Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Chicago Sports Memories Awards

Play of the Year: Patrick Kane, Blackhawks, April 24
     With their first-round playoff series against the Nashville Predators tied at two games apiece, the Hawks are trailing 4-3 in the third period of Game 5 at the United Center and facing the prospect of returning to Nashville for a potential elimination game. The situation goes from bad to worse when Marian Hossa is sent off for boarding with only one minute and three seconds left.     
     As the clock ticks down, Nashville’s Martin Erat gains possession of the puck behind his own net and attempts to clear it along the boards, hoping to spring one of his teammates for a shot at Chicago’s empty net. Patrick Sharp intercepts the puck, pushes it over to Brent Seabrook in the corner, who slides it to Jonathan Toews in the slot. Toews flips a wrist shot that Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne stops with his pads but allows to bounce toward Patrick Kane, who’s camped just to the left of the goal mouth.
     Before you know it, Kane shovels the biscuit into the basket, and the game is tied with 13.6 seconds remaining. It is the first game-tying, shorthanded goal inside the final minute of a playoff game in the long history of the NHL, and it saves the Hawks’ season. The Hawks win 5-4 when Hossa tallies four minutes into overtime, and they advance to the second round by defeating the Predators 5-3 in Game 6 at Nashville.

Game of the Year: Blackhawks vs. Philadelphia Flyers, June 9
     The home team had won each of the first five games of the Stanley Cup Finals when the Blackhawks and Flyers took the ice for Game 6 in Philadelphia. Patrick Kane assisted on the Hawks’ first goal, by Dustin Byfuglien, and their third, by Andrew Ladd, as Chicago took a 3-2 lead into the third period.
     But the Flyers’ Scott Hartnell scored his second goal of the game with 3:59 remaining in the third period, and neither team scored again in regulation. The Hawks had the better of it all night, peppering Philadelphia goalie Michael Leighton with 41 shots in all, while Antti Niemi faced only 24, but nonetheless the Flyers held on to force overtime.
     Four minutes into the extra period, Kane received the puck from Brian Campbell near the left circle. He fired from an apparently impossible angle between Leighton's pads and deep into the far side of the net. The Hawks were Stanley Cup champions, but for an awkward stretch of time no one other than Kane knew it—because only Kane was certain that the puck was in the net (actually it had become lodged under the net). "I knew it was in right away," Kane said. "It was crazy. At that moment, it's just like 'We won the Stanley Cup.'"
     Kane single-handedly began the celebration, skating the length of the ice, yelling "It's in and the game's over!" as he passed the Hawks' bench, and jumping into the arms of Niemi, while the Flyers and their fans looked on in stupefied silence. Almost a minute elapsed before the officials finally confirmed that Kane indeed had scored and that the Hawks’ 49-year Stanley Cup drought was over. 

Player of the Year: Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks

     Wearing the "C" that signifies a team captain is an honor and status symbol for hockey players that is unlike any in other sports. In order to wear it effectively, one must be among the best players on the team, must have the respect of his coach and teammates, and must be able to act as the team's leader both vocally and by example.
    Jonathan Toews was named captain of the Blackhawks in the summer of 2008 after only one season in the NHL and just three months after his 20th birthday. His dedication to the job has earned him the nickname "Captain Serious." In 2010, Captain Serious led the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup championship and received the Conn Smythe Award as the most valuable player of the playoffs.
     "He is a special player," head coach Joel Quenneville said of Toews during the Hawks' playoff run. "Exactly the same approach over the course of the year to the end of the year. He rises to the occasion. But his consistency is what we like. I think Johnny represents exactly the type of leadership any team would love to have."

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks; Duncan Keith, Blackhawks; Paul Konerko, White Sox; Julius Peppers, Bears; Derrick Rose, Bulls. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In Memoriam, 2010

     We Chicago sports fans lost a few of our favorite performers this year. Heading the list were Bears Hall of Famers Stan Jones and George Blanda, Cubs stars Ron Santo and Phil Cavarretta, and the Blackhawks' Ed Litzenberger, captain of the 1961 Stanley Cup champions.
     Each of the aforementioned gentlemen enjoyed a long and acclaimed career in his sport, lived into his old age, and could look back with satisfaction upon heroic feats of the distant past. Regrettably, the same could not be said of Gaines Adams, the Bears defensive end who was struck down without warning at only 26, while his potential was still unrealized.
     Below is a list of notable Chicago sports personalities who passed away in 2010:

Gaines Adams, 26, Bears defensive end 2009, All-American at Clemson 2006 (January 17).

