The 1938 Title Game: A Bitter Loss

On December 11, 1938, the New York Times preview of the NFL championship game that day between the New York Giants and the Packers, gave much fanfare to the advantage of the larger Green Bay line — bigger by an average of 10 pounds per man.  One reason the Packers were favored was that they had four behemoth tackles around 250 pounds each, together weighing “almost half a ton,” as the Times put it. This perspective would be echoed 59 years later in Super Bowl 32, and, alas, so would the result of the game. One constant in football is that size matters, but it isn’t everything.

The title game itself was reminiscent of the last game of the 1938 regular season when the Packers racked up 20 first downs to the Giants 6, but lost the game 15-3 in the Polo Grounds.  Three weeks later in the championship match, again in the Polo Grounds, the Packers accumulated 378 yards to the Giants 212. They outgained New York both on the ground and through the air, but still lost the game 23-17.  In the New York Times, Arthur Daley opined, “Perhaps there have been better football games since Rutgers and Princeton started this autumnal madness 69 years ago, but no one in that huge crowd would admit it.  This was a struggle of such magnificent stature that words seem such feeble tools for describing it.”

The game was a vicious, hard-hitting affair in which teams moved up and down the field, and many players sustained injuries.  Mel Hein, at 225 pounds the largest Giants lineman, sustained a concussion, Johnny Dell Isola hurt his back, and Ward Cuff injured his chest.  Of most significance for Green Bay, Don Hutson, who had missed the previous game against New York with a knee injury, reinjured the knee and limped off early in the second quarter He did reappear for three plays late in the fourth quarter, but was not himself.  The Giants blocked a punt by Clarke Hinkle at the Green Bay seven and one by Cecil Isbell at the Packer 28 during the first quarter and subsequently scored on a Ward Cuff field goal and a Tuffy Leemans touchdown to take a 9-0 early lead.

Tiny Engebretsen helped lead the Packers back.  His second quarter interception led to a 40-yard touchdown pass from Arnie Herber to Carl Mulleneaux.  The Giants then recovered a Green Bay fumble at midfield and countered with a touchdown pass from Ed Danowski to Hap Barnard. Coach Curly Lambeu insisted after the game, “[Linesman Larry] Conover was definitely wrong when in the second period he ruled Tuffy Leemans’ pass to Len Barnum complete. Moving pictures of the play will prove that Barnum fumbled immediately, the ball going out of bounds, and that the receiver did not hold it long enough to establish possession. Since that play led to a Giant touchdown, Conover’s decision hurt us plenty.” The Packers did match that tally on a Clarke Hinkle 1-yard thrust on fourth and goal after a 66-yard pass play to Wayland Becker to make the score 16-14 New York at the half.

In the third quarter, the Packers drove down to the Giants five, but had to settle for an Engebretsen field goal to take their first and only lead of the day.  The Giants answered with a touchdown drive to retake the lead on a 23-yard pass from Danowski to Hank Soar.  The final quarter was scoreless, with the Packers frantic attempts to come back thwarted by turnovers, crucial penalties and incomplete bombs launched by Herber and Isbell. Curly was infuriated by one penalty in particular, “Late in the last quarter, Arnold Herber threw a first-down pass to Milt Gantenbein, our end, and Conover called Gantenbein an ineligible receiver, although how he arrived at such a conclusion is beyond me, because Bernie Scherer, our other end, was at least a yard behind the line of scrimmage. So instead of us being in Giant territory, New York took over in our zone. The movies will prove that I’m right about this play, too.”  Lambeau added, “It just isn’t fair for us to lose a game on account of incompetent officiating.”  Despite Curly’s complaints, what really beat the Packers were blocked punts, turnovers, and losing Don Hutson.

(Adapted from Packers by the Numbers.)

1938clambeau  1938dhutson

1938cmulleneaux  1938mgantenbein

1938chinkle  1938tengebretsen1938aherber  1938cisbell

Custom cards are all colorized and are based on 1966 Philadelphia style.

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