Author’s Note: It is only appropriate that the first article on this site is about the team that inspired it in the first place. While in the throes of a Wikipedia wormhole I stumbled upon a collection of Defunct NFL Franchises and was pleasantly surprised to see the words “Milwaukee Badgers” on the list. A love of history and sports led, naturally, to further exploration of this team I never knew existed even though I grew up in their home city. What I found was at turns fascinating and ridiculous, which is right in line with many of the most famous franchises and fables from this era of the NFL. The idea of synthesizing the various sources and stories about the Badgers into one easily-digestible narrative was born. From there it branched out to the site you’re reading now, where teams young and old, from all sports, that were taken from this world too soon can get some posthumous time in the spotlight.
I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much I enjoy putting them together!
The entity that we now know as the National Football League was born in the showroom of a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio in August of 1920. For reference, this is a 1920 Hupmobile previously on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
(Be sure to click here or on the image for further information on the role the car played in the NFL’s founding)
Originally called the American Professional Football Conference the league, under the direction of inaugural league president Jim Thorpe, changed its name to American Professional Football Association (APFA) a month later. It operated under this moniker for two seasons before finally adopting the National Football League name in 1922.
1922 was also the first year of existence for Milwaukee’s own NFL team, the Badgers. The team was the brainchild of a pair of Chicago businessmen, Joe Plunkett and the delightfully-Seussian-named Ambrose McGuirk, who would stick around in the role of team owner for the bulk of the franchise’s existence.
In order to compete right away, the pair signed a number of collegiate All-Americans from out East as well as established players like Fritz Pollard, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who had become the first African-American to coach white players in the history of American professional sports when he served as co-head coach for the league’s Akron Pros the year before. That inaugural season the Badgers roster featured two more African-American players, Duke Slater and Paul Robeson, the latter of whom would go on to a storied career as an entertainer and political and civil rights activist.
What that first Badgers team did not have was success. Led by coach Budge Garrett (and player-coach Jimmy Conzelman after signing him for the final three games of the season) the team went 2-4-3, including what would prove to be the franchise’s most successful game against their in-state rival Green Bay Packers, a 0-0 tie. Out of 18 teams in the NFL that season, their record saw the Badgers finish 11th.
The signing of Conzelman at the end of the 1922 season proved to be a shrewd move for the franchise as the future All-Decade quarterback and 1964 Hall of Famer both led the team as a player and maintained sole coaching duties en route to a 7-2-3 record, good enough to tie the Packers for third place in the league. Of course, both losses came at the hands of Curly Lambeau’s Green Bay squad.
1924 was Conzelman’s final season with the franchise, one where he acted as a player only. The team was unable to build on the success of 1923, and their record fell to 5-8, finishing 12th. Following the season, player-coach Hal Erickson would leave Milwaukee and head south to join the Chicago Cardinals, a team that would win the 1925 NFL Championship in controversial fashion thanks in no small part to the Badgers.
The 1925 Milwaukee Badgers were, to put it lightly, atrocious. Like, historic levels of hot garbage bad.
(Visual representation of the 1925 Milwaukee Badgers)
Despite the presence on the roster of halfback Johnny “Blood” McNally-a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1963 and a future four-time NFL champion with the Green Bay Packers-the team literally could not score on offense. The side started 0-5, allowing their opponents to score 132 points over those five contests while managing just 7 of their own (somehow they weren’t the lowest scoring team in the league that year thanks to the Duluth Kelleys (6 points) and the Dayton Triangles (3 points), but both of those teams did manage to tie a game that year (womp womp Badgers)), with that lone touchdown coming via a fumble recovery in the end zone during their 40-7 loss to the Rockford Independents. So cheer up Browns fans, things could definitely be worse!
