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NOTE: This story was updated on Jan. 18, 2022, to make it free for all readers.
Less than two years before Marvin Fishman, the self-described “unknown real estate man from Milwaukee,” became Marv Fishman, an “owner of Milwaukee’s new NBA franchise,” he stood before county officials trying to establish the city’s first professional sports team since the Milwaukee Braves left town.
Fishman wasn’t interested in basketball yet. He was set on bringing a football team to Milwaukee.
At 4 p.m. on Sept. 1, 1966, Fishman met with the county board to request a County Stadium lease agreement for his prospective Continental Football League franchise. The team was Fishman’s dream born out of months spent recovering in hospitals from pericarditis, an infection that causes the sac around the heart to swell. He had plenty of time to ponder why Milwaukee, then the 11th-largest city in the United States, wasn’t a major-league hub.
“Somebody had to do something about getting major league sports for Milwaukee,” Fishman wrote in his book "Bucking the Odds: The Birth of the Milwaukee Bucks".
Fishman concluded he could be that somebody. But two hours after his presentation to the county board, Fishman was foiled by a familiar foe to the north: Green Bay Packers head coach and general manager Vince Lombardi.
While Fishman presented to the county board, Lombardi flew on a private plane from Green Bay to Milwaukee. At 6 p.m. in the same courthouse, Lombardi signed a seven-year extension of the Packers’ contract of exclusivity at County Stadium that ran through 1975. The Packers, who played three of their seven home games in Milwaukee, had the power to keep any other professional football team out of the facility. Lombardi wasn’t making an exception for Fishman.
“It’s a miracle that we didn’t pass one another on the front steps or maybe trip over each other,” Fishman wrote.
Fishman considered filing a lawsuit to challenge the restrictions around a public facility, but he realized the battle could outlive the Continental Football League. Lombardi stiff-armed Fishman out of bounds and away from football for good. Two years later, Fishman linked up with Wesley Pavalon and welcomed the NBA expansion franchise Milwaukee Bucks to the city instead.
“(Lombardi) was the most powerful figure in Wisconsin,” David Maraniss, author of "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi," told the Journal Sentinel. “They called him the Pope of Green Bay. If football was religion, he was the spiritual leader of the whole state, including Milwaukee.”
Fishman's initial foray was with the AFL
Fishman’s defeat at Lombardi’s hands brought the score between them to 2-0.
This wasn’t the first time Lombardi intercepted Fishman’s attempt to start a pro football team in Milwaukee. Fishman’s initial go-around began a year earlier when he developed an interest in owning an American Football League franchise.
On Jan. 29, 1964, the AFL agreed to a $36 million, five-year TV deal with NBC. The newfound money helped the league compete with the NFL for players. By early 1965, the league was entertaining expansion into new cities.
Fishman met with AFL commissioner Joe Foss, who said Milwaukee would be a “marvelous city” for an expansion team. Eager to get a second opinion, Fishman ran the idea by Milwaukee native and former Notre Dame football coach Terry Brennan, who was managing a brokerage firm at the time. Brennan thought a football team in Milwaukee would be viable.
“Terry Brennan was a prominent name nationally, because Notre Dame was a national power,” Packers team historian Cliff Christl said. “And certainly locally because he was from Milwaukee. So there were some cachet to that name at the time.”
The duo traveled to New York to meet with Sonny Werblin, owner of the New York Jets and the head of the expansion committee. Milwaukee Journal writer Terry Bledsoe broke down the premise of Fishman’s sales talk into two parts. First, Bledsoe wrote that the AFL couldn’t reach its potential until the league expanded to the “heartland of the college game, the Midwest.”
Bledsoe also explained that the “feasibility” of two-team cities hadn’t been established. Only New York had both AFL and NFL teams that tenuously coexisted. The only “major” Midwest city without an NFL team was Milwaukee.
This argument convinced John Butcher, who was the president of American State Bank at the time, to back Fishman. The group sent a telegram to Foss that guaranteed a $900,000 line of credit from the bank.
“Needless to say, that letter of credit showed Foss, and everyone else on the expansion committee, that we were for real,” Fishman wrote.
Even renowned entertainer and Milwaukee native Liberace was interested in becoming an investor the AFL venture. In March 1966, Fishman met with a “quite serious” Liberace and two attorneys in Chicago.
The Packers' history in Milwaukee
Milwaukee technically wasn’t going to become a two-team city. But what about the Packers?
