Golden Football Magazine
NFL Championship Games
1938: Green Bay Packers @ New York Giants
This series covers the history of the NFL through the prism of its yearly championship games.
Note: The gray boxes contain asides that provide interesting material but could be skipped without losing the continuity of the article.

Byron "Whizzer" White, Pittsburgh Pirates

Former Redskins B Cliff Battles
Cliff Battles

Bronko Nagurski as a Wrestler
Bronko Nagurski

Green Bay E Don Hutson
Don Hutson

Giants HB Tuffy Leemans
Tuffy Leemans

Packers TB Cecil Isbell
Cecil Isbell

Green Bay Coach Curly Lambeau
Curly Lambeau

Green Bay TB Arnie Herber
Arnie Herber

Three rules changes went into effect at the beginning of the '38 season.
  1. Roughing the passer would entail a 15y penalty.
  2. If a kickoff went out of bounds, the receiving team could take possession at their own 45.
  3. The penalty for a second forward pass during a play was changed from 5 and a loss of down to just 5y.
For the third season in a row, the NFL Eastern Division championship came down to the final game between the Redskins and the Giants at the Polo Grounds.
  • The previous two seasons the Redskins, first representing Boston, then Washington, prevailed.
  • However, in 1938 the Giants thumped the Skins 36-0 to return to the championship game for the fourth time after winning the East the first three years after the league split into two divisions.
The Philadelphia Eagles escaped the cellar after three seasons. The Pittsburgh Pirates finished last despite the best efforts of their highly-touted draft choice Byron "Whizzer" White from Col­orado whose 567y led the league in rushing. To take advantage of his fame, owner Art Rooney moved three regular season games to neutral cities with mixed success.
  • Buffalo, where 19,749 came out on a Friday night to watch Philadelphia triumph 27-7;
  • Charleston WV for another Philly victory 14-7 before a Sun­day crowd of 6,500;
  • New Orleans where 7,500 watched the Cleveland Rams prevail 13-7 in Tulane Stadium on the Sabbath.

In the West, Green Bay returned to the top for the second time in three seasons.

  • After losing to the Lions to drop their record to 3-2, the Packers won five in a row to clinch the division title.
  • The Pack played their final regular season game against the Giants at the Polo Grounds on November 20 and lost 15-3.
Both division winners from 1937 suffered the following season from the loss of disgruntled star players.

Cliff Battles, Redskins

  • The 28-year-old, whom many an opponent labeled the best runner they ever faced, asked owner George Preston Mar­shall for a raise after leading the league in rushing in '37. (The requested amount is variously reported as low as $250 and as high as $2,500.)
  • When Marshall refused to increase Battles' salary a penny, Cliff accepted a position as assistant football coach at Co­lumbia University where he earned $4,000.
  • Despite never playing another down in the NFL, Cliff was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
  • When he learned that Battles would not be in his backfield, Redskins QB Sammy Baugh was enraged at Marshall. He let the best damn back in the league at the time get away over 250 damn dollars. When I found out about that, I couldn't be­lieve it. Hell, if I had known at the time, I would have given him the money. I never liked the way Mr. Marshall handled our ball club. Very few players liked Mr. Marshall.
  • Washington's chances were also severely dampened when Baugh suffered a separated shoulder in the opener. He started only two more games and threw only 128 passes for the season.

Bronko Nagurski, Bears

  • The almost identical situation occurred in Chicago where Nagurski had enough of George Halas's miserliness.
  • When Bronk asked George to give him his first raise, from the $5,000 he had made each of his eight years with the team to $6,000, Halas refused.
  • So Nagurski stayed home in International Falls MN where he opened a service station. When business was slow, he hit the wrestling circuit.
  • Bronk came out of retirement to help the Bears during the war season of '43.

The championship game pitted the best offensive team in the NFL (Green Bay - 223 points) against the best defensive club (New York - 79 points).

  • The Giants lost two in a row after winning their opener but didn't loss again, although they tied the Brooklyn Dodgers 7-7 in the second-to-last game.
  • New York surrendered only 10 points in the last five games. They held the Packers to 3 points after GB had score 20+ in the previous five contests. However, Green Bay's sensational E Don Hutson didn't play in the game because of "strained ligaments" in his knee suffered in the previous game against the Lions.
  • Part of the reason the Giants gave up the fewest points in the league was their dominant ground game. They boasted the circuit's second leading rusher in Tuffy Leemans (463y). Leemans and Hank Soar ranked fourth and third respectively in rushing attempts.
  • Yet QB Ed Danowski was no slouch as a passer. The Fordham product threw for 848y, tied for third in the league and only 17y behind the leader. (Baugh finished second despite missing most of the season.) Ed's perform­ance helped the Giants finish second in points scored.
  • Mel Hein anchored the offensive line at C and the defense at LB. He rarely came out of games. As a result of his all-around play, he earned the league's first MVP award.

