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.

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