Thursday, September 30, 2010

Impressions of Papa Bear, Part 2

     During the 1937 NFL championship game, one of the Bears hit Washington Redskins star Sammy Baugh with what Redksins owner George Preston Marshall perceived as unnecessary vigor. Enraged, Marshall stormed down from his box and confronted Bears head coach and owner George Halas in front of the Chicago bench, where the two hurled the most profane insults back and forth until one of the Bear players stepped in and made a move toward Marshall. At that point, Marshall wisely retreated from the sideline and returned to the safety of his box. When he sat down beside his wife, movie actress Corinne Griffith, she said, “Oh, that was awful!”
     “What was awful?” Marshall replied.
     “That horrible language,” Griffith said. “We heard every word.”
     “Well, you shouldn’t listen.”
     “And as for that man Halas—”
     “Don’t you dare say anything against Halas!” Marshall cried. “He’s my best friend!”

     Halas’s sideline outbursts were legendary. Irv Kupcinet, the Chicago newspaperman who later teamed with Jack Brickhouse on the Bears’ radio broadcasts, was an NFL official for several years (he was head linesman for the incredible 1940 championship game). “Halas was known to take great delight in screaming at the officials,” Kupcinet said, “berating them with the vilest language known to man when he felt a decision went against his team. I was, myself, subject to his rantings. Yet after many games, we sat down to dinner together, without a word passing between us about our encounters on the field.”

     After the Bears annihilated the Redskins 73-0 for the 1940 world championship, Sid Luckman went to see Halas about getting a bonus. Although he was one of the highest paid players in the league at $5,000 a year, Luckman felt that an extra $1,000 would be fair given his tremendous success that season. “I went to Halas’s office and asked him straight out,” Luckman recalled many years later. “He just looked at me. I looked back at the man who was the Bears’ founder, owner, coach, general manager, and treasurer, and saw him turn white. But as he regained his composure, he pulled an envelope out of a pocket and started reading his scribblings on its backside: ‘In the first game against Green Bay you threw an interception...’
     “‘But Coach,’ I interrupted, ‘we won that game by 30 points!’
     “‘... in the next game against Detroit you fumbled...’
     “‘But Coach, we beat the Lions by a wide margin! I must have done something right because I played 55 minutes in both of those games, on offense and defense!’
     “It was no use. He went on and on, listing chronologically all of the lousy plays I had made that season. Finally I said, ‘Jeez, Coach, maybe I should pay you some money for as bad as it sounds like I played.’ Coach Halas eyed me and told me he’d give me $250—and that was more than I deserved and more than he wanted to pay me.
     “I drove home to New York where I had grown up and where I was living during the offseason. Sometime in April, he wrote me a wonderful letter in which he stated that many things were going to change with the Bears’ offense that coming year, and he suggested that I come back a month earlier than planned. If I did, he would pay me $750. So I ended up getting the bonus after all. He just had to arrange it his way.”

     Under Halas, the Bears were responsible for many innovations over the years. For example, they were the first team in pro football to hold daily practice sessions, to study game films of future opponents, to use a stadium announcer, to broadcast games on radio, and to deploy an assistant coach in the press box (connected by telephone to the coaches on the sideline). In 1955, Halas installed miniature radios in the helmets of his quarterback and defensive captain so he could speak directly to them while they were out on the field. The NFL got wind of it after three games and outlawed the practice, but today it is standard procedure throughout the league.

     Although he enjoyed his bourbon as well as the next fellow and could swear like a longshoreman, Halas was nonetheless a devout Catholic and dedicated family man who was appalled by the unabashed philandering of some of his players. “Guys would get on the airplane with a garment bag,” Mike Ditka wrote. “The Old Man would be right in front. If he saw a big garment bag, he would say, ‘You dirty whore. This is not a two-suit trip.’ It was a big joke after that. We always wondered whether we were going on a two-suit trip or a one-suit trip.”
     Halas even hired detectives to keep watch over his players, some of whom altered their behavior accordingly. One who never changed was defensive end Doug Atkins, who came to the Bears from Cleveland after the austere Paul Brown gave up trying to control him. Atkins often called Halas at home in the wee hours of the morning, invariably after consuming a number of cocktails. He would let loose a torrent of obscenities, telling his boss exactly what he thought of him. Halas gave it right back, and then some. The next morning, Atkins would be at practice on time and ready to go.

Part 2 of 3.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Homer in the Gloamin'


Seventy-two years ago today, on September 28, 1938, the Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates met in perhaps the most dramatic game ever played at Wrigley Field. The Cubs were finishing fast under player/manager Gabby Hartnett, and they had sliced Pittsburgh's lead in the National League pennant race to but half a game. What happened next was, in Hartnett's words, “the greatest thrill of my life.”

