With an unceremonious loss, the Green Bay Packers played their final game at City Stadium on Nov. 18, 1956. Though the old field held many memories for the franchise, its closure harkened the first of many new changes for the franchise.
City Stadium holds a special place in Green Bay Packers history. After all, the field on Green Bay’s east side was the franchise’s home for six NFL championship teams, not to mention the place where a multitude of stars like Don Hutson, Tony Canadeo, Clarke Hinkle, “Curly” Lambeau, and many others made their indelible marks on pro football.
So when the venerable stadium hosted its final game on Nov. 18, 1956, in a clash with the San Francisco 49ers, it was a bittersweet moment for many around the franchise. For as many memories as City Stadium held, it was the facility itself that was holding the team back.
Opened in 1925, the mostly-wooden structure was at the time one of the better stadiums in pro football. Located along the banks of the East River, players throughout the league lauded the quality playing surface for years. However, as the NFL evolved, City Stadium quickly became a relic. While teams in larger cities were playing in modern steel structures like Detroit’s Briggs Stadium or Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, City Stadium’s wood seating and spartan setup was a glaring shortcoming for the Packers.
Additionally, City Stadium’s peak capacity of 25,000 was dwarfed by its NFL counterparts. By comparison, just to the south, both franchises in Chicago – the Bears and Cardinals – were playing in stadiums – Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park – with seating for over 40,000 individuals, while other places like Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium or New York’s Polo Grounds held well in excess of 50,000 people
The stadium itself became one of the arguments for the Packers moving out of Green Bay. Not only was the franchise struggling with finances by the late 1940s and early 1950s, but an enticing option emerged just to the south in Milwaukee with the opening of County Stadium in 1953.
At this point, NFL began putting pressure on the Packers: build a new stadium or move out of Green Bay. A referendum vote was set to approve a $960,000 bond to construct a new stadium.
“We have firm offers for a franchise from many cities whose stadiums can accommodate larger crowds,” NFL commissioner Bert Bell said in a letter to the Green Bay Press-Gazette days before the referendum vote. “There is no doubt in my mind that the Green Bay Packers could sell their franchise (God forbid) for a maximum of three quarters of a million dollars. Therefore, it is my opinion that it would be good business judgment on the part of the citizens of Green Bay to approve the referendum for a new stadium.”
The referendum passed by a sizeable margin, paving the way for Green Bay City Stadium or, as it’s known today, Lambeau Field. But the team had one final season in City Stadium before that dream of a new stadium could become a reality.
So, on a cold November afternoon, the Packers took the field for the final time at City Stadium. Well out of the playoff race at 2-5, head coach Lisle Blackbourn made the decision to start rookie Bart Starr at quarterback.
Starr performed admirably, completing three-of-six passes for 63 yards and a touchdown in staking the Packers to an early 9-0 lead on the 49ers. However, a second-quarter redzone interception prevented Green Bay from extending its lead, while San Francisco’s Y.A. Tittle responded by guiding the 49ers to a touchdown right before the half.
The 49ers took their first lead of the game early in the third, when “Hurryin’” Hugh McElhenny found the endzone on an 86-yard scamper. Moments later, San Francisco made it 17-9 with a Gordy Soltau field goal.
Starr was replaced behind center by Tobin Rote, who guided the Packers on a five-play, 64-yard drive that culminated in the veteran signal-caller calling his own number on a one-yard QB sneak to get Green Bay within 17-16. The Packers had two more chances to take back the lead in the fourth, but a muffed punt by Al Carmichael coupled with a Howie Ferguson fumble deep in 49er territory with two minutes left quashed Green Bay’s comeback.
While the game, like much of the 1950s, was a dud for the Packers, the game itself was a transition between eras for the franchise. Not only was the team moving from dilapidated City Stadium to Green Bay City Stadium (the first stadium built exclusively for pro football, by the way), but the game offered a glimpse of a new era for the team. In addition to Starr, five other players who would become key cogs of the Lombardi years – fellow future Pro Football Hall of Famers Forrest Gregg and Jim Ringo, plus Dave Hanner, Bill Forester, and Bob Skoronski – saw significant action in the game.
So, while the game itself was a loss, what happened that day at City Stadium set the stage for the rise of the next Packers dynasty.