The Rise of Professional Sports

Throughout most of human history, men and women have worked too hard to enjoy much leisure time. Leisure was a privilege for the affluent or a reward for hard work rather than a right in itself. For most people, only the weekly Sabbath days, which already had specific purposes, broke up the incessant struggle for food, shelter and clothing. Indeed, the Sabbath day of rest was the cause of a persistent social conflict in nineteenth and early twentieth century Wisconsin: Yankee Protestants often tried to impose laws regulating the conduct of Catholic immigrants who enjoyed beer gardens, picnics, sports, and other non-religious activities on their only day off. As industrialization standardized and mechanized work during the 19th century, most jobs became more boring, required less mental effort, and provided little sense of accomplishment. Consequently, large numbers of people looked to activities outside their daily work to escape boredom, develop new skills, and share experiences with family and friends.

Organized sports became popular among white settlers in Wisconsin only in the mid-nineteenth century. Until then, Americans had held assorted contests of skill but generally not in any standardized form. Pastimes inherited from Europe such as horse racing and ball games were particularly common, and universities increasingly became the site for more organized recreation. Spectator sports with professional athletes, rules, leagues, teams, and schedules, and organizations such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, date only from the late nineteenth century. Before then, Wisconsin's different ethnic groups brought their traditional games with them and often came to dominate particular sports.

CURLING Settlers began curling on the frozen Milwaukee River in the early 1840s, forming the Milwaukee Curling Club in 1845. Dating back to 16th century Scotland, curling came to North America with Scottish immigrants and quickly spread across Canada and the northern United States. Milwaukee joined the Grand National Curling Club of America in 1867, playing teams primarily from the East and from Canada, although the two largest teams were in Milwaukee and Chicago. The Milwaukee curlers won their first Grand National Gordon Champion Rink Medal in 1872 and claimed the international medal in 1884. The club relocated to Riverside Park in 1915 where they remained for the next fifty-five years. Women's curling began in Milwaukee in 1949, followed soon after by mixed teams of men and women. The Milwaukee Curling Club is the oldest club in continual existence in the United States.

BOWLING Bowling has a similarly long and rich history, and has been one of the most popular sports in Wisconsin for over 100 years. Bowling, or the idea of heaving a ball at objects, has existed in many variations for many centuries in many countries. English, Dutch, and German settlers all imported their own versions of the sport to North America. Nine pin bowling was particularly popular with Germans and was the standard game in Wisconsin for many years. Although many wealthy men bowled in private clubs or on estate lanes, bowling was more closely tied to working-class immigrants, primarily Germans, and took place most often in taverns in Wisconsin. German immigrants organized teams and leagues, and even encouraged women to bowl, as early as the 1880s. The popularity of bowling in taverns gave the sport a reputation for immorality, although women's involvement did help to curb some of the rowdiness, gambling, and cursing associated with all-male bowling venues.

Standardization and respectability came to bowling in 1895, when the American Bowling Congress (ABC) was formed in New York. The Congress moved to Milwaukee in 1908 where it remains today. Many companies formed bowling teams, including Heil Products Co. of Milwaukee, whose team in the 1930s included five future members of the Bowling Hall of Fame. Bowling also provided breweries with a mass audience of beer drinkers after the repeal of prohibition in 1933. Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and others recruited top stars for men and women's teams. Unfortunately, the spirit of camaraderie that surrounded bowling excluded many racial groups (as well as women) from ABC sanctioned competitions. African Americans and women soon formed their own professional organizations to counter the American Bowling Congress. After World War II, labor groups challenged the organization's discriminatory rules, and these were finally changed in 1950. Today, Wisconsin boasts four of the five oldest active American Bowling Congress-certified centers, and has over 14,000 men and women's bowling leagues.

BASEBALL A game incorporating a bat, a ball and bases was known in the U.S. as early as the 1820s, sometimes known as "town ball," sometimes as "one old cat." By 1845, rules for the game had been codified and it was called baseball. It came to Wisconsin with settlers from New England and New York in the mid-19th century. Milwaukee enjoyed its first organized baseball game in 1859, and the following year, some of the city's elite, including lawyers, bankers and newspaper men, organized the Milwaukee Baseball Club. The Civil War ended this club, but soldiers played the game in their leisure throughout the war.

The return of peace brought the organization of Milwaukee's Cream City Baseball Club in 1865, along with similar amateur organizations in Madison, Janesville, and Beloit. In the post-war years the sport became more organized, and the National Association of Baseball Players counted more than 200 clubs among its members as early as 1866. Baseball evolved from an amateur sport played by gentlemen to one that involved players and spectators from all classes of society, including teams whose members were paid openly or surreptitiously. The Cream City club disbanded in 1876 but was succeeded by the West End Club, which played a mix of professional, semi-professional and college teams.

