Packers First Great Quarterback: The Legend of Arnie Herber
NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Don Hutson called Arnie Herber the “greatest long passer for accuracy” he ever saw.
After winning the 1931 NFL championship the Green Bay Packers traveled to California to play exhibition games and were asked to do a short 15-to-20 minute film for MGM. The director set up a pane of glass on the goal post and asked Herber to throw the football from the 50-yard line.
“This was a Hollywood idea to show accuracy of throwing the ball,” Hutson said in an interview with the Packers Hall of Fame. “Well, they thought he would be there a week and they would just keep taking the shot until he hit one.”
Herber hit the glass on the first throw. But the director didn’t have the cameras rolling.
Luckily, there were more glass panes. So he did it again. Right through the glass. The director then wanted another shot with a camera positioned near the glass to get a close up of the glass breaking.
“I wasn’t going to be in the picture, so I stood about 10 yards away – and missed,” Herber said.
Packers fullback Clarke Hinkle — Herber’s teammate from 1932 to ’40 — always praised his accuracy on long passes. Short passes were another matter. “He was more accurate at 50 yards than he was at 10,” Hinkle said in Myron Cope’s book, The Game That Was.
He was 5-11, weighing nearly 200 pounds and was described by New York Times writer John Kieran as being “built like an ice-box.” He had dark curly hair and stubby, chunky hands with short fingers that it made hard to grip the football.
“He had very small hands and compensated by not gripping the football, but simply resting it on his palm with his thumb across the laces,” John Maxymuk, author of Packers by the Numbers: Jersey Numbers and the Players Who Wore Them, wrote. “With this loose handle he could use his strong right arm to fling rainbow spirals accurately up to 80 yards through the air.”
Herber was born in Green Bay on April 2, 1910. In his teens, he sold programs at Packers games. Herber attended Green Bay West High School, where he was a three-sport star in basketball, football and track and field. As an All-Conference shooting guard, the Appleton Post said in 1928 he could “shoot baskets blindfolded.” He was a star shot put and javelin thrower. A “field general” and “triple-threat man,” in football meaning he could punt, run and pass, leading West to an undefeated record. Herber then attended the University of Wisconsin, coordinating the freshmen football squad as a captain during the summer. But for as much brilliance, leadership and cleverness he showed on the field, he dropped the ball in the classroom.
Without the grades to play for Madison, Herber transferred to St. Regis College in Denver to play football. Due to the Depression in 1929, he was forced to drop out. Herber then returned home to Green Bay and got a job working as a handyman around the Packers’ locker room. Curly Lambeau’s team had gone undefeated (12-0-1) in 1929, so with nothing to lose, he gave the local hero a tryout and added him to the roster.
Lambeau as a father figure
“The Packers were monsters during that time,” Pro Football Research Association executive director and author Ken Crippen said.
Those monsters of Lambeau were tough-nosed players and they weren’t going to let the 20-year-old Herber come in and run the show.
“The Packers treated him with disdain, initially, and called him ‘Dummy,’” Maxymuk said. “In his first league game, he threw a touchdown pass.”
In 1930, the rookie Herber and the Packers won their second straight NFL championship.
When he started to get more playing time Herber’s nickname changed to “Kid.” Star fullback Bo Molenda kept pestering Herber, leading Lambeau — also a Green Bay native — to trade Molenda to the New York Giants in 1931.
According to Larry D. Names, author of The History of the Green Bay Packers: The Lambeau Years, the Packers played New York after they made the trade and Herber went to collect $25 he loaned to Molenda. Herber and Molenda got into a fistfight underneath the stands at the Polo Grounds in New York and Herber knocked him out.
The Green Bay Football Corporation dedicated the final game of the season to Lambeau.
“Arnie Herber celebrated by putting on a one-man show for the hometown fans. Herber completed six passes for 107 yards, gained 15 yards on the ground, intercepted two passes, which he ran back 85 yards and 45 yards, punted twice for 69 yards, scored on a TD on a pass theft, and threw two bombs for six-pointers,” Names wrote.
The Packers won their third straight NFL championship behind Herber’s arm. The nickname “Kid” didn’t stick for long.
“Flash” the passing halfback
The Packers were not able to play for their fourth straight NFL championship due to some strange rules. In that day, tie games did not count against a team’s overall winning percentage so the 10-3-1 Packers officially had worse winning percentages than the Chicago Bears (6-1-6) and the Portsmouth, Ohio Spartans (5-2-4).
The NFL didn’t officially keep statistics until 1932, but Herber would be considered the best passer in football and had a new nickname, “Flash.” Herber’s statistics reflected his weakness on short throws — he only had a career 40 percent completion rate.
According to Maxymuk, Herber’s inaccuracy was due to small hands and the style of play. The formations where geared toward stacking as many guys in the backfield as possible and running the ball. Herber was listed as a fullback during his early years in the NFL.
“Herber was always a tailback,” Maxymuk said. “Single wing tailbacks were expected to do it all, run, pass and kick… However, Arnie was slow and not much of a runner, so his function as ball distributor was more closely aligned with the T formation quarterback that became prevalent in the 1940s. It should also be noted that in the days of one-platoon football, Herber was required to play on defense as well, presumably as a safety.”
