Jon's Jottings: The Packers have a long tradition in pro football
The start of the football season is just around the corner, and by THE football season I mean the NFL and specifically the start of the Green Bay Packers' schedule.
The team started as the Packers, named after the Indian Packing Co. who provided the jerseys in 1919, but the NFL wasn't established until 1920 and the Packers joined the league in 1921.
By my count, they are in their 10th decade and second century of professional football.
I have always had an interest in sports history particularly football history which has significance in Wisconsin. The Packers won three titles twice, 1929, 30, 31 and 1965, 66, 67 (13 total titles in the history of the league). No other NFL team has accomplished the task even once.
As the NFL developed a TV market for the sport, the Packer teams of the 1960s became a favorite across the country.
I am reminded of those teams and players in the early years. When professional football wasn't a living in and of itself and players had to have regular jobs to make a go of it.
Green Bay was particularly good in providing jobs for players in those early years with the understanding they had to have time off for football.
The period is often referred to as the "Iron Man Era" of pro football...an age that included leather helmets and a more oblique football.
Those were the days of such NFL teams and the Pottsville Maroons, who became the Boston Bulldogs, Canton Bulldogs who became the Cleveland Bulldogs, Decatur Staleys who became the Chicago Bears, Portsmouth Spartans later the Detroit Lions, not to mention the Minneapolis Marines, Minneapolis Red Jackets and Duluth Kelly/Eskimos who somehow figured into the establishment of the Minnesota Vikings franchise in 1961.
The Packers have remained in Green Bay and survived.
One particular standout player of the Iron Man Era for Green Bay and other teams has a close connection to our area.
John Victor "Johnny Blood" McNally, (Nov. 27, 1903-Nov. 28, 1985) the Vagabond Halfback, was a native of New Richmond.
I had to opportunity to meet Johnny Blood my first year with the Packer Report in Green Bay at the home opener of the 1975 season. He was there with his wife, Catherine, and I talked a little football with the living legend, then in his 70s.
At the time he was concerned with a single game to determine the NFL title (Super Bowl).
"The plan I propose is to have a three-game playoff to determine the football championship. The three games would be played a week apart in January at three different southern locations," he said.
"When you have two teams of approximately equal ability, one game isn't sufficient to determine the winner...there are too many variables in the game of football."
Some of the proceeds from the three-game playoff series would go to provide for a number of former pro football players where were not covered by the players' pension plan instituted in 1958, he said.
"There are some 1,000 to 1,200 former players not covered...I call these 'naked alumni' and they include some great names," he said.
The subject of a playoff for the NFL championship has been bantered around since Johnny Blood mentioned it to me almost 37 years ago. It becomes topic on sports talk shows when the Super Bowl favorite gets knocked off in the big game.
McNally was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in the inaugural class of 1963 along with Packers Curly Lambeau, Don Hutson and Cal Hubbard.
His exploits on and off the field are legend, some no doubt embellished over the years, but it is generally agreed he was smart, a gifted athlete and liked to have a good time.
Johnny Blood played for a number of professional teams in his 14-year career including the Milwaukee Badgers, aforementioned Pottsville Maroons and Duluth Eskimos and finished up with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1939 where he was a player coach.
He played for the Packers during that first stretch of three championships. The Packers' all-time roster lists McNally's years with the team as 1929-33 and 35-36. The Pro Football Hall of Fame lists him as a 6-foot-1, 188-pound halfback from Notre Dame and St. John's, Minn.
The late Art Daley, who was sports editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette penned a tribute to the Vagabond Halfback in his Jan. 23, 1986, Packer Report column following McNally's death.
Daley attributed help from the writings of the late Oliver Kuechle of the Milwaukee Journal who hung out with Johnny Blood back in the day.
Kuechle told the story of how McNally got his nickname. John and a friend played semi-pro football for a team in Minneapolis and needed to use an assumed name to maintain amateur standing.
The Rudolph Valentino movie "Blood and Sand" was showing at the time. McNally took Blood and his teammate used Sand for the professional names.
Johnny Blood McNally told me the story was true when I asked him in 1975. Daley wrote that Blood, "Could be out with the real toughies in a waterfront bar one day, then recite Keats or Shelly or Shakespeare by the hour in different company the next. He could drop a pass thrown right in his hands then get one that nobody else could."
"Once he climbed outside a fast moving train when chased (by a Packer teammate). He crawled along the top of the cars to the locomotive where the engineer almost fainted," wrote Daley.
Coach Curley Lambeau did everything he could possible do to control Blood except put him in a strait jacket including giving him contracts in which Blood got no more than $25 a week and the balance at season end. The coach fined him until Blood owed the Packers money, but nothing helped. Blood didn't care about money, said Daley.
Daly wrote, "When Paul Hornung came on the Packer scene, the old-timers figured Paul might have been cut from the same cloth as Johnny Blood. Really, methinks, Hornung was pretty much of a Boy Scout compared with Blood."
Johnny Blood coached at St. John's in Collegeville, Minn., and was replaced by John Gagliardi in 1953, who is still coaching the Johnnies and has the most wins in college football with a record of 484-133-11 (.779).
John McNally ran for St. Croix County Sheriff in 1958 on the Republican ticket. The announcement in the July 10, 1958, Hudson Star-Observer noted McNally served with the U.S. (Army) Air Force in World War I including three years in China, Burma and India as a sergeant.
McNally was defeated by incumbent Democrat Norman Anderson in the November election by a 6,200 to 2,810 margin.
A fairly recent publication, "Vagabond Halfback, The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally" by Denis J. Gullickson gives a thorough look at John Victor McNally. It's well worth the read if you find a copy.