NFL rules in 1959 prohibited veterans to be traded back to their original team. The rule didn’t apply to rookies. The Giants used Vince Lombardi as a go-between to get a player back from the Chicago Cardinals. Former Packer Bill Butler told the story on our football history podcast, stating that he was the rookie that was key to the deal.
Lombardi Worked as an Assistant for the Giants
Vince Lombardi apparently paid the New York Giants a favor in his first weeks as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi previously had worked as an assistant for the Giants for five seasons before becoming the leader of the Pack in 1959.
NFL Trade Rules in 1959
Bill Butler was a rookie out of the University of Chattanooga (now UT-Chattanooga) in 1959. The Packers drafted Bill Butler in the 19th round of the 1959 NFL Draft. According to Butler, Lombardi pulled him aside during the preseason. Lombardi told Butler he made the team, but the coach needed a favor.
NFL rules at the time stated that veteran players could not be traded from one team to another and back to the original team. For example, if the Giants traded a defensive back to the Cardinals, then the Cardinals couldn’t turn around and trade that player back to the Giants at a later date. That defensive back would have to go to another team before returning to the Giants. The rule, however, didn’t apply to rookies.
Rookie Bill Butler learned the rule through firsthand experience. On The Game Before the Money Podcast, Butler stated that Lombardi told him that he’d make the Packers roster, but he first would be cut. Lombardi said to stay closed-mouth about the plan that involved Butler getting cut and picked up by the New York Giants. The Packers would trade with the Cardinals and obtain a veteran player that the Giants traded to the Cardinals but wanted back.
Switching Teams at Halftime
According to Butler, Lombardi said that Butler would return to the Packers when Green Bay played the Giants in a preseason game at Bangor, Maine.
Butler said that he suited up for the Giants to start the game. At halftime, he changed into a Packers uniform. “At halftime, I got out of the New York uniform and ended up in a Green Bay uniform,” Butler said. “It’s the only time I went into the locker room at halftime winning and walked out of the locker room and was losing.”
The Giants defeated the Packers 14-0 in the exhibition game played at Garland Field in Bangor, Maine. According to the New York Times summary of the game, it was the first pro football game played in the state of Maine. The game was part of Bangor’s 125th anniversary of the town’s foundation and attracted an estimated 12,000 fans.
After the game, Butler flew to Green Bay with the Packers. He played his first NFL season with the Packers during Vince Lombardi’s first season as the team’s head coach. Butler led the NFL in combined kickoff and punt return yards as a rookie in 1959.
What Player did the Giants Want Back?
The other player tossed into the shenanigans was likely Dick Nolan. The Giants traded Nolan to the Cardinals before the 1958 NFL season in exchange for Lindon Crow and Bobby Joe Conrad. New York wanted Nolan back for the 1959 season but NFL rules prohibited a second trade between the Cardinals and Giants involving Nolan.
Hence, the Cardinals sent Nolan to the Packers, although the details of the trade aren’t well-documented. The Packers then apparently sent Nolan to the Giants for cash. To clear up a roster spot, the Packers (according to ProSportsTransactions) officially waived Butler and later reclaimed Butler on waivers. Butler was apparently stashed on the Giants for a couple of weeks, a unaccounted for move done under the radar.
Although the notes say that Bill Butler was claimed off waivers on September 30, 1959, he covertly rejoined the Packers on September 5, 1959 in Bangor, Maine at halftime during an exhibition game between the Giants and Packers. The transaction date of Nolan being sold to the Giants was listed as September 9, 1959.
Looking for a great NFL history book? Check out The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL available at — Amazon.com – Barnes and Noble – University of Nebraska Press
Hear NFL and college football legends share their stories on a football history podcast! Subscribe to The Game before the Money Podcast on your favorite listening platform, including on Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Spotify, and Stitcher. You can also play and download recent episodes for free, right here!