Now, astute readers may have noticed that there doesn’t seem to be any consistency when it comes to how many games NFL teams played during a season in this era. That is because there wasn’t any. Due to football’s standing as a fringe sport in America in the 1920s (my how times change) as well as the perception of college football as the superior product, there was very little money to be made operating an NFL franchise. As a result, teams that under performed on the field were allowed to simply pack up for the season whenever they saw fit rather than risk the possibility of losing money by putting on games that the public had little or no interest in buying tickets for. In a secondary nod to those pressures, the 1925 Milwaukee Badgers only hosted a single home game, a 6-0 loss to Green Bay, choosing to play the bulk of their schedule on the road rather than pay to rent and operate the facilities at Athletic Park on Milwaukee’s North Side.
Left to their own devices, the 1925 edition of the Milwaukee Badgers would have packed things up, left town, and finished their season at 0-5 and tied for last place in the standings. As fate and the pocketbooks of a pair of owners would have it, however, only the first two things happened.
Following a jurisdictional dispute stemming from an exhibition game they played against a team of Notre Dame All-Stars (a complex story which I promise will get it’s own feature in this space at some point), the league-leading Pottsville Maroons saw their 1925 season suspended in December when they were a game ahead of the Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals. As a result of the suspension, Pottsville was unable to play the remaining games on their schedule, giving Chicago an opportunity to pass the Maroons if they could just tack a few more wins on to their record. Even though Pottsville had beaten Chicago head-to-head earlier in the year, the only thing used to determine the league championship at the time was winning percentage (not including ties in the calculations).
In another reminder of just how far the NFL has come, teams in this era were allowed to add games to their schedule whenever they wanted, with the new games counting in the standings. This provision was put in place to allow teams the opportunity to generate extra revenue during successful seasons, as the league was sympathetic to the thin profit margins NFL teams were operating with. So of course it took less than five years of the NFL’s existence for a team to abuse this kindness.
When the Cardinals contacted Badger owner McGuirk, the prospect of some easy cash proved to be too much and the Milwaukee owner agreed to the game. The only problem was that many members of his team had already left town, as they thought their season had finished weeks earlier.
That is when a Chicago player named Art Folz came to the “rescue,” recruiting four high school students from his alma mater, Chicago’s Englewood High School, to suit up for the Badgers. Folz told the high schoolers that the game was simply for “practice” and would have no bearing on their eligibility in relation to collegiate football. He was, of course, lying, something that should have been fairly obvious once he gave the high school students assumed names to play under.
But play they did, with the final score of 59-0 in favor of the Cardinals surprising exactly no one in the know about the game’s circumstances, as well as most of the ones who weren’t. This victory, along with a 13-0 win over the Hammond Pros-another team that had disbanded early for the season before the Cards came calling-were enough to propel Chicago ahead of Pottsville in the standings. While the Maroons had initially been declared league champions, the fact of their suspension coupled with Chicago’s superior (if inflated) record led the NFL to declare the Cardinals the champions of 1925.
Now, lest you think that maybe the league simply did not find out about Chicago’s indiscretions until it was too late to reverse the decision, league president Joe Carr was made fully aware of the scandal just weeks after it happened, and Chicago’s owner even argued AGAINST his team’s claim to the title at the owner’s meeting following the season (more on this later). Indeed, Carr laid down punishments against all involved parties that were both swift and severe.
For their participation, the four high school players were declared ineligible to play college football, while Folz, their recruiter, was banned from the NFL for life. Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien was fined $1,000 at a time when the fee to enter a team in the league was somewhere between $50-100, and our old friend Ambrose McGuirk was told he had to sell his Milwaukee Badgers franchise in 90 days or else.
McGuirk is the only one that complied with his punishment in a timely manner, and as a result he would up, essentially, being the only one punished for the affair. Fearing that such a steep fine would put the team out business, the NFL rescinded Chicago’s penalty entirely. Fearing that he would join the rival American Football League, Folz’s lifetime ban was lifted before the start of the 1926 season (he would not return to professional football regardless, however). Fearing bad publicity (I’m just spitballing here actually, but c’mon, how much can the NFL have REALLY changed since then?), the Englewood High players saw their college eligibility restored, with two of them earning high school all-star status at the end of the year.