     On the gloomy afternoon of September 28, the Cubs trailed 3-1 when Gabby Hartnett opened the bottom of the sixth with a double to center. Rip Collins followed with a double off the right-field wall to score Hartnett. Collins advanced to third on a single by Billy Jurges and scored the tying run on a forceout. The Cubs missed a chance to go ahead when Jurges, trying to score from second on a single to left-center, was thrown out at the plate by shortstop Arky Vaughan.
     The skies continued to darken as the game remained tied through the seventh. In the eighth, the Pirates scored twice, and only an inning-ending double play prevented further damage.
     Leading 5-3, the Pirates needed only six more outs to all but knock the Cubs out of the pennant race. But the Cubs came right back in their half of the eighth. Collins led off with a single. Bill Swift relieved Pirates starter Bob Klinger and walked Jurges. Tony Lazzeri was sent up to bunt the runners to second and third. His first attempt was foul. He missed the second pitch altogether, but the ball got away from catcher Al Todd, and Collins went sliding into third. Lazzeri, having failed to sacrifice, then swung away and delivered a double to right, scoring Collins and sending Jurges to third.
     The tying and lead runs were now in scoring position for the Cubs. After Stan Hack drew an intentional walk to load the bases, Billy Herman singled to right. The fans were delirious—for an instant. Herman’s hit scored Jurges with the tying run, but Joe Marty (pinch running for Lazzeri) was out at the plate on a perfect throw by right fielder Paul Waner. Now Hack was on second with the go-ahead run, and Herman on first. But Mace Brown came on to pitch for the Pirates and induced Frank Demaree to tap into a double play to end the inning.
     By now it was very dark (it would be 50 more years before lights were installed at Wrigley Field). The umpires conferred and decided to let the teams play one more inning, after which it would certainly be impossible to continue.
     Charlie Root, the Cubs’ sixth pitcher of the day, got through the ninth unscathed, thanks in part to Hartnett, who nailed Paul Waner trying to steal second for the third out. In the bottom half of the inning, Cavarretta hit a long drive to center that was caught by Lloyd Waner. Then Carl Reynolds grounded out to the second baseman. One more out and the game would go into the books as a tie, and the Pirates would still be in first place. The teams would have to play a doubleheader the next day, with the Cubs needing a sweep to move into first place.
     Up to the plate strode Gabby Hartnett. “I swung once and missed,” he later recalled. “I swung again, and got a piece of it, but that was all. A foul and strike two. I had one more chance. Mace Brown wound up and let fly; I swung with everything I had and then I got that feeling you get when the blood rushes out of your head and you get dizzy.”
     “Hartnett swung,” Paul Waner remembered, “and the damn ball landed in the left-field seats! I could hardly believe my eyes. The game was over, and I should have run into the clubhouse. But I didn’t. I just stood out there in right field and watched Hartnett circle the bases, and take the lousy pennant with him. I just watched and wondered, sort of objectively, you know, how the devil he could ever get all the way around to touch home plate.”
     Hartnett’s home run gave the Cubs a 6-5 victory. There was pandemonium in the stands and on the field. “When I got to second base I couldn’t see third for the players and fans there,” Hartnett said. “I don’t think I walked a step to the plate—I was carried in. But when I got there I saw [umpire] George Barr taking a good look. He was going to make sure I touched that platter.”
     “The crowd was in an uproar,” said Waner, “absolutely gone wild. They ran onto the field like a bunch of maniacs, and his teammates and the crowd and all were mobbing Hartnett, and piling on top of him, and throwing him up in the air, and everything you could think of. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
     It took dozens of Andy Frain ushers, as well as the entire complement of Cub players, to protect Hartnett from the hundreds of fans who had swarmed onto the field. The ushers and the other players tugged and shoved and elbowed their way through the mob to the Cubs’ clubhouse. A mailman who had caught the home run came and presented the ball to Hartnett, who gratefully gave him an autographed ball in return.
     For the first time since July 12, Pittsburgh was out of first place. The next day, the Cubs routed the demoralized Pirates 10-1 for their 10th straight win and their 20th in the last 23 games. Appearing on the mound for the fifth time in a week (including three complete game victories and two relief stints), Bill Lee had an easy time of it as he went the distance. “The heart was gone out of Pittsburgh,” Hartnett said. Two days later, the Cubs clinched the pennant with a victory at St. Louis. It was their fourth flag in the past 10 seasons, each coming at three-year intervals.
     On the evening of October 3, thousands of fans greeted the Cubs when their train pulled into the Illinois Central station. The following day, a ticker-tape parade down LaSalle Street drew tens of thousands.

