The First Game of the Packers vs. Cardinals Rivalry

It was a big deal in 1921, and it’s still a big deal in 2021 when the Packers and Cardinals get together on the gridiron. It might be considered one of the NFL’s forgotten secrets since many do not realize that it is actually the second oldest rivalry between two league teams.

Of course, the teams no longer play each other every season due to the expansion of the NFL over the years, but the rivalry that began on November 20, 1921, in Chicago looks even more appealing this year since both teams have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

But back in 1921, when it all began, the Packers were the mysterious new entry into the professional ranks while the Cardinals were solid contenders behind the playing and coaching of Paddy Driscoll. The Cards enjoyed a favorable schedule in 1921 by playing all of their games in the city of Chicago. The team’s lone “away” game was against the nearby Chicago Bears. So, visitors from Rock Island, Akron, Racine, and Hammond traveled to the south side of Chicago to challenge the Cardinals.

For Green Bay, the Packers’ opening season, in what would become the NFL, was a bit more challenging since the team needed to attract some of the more established professional teams to northern Wisconsin in an effort to bolster attendance for the young franchise. But, instead of some of the better-known clubs heading north, in 1921 the Packers entertained the Chicago Boosters, the Rockford Olympics, and the Beloit Fairies.

But, it was enough for the Packers to finish 3-2-1 in the American Professional Football Association and 7-2-2 overall under Coach Curly Lambeau. In 1921, the league still had not refined its scheduling, nor its playoff system, so teams scheduled opponents whenever and wherever they were able.

First Packers' Road Trip: Chicago

Lambeau was anxious to take on the big boys and ventured away from Green Bay twice late in the season to tackle both the Chicago Cardinals on November 20 and the Chicago Bears on November 27. These were the only two games scheduled by Lambeau that season outside of the friendly confines of Green Bay.

We’ll focus on that initial encounter with the Cardinals in this episode of “When Football Was Football,” and look back at the very first game between the two teams that might end up battling for the NFL title this year. 

 The dual games in Chicago in 1921 were big, big news in Green Bay and the local press was confident that the Packers would prevail. Four days before the Cardinals game, the Green Bay Press-Gazette outlined the team’s plans for the trip to the Windy City: “The Badgers arrive in Chicago on Thursday [November 17] and will spend three days in practice for Sunday’s game.

Indications point to a huge throng because many of the spectators at the Wisconsin-Chicago [collegiate] contest will stay over for the [professional] gridiron clash. It is said that 400 Green Bay fans, led by the mayor of the city, will arrive on Sunday morning. The visitors will be put up at the Stratford Hotel during their stay in Chicago.”

 It was a joyous time, an exciting time, for the citizens of Green Bay who would be watching their town’s exceptional team dive into the nest of the Chicago powerhouse clubs. At the time, Green Bay’s population was just over 31,000 while the number of Chicago residents topped 2.7 million.

And so, the loyal Packers’ fans boarded specially reserved trains for the trip south to Chicago, eager to experience the city as well as the experience of big-time football. In their eyes, it would be David vs. Goliath, and the former was likely the slight favorite!

Packers Provide Instant Replay

For those who could not travel to Chicago for the game, city leaders took advantage of the latest technology to organize a method whereby Green Bay fans could accurately follow the game “almost” instantly. Remember, television was not yet available in 1921 and radio coverage was sparse.

However, the Gazette newspaper announced this unique plan whereby fans could enjoy the game from hundreds of miles away: “The Green Bay football fans who can’t make the trip to Chicago for the Packers-Cardinals game will be given an opportunity right at home to “see” the game hot off the wire.

A direct wire from Normal Park in Chicago [the home field of the Cardinals] where the game will be played, to Turner Hall in Green Bay, has been leased and two seconds after a play is made on the Windy City gridiron, it will be known to footballers at home who are spending the afternoon in Turner Hall.

The wire will begin ticking about 1:30. Aside from the regular running story of the game, which the announcer will give out play-by-play, there will be interesting sidelights of what is going on at the field and a hit of dope on what the Green Bay fans are doing at the game. This is the first time this has been tried here and, with Green Bay suffering from a bad attack of “footballitis,” it is certain that Turner Hall will be jammed to the doors!” 

