Packers Top Rookie: 1950

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When Gene Ronzani took over as Packers coach in 1950, the cupboard was bare. Only 11 members of the 2-10 1949 Packer team would make the team in 1950, with tackle Dick Wildung and linebacker Bob Forte probably the best players on the squad. Ronzani hired 23-year old Jack Vainisi as the team’s head scout and went about trying to build up the talent base.

12 rookies would play for the 1950 Packers; seven were draft picks and five were free agent signings. Draft picks who made the team included center/linebacker Clayton Tonnemaker (round 1), quarterback Tobin Rote (round 2), halfback Larry Coutre (round 4), safety Jack Cloud (round 6), tackle Willie Leon Manley (round 7) defensive back Rebel Steiner (round 12) and tackle Clarence “Clink” McGeary (round 30). All but Manley were starters as rookies; Manley later spent two seasons in Canada, but had his biggest impact as the offensive line coach for his boyhood friend Darrell Royal at Texas in the 1960s and 1970s. Among the five free agents – tackle Don Stansauk, quarterback Tom O’Malley, halfback Al Cannava, halfback Breezy Reid and guard Ray DiPierro – Reid and DiPierro became starters.

There were also two draftees who never wore Green and Gold, but who played in the NFL. Third round pick Gordy Soltau was traded to Cleveland in August for tackle Joe Spencer and then was traded to San Francisco where he starred for nine years as an end and kicker. West Point star quarterback Arnold Galiffa was selected in the 18th round but was traded to the Giants for Val Joe Walker in 1953 after his service tour was completed.

Reid, Rote and Tonnemaker were the best players of the class. Reid had a serviceable seven-year career in Green Bay and twice led the team in rushing, despite never topping 507 yards rushing. Tobin Rote also had a seven-year tenure in Wisconsin, and was the leading offensive star during that period. As a rookie, though, he was way over his head, completing just 37% of his passes and throwing 24 interceptions to just seven touchdowns.

Although Rote had the longer and more meaningful career as a Packer, Tonnemaker was a respected All-Pro in his rookie season as a hard-hitting run-stuffer. He then spent two years in the service before returning in 1953 as team captain and was named All-Pro in both 1953 and 1954 before retiring in 1955 due to knee problems. He was the Packers top rookie in 1950.

Custom card is colorized and is based on Topps Baseball Rookie Team cards from the 1950s and 1960s.

Training Camp Stories, 1972

In the Packers’ annual intrasquad game during the 1972 training camp, the star of both the Whites and the Greens was the same man, Frank Patrick.

Patrick was a 6’7” quarterback from Derry, Pennsylvania who was the starting signal caller for Nebraska in 1967. He lost his starting job as a junior and was switched to end as a senior when Jerry Tagge, a sophomore phenom from Green Bay, Wisconsin took control of the Husker offense. Patrick caught three passes as a senior and was selected in the 10th round of the 1970 draft as a quarterback by the Packers.

In his first two years, Patrick was most notable for two games against the Bears. In 1970, he came in relief and threw for 59 yards, while being sacked six times for minus-55. The following preseason, he inadvertently stepped on the end line when attempting to pass from his own end zone in a 1971 exhibition game against Chicago. That embarrassing safety was the only score in the Packers’ 2-0 loss.

In 1971, sixth round pick Scott Hunter took over the starting quarterback position from injured Bart Starr, who was playing in his final season. Green Bay used one of its two first round picks the following offseason on local hero Tagge, much to Patrick’s chagrin.

Tagge was not available for the July 26th intraquad game because he was in the College All-Star camp, so Patrick started for the Whites and led them to two first half touchdowns, including a touchdown pass to Ron Bullock in the second quarter. In the second half with the Greens trailing 20-0, Patrick pulled on a green jersey and replaced ineffectual Scott Hunter. Patrick threw a touchdown pass to Dave Hampton in the fourth quarter for the final tally in the 20-7 game won by the Whites.

Unfortunately, that success did not carry over to the regular season. Patrick fell behind Hunter and Tagge and threw only four passes in 1972 and was out of football in 1973.