The Packers led the league in scoring with a balanced attack.

  • Rookie Cecil Isbell from Purdue alternated at TB with veterans Bob Monnett and Arnie Herber. Among them, they threw for 1,466y with 20 TDs as well as 20 INTs.
  • You couldn't play TB in the NFL in those days without being able to run as well as pass. Cecil led the team with 445y, 146 more than Hinkle and 220y more than Monnett.
  • Hutson, of course, led the team with 32 receptions for 548y.
  • Packer coach Curly Lambeau stated that every man on his squad of 30 would be available for 60-minute duty, if necessary, in the title game. But that was a smoke screen to hide Don's injury.
  • The oddsmakers installed the Giants as 6-to-5 favorites. The margin was not greater despite Hutson's uncertainty because GB had outplayed the New Yorkers without Don and Monnette in the previous matchup in which the Giants scored their two TDs on a blocked FG return and an INT runback. Monnett would play in the championship game.
  • The Giants felt no sympathy for their opponents when it came to injuries since so many of their own were walking wounded, including all-pro G Johnny Dell Isola, PK-HB Ward Cuff, and HB Lee Shaffer, who had played very little all season. Suffice it to say that team physician Francis Sweeny had his hands full.

The league decided that, if the game ended in a tie, there would be no overtime. Instead the rivals would rule as co-champions.

  • The weather was better than the last few title games: 31° for the 2 pm kickoff, sunny, with wind not a factor.
  • A crowd of 48,120 fell about 9,000 short of capacity but still set a record for "the gridiron World Series" known as the NFL championship game.
1938 Green Bay Packers
# Player Pos. Wgt. Hgt. College Exp.
3 Paul Miller HB 180 5-11 South Dakota State 3
4 Herm Schneidman QB 200 5-10 Iowa 4
5 Bob Monnett HB 182 5-9 Michigan State 6
7 Ed Jankowski FB/LB 201 5-10 Wisconsin 2
11 Leo Katalinas T 240 6-2 Catholic 1
14 Don Hutson E/DB 183 6-1 Alabama 4
17 Cecil Isbell TB 190 6-1 Purdue 1
18 Lee Mullenneaux C/LB 221 6-2 Northern Arizona 6
18 Hank Bruder BB/DB 200 6-0 Northwestern 8
19 Carl Mullenneaux C/LB 209 6-4 Utah State 1
21 Pete Tinsley G 205 5-8 Georgia 1
22 Milt Gantenbein E 199 6-0 Wisconsin 8
24 Joe Laws HB 186 5-9 Iowa 5
29 Darrell Lester C/LB 220 6-4 TCU 2
30 Clarke Hinkle FB 202 5-11 Bucknell 7
32 Wayland Becker E 198 6-0 Marquette 5
37 Potsy Jones G 216 5-11 Bucknell 6
38 Arnie Herber TB 203 6-1 Regis 9
40 Bernie Scherer E 190 6-1 Nebraska 3
40 Bill Lee T 231 6-2 Alabama 4
42 Andy Uram HB 188 5-10 Minnesota 1
44 Buford Ray T 249 6-6 Vanderbilt 1
46 Russ Letlow G 214 6-0 San Francisco 3
48 Ookie Miller C/G 209 6-1 Purdue 7
49 John Howell FB/LB 185 5-10 Nebraska 1
52 Tiny Engebretsen G/T 238 6-1 Northwestern 7
54 Swede Johnston FB 197 5-10 Marquette 7
58 Champ Seibold T/G 238 6-4 Wisconsin 5
59 Frank Butler C/LB 246 6-3 Michigan State 4
63 Buckets Goldenberg QB 220 5-10 Wisconsin 6
1938 New York Giants
# Player Pos. Wgt. Hgt. College Exp.
2 Johnny Dell Isola G/C 201 6-0 Fordham 5
4 Tuffy Leemans FB/DB 195 6-0 George Washington 3
5 Ken Lunday C/LB 215 6-3 Arkansas 2
7 Mel Hein C/LB 225 6-2 Washington State 8
9 Jack Haden T 232 6-4 Arkansas 3
10 Len Barnum B/DB 200 6-0 West Virginia Wesleyan 1
11 Bull Karcis FB/LB 223 5-9 Carnegie-Mellon 7
13 Kink Richards FB/DB 195 5-11 Simpson 6
14 Ward Cuff B/DB 192 6-1 Marquette 2
15 Hank Soar B/DB 209 6-1 Providence 2
17 Johnny Gildea B/DB 205 6-0 St. Bonaventure 9
18 Dale Burnett WB/DB 187 6-2 Emporia State (KS) 9
20 Leland Shaffer B/DB 203 6-2 Kansas State 4
21 Jim Lee Howell E 210 6-5 Arkansas 2
22 Ed Danowski QB 200 6-1 Fordham 5
23 Jim Poole E 218 6-2 Mississippi 2
24 Will Walls E 214 6-4 TCU 2
28 Nello Falaschi FB/LB 195 6-0 Santa Clara 9
29 Chuck Gelatka E/DB 185 6-0 Mississippi State 2
31 Larry Johnson E/LB 223 6-3 Haskell Indians 6
33 John Mellus T 214 6-0 Villanova 1
34 Stan Galazin C/LB 213 6-3 Villanova 2
36 Frank Cope T 225 6-2 Santa Clara 1
37 Ray Hanken E 190 5-11 George Washington 2
42 Orville Tuttle G 210 5-9 Oklahoma City 2
44 Ox Parry T 230 6-1 Baylor 2
49 Red Wolfe FB/DB 205 6-0 Texas 1
50 Ed Widseth T 223 6-1 Minnesota 2
55 Pete Cole G/T 215 5-11 Trinity (TX) 2
66 Tarzan White G 217 5-8 Alabama 2
  Charles Barnard E 190 6-2 Central Oklahoma 1