“As much as I loved the Green Bay Packers, I had to force myself to admit that they were the Green Bay Packers, not the Milwaukee Packers,” Fishman wrote.
Maybe Fishman didn’t see the deep ties that linked the Packers and the city of Milwaukee, but they existed. The small-town Packers came to Milwaukee in 1933 with the aspiration of selling more tickets to a larger fanbase.
“I think the thing we found is, first, we needed more support than just Green Bay,” former Packers chief executive officer Bob Harlan said. “Green Bay just simply could not have solely supported this franchise. And Milwaukee bailed us out.”
The Packers would go on to play at various sites in Milwaukee, including Borchert Field and State Fair Park, before settling at County Stadium. When the facility was finished in 1953, its seating capacity was 36,000. A year later, it expanded to 43,000. City Stadium in Green Bay seated only 25,000 at its peak.
In 1957, the Packers moved into 32,000-seat New City Stadium, now known as Lambeau Field. They continued to play three home games per season in Milwaukee.
“Lombardi liked playing in Milwaukee,” Christl said. “A lot of the players liked playing in Milwaukee. It was a bigger city. Back then, when teams went on the road, players and coaches usually have Saturday nights off. There weren't meetings, they weren't sequestered in a hotel like they are today. They could go out to dinner. I think Lombardi enjoyed going out to dinner in Milwaukee with friends. For most of that time, they stayed at the Pfister, which was nice accommodations.”
The team’s connection to Milwaukee was one of the factors that helped Lombardi sign Black players, Maraniss said. The 1960 census shows that 128 Black people lived in Brown County, roughly .001% of the total population (125,082). When Lombardi was hired in January 1959, defensive end Nate Borden was the only Black player on the team.
Milwaukee County, while overwhelmingly segregated in the 1960s, had a Black population nearly 500 times larger than Brown County’s. Maraniss wrote in "When Pride Still Mattered" that Lombardi would allow Black players to leave training camp twice during preseason for trips to Milwaukee, “the closest city where they could find barbers who knew how to cut their hair.”
“He was very sensitive on racial issues and understood that Milwaukee was very important to his African-American players as a place where they could feel more comfortable,” Maraniss said in an interview.
Others did Lombardi's protesting
Fishman argued Milwaukee was capable of supporting the Packers and an AFL team. The Packers played three games at County Stadium and the AFL team could play all seven of its home games with plenty of fans in the stands.
Lombardi never was directly quoted in the media speaking out against Fishman’s endeavor. However, plenty of “loyal Packer Backers,” as Fishman labeled them, did the talking for Lombardi.
Oliver Kuechle, sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal, emphatically wrote that “the Packers must not be hurt” by a competing in-state football team. He asserted that an AFL team in Milwaukee could dilute interest in the Packers and hurt them financially.
“The Packers need Milwaukee and Milwaukee wants the Packers,” Kuechle said in his Time Out for Talk column on June 27, 1965.
When Fishman sought permission to stage an AFL exhibition game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins at County Stadium on Aug. 20, 1966, he was met with pushback from more “Packer Backers” – the county board. Its members, according to Fishman, were each given four season tickets to Packers games.
“I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt the Packers down here,” county board chairman Eugene Grobschmidt said in the Milwaukee Sentinel on April 19, 1966. “Unless Vince Lombardi okays it, I won’t go along with it.”
Four days later, the request had been denied by the Packers. They had exclusive rights to County Stadium that were set to expire after the 1968 season.
Before Fishman could pull together a lawsuit challenging a “questionable” exclusive contract in a public stadium, the NFL and AFL announced their impending merger in 1970.
“It had been so easy for Green Bay to keep us out of a rival league,” Fishman wrote. “It would be even easier for the Packers to keep us out of their own.”
Had it not been for the Packers’ contract at County Stadium and Lombardi’s stronghold over public opinion, perhaps Fishman would have succeeded at establishing an AFL team in Milwaukee.
Somewhere, in an alternate universe, there is no 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks. Instead, there are two NFL teams in the state of Wisconsin.
After Lombardi left in 1968, the Packers descended into a period of despair. From 1968-91, the Packers finished the regular season with winning records only six times and went to the playoffs only twice.
“Green Bay was really struggling to support that team in the ‘70s and ‘80s because they were so bad,” Christl said. “What I think is also interesting here is what if Fishman would have gotten that franchise in '68? Start of the (Packers’) lean years? Which team would have survived? Packers or the new Milwaukee franchise?”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Vince Lombardi nixed Marv Fishman's plans for pro football in Milwaukee