Johnny Bailey, 43, Bears running back and kick returner 1990-1991, previously starred at Texas A&I University, inducted into College Football Hall of Fame 2000 (August 20).

Black Tie Affair, 24, Chicago-based thoroughbred, won Equipoise Mile 1990, won Hawthorne Gold Cup 1990, won Washington Park Handicap 1991, Horse of the Year 1991 (July 1).

George Blanda, 83, Bears quarterback and placekicker 1949-1958, later starred with Oakland Raiders, inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame 1981 (September 27).

Lorn Brown, 71, Bulls broadcaster 1975-1978, White Sox broadcaster 1976-1979 and 1983-1988 (June 24).

Freddie Burdette, 73, Cubs pitcher 1962-1964 (June 1).

Phil Cavarretta, 94, Cubs first baseman/outfielder 1934-1953, Cubs manager 1951-1953, White Sox first baseman 1954-1955, three-time All-Star, played for Cubs in three World Series, National League batting champion and Most Valuable Player 1945 (December 18).

Ray Coleman, 88, White Sox outfielder 1951-1952 (September 19).

Quintin Dailey, 49, Bulls guard 1982-1986 (November 8).

Joe Gates, 55, White Sox second baseman 1978-1979 (March 28).

Billy Hoeft, 77, Cubs pitcher 1965-1966 (March 16).

Ken Holcombe, 91, White Sox pitcher 1950-1952 (March 15).

Lou Jankowski, 78, Blackhawks forward 1953-1955 (March 21).

Stan Jones, 78, Bears offensive guard and defensive tackle 1954-1965, three-time All-Pro, seven-time Pro Bowler, introduced systematic practice of weight training to NFL, member of Bears world champions 1963, inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame 1991 (May 21).

Ed Litzenberger, 78, Blackhawks right wing 1954-1961 and captain 1958-1961, won Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year 1955, captain of Stanley Cup champions 1961 (November 1).

Dick Loepfe, 88, Chicago Cardinals offensive tackle 1948-1949 (October 31).

Bob Probert, 45, Blackhawks left wing 1995-2002 (July 5).

Robin Roberts, 83, Cubs pitcher 1966, better known for his previous tenure with Philadelphia Phillies, inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame 1976 (May 6).

Ron Santo, 70, Cubs third baseman 1960-1973, White Sox second baseman 1974, nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove award winner, Cubs broadcaster 1990-2010 (December 3).

Johnny Sellers, 72, jockey 1955-1977, won Washington Park Handicap 1958 and 1960, won Arlington Classic 1960, won American Derby 1960, won Stars & Stripes Handicap 1961, inducted into National Racing Hall of Fame 2007 (July 2).

Bob Shaw, 77, White Sox pitcher 1958-1961, Cubs pitcher 1967, went 18-6 in Sox’ pennant winning-season of 1959, went 1-1 in World Series of same year (September 23).

Solly Sherman, 92, Bears quarterback 1939-1940, passed to Joe Maniaci for one of the Bears’ 73 points (on an extra-point attempt) in legendary 1940 NFL title game victory over Washington Redskins (October 10).

Bobby Thomson, 86, Cubs outfielder 1958-1959, better known for his dramatic pennant-winning home run for New York Giants in 1951 (August 16).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Many Happy Returns

     The Bears clinched the NFC North Division championship Monday night with an impressive 40-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. It marks the Bears' tenth division title since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, and it would not have been accomplished without Devin Hester, who has rebounded from two subpar seasons to re-establish himself as the best kickoff and punt returner in the game today and as the greatest of all time.
     Hester came into the game, the 74th of his career, tied for the most return touchdowns in league history with Brian Mitchell, who had 13 in 223 games. It looked as though he would break the record when he got free on the opening kickoff of the second half. Alas, Hester was brought down at Minnesota's six-yard line after toting the ball 79 yards. So close and yet so far.
     But just minutes later, Hester fielded a punt at his own 36-yard line and took it to the house. It was the 14th return touchdown of his career, confirming him as the most proficient return man in history. Hester needed just 286 attempts to set the record, compared to 1,070 by Mitchell.
     "Right now, [Hester] is a Hall of Famer," said former All-Pro return man Deion Sanders. "I can't think of a returner ever playing the game with the impact he has. There is none."
     Well said, Deion. Hester's impact goes well beyond the touchdowns he scores. It also is felt in the field position he provides by his returns and when opponents sacrifice yardage by trying to kick away from him. His mere presence on the field is enormously disruptive to the Bears' opponents.
     Hester is a respectful, humble man, and after breaking the record he sought to deflect credit away from himself and toward the ten Bears special-teamers who accompany him on his jaunts toward paydirt. "I'm just glad that God put me on this team," he said.
     The official record of 14 return touchdowns does not count Hester's return of a missed field goal in 2006 or his electrifying kickoff return to open the 2007 Super Bowl. Even without those two "asterisks," however, Hester's record will never be broken by anyone but a truly great player. And before he is through, he might put the record at a level where it will never be broken, period.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Phil Cavarretta, 1916 - 2010

     Phil Cavarretta, who passed away Saturday at the age of 94, was not yet 30 when he played in his third World Series for the Cubs. This was in 1945, and Cavarretta had already appeared in the World Series of 1935 and 1938. Neither he nor anyone else could have known that no Cub would appear in another fall classic for a long, long time.
     Cavarretta joined the Cubs shortly after graduating from Lane Tech High School in 1934, moving two miles east on Addison Street to Wrigley Field. He played seven games for the Cubs in 1934 and was an everyday player in 1935, when he was still 18 years old for the first half of the season. Although he had very little power for a first baseman (he averaged less than five homers a year), Cavarretta was an excellent contact hitter who finished his career with a .293 average and more walks than strikeouts. He played 20 seasons for the Cubs and finished up with two for the White Sox.
     Cavarretta earned the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1945 when he hit a league-leading .355 with 94 runs scored and 97 runs batted in. It was no fault of his that the Cubs lost the World Series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. He homered and scored three runs in the Cubs’ 9-0 rout of American League MVP Hal Newhouser in Game 1, and he ended up batting .423 (highest on either team), with seven runs scored and five RBIs for the Series.
     Cavarretta is the last Cub, so far, to hit a World Series home run. He was also the last in a long line of player-managers for the Cubs—which extended back to Cap Anson in 1879, and included Frank Chance, Rogers Hornsby, Charlie Grimm, and Gabby Hartnett. It was Cavarretta who, in 1953, wrote the name of Ernie Banks on the Cubs’ lineup card for the first time. The next year, he became the first manager ever to be fired in spring training, after he bluntly informed Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley that the club had no chance to contend.
     "Phil hated to lose," Cubs outfielder Ralph Kiner said, "and he was very honest, and that was the reason he got fired." The Cubs finished seventh, 33 games off the pace, but being proven right did not get Cavarretta his job back.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Kid K, No Longer a Kid, Returns to Cubs

     When he left the Cubs after the 2008 season, righthander Kerry Wood made no secret of the fact that he hoped to return someday. Someday turned out to be Friday, when free-agent Wood agreed to rejoin the Cubs for one year at $1.5 million, declining several other offers, including one from the New York Yankees that was said to be for two years at $5 million per. For Wood, it clearly isn't about the money as much as it is about being where he and his family prefer to be.
     Wood is following a number of prominent Cubs pitchers of the past (Fergie Jenkins, Ken Holtzman, Rick Reuschel, Greg Maddux, and Jon Lieber) who also returned after playing elsewhere. None of them was as good the second time around, and none could have been realistically expected to be. The same is true of Wood, who was an occasionally unhittable starting pitcher in his heyday, and is now a 33-year-old seventh- or eighth-inning man out of the bullpen.
     When Wood first came on the scene in 1998, he was a pitching prospect unlike any that Cubs fans had seen in many years. Few could have guessed that hed win only 77 games in the first ten years of his career, while suffering through 12 separate stints on the disabled listbut that is what happened.
     Wood was National League Rookie of the Year in 1998, and his future stretched promisingly before him. The highlight of that season, of course, was his sensational 20-strikeout game on May 6, which is described below.

Kerry Wood
     In 1998, Kerry Wood’s babyface made him look even younger than his 20 years of age, but with a baseball in his hand he was a menacing presence. He was six-foot-five and 225 pounds, and his combination of a 100-m.p.h. fastball, devastating curveball, and wicked slider was unprecedented. So was his effort on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, when in just his fifth major-league start, he pitched one of the greatest games of all time.
     From the day he was drafted out of high school in 1995, Wood had been the most highly touted prospect in the Cubs organization. Every scout who saw him in the minor leagues swore he was the real thing, and every team that talked trade with the Cubs asked about him. When, at the close of spring training in 1998, the Cubs decided to send him out for a little more seasoning, Anaheim Angels manager Terry Collins facetiously said he would put all his money on the Cubs to win the World Series. “If they have five [starting] pitchers better than Kerry Wood,” he said, “they’re going all the way!”
     Recalled after just one start at Iowa, Wood went 2-2 with a 5.89 earned-run average in his first four outings for the Cubs, looking brilliant at times and awful at others. Then, on May 6, he faced a Houston Astros club that had won nine of its last ten games and boasted the National League’s most potent offense. He struck out the first five batters. He fanned one more in the third, two in the fourth, and three in the fifth.
     Wood struck out one man in the sixth and struck out the side in the seventh. When he fanned the first batter in the eighth, the bleacher fans who had brought placards to mark each “K” ran out. They had brought 16. Wood struck out the next two Astros as well, whereupon other fans were recruited to augment the placards by lining up and painting K’s on their chests. Wood’s 18 strikeouts surpassed the franchise record, set in 1906, and tied the major-league record for rookies.
     Wood had worked with a scant one-run lead since the second inning, as Houston’s Shane Reynolds held the Cubs in check. The Cubs got an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth. When Wood took the mound for the ninth, the crowd of 15,758 was going wild. Billy Spiers came up to pinch hit for Reynolds. With the crowd chanting Wood’s first name, Spiers struck out. That gave Wood seven strikeouts in a row and 19 for the day. Nineteen strikeouts in one game had been accomplished five times before, including once by Nolan Ryan—Wood’s fellow Texan and his idol, in whose honor the youngster wore number 34. But even Ryan, baseball’s all-time strikeout leader, had never whiffed 20 in a game. Only another Texan, Roger Clemens, had done that—first in 1986 and again in 1996.
     Craig Biggio, the Astros’ excellent leadoff man, strode to the plate. He tapped a soft grounder to shortstop and was roundly booed for having hit the ball. Now both Wood and the Astros were down to their final out. Derek Bell was the hitter. He flailed in vain at two nasty curveballs. A steady roar now replaced the “Ker-ree!” chants. Bell let the next pitch go to make the count 1-and-2. Catcher Sandy Martinez called for another curveball.
     Bell had no chance. He was strikeout victim number 20. Wood pumped his fist once, rather sheepishly, before he was mobbed by his teammates.
     If it wasn’t the greatest single-game pitching performance in history, it was certainly the most dominant. Only two men reached base: one on a scratch single off the glove of third baseman Kevin Orie (which might easily have been ruled an error) and the other when he was hit by a pitch. Only eight pitches were hit into fair territory, just two out of the infield. Houston’s three-four-five hitters—Jeff Bagwell, Jack Howell, and Moises Alou—came to bat a total of nine times and struck out nine times.
     “It was just one of those days,” said Wood. “It just felt like playing catch out there.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010


The first postseason game in NFL history was also the first indoor game in NFL history. It was played on December 18, 1932, in Chicago Stadium. In that game, the Bears took on the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, who would soon move to Detroit and become the Lions. The account below is adapted from the recent book Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports.

     Bronko Nagurski grew up in International Falls, Minnesota, a remote outpost along the Canadian border, and from the time he was very young he was regarded as a sort of real-life Paul Bunyan. Clarence “Doc” Spears, his coach at the University of Minnesota, had a colorful account of how he recruited Nagurski. “I saw this young kid pushing a plow,” Spears said. “There was no horse or anything else, just this kid pushing a plow. I asked directions of him and he picked up the plow and pointed with it. I decided then and there he should go to Minnesota.”
     Bronko went on to perform spectacularly at Minnesota, and he joined the Bears in 1930. He weighed about 235 pounds at a time when very few players exceeded 210. A fullback on offense and a tackle on defense, he was easily the best player in the NFL at both positions. He was the heart and soul of the Bears’ powerhouse teams of the early thirties.
     “Bronko Nagurski was probably the greatest player I ever went up against,” said the Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Famer Clarke Hinkle. I thought to myself, ‘You either better start moving and go after him or just get the hell out of the way, because otherwise you are going to get killed.’”

     In the final game of the 1932 regular season, Nagurski’s 56-yard touchdown gallop led the Bears to a 9-0 victory over the Packers amid swirling snows at Wrigley Field. The win moved the Bears into a tie with the Portsmouth Spartans for first place in the NFL, and league president Joe Carr decided to have a playoff game to settle the issue. Because Portsmouth’s stadium seated only 8,000, the first postseason game in pro football history was scheduled for Chicago.
     That the NFL was still in its infancy was demonstrated by the fact that Portsmouth’s star tailback Dutch Clark, the league’s leading scorer, was not available for the game. His contract as basketball coach at Colorado College called for him to report immediately after the Spartans’ season was concluded, and it had no provision for an extra week.
     The weather worsened in the days leading up to the game, with snow continuing intermittently and the temperature plummeting to below zero. Bears coach and owner George Halas recognized that few hardy souls were likely to pay hard-earned Depression dollars to sit out in a blizzard at Wrigley Field, so he got approval from the league to play the game indoors at Chicago Stadium. Inside the Stadium, a field was set up that was 20 yards shorter and 15 feet narrower than the standard.
     A circus had come through the week before, and a six-inch layer of dirt remained on the Stadium’s cement floor. With rolls of sod laid on top of the dirt, the playing surface was passable and certainly safer than the frozen ground at Wrigley Field. One observer reported, however, that the arena “was a little too aromatic, what with the horses and elephants that had traipsed around there a few days before the game.”
     More than 11,000 people showed up, vindicating the decision to play the game indoors. “They were exposed to the violence of professional football,” Richard Whittingham wrote, “in a way that spectators in outdoor stadiums never were. In the enclosed stadium, the sounds of impact when players blocked or tackled each other resounded through the acoustically controlled hall.”
     Both defenses held sway for the first three quarters. There was only one punt returned all day, as most of them flew well into the seats. The Bears’ Red Grange was knocked out cold when he was thrown out of bounds and into the hockey boards after an end run of 15 yards. He was carted off, but soon returned. In the fourth quarter, Dick Nesbitt of the Bears intercepted a pass at the Spartans’ seven-yard line. Nagurski bulled his way down to the two on first down, but then he was stopped for virtually no gain on his next two attempts.
     On fourth down and goal, the Portsmouth defenders massed in the middle of the line, convinced that Nagurski would carry the ball again. Bronko did take the handoff from quarterback Carl Brumbaugh, but instead of charging ahead, he backpedaled and lofted a pass over the scrum at the goal line. Grange was alone in the end zone to gather it in for a touchdown. Portsmouth coach Potsy Clark was apoplectic, arguing that Bronko had been too close to the line of scrimmage when he delivered the ball (at the time, one had to be at least five yards behind the line in order to throw a legal forward pass). Potsy may have been right, but the call stood.
     When Clark finally calmed down and left the field, Tiny Engebretsen kicked the extra point for the Bears. Several minutes later, a Spartan fumble rolled out of the end zone for a safety. The score of 9-0 held up, and the Bears were world champions.
     The postseason playoff game stirred up so much interest that NFL owners quickly agreed to make it an annual event. The league was split into two divisions whose winners would meet after the season for the championship. This model remained in place until the inaugural Super Bowl after the 1966 season.

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"When He Gets There He's Gone"

Forty-five years ago Sunday, the most sensational rookie in NFL history gave a performance that defied description. “I never saw such a thing in my life!” said Bears coach George Halas, who had seen plenty in his long career. At the time, the NFL was half as old as it is now, but Papa Bear’s statement would still stand. No one has seen another game like the one that Gale Sayers had in the slop that day.