1938 NFL Championship Game Program

Giants E Jim Poole
Jim Poole

Giants TB Ed Danowski
Ed Danowski

Giants B Ward Cuff
Ward Cuff

More than one writer commented on the ferocity of the hitting. The most effulgent was Arthur Daley of the New York Times.

The play for the full sixty vibrant minutes was absolutely ferocious. No such blocking and tackling by two football teams ever had been seen at the Polo Grounds. Tempers were so frayed and tattered that stray punch­es were tossed around all afternoon. This was the gridiron sport at its primitive best.

As in the first game between the teams in '38, the Giants struck on special teams.

  • Quarter 1
    With Hutson on the sideline, the Packers could go nowhere on their first two possessions. When Hinkle attempted to punt for the second time, E Jim Lee Howell (future Giants head coach) flashed in, blocked the kick, then caught the ball in the air and was dropped at the 7.
    NY gained only a yard in two rushes, and Danowski's pass to Cuff fell short. So the one-time collegiate javelin champion (Cuff) booted a FG from the 13. Giants 3 Packers 0
    Two minutes later, Green Bay had to punt again. This time the opposite E, Jim Poole blocked Isbell's boot, Howell covering the ball on the 27. It took the G-men only four plays to cross the goal line. A short pass gained 4. Then Leemans went to work. He made 3 over LG, then hit off LT and cut back on a twisting run that put the leather on the 6. On the next snap, he crashed through LT and, despite being hit four times, dove over. John Gildea missed the PAT. Giants 9 Packers 0

Isbell launches a pass for Green Bay.
Isbell launches a pass.

Leemans scores the first TD.
Leemans scores the first TD.

Hinkle runs from the single wing.
Hinkle runs from the single wing.

Herber passes for first Green Bay TD.
Herber passes for first Green Bay TD

  • Quarter 2
    Green Bay finally gained some momentum after Tiny Engelbretsen (who was anything but tiny) intercepted Leeman's partially tipped pass near midfield. After two rushes by Andy Uram to the 40, Herber floated a pass down the middle just beyond Gildea's reach to Carl Mulleneaux standing on the 1. Carl turned and walked under the crossbar. Engelbretsen's kicked the PAT. Giants 9 Packers 7
    The Giants quickly boosted their lead back to 9 after Hein recovered a fumble at midfield. Leemans made a first down on the GB 48, then passed 20y to Len "Feets" Barnum. Per­haps because a rookie who caught only three passes all season was startled to receive one in the title game, Barnum fumbled the ball out of bounds on the 22 when hit hard by Herber. The official nearest the play ruled the pass incomplete. But head linesman Larry Conover overturned the call and gave the Giants the first down. The Packers stormed and raved to the officials that the receiver never had control of the ball - to no avail, of course.
    Curly Lambeau later asked for films of the title game, but the reel did not include a shot of the highly disputed play where Herber's pass was ruled incomplete.
    When play resumed, Barnum cracked T for 2. Danowski then launched an aerial to another rookie, Charles "Hap" Barnard in the EZ. With the catch, Barnard doubled his receptions for the year. Giants 16 Packers 7
    Taking the kickoff on the 20, the Packers required only seven plays to get into the EZ again. Isbell threw a flat pass to the weak side to Layland Becker who took it on the 30 and raced down the sideline before Soar roared up to push him out on the 17 after a gain of 66y. After Cecil gained 8 on a fake reverse, Hinkle ran the ball five straight times, finally bucking over from inside the 1 to pull within two after Tiny's true PAT kick. Giants 16 Packers 14
    Near the end of the period, a kick in the cheekbone gave Hein a concussion that left him with a broken nose and temporarily bereft of his memory. He was carried off the field for the first time in his pro career. The same fate befell Dell Isola during the first half as well. Also, Le­land Shaffer continued to play despite a broken bone in his leg.
Hinkle Stopped Just Short of Goal Line.
Hinkle is stopped just short of the goal line.