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

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Merkle Game

     One hundred and two years ago yesterday, on September 23, 1908, the Cubs and the Giants were in a virtual tie for first place in the National League when the two clubs took the field at the Polo Grounds in New York for what became one of the most famous games in major-league history.
     The game was scoreless until the fifth, when Cub shortstop Joe Tinker’s line drive into the gap eluded right fielder Mike Donlin and went for an inside-the-park home run. Donlin made amends the next inning by singling in the tying run. The Cubs’ Jack Pfiester held his own against Mathewson, and the game remained deadlocked 1-1 into the bottom of the ninth. With two out and Moose McCormick on first, Fred Merkle came to bat for the Giants. Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie, was in the lineup only because regular first baseman Fred Tenney was hurt.
     Merkle came through with a single to right, sending McCormick around to third. That brought Al Bridwell to the plate. “Well, the first pitch came into me,” Bridwell recalled, “a fastball, waist high, right over the center of the plate, and I promptly drilled a line drive past Johnny Evers and out into right center field. Bob Emslie was umpiring on the bases and he fell on his can to avoid being hit by the ball. I really socked that one on the nose. A clean single.”
     McCormick crossed home plate, and New York had seemingly won the ballgame. Merkle jogged only about halfway to second base before he became unnerved by the thousands of jubilant fans who were swarming onto the field. He peeled off and sprinted for the Giants’ clubhouse. Evers immediately recognized the youngster’s mistake; if he could get hold of the ball and step on second base, Merkle would be forced out to retire the side, and the game would still be tied. He began yelling for center fielder Solly Hofman to throw him the ball.
     Three weeks earlier in Pittsburgh, another rookie, Warren Gill, had failed to touch second base on an apparent game-winning hit against the Cubs. On that occasion, Evers screamed bloody murder but umpire Hank O’Day was unmoved, and the Pirates’ victory was allowed to stand.
     O’Day now found himself confronted with the exact same situation. Rather than leave the field, he watched intently as Hofman grappled with fans for the ball and threw it toward the infield. Realizing what the Cubs were up to, third-base coach Joe McGinnity grabbed the ball and chucked it into the crowd, where it was caught, according to Evers, by “a tall, stringy middle-aged gent with a brown bowler hat on.” The Cubs’ Harry Steinfeldt and Rube Kroh chased this fellow, Kroh finally knocking him to the ground and retrieving the ball. (Kroh, a seldom-used pitcher, had been in charge of the bag in which the Cubs stored their valuables for safekeeping. He forgot all about it when he left the bench to pursue the man in the bowler hat. The bag and its contents, about $5,000 in cash and jewelry, were never seen again.)
     Kroh flipped the ball to Tinker. “I was yelling and waving my hands by second base,” said Evers, “and Tinker relayed it over to me and I stepped on the bag and made sure O’Day saw me.” O’Day ruled that Merkle was out and the run did not count. Accordingly, the game should have continued into extra innings, but clearing the field was out of the question. While the Cubs and the umpires ran a gauntlet of irate Giants fans to the clubhouse, Chance took the opportunity to berate O’Day, claiming that because the chaos on the field prevented extra innings, the Cubs should be declared the winners by forfeit.
     Neither team was satisfied by the outcome, although the Cubs were well aware that they had gotten the better of it. Evers, for one, understood that O’Day could have taken the easy way out by assuming that Bridwell’s hit had ended the game. He said that O’Day’s call was “one of the greatest examples of individual heroism the game has known.”

     After hearing all the arguments and counter-arguments, league president Harry C. Pulliam ruled that the disputed game would go into the books as a tie. Meanwhile, the season continued. When it was all said and done, the Cubs and Giants found themselves again tied for first place. The Cubs went back to New York for a special playoff game on October 8, and their ace pitcher Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown subdued the Giants 4-1 to wrap up the Cubs’ third straight pennant. They were also headed towards their second consecutive World Series championship.
     “My team,” said John McGraw, “merely lost something it had honestly won three weeks ago.” Thus he blamed the Merkle incident of September 23, but not Merkle himself, for the loss of the pennant. Merkle’s teammates also understood that any one of them could have made the same mistake. Even Al Bridwell, the man who was deprived of the biggest hit of his career and credited with a fielder’s choice instead, had only empathy for the rookie. “I think anyone would have done the same thing that Fred Merkle did,” he said.
     New York fans, though, blamed Merkle’s “bonehead” play and the “villainy” of the Cubs for giving Chicago the title. Although he played usefully in the majors for a dozen more years (including four with the Cubs), Merkle never lived it down. “I wish I’d never gotten that hit,” Bridwell said many years later. “I wish I’d struck out instead. If I’d have done that, then it would have spared Fred a lot of unfair humiliation.”

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Long Count

     Eighty-three years ago today, on September 22, 1927, champion Gene Tunney and challenger Jack Dempsey fought for the world heavyweight title at Soldier Field. Tunney had taken the title from Dempsey by unanimous decision 364 days earlier, and fans had been clamoring for a rematch ever since. The rematch remains one of the most famous bouts in boxing history.
     People who were there said what they remembered most was the brilliant light in which the fighters were bathed. Dozens of cone-shaped fixtures were suspended directly above the ring, sending columns of white light onto the canvas. “All is darkness in the muttering mass of crowd beyond the spotlight,” Graham McNamee intoned to the radio audience. “The crowd is thickening in the seats. It’s like the Roman Colosseum.”
     Estimates of the crowd varied widely, from a low of 105,000 to a high of 150,000. This mass of humanity produced gate receipts of $2,658,600—establishing a record that stood for over 40 years. Dempsey received $450,000, Tunney slightly less than $1 million.
     The weather was cool, around 55 degrees, with a gentle breeze from the lake. The crowd paid almost no attention to the four preliminary bouts, but came to life when Dempsey appeared at 9:55 p.m. He bounced around the ring and chatted nonchalantly with Mayor Big Bill Thompson while waiting for Tunney, who made his entrance some five minutes later. Dempsey and Tunney shook hands and said a few words to one another.
     “They’re getting the gloves out of a box tied with pretty blue ribbon,” McNamee informed his listeners. Then it was time to get down to business. “Robes are off,” he cried. “The bell!” As in the earlier fight, Dempsey was the aggressor. The methodical Tunney was content to backpedal and feint, patiently looking for openings. When he saw one, he struck quickly and danced away before Dempsey could effectively retaliate. Throughout the early rounds, Tunney stayed out of trouble and piled up points. Time and again, he lured Dempsey in too close, then nailed him with a straight left to the forehead followed by a right cross to the jaw. By general consensus, the champion won each of the first five rounds.
     Dempsey emphasized body blows early in the fight, but these had little impact. He went for the head from the sixth round on, realizing that he would probably need a knockout in order to win. He scored twice in the sixth with wicked lefts to the jaw, and most observers gave him a narrow edge in that round.
     Dempsey continued to attack in the seventh. He came out of his corner with renewed enthusiasm and caught Tunney against the west ropes almost at once. Tunney missed with a right cross. Then Dempsey delivered a left hook to the jaw, followed by a right cross that landed as Tunney was already falling to the canvas. “What a surprise!” Tunney wrote in his autobiography. Dazed, Tunney sat on his haunches with his left arm looped around the middle rope. Dempsey stood over him menacingly, eager to finish him off if and when he got back to his feet.
     Referee Dave Barry did not begin to count over Tunney until Dempsey retreated to a neutral corner, per the rule that is meant to prevent a man from being struck while he’s down. Between four and five seconds elapsed before Barry began counting. “Meantime,” Harvey Woodruff wrote in the Tribune, “champion Gene, whose title seemed [to be] slipping from his grasp, rose on one knee and, with his senses rapidly recuperating, coolly awaited the count of nine before arising to his feet.”

