On the day the recently resuscitated and suddenly quite vigorous Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame made its latest news – announcing Feb. 1 that it will celebrate the Green Bay Packers' 1966 championship team at its upcoming induction – the winter afternoon sun, high in Milwaukee's southwestern sky, shone down brilliantly on 4th Street, covering much of the promenade in shade and silhouetting the bronze-plaque visages that commemorate the state's greatest sports heroes.
There's an overly embellished metaphor somewhere in all of that – something about the heretofore-dormant Hall, once active and esteemed, casting a long shadow on its saviors, who are looking to return it to glory, or at least relevance – and if it's embellished enough, it might approach the grandiloquence of sportswriters from half a century ago, and perhaps even Joseph Krueger might have deemed it worthy.
Krueger was the dramatic, booming-voiced founder of the Hall of Fame. He ran the thing as his labor of love and, according to those that were close to him, would be turning over in his grave if he knew what it had endured: not one, but two extended periods of latency, the second ending a little more than a year ago.
Since Krueger created it back in 1951, through his three decades of tireless work making inductions some of the city's most prominent events, through his death in 1987 and, subsequently, through more than a quarter-century of ownership uncertainty and instability, until today, 65 years later, the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame has honored 135 distinguished members, including Hank Aaron, Vince Lombardi, Oscar Robertson and Bart Starr, among a multitude of others, and it's memorialized them all in bronze on the downtown Walk of Fame.
A long shadow, indeed.
And now, the person stepping out of it is Brian Lammi, president of the eponymous sports management company in Milwaukee, who's hoping to leverage his enthusiasm and professional expertise to inject new life into the old institution. He promises to be dedicated and do things differently, striving not only to preserve the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame – which currently consists of the burnished faces and plaques, plus some spare artifacts and surviving materials – but also to improve, expand and bring it into the modern age. Perhaps even build an actual museum, which would be a good thing, because the promenade is running out of room.
But before considering Lammi's plans for the future, fans must understand the Hall's illustrious-yet-ignored past. And no one understands that better than Gregg Hoffmann.
A longtime Wisconsin journalist and author who's now semi-retired to the warmer climes of the American southwest, Hoffmann is the institutional memory of the Hall of Fame.
Intimately involved with it for decades, he attended inductions as a young fan from Kenosha, covered them later as a hustling freelancer, spent countless hours at Krueger's home poring over "reams of information," spearheaded endeavors to rekindle the Hall when it fell on hard times after Krueger's death and, eventually, helped introduce and connect Lammi through his "Revive the Hall" campaign.
Now in his 60s, Hoffmann is compiling the Hall's history and inductee bios into a book, which, though it would be his seventh, is the one he's wanted to publish for years. Hoffmann is boundlessly eager to talk about where the Hall is finally going, calling it a potential "golden age." But first he has to tell you about where it's been – we'll call that the bronze age.
In 1951, the Milwaukee Arena had just been built downtown, a $5 million modern facility for sports and entertainment that needed a tenant. Krueger, a sports aficionado and the city treasurer, had an idea. And, as was his habit, Hoffmann says, Krueger worked fanatically to make it a reality, trying to convince the state government to charter the Wisconsin Hall of Fame and compelling others to join the cause.
In April of that year, Walter V. Johnston, president of the powerful Milwaukee Auditorium Board, asked the governor to support the Hall and appointed Krueger its selection committee chairman in an exalted letter that reflected the eloquence of the times.
"The Auditorium Board, having this in mind, believes the new Milwaukee Arena is the site best suited for this worthy purpose," Johnston wrote. "They feel that the Wisconsin citizens would deem it a privilege to pay tribute to the sons and daughters of the Badger State who have brought fame and glory to Wisconsin, because of their achievements in the field of athletic endeavor.
"National shrines have acclaimed some in the past – others will be honored in the future. We feel that our proposed Hall of Fame will exemplify an ever burning torch for clean sports. It should always urge the unborn youth of tomorrow to achieve a high place in the presence of immortals we do honor, inasmuch as every youth is a hero worshipper, and the athletic star of the past is the guiding light of the present."
Soon after that, the State Senate approved the site and officially designated the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame. In its resolution, the body mandated, "there be hung on its walls suitable bronze plaques honoring the athletic endeavors of Wisconsin's men and women as an inspiration to the youth of our great state and the ever glorious leadership which the Badger State holds in athletic achievements."
Delighted at the accomplishment, Krueger immediately set to work. The first inauguration, on Nov. 28 of 1951, was a magnificent event, with 13 athletes honored (from baseball, football, boxing, bowling, wrestling and the Olympics), dozens of politicians and journalists invited to attend and hundreds of fans watching and cheering. State newspaper editors called the Hall a "very excellent" idea.
And for the next 35 years, with Krueger in charge, it continued to be one. There were regular ceremonies every other year that attracted thousands to events around the city (in 1974, the Milwaukee Arena became the MECCA Arena, which took over as the Hall's governing body).
At the inductions, Hoffmann vividly remembers, Krieger would stand under a spotlight with a microphone and, in his deep baritone, declare that "It has come time to immortalize them in bronze!" Curly Lambeau, Warren Spahn, Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch and many, many other athletes and coaches who played in or were from Wisconsin were honored, and their plaques hung inside the arena.
Hoffmann also remembers sitting in Krueger's Bay View home every Friday starting in the late 1970s, the old city treasurer and the young cub reporter united by a love of sports, talking and reading together and turning their weekly visits into a close friendship.
Krueger "ran it as his baby," Hoffmann says, until his death from cancer created a leadership void for the Hall.
"When Joe died, and this can happen when somebody is kind of covetous of something and does a very good job with it," Hoffmann says, "there was nobody else at the MECCA who really knew or even – between you, me and the fence posts – really cared that much about it. So it just went dormant."