     A steady rain turned Wrigley Field into a virtual swamp for the Bears-49ers game of December 12, 1965. Like all of his fellow players, the Bears’ electrifying rookie Gale Sayers was concerned about the conditions. “It was a rainy, muddy day and I actually didn’t like playing in that kind of weather,” he recalled. “So many things can happen; you can slip, pull a muscle, tear a hamstring.”
     It wouldn’t have been surprising if the sloppy footing had neutralized Sayers more than anyone else, for speed and agility were his chief weapons. But Sayers ran wild. First he caught a screen pass from Rudy Bukich and romped 80 yards for a touchdown. Then he ran 21 yards from scrimmage for a second touchdown. He scored again on a seven-yard run from scrimmage.
     Next, Sayers took a handoff and zigged and zagged his way 50 yards for yet another touchdown. It appeared that he alone was playing on a dry field, while 21 other men slipped and slid around him.
     His fifth touchdown came on a straightforward plunge from one yard out.
     Sayers saved his most spectacular play of the day for last. Fielding a San Francisco punt at his own 15-yard line, he made a dazzling move against the grain, leaving his would-be tacklers stupefied. He went 85 yards to the end zone, and was all by himself after passing the midfield stripe.
     With this sixth touchdown, Sayers equaled the single-game record. It was his 21st of the season, also a record at the time. He might have scored once more, but he slipped (finally) making one of his patented cuts on a punt return—after he’d already gone 32 yards. “The way things were going,” Sayers recalled years later, “I probably could have scored eight touchdowns that day. But back then no one cared about records. I didn’t even know I’d tied the six-touchdown record until after the ballgame.”
     The final score was 61-20. The man known as the Kansas Comet amassed 336 total yards for the day—with 113 yards on nine rushes (an average of 12.5 per carry!), 134 yards on punt returns, and 89 yards on two pass receptions. “I wonder how many touchdowns Sayers would have scored,” 49ers assistant coach Y.A. Tittle mused, “if we hadn't set our defense to stop him.”
     San Francisco defensive back George Donnelly offered an apt description of Sayers’s elusiveness in the open field: “He looks no different than any other runner when he’s coming at you, but when he gets there he’s gone.”

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

Exciting Celebrity Encounters: Ron Santo and Glenn Beckert


     In January 1972, my Dad took me to meet Ron Santo and Glenn Beckert of the Cubs, who were signing autographs at the Nelson Marine store in Des Plaines (the store is still there, at the southwest corner of River Road and Rand Road, virtually unchanged except for its name, which escapes me). As you will deduce from the photos, the appearance of Santo and Beckert was intended to help the store sell snowmobiles.
     I was only ten years old and not in the market for a snowmobile. But I was excited to meet two of my sports heroes, and they did not disappoint. Santo and Beckert couldn't have been nicer. My Dad was glad he brought me, and I think he got as big a kick out of meeting the two All-Stars as I did.
     Santo and Beckert were roommates on Cubs road trips--a quaint notion today when star players get their own suites--and they remained close friends until Santo passed away last week. I never met either of them again, but I've saved their autographs for almost four decades. So they both remained friends to me, too.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Monsters of the Midway

Seventy years ago today, on December 8, 1940, the Bears enjoyed the most phenomenal day of their illustrious history. The following account is reprinted from the recent book Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports.