     The notorious “long count” was that simple. There was no question that Tunney was on the floor for 13 to 14 seconds—when 10, of course, is enough to register a knockout. But there was also no question that Dempsey was tardy in moving away from his fallen opponent. He had stood over Tunney for several seconds with his right arm cocked. Barry correctly interpreted the rule which stated, “Should the boxer on his feet fail to stay in the [neutral] corner, the referee and the timekeeper shall cease counting until he has so retired.”
     Tunney always maintained that he could have gotten up whenever he pleased. “I was not hurt,” he claimed, “but considered it just as well to take my time about arising.” When the fight resumed, Dempsey attacked relentlessly, but Tunney held him off with body blows. Dempsey chased Tunney around the ring, derisively motioning for him to stand and fight. Tunney kept on moving. Soon his head was clear of cobwebs, and he managed to deliver a right to Dempsey’s jaw and a left to the midsection just before the bell.
     By surviving the seventh round, Tunney had recovered the momentum. He scored a knockdown of his own in the eighth with an overhand right to Dempsey’s head. Jack popped back up after a count of one, but he was wobbly as the bout continued. Tunney shot a series of lefts to the jaw, then rocked Dempsey with lefts and rights to the head. The bell sounded with the two fighters toe-to-toe in the center of the ring and the fans on their feet, roaring.
     Tunney was in command the rest of the way. Dempsey, desperate by now, repeatedly resorted to illegal “rabbit punches” to the back of the champion’s head throughout the later rounds. Like his legitimate blows, however, they did little damage. Most uncharacteristically, Tunney threw caution to the wind. Sensing that Dempsey was tired and wounded, he abandoned his dancing and forced the issue. He advanced on the challenger and banged away virtually at will in the ninth round, opening a nasty cut above Dempsey’s left eye. In the 10th, the frustrated Dempsey wrestled Tunney to the floor. When he got back up, Tunney landed five left jabs to the face without being hit in return.
     Dempsey knew he needed a knockout, but as the clock ticked down he simply did not have the strength to throw anything but a few token punches. Tunney showered him with a barrage of left and right hooks in the closing seconds. If the bell had come any later, Dempsey almost certainly would have ended up on the canvas.
     Tunney won a unanimous decision. “It simply was a case,” Walter Eckersall wrote in the Tribune, “of a boxer, who was much faster, winning a 10-round decision over a fighter who always commands respect because of his punching power.”
     Dempsey and his supporters, naturally, complained bitterly about the long count. “It appeared they gave Tunney a generous count in the seventh,” Dempsey said, “just enough extra time to let him get his bearings and climb back on his bicycle.” Dempsey’s manager, Leo P. Flynn, declared that Tunney had retained the title “by grace of what was either a queer decision or a colossal case of inefficiency in the simple matter of counting seconds.” Flynn was just warming up. “Even if Tunney could have got to his feet at the end of an up-and-up count,” he said, “Jack would have floored him again. He needed those extra five seconds mighty bad.”
     Flynn filed a formal protest, which was denied. At the time, his and Dempsey’s grievances were written off as sour grapes. Over the years, though, the controversy surrounding the long count grew until it nearly overshadowed the estimable careers of the two principals, both of whom deserved to be ranked among the great heavyweights.
     “Some folks are saying that I should fight Dempsey again,” Tunney said the day after the fight in Soldier Field. “I don’t agree with them. I have beaten him twice and I see no reason why the public should want to see us matched again.” With that, Dempsey retired; his record was 62-6-10, with 49 knockouts. He became a sort of professional celebrity and opened a successful nightclub in New York. Tunney fought only once more, earning a technical knockout of Tom Heeney on July 26, 1928. He then hung up his gloves, married a Connecticut society woman, and embarked on a tour of Europe’s art museums and literary haunts. His record was 65-1-1, with 47 knockouts.