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1972 Topps-style custom cards; Patrick is colorized.

Training Camp Stories: Flight Risks

Two fifths of the Packers’ great offensive line from the 1960s were so discouraged in their first training camps with the Packers that they left the team and had to be persuaded to return.

The story of Hall of Fame center Jim Ringo leaving training camp in 1953 is pretty well known. Ringo recalled to Chuck Johnson in 1961:

We were training in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. It seemed like the end of the world. I was pretty light at 208 pounds. In those days, they had middle guards playing opposite the center. They all weighed 270 or 300 or more. The big thing, though, was that I was homesick. One day I saw Bob Kennedy packing , and I told him, ‘Just a minute, you’ve got company.’ We went to a lake near Rhinelander where Bob’s father had a cottage. I sat for two or three days trying to decide what to do. I hadn’t even told my wife. Then finally I went home. The Packers – Coach Gene Ronzani and Jack Vainisi – had been trying to locate me, so my wife knew what was up. When I walked in, she said, ‘Jim Ringo, you’re no quitter. You’re going back.’ So I agreed to return.

Ringo’s recollection is not quite accurate. At the time, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported that Ringo and Kennedy left camp Saturday, August 8, 1953. The paper spoke with Kennedy on Monday the 11th. “Ringo and I drove to Duluth where he went his way and I went mine. I don’t know what Ringo is going to do, but it’s definitely back to school for me.” Ringo returned on Thursday, the 13th.

The other fugitive future star was Bob Skoronski in 1956. That year, the top five Packer draftees all played in the College All Star Game. However, two Oklahoma stars, fourth rounder Cecil Morris and sixth rounder Bob Burris, decided not to play pro football and did not report to Packers camp after the game on Friday, August 10. First rounder Jack Losch, second rounder Forrest Gregg and fifth rounder Skoronski all reported on Sunday the 12th, but Losch and Skoronski left camp that night, driving back home in Skoronski’s car.

Coach Lisle Blackbourn enlisted the help of police in tracking down the players, “We told police after we learned that they had left, they would probably head south on highway 51, but they took other roads and had no trouble. In Pennsylvania, state troopers were alerted, but they still reached home without event.” Reached at their respective home, the two were persuaded to return. Losch reported on Thursday the 16th and Skoronski the day after.

Losch, an All-America at Miami, was a disappointment in Green Bay. He played just one season and then went into the Air Force and never played pro ball again. Skoronski also went into the service after his rookie year, but returned in 1959 to have a Packer Hall of Fame career on Lombardi’s champions.

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Custom cards are 1953 Bowman style and 1956 Topps-style; all colorized.

Training Camp Stories: the 1950s

For the four years that Gene Ronzani was coach of the Packers, he took the team to Grand Rapids, Minnesota for training camp, 400 miles from Green Bay. One of the features of Ronzani’s camps was a series of intrasquad scrimmages played on the road prior to the start of each preseason. These intrasquad scrimmages, though, were different than ones of more recent vintage that pit the Pack’s offense against the defense. Instead Ronzani divided the team into two full squads of both offensive and defensive units and staged full games in Duluth, Minnesota and Grand Forks, ND. The two opposing squads were dubbed the Eskimos and the Packers.

In 1951, the Eskimos were coached by Butch Larson, a former star at the University of Minnesota and local high school coach who had also coached in Canada. The Eskimo quarterback was Tobin Rote, backed up by training camp arm, Doc West from Superior Teachers’ College. The Packers were led by quarterback Bobby Thomason, who was backed up by Bob McCraney of Dartmouth. A crowd of 8,500 watched the first “Fish Bowl” won by the Packers 22-21 on August 10.

