A score of attendees were at author Michael Benter's September 19, 2013 talk on the Milwaukee Badgers. This was an NFL era of about $100 paid per game instead of multi-million dollar contracts, working class owners not billionaires, and athletes who played both offense and defense for the entire game.
In the first decades of the 20th century, few collegiate athletes joined the professional ranks as they found the game both brutal and childish for adults to participate in. Red Grange, who began playing for the Chicago Bears in 1925, was the greatest collegiate player of his time and the first nation-wide star. Not until the 1930s did NFL games air on the radio.
Football was a part-time job for the players. To make matters worse, the Badgers would often be unable to practice since Borchert Field, then Athletic Park, would schedule popular high school double-header football games in the evenings. When they did play, the $1.00 to $2.00 admission was judged too steep and at most only a few thousand fans attended.
The first two seasons the Badgers were competitive in the league. Their team was made up of players like Fritz Pollard and Jimmy Conzelman, eventual Hall of Famers. Later years were not as successful although the team recruited local stars Red Dunn, Clem Neacy and Francis "Oxie" Lane to try and increase attendance levels.
The year 1925 was an exceptionally low point for the team. As Benter describes it:
"No wins... only one touchdown... and that was on defense... a fumble recovery in the end zone. Clem Neacy scored that touchdown." 1926 Milwaukee Badgers, photo courtesy Dr. Kit Neacy DDS
The end of the 1925 season provided additional insult. The Chicago Cardinals were looking to play extra games so that they could accumulate enough wins to claim the championship. They scheduled a game with the Badgers, a sure win that year. However, most of the players had left the area figuring the season was over. The Cardinals were happy to assist the Badgers by recruiting three Chicago area high school players. The Cardinals easily won 59-0. When it was reported to the Chicago Board of Education that high school students had played in an NFL game, the Badgers' owner was forced to sell his franchise and the team folded after the 1926 season.
Although attempts were made after the 1926 Badgers, professional football in Milwaukee failed for a number of reasons. One reason was the Badgers 0 wins, 9 losses and 1 tie against the Green Bay Packers whose fans traveled in large numbers to away games. Another reason were the large number of quality high school, amateur and club football teams playing in Milwaukee. One such team, the Lapham Athletic Club, played the Badgers in a charity game on Dec. 8, 1923. Although the professionals played mostly second stringers they handily won 13-0.
The NFL would finally succeed by changing the rules of the game with innovations such as the forward pass. (An MATC student attending the lecture said that Wisconsin's Carroll College completed the first legal forward pass in 1906). In the future the league concentrated on large, proven markets like New York, Chicago, Green Bay and Philadelphia. Lastly, the televised Super Bowl made the game accessible to everyone with the result of a clear-cut champion. Green Bay has won a fair share of those.
In the center is author Michael Benter, too his right is Dr. Kit Neacy, daughter of '25 & '26 Badger standout Clem Neacy.
Michael Benter is the author of The Badgers: Milwaukee's NFL Entry of 1922-1926, The Green and Gold Glory Years, and Roll Out The Barrels: The Brewers of Eastern Dodge County.The Badgers: Milwaukee's NFL Entry of 1922-1926 can be purchased at the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear's gift shop.
By Joel Willems,Curator, Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear