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.

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