Lambeau favored the Notre Dame box formation because it was what he used when he played tailback in 1918 for one of the most successful coaches in college football history, Knute Rockne (102-12-5). In the Notre Dame box, the quarterback is positioned between the center and right guard, with a wing back next to the quarterback. The tailback stood behind the quarterback, lined up with the center, and a fullback stood next to him. In most cases, the center snapped the ball to the tailback with the quarterback being mainly a lead blocker.
“In the days when the forward pass was mostly a desperation play, Herber and the Green Bay Packers used it anytime and anywhere with great success,” the NFL’s Official Encyclopedia, History of Professional Football says.
According to the New York Times‘ John Kieran, he first met Herber in 1936 during an interview with Lambeau and Johnny “Blood” McNally. Kieran recognized the veteran halfback McNally and Lambeau, but didn’t know who the third guy was.
“It couldn’t be that the black-haired Herber who went un-helmeted through the fierce football wars, tossing his tresses in the teeth of the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, would don a felt hat to protect his sconce from a light touch of frost,” Kieran wrote.
Herber was known for not wearing a leather helmet and was most likely the last Packers player to ever go “bareheaded,” according to Maxymuk.
“Sure, he’s Herber,” Lambeau said. “ If you don’t believe it, get a football and he’ll toss it over this building.”
Kieran replied by asking about the hat.
“His wife makes him wear it,” Lambeau said.
Herber just stood there grinning, saying nothing. Kiernan said during the visit Herber kept a “complete silence.”
“He isn’t much of a talker,” Lambeau said.
From 1933 to ’35, the Packers struggled to sustain a successful passing attack and Herber was limited, but in 1936 Herber let his play on the field do the talking.
Herber Gets A New Receiver
There’s a black and white photo circa 1936 with two men wearing suits and ties. One man, Arnie Herber, is standing behind a younger man whispering into his ear.
Maybe Herber did some talking. That young man Herber was whispering to was Don Hutson.
After starring at the University of Alabama, the Packers signed the speedy Hutson, creating one of the all-time best throw and catch tandems. Herber led the league in passing yards and touchdowns in 1936. Hutson had eight touchdown catches, seven more than anyone else in the league.
The Packers won the NFL championship that year with a 21-6 victory over the Boston Redskins in front of 29,545. When both men stayed healthy the team was successful.
In 1938, the Packers drafted Purdue University’s Cecil Isbell, using him as a halfback alongside Herber. The team made it to the title game before losing to the Giants 23-17. By 1939, it was Herber’s ninth year in the league and he was worn out.
“He took a beating, but kept on throwing,” Maxymurk wrote.
That year Lambeau alternated Isbell and Herber as the team’s passer.
“(Isbell) was more of a well-rounded tailback and a more accurate passer,” Maxymurk said.
The two-passer system paid off for Lambeau. The Packers got revenge on the Giants with a 27-0 win in Milwaukee. Green Bay’s City Stadium did not have the capacity for the expected crowd so the game was moved to the Wisconsin State Fair Park in Milwaukee.
Hutson led the league in receiving yet again and even though Herber and Isbell split time as the team’s passer, Herber was third in passing yards and touchdowns.
After leading the Packers to an NFL title a year earlier, Herber was cut by Lambeau in 1941. There are several accounts as to why he got cut.
Lambeau said he wanted a skinnier Herber and Herber said he wanted more money.
“As part of Herber’s contract, he would be weighed the Saturday before each game, and every time he tipped the scales over 200 pounds, he would forfeit $50 of his salary,” Larry D. Names wrote.
The clause notwithstanding, Lambeau cut Herber during the Packers training camp in 1941, supposedly due to his weight.
Names tells of a another rumor. In it, Lambeau’s pregnant, second ex-wife came to Green Bay to collect child support payments, but the coach told all the hotels in town to turn on their “No Vacancy” signs. Lambeau’s ex then asked Herber’s wife to stay in their home.
Lambeau is said to have given Arnie an ultimatum to evict his ex, but Herber refused and he was left without a roster spot.
Return to football
“Herber volunteered for the military during World War II but was rejected for his varicose veins,” Maxymuk wrote.
With many of the NFL players at war, Herber was offered a spot on the New York Giants in 1944.
“Graying, slower of foot and a bit heavy, he would play against the Packers in the 1944 title game,” Maxymuk wrote. “His passing kept the Giants on the move, but four interceptions cinched the game for Green Bay.”
Lambeau’s Packers defeated the Giants, 14-7. Herber played with the Giants in 1945, but the team and Herber struggled, finishing 3-6-1.
Herber is commonly left off many of the all-time great Packer passer rankings. For example, a recent online poll by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel only listed Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and Bart Starr.
The poll received more than 15,000 votes, with Starr the most popular choice as the Packers greatest quarterback with 41 percent.
“As with most players of that era, (Herber) played too long ago,” Pro Football Research Association Executive Director Ken Crippen said. “There is not a lot of film on those days, so people are just not interested.”
Herber is also overshadowed by Don Hutson, who caught passes from Herber from 1935-40. Though Hutson said the passers he played with were “taken for granted” with his success as a receiver.
“Without a great passer, you might as well stay home,” Hutson said in an interview with the Packers Hall of Fame.
“All players from his time are forgotten, but at least he’s in the Hall of Fame,” Maxymuk said.
Arnie Herber was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sept. 17, 1966, three years before he would pass away in the city where he was born and played 10 seasons with the Green Bay Packers.