     As the two men left the field after the 1940 National Football League championship game, Bill Osmanski of the Bears tried to console Washington quarterback Sammy Baugh. “Don’t feel bad, Sam,” Osmanski said. “Think what would have happened if Charlie Malone had caught that first long pass.” With the Redskins trailing 7-0 on their first possession, Baugh had fired a perfect strike to Malone, who was wide open at the Bears’ four-yard line, for an apparent game-tying touchdown. Alas, the ball had gone right through Malone’s hands.
     “If Malone had caught that pass,” Baugh replied to Osmanski, “the score would have been 73-7.”
     Indeed, the Bears had annihilated the Redskins 73-0. “The weather was perfect,” wrote Arthur Daley of The New York Times. “So were the Bears.” It remains the most lopsided game in NFL history, and it started the Bears on a run in which they’d win three championships in four years.
     The Redskins were champions of the East at 9-2, the Bears champions of the West at 8-3. The Bears were back in Washington’s Griffith Stadium just three weeks after a hard-fought and disputed loss to the Redskins, in the ninth game of the regular season, which had made the difference in the teams’ records.
     In that game, the Bears trailed 7-3 with time running out when quarterback Sid Luckman found George McAfee deep in Washington territory. After McAfee was brought down at the one-yard line, he feigned injury to stop the clock with 10 seconds left (the Bears were out of timeouts), and was flagged for delay of game. Pushed back to the six-yard line by the penalty, Luckman had time enough to attempt two passes. The first fell incomplete. The second appeared to find Osmanski clear in the end zone. “Frank Filchock grabbed me from behind,” Osmanski later recalled, “and pulled my arms against my sides. The ball hit my chest and flopped to the ground. The gun went off.” The Redskins escaped with the win. The officials escaped into one of the stadium’s baseball dugouts and down the tunnel to the sanctuary of their locker room with Bears coach George Halas in hot pursuit, spewing all the profanities he could think of—and he had a considerable repertoire from which to draw.
     The Bears blamed their defeat on favorable home-field officiating for Washington. This was music to the ears of George Preston Marshall, the Redskins’ colorful owner, who never missed an opportunity to stir the pot where Halas was concerned. “The Bears are a bunch of crybabies,” Marshall pronounced. “They are quitters. They fold up when the going gets tough.”
     When it became clear that the two teams would play again in the championship game, Marshall stepped up his verbal assaults on the Bears. “They are the world’s greatest crybabies,” he repeated. “We have whipped them before and we will whip them again.” Marshall surely realized that he was providing bulletin-board fodder for Halas and the Bears, but there was a method to his madness. Early in the week before the rematch, he sent Halas a telegram. “Congratulations,” he wrote. “Game will be sold out by Tuesday night. We should play for the championship every year.”

     Game day was clear and crisp, with a temperature of 39 degrees. “A perfect day for football!” Marshall exclaimed to reporters and fans from his box behind the Redskins’ bench. The overflow crowd at Griffith Stadium was joined by a nationwide radio audience; this was the first NFL game to be broadcast coast-to-coast.
     The Redskins’ hopes were carried by Sammy Baugh, pro football’s first great passer, who had led the league that year for the second time (he led the league in passing six times all told). Baugh was also the NFL’s finest punter—his career average of 45.1 yards per kick is still the best ever—and an outstanding defensive back who was perennially among the league leaders in interceptions.
     The Bears were led by their second-year quarterback Sid Luckman, who, like Baugh, also played defensive back and was his team’s regular punter. Though not as accomplished a passer as Slingin’ Sammy, Luckman was the ideal man for the Bears’ modified T-formation offense, which put a variety of options at his disposal and required him to mix them up in response to what the defense was doing.
     The game pitted the NFL’s best passing team, the Redskins, against its best running team, the Bears. The Redskins had stopped the Bears in the regular-season game and saw no reason why they wouldn’t do so again. But Halas had spent hour after hour studying films of the 7-3 loss, and he had returned to Washington convinced that if the Redskins came back with their customary 5-3-3 defensive alignment, Luckman and the Bears would have a field day.
     As the Bears left the locker room, Halas gave Luckman three plays he had scripted; each was designed to exploit a specific weakness that Halas had identified in the Redskin defense. The Bears would use these plays on their first possession to test Washington’s responses to their man-in-motion schemes.
     The Bears began from their own 24-yard line after the opening kickoff. The first of the scripted plays was a fake reverse with man-in-motion. Luckman handed off to George McAfee, who gained eight yards. Halas was elated. He now knew that the Redskins were not prepared to make the adjustments necessary to stop his offense.
     On the second play, McAfee went in motion to the right, and Luckman pitched left to Osmanski, who found a hole through the line, stiff-armed a linebacker out of the way, swung to the outside, and raced 68 yards for a touchdown. A flying body block by George Wilson obliterated the last two Redskin defenders about 35 yards from the goal line.
     Luckman didn’t need to call the third of the scripted plays. “I signaled the coach that the Redskins were in the old defense and he could sit back and relax,” he said. