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Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011

Smash-Mouth Football

The brief, bruising years of the NFL's Milwaukee Badgers

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Long before injured reserve, third-down backs and four-hour pregame shows, the National Football League (NFL) was a loose and rowdy collection of working-class ironmen playing a brutal and bruising version of the game in a small pocket of the frostbitten industrial East and Midwest. During the league's formative years, four different Wisconsin cities fielded NFL clubs. Green Bay, of course, had its famous Packers. Racine was represented by the Legion (1922-24) and the Tornadoes (1926). Kenosha was home to the Maroons for just over a month in 1924, before the club folded midseason. And right here in the Cream City, the Milwaukee Badgers battled between 1922 and 1926.

The fathers of pro football in Milwaukee were two Chicago sporting promoters, Joe Plunkett and Ambrose McGuirk. The pair saw the city as a ripe prospect for a pro club. But in the fly-by-night years of the NFL, they also knew they would need a team that could compete immediately. The pair scoured the East Coast college ranks, signing multiple All-Americans in hopes of building a team of all-stars that could rival the Packers for state supremacy.

Their first major signing was back Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard. Pollard had been a player/coach the previous year for the Akron Pros, the first black man to coach whites in American professional sports. Two other African Americans suited up for the Badgers in 1922, including end Paul Robeson, who would later achieve worldwide fame as a singer and civil-rights activist.

The Badgers played their first home game on Oct. 15, 1922, spanking the Racine Legion 20-0 in front of 6,000 fans at Athletic Park (later known as Borchert Field) on the city's North Side. It was one of just two games the team would win all season. Stung by injuries and team disunity, they finished with two wins, four defeats and three ties, good for 11th place in the 18-team NFL.

Only one member of the '22 squad was brought back for the '23 campaign. That year's squad was all white, ending the team's brief experiment with integration. 1923 would be the high point for the franchise, as they placed third in the league with a 7-2-3 record.

Both losses that season came to the Packers, whose dominance over the Badgers would keep them a distant second in the hearts and minds of state fans. Locally, the Badgers struggled to outdraw local semi-pro and factory teams. Games between those squads could draw as many as 9,000 spectators, while the Badgers rarely attracted even half that total.

The Badgers went 5-8 in 1924 before bottoming out in 1925, losing all six games they played by a combined score of 191-7. In Milwaukee, interest in the team had become so scarce that they played just one home game. But nearing the end of the season, the owner of the Chicago Cardinals took a very specific interest in the Badgers. NFL rules at that time stipulated that the team with the best record was crowned league champion. The Cardinals were in contention for the title, but stuck in second place behind the Pottsville (Pa.) Maroons. To make up ground, the Cardinals began scheduling additional games against weak teams. Ambrose McGuirk, desperate to squeeze every dollar he could from his team, agreed to put his hapless squad up against the mighty Cardinals.

But it had been three weeks since the Badgers last played and most of the players had left town. To fill out the sparse roster that McGuirk had roped together, a Cardinals' player found four local high-school boys to suit up for the Badgers. The game was a blood bath, a 59-0 trouncing by Chicago. When league officials found out about the improvised roster and the use of amateurs, the involved Cardinals were suspended and McGuirk was ordered to sell the team.

McGuirk turned the Badgers over to his coach, Johnny "Red" Bryan. Bryan took an aggressive approach to rebuilding the team, even ditching the club's familiar orange sweaters for bright red. A 2-2 start gave the team hope, but they dropped the last five games of the season and folded the next spring due to a lack of funds.

The Badgers were never able to ignite the rivalry with the Packers they'd hoped for. In 10 matchups, the Badgers were winless, managing only a 0-0 tie in their first meeting. The collapse of the Badgers cleared the way for the Packers to cultivate the statewide appeal that helped them to survive as a modern-day missing link to the NFL's ramshackle early years.

Matthew J. Prigge is a historian and co-founder of Hey Man, Cool! Digital History Productions. HMC is at work on a multimedia documentary on the Wisconsin Black Cowboys, which will debut in 2012.
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