In addition, fans were promised: “Each play will be given off the wire by downs and although the players can’t be seen in action, a little use of the imagination will probably add more excitement than if one were present at the game itself.”

 As mentioned, all of this planning was done quickly since Chris O’Brien, the manager of the Cardinals, and Green Bay’s Curly Lambeau had just agreed to play each other on November 15. During the 1921 season, Lambeau was the leader of the Packers both on and off the field, but he was also known as a rich recruiter of football talent.

Prior to the games in Chicago, Lambeau signed former Cardinals player Norman Barry and Frank Coughlin, previously of the Rock Island Independents. With these acquisitions, Lambeau hoped to offset the offensive firepower of the Cardinals and triple threat Paddy Driscoll who could hurt you with his running, passing, and his deadly dropkicks.

Why Spend Money To See Pros Play?

The presence of the Packers in the new professional football league resulted in the expected great excitement and support of the Green Bay residents. The big road trip to Chicago was eagerly anticipated and special train cars were planned for fans wishing to join the team in Chicago announced the Press-Gazette:

“Jimmy Coffeen has undertaken the excursion to Chicago. He is now negotiating with the railroads for a greatly reduced rate. It is expected that special cars will be attached to the trains leaving here at midnight on Friday and Saturday.” As fans rushed to reserve their spot on the trains, one newspaper in nearby Appleton, Wisconsin ridiculed the notion of investing $9.69 for the train ticket, plus room and board, for the purpose of watching the Packers:

“When 400 fans are willing to spend that much money to see a professional team play, we wonder what they would do if they had a team that played real football, say like Lawrence College, in their town.”  

 Apparently, not everyone in the state of Wisconsin was ready to accept the concept of pro football in 1921, considering it sub-standard and merely a waste of time and energy, both for players and fans alike! The game itself was likely anti-climactic after the enthusiastic build-up by the Green Bay media.

Kneeling In Two Inches of Water

The two stalwart clubs battled furiously in a 3-3 tie game at Normal Park on the south side of Chicago that was witnessed by only about 2,000 spectators (many of them Green Bay fans) due to a persistent rainstorm. After a scoreless first half, Lambeau kicked a field goal in the third stanza as described by the Green Bay Press-Gazette:

“Lambeau stepped back for a place kick with Cub Buck to hold the ball. Buck was kneeling in about two inches of mud and water. It was a 10 to 1 shot that Lambeau, considering the condition of the field and the slippery ball, couldn’t come through but he did.” Paddy Driscoll provided the final points of the contest when he nailed a dropkick in the fourth quarter.

But how does one succeed with a dropkick on a very wet field? The Press-Gazette provided the details: “Paddy Driscoll stepped back for a dropkick. The muck was cleared away from his kicking spot and rosin was sprinkled all over his right shoe. Driscoll’s kick sailed through the uprights with plenty to spare and the score was tied.”

 Following the muddy battle, Driscoll praised his opponents: “You’ve got a sweet little machine. I would like to see your backs in action on a dry field, providing you were not playing my team!”

    NFL's Oldest Rivalry

     A week later on November 27, the Packers returned to the windy city for the team’s first meeting ever with the Chicago Staleys, who would soon become the Chicago Bears in 1922. The hosts breezed past the Packers 20-0 as both George Halas and Dutch Sternaman scored touchdowns for the Staleys.

    While many gridiron followers today lean towards anointing the Bears and the Packers for being participants in pro football’s oldest rivalry, the fact remains that the Cardinals and Packers met a week before that coupling. Of course, the Cardinals and the Bears first fought in 1920, leaving the following three games as the oldest rivalries in league history:

     November 28, 1920: Cardinals 7 Decatur Staleys 6 (Staleys became the Chicago Bears)

    During the 2021 season, the Cardinals will once again meet both the Packers and the Bears and renew the two oldest rivalries in NFL history.

    Thank you for spending part of your day with us on the Sports History Network and we hope you will join us next time for an enjoyable discussion on the feats of the Chicago Bears’ Ed Sprinkle, once named the “meanest man in pro football.” Was Sprinkle mean, dirty, or just aggressive and misunderstood. We’ll find out soon on “When Football Was Football!”

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    Author and Host - Joe Ziemba

    Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

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