Had he done nothing it is all but certain that McGuirk would have been allowed to keep the Badgers, but by the time Carr had his change of heart the team had already been turned over to their new owner, former Chicago Bear back Johnny Bryan. Under their new player-coach-owner, the Badgers were able to win two games and finish 15th in 1926, with future Congressman and Packer LaVern Dilweg providing a particular bright spot. Despite the improvement in their record, 1926 was the final year for the Milwaukee Badgers, who ended their brief and disappointing existence by losing to the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears in their final two games.
While the team was never successful in the traditional sense of the word, and seemed to be running out of steam even before the Cardinals scandal, it is hard to see the controversy as doing anything other than speeding up the franchise’s inevitable demise. By contrast, the Cardinals were a much more successful team at the time of the incident, and were strong enough to survive it. They are still around in today’s NFL, having moved first to St. Louis before finding a home in the Arizona desert.
As to the matter of the 1925 NFL Championship, it is currently claimed by the Cardinals, even though it never was by the man that owned the team during the year in question. You see, Charles O’Brien-the man that was handed a $1,000 fine before having it rescinded-claims that his team only added the contests against Milwaukee and Hammond in an effort to convince the Chicago Bears and their ultra-popular star, Red Grange, to play the Cardinals. O’Brien was interested in the payday that could be had in such a matchup and nothing more.
To his eternal credit, O’Brien walked the walk as well as talking the talk in this regard, as he legitimately turned down the championship when it was offered to him, and refused to claim it for years afterwards. It wasn’t until Charles Bidwell, whose family still owns the Cardinals, bought the team in 1933 that the Cardinals started claiming the championship, something they insist on doing to this day with the support of the National Football League. Twice the NFL has tried to officially settle the championship debate, with a 1963 special commission voting 12-2 to keep the title with the Cardinals (George Halas and Art Rooney being the dissenting votes), and a 2003 vote at an owner’s meeting coming out 30-2 against reopening the case.
For their part, the Pottsville players and citizens still lay claim to the championship, even going so far as to carve their own NFL Championship trophy out of anthracite coal, something that can now be seen at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
(Or you can see it right here!)
They also take delight in the fact that they appear to have succeeded in cursing the Cardinals franchise, which owns the longest championship drought in the NFL after up empty every year since 1947.
As for present-day Milwaukee, it is Packer Country through and through, though if the Badgers’ record against Green Bay is any indication, it always kind of was.
Team Name: Milwaukee Badgers
From: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Years of Operation: 1922-1926
Home Field: Athletic Park (later known as Borchert Field)
Pro Football Hall of Famers: Johnny “Blood” McNally (HOF Class of 1963), Jimmy Conzelman (HOF Class of 1964), Fritz Pollard (HOF Class of 2005)
Winning Seasons: 1 (1923)
Overall Franchise Record: 16-27-6 (Five Seasons)
Franchise Folded For: Being bad at football, financial reasons
Team Colors: Orange and White (1922-1925), Orange and Red (1926)
(Huge shout out to The Gridiron Uniform Database for these uniform layouts. Go check out their site, it’s pretty cool)
Logo and Wordmark:
(Images found via Sportsecyclopedia)
Sources and additional reading:
The Shepherd Express: Smash-Mouth Football The brief, bruising years of the NFL’s Milwaukee Badgers
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: The day Milwaukee almost killed the NFL
Milwaukee Badgers Wikipedia Page
1925 Chicago Cardinals–Milwaukee Badgers scandal Wikipedia entry
1925 NFL Championship controversy Wikipedia entry
Milwaukee Badgers at the Sports E-Cyclopedia
Milwaukee Badgers Franchise Encyclopedia at Pro-Football Reference
One thought on “How The Milwaukee Badgers Helped Chicago Steal The NFL’s Most Controversial Championship And Launched The League’s Longest Curse”