Hinkle Scores Packers' 2nd TD
Hinkle scores from inside the 1.

  • Quarter 3
    Green Bay's Joe Laws ran the kickoff back to the 32. Hinkle gained 10 before Monnett ran OT and swerved outside for 33. In three plays, the Packers were at the 14. Three more snaps moved the ball to the 5 where they faced 4th-and-1. In a decision that would be sec­ond-guessed afterwards, Lambeau settled for a 15y FG by Engebretsen to take the lead by a point.
    On the NY sideline, Gildea slumped even lower. All I could think to myself was about that missed kick. I thought it would cost us the championship.
    Packers 17 Giants 16
    Owen had used his players in two separate units during the season to wear down the ene­my. But behind with injuries piling up, he picked his best 11 able bodies and sent them out to regain the lead. And that's exactly what they did.
    Soar recalled what happened after the Packers took the lead. Steve took me out of the game, and he said, "I want you to go back in again. You call the plays and don't call anybody's plays but your own. You carry the ball every goddamned time." Well, they hit me with everything except the stands, and that was because they couldn't move the stands. ... It seemed like six years before the clock ran out. ... I think that game was the biggest thrill as far as football is concerned. [Soar went on to a 22-year career as an American League umpire (1950-1971). He worked 1B for Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.]
    Soar returned the kickoff 19y to his 39. Then Hank carried to ball on five of the next six plays, faking one way and cutting back against the Packers' sliding D. on 4th-and-1 at the GB 44, Owen took a big gamble, signalling Danowski to go for it.
    I knew, the coach explained later, that was what he wanted to do anyway, and I agreed with him.
    Soar drilled into the line but didn't gain much. But when they brought the chains in, the Giants had a first down by the length of the ball. Soar threw an incompletion, then Danowski decided to use him as a re­ceiver for a gain of 10. After Workhorse Hank ran again for 4 to the 24, Ed tossed to him cutting over the middle even though two Packers covered him. Soar grabbed the ball over his shoulder off Hinkle's fingertips at the 7. He was tackled from behind but fell into the EZ. Cuff booted the PAT. Giants 23 Packers 17
    Years later, Soar remembered his winning TD catch: I was near the goal line, and when I came down with the ball, I had three of four Packers all around me. Clarke Hinkle grabbed me by one leg, but I pulled and pulled and jerked loose and went in.
    The Packers moved the ball on the weary Giant eleven until Danowski intercepted on his 32.

Giants RB Hank SoarSoar scores the go-ahead TD.Leemans Catches Danowski's Pass
L-R: Hank Soar; Soar scores go-ahead TD; Leemans makes leaping catch of Danowski pass between Goldenberg and Hinkle

Hinkle tries to elude Giants
Hinkle tries to elude the Giants.

  • Quarter 4
    Hein reentered to call the defensive signals and help his mates repel Green Bay's sorties.
    From the GB 35, Herber pitched two incomplete passes, and FB Ed Jankowski could gain only a yard through the center. Going for it on fourth down, Herber whipped a long pass to Wayland Becker, who leaped into the air and caught the ball on the 20. But after he took one stride, Cuff charged in from his defensive HB position. The impact was heard all over the stadium. The ball bounded from Becker's arms as he fell, and Giant G Kayo Lunday recov­ered on the 22.
    But the Giants offense had totally spent itself on the last TD drive and wasn't able to muster much of a push in Q4. So Green Bay quickly got the ball back.
    Herber threw a 17y pass from a spread formation to E Milt Gantenbein on the NY 43, but head linesman Conover called the play back and gave the ball to New York on the GB 44, ruling that, on the presnap shift, the wide flanker moved too close to the line, covering up Gantenbein and making him an ineligible receiver.
    Afterward, Lambeau complained bitterly about the ineligible receiver call. We had used [the play] seven times previously this year, and there never was a protest. He mentioned that Herber actually motioned to the sideline that he wanted to take the team off the field to protest what the Packers considered a rank injustice. But Curly wouldn't let him because we still had enough time to score.
    In a foul mood, the Packers were penalized 15y for piling on Leemans, an action that provoked a half-minute of fisticuffs. That helped move the Giants close enough for Cuff to try a 36y FG, but it sailed wide.
    Hinkle regretted that his team started to get rough out there. It's silly for grown men to lose their tempers in a game. Looks bad, too.
    With the floodlights burning through the darkness, the Packers moved from their 20 to the NY 40 with four minutes remaining. Fourth down overtook them there with 10y to go. Eve­ryone knew what was going to happen when Hutson and Herber trotted off the bench, Herber helmetless, his bushy hair a dark halo under the lights. Arnie faded to midfield and threw one high toward the goal line. It bounced free on the 5 as Hutson was herded out of the play.
    Two minutes later, the Packers had the ball again after Danowski punted into the EZ. Her­ber threw to Carl Mulleneaux. As a posse of Giants closed in, Carl lateralled to Hutson. Don pivoted on one heel and seem­ed to have a clear path to the goal line. But Soar reached out and pulled him down from be­hind after a 40y gain. As the last seconds ticked off, Herber tried to get off a desperation pass, but the Giants furious rush caused the pass to bounce crazily on the soggy turf with no receiver near it.

Afterwards, Dell Isola and Cuff were taken to the hospital with possible fractures to the vertebrae and breastbone respectively. Hein also had his concussion checked out.

The statistics favored the Packers, although the victorious Giants couldn't care less.

  • First downs: 14-10 Packers
  • Yards rushing: 161-115 Packers
  • Passing: Packers 19-8-1/214y, Giants 15-8-1/94y
  • Return yardage: Giants 116, Packers 59
  • Fumbles lost: Packers 2, Giants 0
  • Penalty Yards: Packers 20, Giants 10
  • Soar accounted for 106y, 65 on 21 rushing attempts and 41 more on three catches.
  • Danowski completed 7 of 11 for 77y with 2 TDs and 0 INTs

Postgame

  • Owen admitted the Giants were determined to stop the Packers' running game. Yep, they tore us apart and ran through us the other time [November 20]. But not this time. Those kids of mine just made up their minds that famous Packer attack was going to be stopped. And how they stopped it.
    Steve also revealed that he had changed all the blocking assignments in his pet "A forma­tion." Then, too, we didn't throw as many passes as usual. When we found out early in the game we didn't have to pitch 'em, well, we just didn't.
    The Giants major domo also said that his men were fired up by the talk that they were lucky. After we beat the Packers two weeks ago and Washington last week, everybody hollered we were the luckiest club ever ... So no one gave my kids credit for being as smart as they really are - and they fooled everybody, including Green Bay.
  • Lambeau: It just isn't fair for us to lose a game on account of incompetent officiating. That's my sincere opinion.
    In 1984, Hutson recalled the '38 title game: In all my career, that was the only time that an injury kept me out of a game. We played the New York Giants for the title that year and I felt we were a better team than they were. We should have won the game. We even played better than them that day, but we lost it on a couple of kicks they blocked and were able to take advan­tage of.

The New York and Green Bay players split 50% of the championship game receipts while another 10% went to the division runners-up.

  • The Giants received 60% of the $28,585.68 players' pool or $504.45 per man.
  • Each Packer earned $368.84.

1938 NFL Champions
1938 NFL Champion New York Giants

1938 Giants raise a toast to their championship.
The 1938 NFL champions celebrate their victory at the Whitehall Hotel in Manhattan
On the left: Johnny Gildea, Ray Hanken, Stan Galazin, Ed Danowski, Wellington Mara, Len Barnum, Larry Johnson
On the right: Chuck Gelatka, John Mellus, Jack Haden, Bull Karcis, Tuffy Leemans, Pete Cole, Jim Lee Howell

References: Championship: The NFL Title Games plus Super Bowl, Jerry Izenberg (1970)
Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football, Robert W. Peterson (1997)
What a Game They Played, Richard Whittingham (1984)
The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football's First Fifty Years
Dan Daly (2012)
The Green Bay Packers, Arch Ward (1946)