Blurred vision forced Starr to the sideline near the end of the 21-0 victory.
The game had historic significance for at least one other reason, too. The Packers’ magnificent defensive back, Bobby Dillon, sat out for the first time in 69 games. It would be the final home game of his Packers Hall of Fame career. (Dillon is still the team’s all-time leading interceptor with 52.)
The Packers notched their first shutout in 10 years and won all four league home games in Green Bay. In the process, the five-game losing streak was over, prompting Lombardi to say, “I was wondering if we ever were going to win another one.” Lombardi never lost more than back-to-back games again.
With three straight road wins following, the Packers finished the season 7-5, missing out on the postseason but posting their best record since the 1944 championship season. Starr would take over as the full-time starter in 1960 and the Packers would never have to really worry about selling tickets again.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org