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

Monday, September 20, 2010

1985 Bears Flashback: McMagic

     September 19, 1985. The Bears are at Minnesota for a Thursday night game against the Vikings.
     Jim McMahon doesn’t start at quarterback because a combination of ailments has kept him out of practice. Backup Steve Fuller is behind center for the first two and a half quarters. “I was in [Mike] Ditka’s ear most of the time about putting me in,” McMahon says later. “Steve wasn’t playing all that bad; we just needed a spark.”
     The Bears are trailing 17-9 with 7:22 left in the third quarter when McMahon enters the game. On his first play, at the Bears’ 30-yard line, McMahon stumbles taking the snap, regains his footing, then sees that the Vikings’ linebackers are blitzing. “What I also saw,” he recalls, “was Willie Gault running free down the middle, so I just unloaded it to him, and it was a 70-yard touchdown.”
     What the national TV audience also saw was Walter Payton obliterating one of the blitzing linebackers with a perfect--and perfectly devastating--block.
     After a Wilber Marshall interception, McMahon fires a 25-yard touchdown pass to Dennis McKinnon. He has now taken two snaps and thrown two touchdowns.
     On the next possession, McMahon completes passes to Ken Margerum and Gault to move the Bears from their own 32 into Minnesota territory. Then he finds McKinnon streaking downfield for a 43-yard touchdown. There are 33 seconds remaining in the quarter, and the Bears now lead 30-17.
     In less than seven minutes, McMahon has completed five of seven passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns, all on improvised plays that bear little resemblance to what Ditka has called. The Bears win 33-24. “The guy, I can’t explain,” says Ditka. “I don’t know what he sees or how he sees what he sees.”
     The Bears are 3-0 for the young season.

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

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Impressions of Papa Bear, Part 1

     George Halas played with the Bears for ten years (1920-1929). He was their head coach for forty years (four periods of ten years each, beginning in 1920, 1933, 1946, and 1958) and their owner for sixty-three (1921-1983). He was a founder of the National Football League. He was also a major-league baseball player, the founder and head coach of Chicago’s first pro basketball team, and an officer in the Navy during World War II.
     Halas saw the value of a pro football franchise increase roughly a million fold in his lifetime. In 1920, when his Decatur Staleys and ten other teams founded the American Professional Football Association (which changed its name, at Halas’s suggestion, to the National Football League two years later), the fee for the privilege of joining the enterprise was $100 per team. By 1983, when Halas passed away, the Bears were worth an estimated $100 million. They are worth more than three quarters of a billion dollars today.

     In 1921, their first year in Chicago, the Staleys showed a loss of $71.63 despite winning the league championship. Eventually, of course, the NFL took on an aspect of prosperity and relative stability. But throughout the early years, teams came and went as if through a revolving door. Aside from the Bears and the Chicago Cardinals, only two teams from this era would survive for the long haul—the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants.
     Even in the earliest years of pro football, Halas demonstrated a knack for recognizing players with both talent and desire. The Staley and Bear rosters he assembled during pro football’s infancy in the twenties included eight future Hall of Famers: Guy Chamberlin, Jimmy Conzelman, Paddy Driscoll, Red Grange, Ed Healey, Link Lyman, George Trafton, and Halas himself.

     After a particularly violent hit by Trafton knocked Rock Island star Fred Chicken out of a game in 1920, order was barely maintained for the remainder of the contest, which ended in a scoreless tie. When the gun sounded, irate Rock Island fans chased Trafton out of the stadium and down the street, attacking him with rocks, bottles, and their fists. Fortunately, Trafton was rescued by a sympathetic motorist and spirited off to the Staleys’ hotel across the river in Davenport, Iowa, before too much damage had been done.
     That evening, the Staleys had to return to Rock Island for the train back to Decatur. Before they left, Halas took Trafton aside and gave him the Staleys’ share of the afternoon’s gate receipts for safekeeping. Trafton was flabbergasted, but Halas explained why this made perfect sense in case they encountered any more Rock Island fans on the way to the station. If Halas or someone else carried the bag and was accosted by ruffians, he would need to make a run for it to protect the money. Trafton, on the other hand, would have an extra incentive. He would be running not merely to save the money, but also for his life.

     On November 4, 1923, the Bears took on the Oorang Indians (of Marion, Ohio)—who were so named because most of their players, including the legendary Jim Thorpe, were of Native American descent. Late in the game, the great man himself took a handoff at the Bears’ two-yard line and tried to plunge into the end zone, but the ball was knocked loose by Hugh Blacklock and squirted right into Halas’s hands. Halas ran it back 98 yards for a touchdown—the longest return of a fumble in the NFL until 1972.

     In 1927, a new pro basketball league was formed. Halas was awarded the Chicago franchise, which he named the Bruins. In their first season, with Halas as head coach, the Bruins were 9-20. The next year, Halas signed the most famous player of the day, Nat Holman, for the extravagant sum of $6,000, and booked Chicago Stadium for his home games. Much to the detriment of Halas’s bank account, the venture proved to be several decades ahead of its time. The ABL folded in 1929.

