Monday, March 29, 2010

Pro Football Comes of Age

In the above photo, Red Grange of the Bears carries the ball against the Chicago Cardinals at Wrigley Field on November 26, 1925. As might be expected after 85 years, the uniforms of the players and officials look almost nothing like those of today. Look closely, though, and you see that the Bears are sporting the triple stripes on their sleeves that remain to this day. You also see that the idea of watching a game at Wrigley Field from a Sheffield Avenue rooftop is not new.

     On November 22, 1925, the Bears blanked the Packers 21-0 at Wrigley Field. Observing from the Bears’ bench was Harold “Red” Grange, the Wheaton native whose sensational career at the University of Illinois had concluded less than 24 hours earlier. Immediately after the Illini’s season-ending 14-9 victory at Ohio State, the three-time All-American had secretly boarded a train for Chicago to join the Bears. Thus he was at their game the very next day—but not in uniform, because the final details of his contract had not been settled.
     When Grange officially signed with the Bears on Monday morning, it was a monumental coup for Bears owner and head coach George Halas. He announced that “the Galloping Ghost” would make his debut on November 26, Thanksgiving Day, against the Cardinals. Tickets went on sale Monday afternoon, and the 20,000 that had been printed were sold within three hours. Mounted police were called to quell a potential riot among fans who were still in line when the supply ran out. More tickets were printed the following day, and another 16,000 were sold.
     Thursday afternoon was damp and chilly, but Wrigley Field was filled to the rafters. Seventeen people were arrested outside the park for selling counterfeit tickets. Grange took the field wearing a Bears jersey onto which his familiar No. 77 had been hastily stitched.
     In the first quarter, Grange brought the fans to their feet when he fielded a punt and zigzagged 30 yards before being wrestled down. The rest of his afternoon was less eventful. He ended up with 66 yards on three punt returns and 36 yards on 13 carries from scrimmage. He also attempted six passes, all of which fell incomplete, and caught one pass. His interception thwarted one of the Cardinals’ two scoring threats (the other was a field-goal attempt by Paddy Driscoll that ricocheted off one of the uprights).
     Although the Bears failed to mount a serious assault on the Cardinal goal line and the game ended in a scoreless tie, no one seemed too disappointed. When the gun sounded, Cardinal players lined up to shake Grange’s hand, knowing that his presence in the league was likely to make them all more prosperous. Hundreds of fans swarmed onto the field, and only quick work by a cordon of policemen saved Grange from being stampeded by the well wishers.
     “The Bears and the Cardinals are great pro teams,” the Tribune’s Don Maxwell wrote the next morning. “They have thousands of enthusiastic followers. But the more than 36,000 folks who made the turkey wait until the game was over weren’t there to see their teams play. They were there to see the redhead of Wheaton. They cheered when Grange gained ground; they cheered when he lost ground. They went into vocal hysterics when he trotted on the field, and they almost mobbed him when he left it.”
     To exploit Grange’s tremendous popularity, the Bears played exhibition games in St. Louis, Washington, and Pittsburgh in addition to their five regularly scheduled league games between December 2 and December 13—for a total of eight games in 12 days. Late in December, they set off on a coast-to-coast barnstorming tour that saw them play nine more games before the end of January. As a result of these games, Halas said, “Pro football for the first time took on true national stature.”
     Pro football was here to stay. By the time of his death in 1983, Halas had seen the value of an NFL franchise increase from $100 to roughly $100 million. He had also done more than anyone to make it happen.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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