In 1952, the Eskimos were coached by Minnesota legend Bernie Bierman and quarterbacked by versatile Bob Forte, since top draft pick Babe Parilli was in camp with the College All-Stars. Two games were actually scheduled that August. The Fish Bowl in Duluth on Friday, August 8 and the “Potato Bowl” in Grand Forks on Monday, August 11. Tobin Rote piloted the Packers this time, but again came up on the short end both times as the Eskimos won 34-7 in the Fish Bowl and 28-7 in the Potato Bowl. Although “quarterback” Forte had played halfback earlier in his career, he would hold down the left corner linebacker position, while serving as team captain, in 1952 and 1953. Respected throughout the league, the 6-foot 200-pound Forte was best in pass coverage and intercepted 23 passes in his tenure in Green Bay.

The final Fish Bowl took place on August 7, 1953, with Tobin Rote’s Packers upending Babe Parilli’s Eskimos 17-13 before a crowd of 5,000 in Duluth. Rote went all the way, but Parilli was spelled by Northwestern free agent rookie Dick Flowers. Flowers was traded to the Colts three weeks later; he appeared in one NFL game and was the first Colt to wear number 18, later made familiar by Peyton Manning.

In 1954, new coach Lisle Blackbourn moved training camp back to Stevens Point, Wisconsin and the Fish and Potato Bowls were pureed into the chowder of history.

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1952 Bowman-style custom card is colorized.

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The Aftermath of Training Camp 1952

Thread One:

Eight future NFL quarterbacks played for Notre Dame between 1945 and 1949. One was George Ratterman, who left South Bend in 1947 to sign with Buffalo of the All American Conference where he proved to be a very able performer. When the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, Ratterman was assigned to the New York Yanks and led them to a 7-5 record. Unhappy with his contract negotiations a year later, he jumped to Canada, but returned to New York in midseason signing a deal that allowed him to become a free agent in 1952 when the Yanks franchise was dissolved.

Ratterman signed with the Browns and served as Otto Graham’s backup for four years. When Graham retired in 1956, Ratterman suffered a career-ending knee injury. He later wrote a very funny book about his football career called, Confessions of a Gypsy Quarterback, and went into broadcasting and then local politics.

So what does this have to do with the Packers?

Thread Two:

In 1952, the same year Ratterman joined the Browns, linebacker Tito Carinci signed with the Packers as a free agent linebacker on March 20. Carinci was a “Little All-America” at Xavier where he led the team to a victory in the 1951 Salad Bowl over Arizona State. While living in Cincinnati during college, though, Tito was said to enjoy the thriving night life across the river in Newport, Kentucky.

The 6’ 200-pound Carinci was noted for his speed and received good notices throughout training camp. However, in the final cutdown to 33 players on September 22, 1952, Carinci was one of five men waived.

Carinci went into the Army and had a tryout with the Bears in 1955. Eventually, he ended up back in Newport, where he began to work with local mob figures and rose to general managership of the Tropicana Club in town, a hotbed of gambling and prostitution.

Tying the Threads:

Ratterman became involved in the campaign to cleanup “Sin City,” as Newport was known and where he and his in-laws lived. After George announced his candidacy for Sheriff of Campbell County on a reform ticket, he was invited for a drink at a Cincinnati bar by an associate of Carinci who joined them and slipped a “mickey” into Ratterman’s drink. George woke up in bed next morning at the hotel above the Trop in bed with Carinci’s stripper friend, April Flowers (Juanita Hodges).

After blood work proved Ratterman had been drugged, Carinci and his associate were arrested on conspiracy charges. Ratterman was elected Sheriff that year and successfully vanquished the mob in the city. Carinci actually ran for mayor of Newport in 1963, but lost. Carinci went on to be acquitted of the conspiracy charges twice, but later served time in prison for tax evasion and, in the 1970s, for selling heroin. After getting out of prison, he ran a bar in Hermosa Beach, California and was honored by the city council for his efforts against ocean pollution.

How would history be different if Tito had made the Packers in 1952?

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1952 Bowman-style custom card is colorized.

Training Camp Stories, 1961

One of the fastest cuts ever made in a Green Bay training camp was Royce Whittingon. The Packers drafted 6’2” 270-pound defensive tackle out of Southwestern Louisiana as a future pick in 1960. Whittington signed his contract on March 2, 1961 and was told to report at 260 pounds.

