Director's cut: 1950 Packers blaze
Mysterious, mythical demise of Rockwood Lodge has rich, colorful backstory
When I decided to travel back in time 63 years to tell the (potentially) controversial Green Bay Packers story in this week's ESPN The Magazine about a mysterious fire at the team's Rockwood Lodge practice facility that actually saved the franchise from financial ruin and the NFL scrap heap, I knew what I needed most: eyewitnesses.
But the first person I found with any connection to the lodge told me she might be willing to talk sometime around Thanksgiving before politely asking me to, ya know, get the heck off her porch.
The second person I found was Ken Kranz, 90, a defensive back on the 1949 Packers team and one of the oldest living former NFL players. The only problem, his daughter Kathy Rink informed me, was that Ken was scheduled for heart surgery. I had begun to lose hope about ever getting to the bottom of the Rockwood Lodge saga when Kathy followed up that news with a statement that, I swear, has to be the embodiment of everything we love about the Packers, football and the good old heartland of Wisconsin and the Midwest.
"So," Kathy said, "he's busy in the hospital tomorrow with the heart surgery and all, but dad might be able to do the interview the next day if that will work for ya."
A few weeks later, Ken and his lovely wife Shirley answered the door of their home near Milwaukee dressed in their best Packers gear. In their arms was a thick scrapbook from Rockwood Lodge that contained some of the most amazing football artifacts I have ever seen that, along with Ken and Shirley's memories, served as a time capsule right back to the front lawn of Rockwood Lodge in the summer of 1949.
In fact, the first thing that we turned to was a three-page handwritten quiz on Rockwood Lodge stationary of the Packers' plays for the 1949 season. On the back, perhaps in the handwriting of Curly Lambeau himself, was Ken's grade:
Good job: 100%
That was the first thing I put in my notebook for the story we called "Blaze of Glory." I spent the rest of the summer filling up the rest of those pages. Most of what I found is in the actual piece. But this week's Flem File is a collection of some of the best artifacts that didn't make it into the printed story. Enjoy.
• Kranz also still has the telegram he received from Lambeau informing him he had been selected in the 21st round of the 1949 NFL draft. "Do not obligate yourself to anyone until you hear from me," the coach wrote. Says Kranz, "That was Curly right there in a nutshell: serious, in charge, and not too fond of anyone who would dare question him."
• Speed was every bit as important in football 50 years ago as it is today. Kranz was a 190-pound running back in college but because the Packers were loaded at the position with Hall of Famer Tony Canadeo, Lambeau moved Kranz to defensive back, where he played seven games and had one fumble recovery.
• Lambeau left the Packers after the 1949 season and was replaced by Gene Ronzani. When the new Packers coach failed to make good on a promised $500 raise for Kranz, the defensive back decided to quit and take a teaching job near Milwaukee for -- get this -- the same amount ($3,500) the Packers had offered. Kranz taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade for the next 33 years. Today the starting salary for a teacher in Wisconsin is just nine times what Kranz made in 1950, whereas the average salary of an NFL defensive back is now 343 times what Kranz made.
• Ken on Curly and his Camelot: "If Curly wanted to do something, he did it. That's what made him a good coach and that's what led him to buy Rockwood Lodge. No one wanted him to do it. No one thought he could pull it off. But he did it anyway."
• With passing and scoring off the charts in today's NFL, I'm sure I will come across plenty of eye-popping football statistics in 2013, but nothing quite as incredible as this: Ken, who turned 90 last week, and Shirley, 89, have been married for 67 years.
• Among the Rockwood Lodge's other true characters were caretakers Melvin and Helen Flagstad. By the late 1940s, Lambeau was out of control, even by today's standards of athlete behavior. But the only person who seemed to be able to keep him in line was Helen. Lambeau liked to smoke in the lodge's kitchen -- until, that is, Helen found out about it and chased him off. "My mother was fierce," says her daughter, Sandra Flagstad, 74. "There was no one on this earth who was gonna cross my mother, not even Curly Lambeau. If anyone got out of hand she laid down the law tout de suite at about 80 miles an hour."