Baseball was also popular among Indians, replacing lacrosse in popularity by 1912. Ball sports had a rich and long history among the Lake Superior Ojibwe, and, unlike organized baseball, included women. Reservation teams like the Odanah Braves played against teams from neighboring communities, as well semi-professional teams from around the Midwest. Ojibwe Charles Albert "Chief" Bender, who invented the slider, became one of the most formidable pitchers in major league baseball, winning pitching honors in 1910, 1911, and 1914.

Milwaukee had a series of professional teams from 1878 through 1901, none very successful and none surviving for more than a few years. In 1901, the city became home to the minor league Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, which under different owners played at Borchert Park until 1952. Communities elsewhere in the state hosted clubs organized by businesses and civic organizations. Professional teams were usually minor league affiliates of the major league teams scattered around the state. Typical of these was the Wisconsin State League, made up of Class D teams in nine Fox River Valley cities. Geographical closeness, local pride, and entertainment value made baseball a popular and vital part of local culture in the early 20th century.

World War II drained manpower from the major and the minor leagues, threatening to stop play and close down major league parks. Philip K.Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, saw women players as an answer to this difficulty, and in 1943 organized the well-known All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The 1943 season saw four teams -- Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin, Rockford, Illinois, and South Bend, Indiana -- competing throughout the Midwest. The league eventually expanded to 10 teams, including ones in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Media and fan interest was greatest in the smaller cities, while teams in the larger cities were virtually ignored. The women's game was modified from the major league version by making distances shorter and pitchers throw underhand. The players were recruited, trained and managed by ex-major league players or managers, and their on- and off-field dress and deportment was strictly regulated by a team chaperone and codified by handbooks and manuals. Nevertheless, the players enjoyed their time in the league, relishing the friendships, the novelty of the experience, the travel, and the pay, which was typically about three times what women workers in traditional occupations received.

Milwaukee began seeking a major league baseball team in the 1930s but the Great Depression and World War II defeated all efforts to locate a professional team in the city. The return of peace renewed this effort, and ground was broken for Milwaukee County Stadium in 1950, before any definite commitment had been made by any team to move to the city. The stadium was completed in 1953, and 10,000 citizens braved icy spring weather to view it. Soon after, the Boston Braves of the National League received permission to move to Milwaukee. Twelve thousand fans greeted the arriving team at the train depot, and 60,000 lined Wisconsin Avenue for a welcoming parade. The home opener on April 14, 1953, was a sellout, with 34.357 attending.

The Braves had several glory years, winning the World Series in 1957 and the National League title in 1958, and fans rejoiced in stars such as Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron. But team competitiveness and attendance declined, and in 1965, over strenuous objections and opposition from the city and fans, the Braves moved to Atlanta. Milwaukee County Stadium stood empty, except for occasional Green Bay Packers or Chicago White Sox games, until 1970. In that year, led by Milwaukee businessman and baseball fan Bud Selig, the Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee to become the Milwaukee Brewers of the American League. The team, now part of the National League, plays in Miller Park, a state-of-the-art stadium with a retractable roof, completed in 2001.

FOOTBALL Until the 1890s, football was a popular college sport, although North American colonists had been known to kick and throw around inflated animal bladders as early as the 17th and 18th centuries. American football grew out of the popular English games of soccer and rugby, but did not become standardized until 1922 with the establishment of the National Football League. A rival league, the American Football League was created in 1960, and the two leagues battled for players, fans, and television contracts until they merged in 1966.

Earl "Curly" Lambeau and George Calhoun organized the Green Bay Packers in 1919, when the city's Indian Packing Company agreed to sponsor a local football team. Because the company provided team jerseys and allowed the use of its athletic field, the team was identified early as a company project and earned the name "Packers." The Packers won ten of their first eleven games against teams from Wisconsin and Michigan. Their success led Lambeau to obtain a franchise in the National Professional Football League in 1921, but financial troubles forced him to forfeit the team by the end of the year. Financial problems continued into 1922 until Lambeau, with the help of Green Bay Press-Gazette general manager Andrew B. Turnbull, found new backers, known as the "Hungry Five," who regained the franchise and formed the Green Bay Football Corporation. The Packers are the only publicly owned professional sports team, a situation that makes it virtually impossible for the team to ever leave the city. Lambeau was the team's star player from 1921 to 1928, and went on to coach the team for a total of 31 seasons.

The Packers have won more league championships than any other professional football team, and are the only team to win three straight titles -- a feat they accomplished twice (1929-1931 and 1965-1967). Lambeau led the Packers to championships in 1929, 1930, and 1931, and after signing future Hall of Fame receiver Don Hutson in 1935, won three more titles. The Packers of the 1960s, under Coach Vince Lombardi, were one of the most dominant NFL teams in history, winning five league championships in seven years. Green Bay also won the first two Super Bowls (1966 and 1967), and in recognition of his accomplishments, the Super Bowl trophy was named after Vince Lombardi. The Packers returned to playoff contention in the 1990s under Coach Mike Holmgren. Holmgren's Packers won the 1997 Super Bowl, but lost the chance to repeat in 1998.