     During the lean Depression years, the official league schedule was often subject to change even during the season in response to the dictates of economic necessity. Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1933 to 1988, remembered those days: “The Bears always brought the largest crowds. We couldn’t put up a tough fight but Halas would come and play. He kept me alive. One year we were scheduled to play in New York and New York was scheduled to play in Chicago. We figured there would be a better gate all around if Halas went to New York and I went to Chicago. Halas promised to add $500 to our usual guarantee of $2,500. The New York turnout was great. In Chicago we didn’t draw very well and George wanted to pay me only $2,500. We argued. Finally he said, ‘Do you want to fight me for the $500?’ I said, ‘No, George, I don’t want to fight you. I just want the $500.’ He gave me the money. He knew that in my earlier days I had been U.S. lightweight champion.”

     Throughout the thirties, the Bears, Packers, and Giants were so dominant, both on the field and financially, that it became apparent they would have to give up some of their power in order for the other clubs—and hence the league itself—to survive. The annual draft of college players was instituted in 1936 to prevent the richer clubs from snapping up all the best prospects. The system wasn’t flawless, however, as was demonstrated in 1941. The Bears, defending world champions (after an unbelievable 73-0 rout of the Washington Redskins in the title game), ended up with the first two picks in the draft as payment for “previous favors” to the Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Part 1 of 3.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Ones That Got Away: Decatur Staleys

Of the three dozen or so most prominent examples of players, coaches, and/or managers who left Chicago early in their careers and went on to greater glory elsewhere, two are Pro Football Hall of Famers who started out with the original Decatur Staleys, forerunners of the Bears, in 1920. They are recalled below.

Guy Chamberlin
Staleys, 1920 - 1921

   After a legendary collegiate career at Nebraska, Guy Chamberlin became one of the first and greatest stars of pro football. His size (six-foot-two and 210 pounds) and strength were exceptional for his era. He was a mainstay at both offensive and defensive end for the Staleys, before leaving when offered the chance to run a team of his own. Over the next five years, he was player-coach for four NFL champions in three different cities: the Canton Bulldogs in 1922 and 1923, Cleveland Bulldogs in 1924, and Frankford (Pennsylvania) Yellow Jackets in 1926. Chamberlin compiled a phenomenal career coaching record of 56-14-5. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1965.

Jimmy Conzelman
Staleys, 1920

     Six of the first eight NFL championships were won by player-coaches who had been members of the original Staleys--George Halas, Guy Chamberlin, and Jimmy Conzelman. An outstanding quarterback and halfback, Conzelman played for and coached four different teams in 10 years after he left the Staleys in 1921--Rock Island Independents, Milwaukee Badgers, Detroit Panthers, and Providence Steam Roller. In 1928, he won the championship wth Providence (the last franchise no longer in existence to have won a title). After devoting himself to a variety of pursuits--including business, writing, editing, speaking, and songwriting--for a number of years, Conzelman returned to coaching in the forties. In 1947, he guided the Chicago Cardinals to their second and last, championship. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1964.

Friday, September 10, 2010

1985 Bears Flashback: "Second Best Isn't Good Enough for Me"

     The Bears are about to embark on the 2010 season, and most fans are only guardedly optimistic. The triumvirate of team president Ted Phillips, general manager Jerry Angelo, and head coach Lovie Smith doesn't inspire much confidence. They talk a lot about seeing "improvement" from week to week, and when they are really feeling their oats, they mention possibly making the playoffs. They do not talk much, if at all, about winning the Super Bowl.
     Twenty-five years ago, of course, it was an entirely different story. The Bears were setting off on one of the greatest seasons in their history, in Chicago history, and in the entire history of professional sports.

     The 1985 Bears’ journey to Super Bowl XX in New Orleans actually began more than a year before, in the 1984 NFC championship game. The San Francisco 49ers ended Chicago’s best season in two decades with a decisive 23-0 victory at Candlestick Park. As the teams were leaving the field, 49ers safety Ronnie Lott called out, “Next time, bring your offense.”
     The Bears entered the 1985 season with Lott’s taunt ringing in their ears. “I don’t know about you guys,” coach Mike Ditka said on the first day of training camp, “but second best isn’t good enough for me.”
     The Bears believed they were ready to advance to another level, but there were some questions to be answered. Could their famed “46” defense, the finest unit in the league, withstand the loss of safety Todd Bell and defensive end Al Harris to salary holdouts? Could their quarterback, the tough and savvy Jim McMahon, stay healthy long enough to realize his potential? Could their featured running back, the great Walter Payton (already the NFL’s all-time leading rusher), continue to perform with his usual brilliance for an 11th season? Could they go all the way with the youngest team in the NFL—whose 45 members included 24 with two years’ experience or less, 10 of them rookies?
     Week by week, the Bears turned every question mark into an exclamation point. Even though Ditka later famously asserted that “only cowards and losers” live in the past, we are going to relive some of the highlights of that glorious season in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Stretch Drive