However, when Whittington weighed in at the opening of training camp on Monday July 17, he weighed a whopping 315 pounds. The Milwaukee Sentinel noted that he “trudged around” at the first practice that afternoon. Following practice, Vince Lombardi cut him, saying, “He was simply too much out of condition. He should do something about that weight for his own good.”

At that point, 6’6” 280-pound Jim Brewington became the biggest man in camp, but the 17th round pick out of North Carolina Central showed enough movement to stay in camp. Brewington and fellow rookie Elijah Pitts were two sleeper picks from historically black colleges scouted by veteran safety Emlen Tunnell. Pitts was reported to have run a 9.6 100 and, of course, would have a long career in Green Bay.

Lombardi told Chuck Johnson on August 2 that Brewington “is big and strong, but has a long way to go.” Three days later, Brewington tackled diving backup quarterback Joe Francis in a scrimmage, and Francis injured his knee on the play. Francis was later waived and finished his career in the CFL. Brewington was eventually cut on August 28 after the third exhibition game, but was signed by Oakland where he appeared in all 14 games in 1961. He spent the bulk of his life as a gym teacher in his native North Carolina.

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1961 Topps-style custom cards; Whittington (at his weigh-in) and Brewington are colorized.

Salute to a Trio of Icons

I was on vacation when Ron Wolf was inducted into the Hall of Fame last week, but I want to offer my belated congratulations to one of the three great front office icons in Packer history (along with Lambeau and Lombardi). Now, all three are enshrined in the most honored place in pro football and deservedly so. The Canadian Football Hall of Fame classifies its members as either players or builders, and builders is the term that best describes these three men.

Curly Lambeau was coach and de facto general manager of Green Bay from 1921-1949. In that 29-year period, the Packers went 209-104-21 (.668) and won six NFL championships. The teams experienced just three losing seasons in that span, but unfortunately the worst two were the last two seasons of Curly’s tenure with the team; Green Bay went just 5-19 in 1948-49. Time had passed Lambeau by, and he left a mess behind when he was forced out in 1950.

After a decade in darkness, Vince Lombardi was hired in 1959, which initiated a decade of unparalleled excellence during his tenure from 1959-67: a regular season record of 89-29-4 (.754), postseason of 9-1 and five NFL titles. Lombardi, of course, stepped down as coach and anointed his respected defensive coach Phil Bengtson as new head coach in 1968. A year later, general manager Lombardi was off to Washington and the team drifted into a dormant, rudderless period of irrelevancy under Bengtson and his successors Dan Devine, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg and Lindy Infante. In the 24 years from 1968-1991, those five coaches went 146-201-9 (.423), produced just five winning and four .500 seasons to 15 losing ones and went to the playoffs just twice.

Into the void stepped Ron Wolf in 1992, and his organizational leadership reversed the decades of ineptitude immediately and ever since. In the last 23 seasons since 1992, the team has had 21 winning seasons and just one loser. Not only did Wolf produce a series of winning teams, but also trained his successors, Mike Sherman and Ted Thompson, to keep the organization well-run and successful under head coaches Mike Holmgren, Mike Sherman, Ray Rhodes and Mike McCarthy. While Rhodes only lasted one 8-8 season, the other three coaches posted a combined 226-125-1 record (.643) through 2014, with 17 playoff appearances and two Super Bowl championships.

Wolf gave a brief, classy acceptance speech in Canton, as is his wont, but no one is likely to top the conciseness of Curly Lambeau’s induction speech as part of the charter class of inductees in 1963:

I am deeply grateful and very happy to be honored here today. Forty one years ago I came to Canton to get a franchise for Green Bay, Wisconsin. The franchise was issued by Joe Carr at that time, and it cost fifty dollars. And the last time I looked, the Packers were still in the league. Thank you.

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(Text adapted from my book, Green Bay Gold)

Custom cards in 1894 Mayo Cut Plug style; Lambeau is colorized.