BASKETBALL Professional basketball first came to Wisconsin with the formation of the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1937. Created by three corporations, the NBL began with thirteen previously independent teams from small Midwestern towns; these were joined by corporate teams such as the Firestone Non-Skids. The Oshkosh All-Stars and Sheboygan Redskins were two of the NBL's top teams, with one or the other competing for the league championship virtually every year. The All-Stars were back-to-back league champions in 1941 and 1942, while the Redskins claimed the title in 1943. The league lasted 12 years before merging with the Basketball Association of America in 1949, which was renamed the National Basketball Association. The Redskins joined the NBA but played only one season in the league before folding.

Professional basketball came back to Milwaukee in January of 1968 when the NBA awarded the city a franchise. The Milwaukee Bucks played their first regular season game against the Chicago Bulls in October of 1968. In 1971, the Bucks, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, won the league championship, the fastest win by an expansion team in professional sports history. The team was also notable for hiring general manager Wayne Embry in 1971, the first African American to serve in that position. Fears that the Bucks would leave Milwaukee in 1985 led to their acquisition by businessman (and now Senator) Herb Kohl who sought to ensure that the team remained in the city.

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame (online at; Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001); National Baseball Hall of Fame (online at; International Bowling Museum (online at; Milwaukee Curling Club (online at]

Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Early baseball in 1860s BarabooEarly baseball in 1860s Baraboo
Link to article: A Beloit baseball team has a record-setting season in 1867A Beloit baseball team has a record-setting season in 1867
Link to article: An 1897 bamboo bicycleAn 1897 bamboo bicycle
Link to article: "Ikey" Karel leads the Badgers to victory in 1894"Ikey" Karel leads the Badgers to victory in 1894
Link to article: Janesville baseball player becomes assistant secretary of warJanesville baseball player becomes assistant secretary of war
Link to article: La Crosse's first bowling alley built in 1846La Crosse's first bowling alley built in 1846
Link to article: Men in La Crosse form a Toboggan Club, 1885Men in La Crosse form a Toboggan Club, 1885
Link to article: Programs and scorecards from the Kenosha CometsPrograms and scorecards from the Kenosha Comets
Link to article: Milwaukee gymnasts take the world by storm in 1880Milwaukee gymnasts take the world by storm in 1880
Link to article: The Black Hawk Country Club golf course nears completion in 1921
The Black Hawk Country Club golf course nears completion in 1921
Link to artifacts: Baseball uniform of Wittenberg's own Bill Gates, 1922Baseball uniform of Wittenberg's own Bill Gates, 1922
Link to artifacts: Memorabilia from the Milwaukee Braves, 1953-1965Memorabilia from the Milwaukee Braves, 1953-1965
Link to artifacts: An Aqualand water ski used for slalom skiingAn Aqualand water ski used for slalom skiing
Link to artifacts: Brett Favre jersey, 2005Brett Favre jersey, 2005
Link to artifacts: "Red" Schoendienst's World Series bat, 1957"Red" Schoendienst's World Series bat, 1957
Link to book: Bowling souvenir from the 1895 tournament seasonBowling souvenir from the 1895 tournament season
Link to book: A review of the 1878-79 curling season for Milwaukee and PortageA review of the 1878-79 curling season for Milwaukee and Portage
Link to book: The Pneumatic, a progressive monthly paper for cyclistsThe Pneumatic, a progressive monthly paper for cyclists
Link to book: The Oshkosh Base Ball Club from 1872-1913The Oshkosh Base Ball Club from 1872-1913
Link to book: Yearbooks and scorecards from the Racine BellesYearbooks and scorecards from the Racine Belles
Link to book: The sports and games of IndiansThe sports and games of Indians
Link to book: Yearbooks from the Milwaukee BravesYearbooks from the Milwaukee Braves
Link to book: A celebration of the Lombardi Era, 1959-67A celebration of the Lombardi Era, 1959-67
Link to book: Pre-season media guides to the 1966-1967 Green Bay Packers teamsPre-season media guides to the 1966-1967 Green Bay Packers teams
Link to book: Green Bay Packers Yearbooks from the Lombardi EraGreen Bay Packers Yearbooks from the Lombardi Era
Link to book: Green Bay Packers game programs, 1939-1965Green Bay Packers game programs, 1939-1965
Link to book: An 1897 bicycling guide to WisconsinAn 1897 bicycling guide to Wisconsin
Link to images: Pictures relating to the Green Bay PackersPictures relating to the Green Bay Packers
Link to images: A women's curling team in MadisonA women's curling team in Madison
Link to images: A performance by members of the Madison Turnverein, 1939A performance by members of the Madison Turnverein, 1939
Link to images: Photographs of Wisconsin golfersPhotographs of Wisconsin golfers
Link to images: Photographs of Wisconsin bowlersPhotographs of Wisconsin bowlers
Link to images: Memorabilia from the Green Bay Packers, 1944-1968Memorabilia from the Green Bay Packers, 1944-1968
Link to images: Images of baseball in Wisconsin, 1900-1965Images of baseball in Wisconsin, 1900-1965