     On the morning of September 4, 1935, the Cubs had a record of 79-52 and were in third place in the National League, two and a half games behind the St. Louis Cardinals and half a game behind the New York Giants. That afternoon, the Cubs began the most sensational stretch drive in baseball history. “We suddenly got hot,” said second baseman Billy Herman. “I don’t mean just hot—we sizzled! All of a sudden we got the notion that we couldn’t lose.”
     The Cubs won every game of an 18-game homestand.
     “You ever go 75 miles an hour on the highway when everybody else is doing 50?” first baseman Phil Cavarretta said. “That’s how we felt. We passed the Giants and caught up to the Cardinals right at the end of the season. With everything up for grabs, we went into St. Louis for a five-game series.”
     The Cubs needed to win just two of the five games to sew up the pennant. On September 26, an eighth-inning home run by the 19-year-old Cavarretta was all that Lon Warneke needed as he blanked the defending world champions 1-0 for his 20th victory of the year. In the first game of the next day’s doubleheader, Bill Lee bested St. Louis ace Dizzy Dean 6-2 for his 20th victory of the year. Although the pennant was already clinched, the Cubs also took the second game for good measure.
     On the morning of September 28, the Cubs had a record of 100-52. They had won 21 games in a row and were National League champions.
     The Cubs led the league in runs scored, batting average, and earned-run average. Five regulars hit better than .300: catcher Gabby Hartnett (.344 with 91 RBIs), Herman (.341 with a league-leading 227 hits and 57 doubles), right fielder Frank Demaree (.325), left fielder Augie Galan (.314 with a league-leading 133 runs scored and 22 stolen bases), and third baseman Stan Hack (.311). But it was pitching that really made the difference down the stretch. Lee won five games, Larry French five, Warneke four, Charlie Root four, Roy Henshaw two, and Tex Carleton one during the streak. The Cubs allowed three or fewer runs in all but one of the 21 games, and in all but three of those games the starting pitcher also finished.

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

Monday, September 6, 2010

Coasting to the Wire

     This year’s White Sox swept a three-game series at Boston on the weekend before Labor Day to remain within striking distance of the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central Division race. The Sox are three and a half games out, and they seem to have plenty of fight left in them.
     Twenty-seven years ago, in 1983, the Sox also visited Boston on the weekend before Labor Day. They lost two out of three, but nonetheless found themselves 12 games in front of their nearest pursuer in the A.L. West (the division in which they resided from 1969 through 1993). They were well on their way to the first championship of any kind for a Chicago baseball club since 1959.

     September 1 is the traditional date on which pennant races are supposed to enter the stretch drive. On that date in 1983, the “race” in the American League West was over. White Sox ace LaMarr Hoyt twirled a complete-game four-hitter and, as usual, walked none as the Sox blanked the second-place Kansas City Royals 12-0 at Comiskey Park. (For the year, Hoyt would average just over one walk per nine innings and rack up almost five times as many strikeouts as walks.)
     “He has courage, heart, guts,” Sox skipper Tony LaRussa said of the burly, bearded righthander who’d overcome a 2-6 start, now led both leagues with 18 victories, and was soon to receive the Cy Young Award.
     Several days earlier, Texas had come calling, and Rangers manager Doug Rader tried, somewhat clumsily, to clarify his earlier comments about the White Sox “winning ugly.” He was well aware that he had created a catch phrase, for it was staring back at him from T-shirts and handmade signs at the ballpark and around town. “Look, I didn’t mean anything bad by that,” Rader said. “I mean, nothing’s really bad about winning no matter how it’s done.”
     The White Sox had swept a two-game series from Texas and then had done the same to Kansas City. The Royals left town 11 games behind the White Sox, and they were not going to get any closer.
     Such was their situation at this heady time that the White Sox dropped two of three at Boston and still gained ground in the standings! They came home on Labor Day 12 games in front. After they swept three from Oakland and four from California, the margin was 16 and a half, and the champagne was on ice.
     A split of two games at Minnesota set up a four-game series at home against Seattle. On September 15, Hoyt blanked the Mariners 12-0 for his 10th consecutive win and 21st of the year. Greg Luzinski, Ron Kittle, and Vance Law each knocked in two runs, and Harold Baines accounted for four with a grand slam. The next night, Baines broke a scoreless tie with a solo home run in the seventh inning, and the Sox added six runs in the eighth for good measure. Floyd Bannister struck out 12 in pitching a two-hitter, and no Mariner reached second base. The Sox won 7-0 to reduce their “magic number” to one. One more White Sox win or Kansas City loss would clinch the division title.
     On Saturday night, September 17, 45,646 passed through the turnstiles to push the White Sox’ season total over two million (it was the first time that either the Sox or Cubs had achieved that figure). Jerry Koosman gave up an unearned run in the first, then settled down and pitched seven scoreless innings. The Sox scored single runs in the third and fourth, and when Baines cracked a home run in the bottom of the eighth to give them a 3-1 lead, the fans were beside themselves. But Seattle scored twice in the top of the ninth to put the party on hold.
     In the bottom of the ninth, Jerry Hairston led off by lining out to pitcher Bill Caudill. Then Caudill walked the bases full—first Julio Cruz, then Rudy Law, then Carlton Fisk. The ballpark, of course, was in an uproar. The unflappable Baines moseyed up to the plate; he was perhaps the only person involved who was unimpressed by the electricity in the park or the gravity of the moment. Lefty Ed VandeBerg replaced Caudill, and Baines lofted his first offering to medium-deep center field. It was deep enough to score Cruz standing up. The White Sox were division champions.
     Winning, ugly or otherwise, had become the White Sox’ habit. They suffered no letdown after clinching the title. Although it wasn’t strictly necessary, they beat Seattle again the next day for their 17th straight win at home. They went on to win 10 of the remaining 13 games to close the season at 99-63, an even 20 games ahead of the Royals.
     Here’s how the West was won. The White Sox lost 32 of their first 59 games, then lost only 31 more for the rest of the season. Against their division foes, the Sox were 55-23 for the season and 31-6 in the second half. After the All-Star break, their top starting pitchers (Hoyt, Richard Dotson, and Bannister) were a combined 42-5. After July 31, the Sox were 46-15. After August 26, they were 29-6 and never lost as many as two in a row. In their last 20 home games, they were 19-1.

