There has been some talk in the news lately of the Tampa Bay Rays potentially splitting their season between Tampa and Montreal. No one really takes this idea seriously, as it would waste a ton of resources, good will, and essentially pit the two cities against each other in vying the team to adopt them permanently. It’s not a great idea.
It also happened at least once before. Surprisingly, it happened to the NFL’s most storied franchise, the Green Bay Packers, which until shockingly recently played between two and four home games per season in Milwaukee County Stadium. 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the Packers leaving Milwaukee to play in Lambeau Field full time, but the repercussions of the arrangement can still be felt in the split season ticket packages, particularly in the constant complaints over the lack of enthusiasm shown by “Gold Package” fans.
You can’t really overstate the impact that County Stadium — and Milwaukee in general — has had on the Packers, as the looming threat of the team leaving for the big city to the South was a constant driving factor in the development of the Packers as we know them today. The team started playing games in Milwaukee in 1953, in part because old City Stadium didn’t have a high capacity, seating just 25,000 people. In addition, Green Bay didn’t have enough population to truly support the team properly. A few years later the NFL would threaten to move the team to Milwaukee permanently unless a new stadium was built in Green Bay, and out of that threat, a new City Stadium — later renamed in honor of Curly Lambeau — was born.
The Packers had played games in Milwaukee (technically West Allis) starting in 1934 at Wisconsin State Fair Park (with a brief stop at Marquette in 1952), but it was the construction of County Stadium that kicked things into high gear in Green Bay. And while the threat of County Stadium spurred Green Bay to action in the 50s, Vince Lombardi and Green Bay would throw their weight around to stymie Milwaukee. In 1965, a Milwaukee real estate developer named Marvin Fishman bid to bring an AFL franchise to Milwaukee.
Lombardi and the Packers used their exclusivity rights to kill the deal, and the AFL-NFL merger ended the possibility, but Fishman wasn’t finished. In 1966, with the Packers’ territorial exclusivity set to expire, he started a new bid to bring a Continental Football League team to County Stadium, and on September 1st he had a meeting with Milwaukee county officials to discuss the proposal. One hour after the meeting concluded, Vince Lombardi showed up in front of those same officials, extending the Packers’ lease — and exclusivity in Milwaukee — through 1973. Fishman’s proposal, and any potential competition for the Packers, died on that day.
Eventually, the Packers actually turned Lambeau into a true NFL stadium, and the split arrangement, once a profit center to keep the team alive, flipped on its head. By the early 1990s it was an active drain on the team, and the writing was on the wall for the strange arrangement. Finally in 1994, after a stellar victory over the Atlanta Falcons won on a last second dive into the end zone by Brett Favre, it officially came to an end.
County Stadium: The Venue
The fact is that County Stadium was a terrible place to watch a football game, and likely a terrible place to play one. A football field just barely fit inside the confines of the park, and in one of its strangest features, both teams shared a sideline, separated only by a piece of tape. It was not unusual from minor scuffles to break out and I personally witnessed one in a victory over the Minnesota Vikings in December of 1987.
The infield dirt could make kicking difficult (and Max Zendejas missed a PAT from the dirt after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty backed him up 15 yards), and obstructed view seats were plentiful. While tailgating and a short drive for Milwaukee-area residents still made for a fun day, County Stadium was fundamentally a baseball stadium.
That said, the Packers were pretty successful there. In the three games I personally witnessed, the Packers were undefeated, winning once against the Vikings and twice against the Buccaneers. They went 76-47-3 over the life of the arrangement, and actually played a pretty significant playoff game there.
On December 23rd, 1967, County Stadium hosted its one and only playoff football game, as the Packers faced the Rams in the Western Conference Championship game. It was the first year of playoff expansion for the NFL, and the Packers rolled into County and annihilated Los Angeles 28-7.
The following week the Packers would defeat the Cowboys in the NFL Championship game, which would be known forever as the Ice Bowl.
The Frozen Tundra
It seems bizarre that hallowed Lambeau Field saw only a half-slate of games through much of its history. Given how much we associate Packer lore with Lambeau and how much of a selling point the small town NFL team is, it’s worth remembering that it was not always so and that the small town nature of Green Bay was a threat to the team’s existence. Milwaukee helped the team through a multi-decade rough patch, and now the idea of playing anywhere else but Green Bay is completely unthinkable.
County Stadium served its purpose, and thanks to Brett, it went out with a bang.