The players loved Miss Helen so much that her grandson Tim Flagstad has an authentic gold Packers helmet from the Rockwood era with the name "Helen" scratched into the top of the helmet. At Rockwood, Helen was haunted by nightmares and apparitions of fire and would occasionally walk the lodge late at night convinced she smelled smoke. Because of these warnings, Sandra believes, instead of waiting or investigating on the day of the blaze, Helen immediately evacuated the children, saving their lives.
• No one enjoyed Rockwood Lodge as much as Sandra's brother, Daniel Flagstad, who was 12 when the fire broke out. Packers players nicknamed him Little Rock. "He was like the team mascot," says Sandra. Occasionally Lambeau would have to run him off during team meetings, especially the ones held outside at the lodge's amphitheater. Daniel used to stay up at night in the Rockwood Lodge kitchen to help his mother catch players who were stealing food. Daniel, who passed away at 75 earlier this year, used to help clean up the Packers locker room at the lodge and at City Stadium on game days. For his work, the team's equipment manager let him pick from a pile of game jerseys. Daniel dug through the pile until he found the No. 14 jersey of Hall of Famer Don Hutson, arguably the greatest receiver to ever play the game (yes, including Jerry Rice). In 2005, Daniel donated that priceless jersey -- believed to be the only remaining game-worn home jersey of Hutson's -- to the Packers Hall of Fame in honor of his parents and the work they did at Rockwood Lodge.
• One of Sandra's chores during training camp was to change the linens on the players' beds in the barrack-style dormitories on the second floor of the east wing of the lodge. Months after the season, long after the players were gone, she says the room and most of Rockwood Lodge still smelled like Old Spice.
• Melvin Flagstad may have been saved from the fire by, of all things, a discarded butcher's block. It had been left under a second-story window behind the east wing of the lodge, and he used it to jump to safety. Although, some members of the Flagstad family believe the fire claimed its first victim when, many years later, Melvin died of lung cancer. He never smoked, but his family has always wondered if the cancer was a byproduct of the fumes he inhaled trying to put the lodge fire out in 1950. "My grandparents were devout and very, very religious people," says Tim Flagstad. "If there was anything going on there and they caught wind of it, they would have called the Packers on it immediately."
• Even if the Packers -- a beacon of small-town virtue and integrity in the cesspool of modern-day athletics -- did, ya know, torch Rockwood Lodge in order to stay afloat, the act hardly distinguishes Green Bay during the outlaw early days of the NFL. While the current version is a slicked-back, buttoned-down and lawyered-up $9 billion corporation, for the better half of the 20th century pro football was a gritty, disorganized mess full of outlaws, renegades and misfits. In other words: IT WAS AWESOME. "The Packers have a unique history that we shouldn't lose sight of," says Lambeau biographer David Zimmerman, "or we run the risk of becoming just another one of the NFL's 32 corporations."
Back in the day, you could get your face slapped by a woman just for announcing yourself as a profession football player. Trainers used to say they could fix any injury with iodine and two fingers of whiskey. Steelers founder Art Rooney loved the racetrack and is said to have kept his team afloat with money he earned on the ponies. And the 1925 Chicago Cardinals were caught padding their record against opponents made up of high school kids that the Cardinals themselves enticed into playing to avoid having games forfeited. The NFL reacted by, well, awarding the Cardinals the 1925 championship. But don't even get me started on what is the greatest travesty of justice in NFL history.
• One of the things we didn't get to fully explain in the Magazine piece was just how much pressure the NFL was feeling at the time from the All-American Football Conference. For starters, a bidding war by the AAFC drove up salaries and depleted the NFL of nearly all its young talent. (Of the 60 players who played in the 1946 College All-Star Game, 44 signed with the AAFC.) And while the new league not only paid better, it encouraged innovation as well as the participation of African-American players, a faction that was unofficially unwelcome in the NFL. Only the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers survived from the AAFC, but those have been three of the most successful, important and influential teams in NFL history.