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

Thursday, September 2, 2010

"Upset of the Century"


Fifteen years ago today, on September 2, 1995, the Northwestern Wildcats opened their season with a shocking upset at Notre Dame. As the season went along, the Wildcats proved that the outcome of the opener was no fluke. They were headed to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1949.

     For Northwestern's football program, there was nowhere to go but up in 1995. After a 7-4 campaign in 1971, the Wildcats had won a total of 38 games over the next 20 years. In the meantime they’d lost 179 games, for a winning percentage of .175. They’d lost 71 of 75 between 1975 and 1982, including 34 in a row. They’d gone five years without a win in the Big Ten. Attendance had gotten so bad that Northwestern sold a home game to Michigan in 1980 and to Ohio State in 1990.
     A parade of coaches—Alex Agase, John Pont, Rick Venturi, Dennis Green, Francis Peay—had come and gone, but the dreadful legacy of losing had continued unabated. Many observers, including some influential alumni, proposed that the time had come to drop out of the Big Ten (the University of Chicago had done just that when it de-emphasized athletics in the 1930s). Northwestern’s new coach Gary Barnett would have none of it. “We’ll take the purple to Pasadena,” he said when he was hired—referring, of course, to the site of the Rose Bowl.
     His positive attitude notwithstanding, Barnett’s teams started out looking much like those of his predecessors. His first game, on September 5, 1992, was a resounding 42-7 loss to Notre Dame. The Wildcats finished the year 3-8. They slipped to 2-9 in 1993, failing to win a conference game. In 1994, Northwestern won three and tied one of its first seven games. But, with visions of a bowl bid dancing in their heads, the Wildcats took a giant step backward. They were blown out in each of the last four games, and finished 3-7-1 (2-6 in the Big Ten).

     The 1995 Wildcats opened the season on September 2 at Notre Dame. The Irish had bombed the Wildcats in each of Barnett’s first three years, by a combined score of 111-34. As Rick Telander wrote, the Irish were “supposed to be on their way to a national title, the Wildcats to grad school.” Most of the 59,075 Irish faithful who came out to enjoy the perfect sun-kissed afternoon were only mildly perturbed when the first half ended with Northwestern leading 10-9; they were confident that the upstarts would shortly be put in their place. Those fans who’d wagered on the Irish were somewhat more concerned, for they’d had to lay 28 points to the Wildcats.
     Early in the third quarter, 26-yard touchdown pass from Steve Schnur to D’Wayne Bates put Northwestern ahead 17-9. The scoring “drive” had covered 55 yards in 54 seconds, on just three plays. For the rest of the third quarter and most of the fourth, the Wildcats’ defense held firm. “Notre Dame has a great system,” explained Barnett. “They’ve used it for years. Part of a system is that it’s predictable. We’ve known where they were going; we just haven’t been able to stop them. We physically couldn’t get there. This time, we had guys there who could make the play. And they did.” Linebacker Pat Fitzgerald and safety Hudhaifa Ismaeli each made big plays to stifle Irish advances.
     Northwestern was forced to punt from its own end zone midway through the fourth quarter, and Notre Dame soon turned the favorable field position into a touchdown that made it 17-15 with 6:16 left to play. On the try for a two-point conversion, though, Irish quarterback Ron Powlus got tangled up with his own center and fell to the turf. The Wildcats still clung to the lead.
     On the next Irish possession, it was fourth and two when Randy Kinder took a handoff from Powlus at his own 44-yard line and ran smack into Northwestern defensive tackle Matt Rice. “Hindsight is always 20/20,” Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said later. “We had two timeouts left. We could have held them and gotten the ball back. We probably should have punted.” The Wildcats took over with 4:02 remaining, and the Irish never got their hands on the ball again. Tailback Darnell Autry saw to that; he carried the ball repeatedly as the minutes dwindled down, and his 26-yard burst in the closing seconds ensured Northwestern’s victory. He finished the day with 33 rushes for 160 yards.
     To describe the outcome as stunning would be an understatement. The Sun-Times called it “the upset of the century.” Holtz called it “very disappointing.” It was the Wildcats’ first triumph over Notre Dame since 1962 and their first season-opening win since 1975. Kicker Sam Valenzisi tore up a chunk of sod for a souvenir. For Fitzgerald and offensive guard Ryan Padgett, among others, the victory was particularly sweet. They had always wanted to play for Notre Dame, but the talent-laden Irish didn’t want them. “The reason I came to Northwestern,” said Fitzgerald, “was to beat Notre Dame.”

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