Lambeau, McNally Play First Doubleheader in NFL History
Baseball is no stranger to doubleheaders. Although not as common as in the past, twin bills – teams playing two games against each other on the same day – still show up on the schedule.
A doubleheader in football, on the other hand, has a different meaning. Playing two in one afternoon in the NFL means a television network is broadcasting back-to-back games, neither of which involves the same teams.
Common sense says two teams playing two games so close together would be too much to tolerate, especially in the days of two-way players. Seriously, what two coaches would agree to such a two-ringed circus?
Say hello to Curly Lambeau and Johnny (Blood) McNally. Those two have the distinction of organizing the first twin bill in NFL history. On August 25, 1939, Lambeau’s Packers tied McNally’s Pittsburgh Pirates 7-7 in a preseason game, then turned around and blanked them 17-0 in the nightcap.
And maybe somewhat surprisingly, neither team appeared the worse for wear after the consecutive clashes.
Lambeau and McNally agreed to the doubleheader because both wanted to get good looks at their squads. With Blood’s team training in nearby Two Rivers, it was easy and inexpensive to get the Pirates to Green Bay.
Why not play two?
Some concessions were made for the event. Quarters were reduced to 10 minutes. Free substitution was allowed. The time between periods was shortened in order to speed up play.
The Packers suited 42 for the game. Pittsburgh had 30 players. Three former Packers – Verne Lewellen, Whitey Woodin, and Jug Earp – served as referee, umpire and head linesman, respectively. Kickoff at City Stadium came at 7:30 p.m. before a crowd of 9,416.
For a team that had stumbled to a 2-9 record in 1938, Pittsburgh gave the defending Western Conference champion Packers a good showing, especially in the first game. The Pirates marched 62 yards on their first possession, and Sam Francis opened the scoring on a two-yard plunge. Francis added the extra point and Pittsburgh led 7-0.
McNally’s outfit then stymied Green Bay for the majority of the game. Not until three minutes remained did the Packers’ offense finally come to life.
Cecil Isbell engineered the tying, 80-yard drive. He picked up five yards on first down, then fired a 29-yard shot to halfback Joe Laws who crossed into Pirates’ territory. After three downs netted but a yard, Isbell heaved a toss in the direction of Carl Mulleneaux who snagged the desperation throw and reached the Pirates’ 21-yard line. Shortly thereafter, Mulleneaux latched onto another fourth-down throw from Isbell – this one covering 19 yards for a touchdown. Tiny Engebretsen’s point after tied the game 7-7.
After the Pirates fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, Engebretsen lined up for a field goal try from the 12-yard line, but his attempt was low and the game ended.
In the second game, the deeper, fresher Packers prevailed easily. Don Hutson scored on a 13-yard pass from Isbell in the second quarter, and Clarke Hinkle pounded out a four-yard scoring run in the final period. Hinkle also tacked on a 29-yard field goal just before halftime.
In the end, this historic occasion was viewed differently by the opposing coaches. Lambeau was concerned. “I definitely am dissatisfied…We need improvements in every department…Too many assignments were missed, especially in blocking…Timing was way off.” Blood was encouraged. “I am proud of my kids…We should have won the first game.”
Lambeau’s displeasure with the proceedings became more evident the following day when he cut four players from the roster. Sent packing were tackle Leo Katalinas, fullback John Locke, running back Ed McGroarty and halfback “Obbie” Novakofski.
Later that season, however, it was Lambeau who was smiling and Blood who wore the long face. The Pirates floundered to an 0-3 start, and Blood resigned after having gone just 6-19 with the team since becoming coach in 1937. Lambeau, meanwhile, guided the Packers to a 9-2 mark and an NFL title, the club’s fifth in 11 years.