• After the Packers, Lambeau coached the Cardinals and the Redskins, continuing his odd training-table rules. He allowed the players a 14-ounce steak for breakfast on game days. But he banned ketchup and milk. The coach believed milk "takes too long to work off and ... is bad for the wind." To get around this rule, some players would sneak down to the Rockwood kitchen at night to guzzle cream in order to sooth ulcers. After practice, others would sneak off to the counter of Oliver's Ice Cream in Green Bay and, according to the owner, Oliver Griese, 103, "Curly had them all on a diet but they would pull their malted milks under the counter until he walked past and then as soon as he was gone they'd bring them back up and start drinking them again."
• In The Magazine piece, Oliver has another great anecdote about guarding his wife Mary Lou from the notorious philanderer, Lambeau. I learned all this and more at a pretty amazing interview with several residents at Green Bay's Woodside Senior Community set up by director Scott Ross and social worker Patty Hoeffel. The average age of the group I spoke to was 97. They all had their Packers gear on and they all had incredibly accurate recall about the final days of Lambeau's run with the Packers. The Rockwood Lodge controversy is kind of an open secret in Green Bay and has been for more than six decades. Most of the Woodside residents I talked to knew about the fire but, like everyone else, were split down the middle on whether it was a torch job or an accident.
"I know one thing: It ended badly with Curly and the Packers," Oliver told me. "But I would have been very upset if the stadium was not named after him. He wasn't perfect, but if there was no Curly, there would be no Packers."
• I know everyone likes to talk about the pure, golden, rapidly disappearing good-old days of America, especially when it comes to sports. But the more time you spend on microfilm reading old newspapers, the more you realize how little things have changed -- how we've always been intrigued and scared by the same things and certain they will eventually ruin everything we love. You think NFL players today are out of control? You should have seen Lambeau in his final years in Green Bay.
According to several books on the Packers and the coach, Lambeau's second marriage and divorce was to former Miss California Susan Johnson. Months later, a pregnant Johnson showed up in Green Bay claiming that Curly was the father of her unborn child. When Lambeau found out she was staying at Green Bay's Northland Hotel, he pulled strings and had her evicted. Johnson was taken in by the family of Packers quarterback Arnie Herber. Curly ordered his quarterback to put the woman back out on the street. When he refused, Herber was traded to the Giants.
Cliff Christl, a renowned Wisconsin sportswriter and respected Packers historian, described Lambeau to a local author this way: "Philanderer, compulsive liar, manipulator and a fascinating, enigmatic individual with an insatiable appetite for power."
• The Flagstads, the family that served as the Rockwood's caretakers, lost everything in the fire and were forced to move in with their pastor after the lodge burned down. The family didn't receive a dime from the Packers. "I always remember when after the fire someone gave my mom a handbag and she was overcome by the realization, 'I don't have a thing to put in this,'" says Sandra. "The Packers got $50,000 from the fire, but we didn't have a dollar for a bag of groceries. The lord took care of us, not the Packers, and how they reconcile that in their own minds is up to them. If the Packers lucked out with insurance, I see the potential for scandal because the motive is there. But I just say, 'Good for them, I'm happy for them.'"
Spoken like a true Packers fan.
"It was a very traumatic time for the franchise," replies Packers chairman emeritus Bob Harlan. "I don't think people understand how close the team was to going away for good. The Packers were in bad shape. We could hardly help ourselves, let alone anyone else."
Nine years later, though, almost to the day of the Packer inferno, the modern era of the best franchise in sports rose out of the ashes of Rockwood Lodge when Vince Lombardi was hired as coach and general manager in Green Bay.
An event that probably never would have happened if Rockwood Lodge hadn't burned.
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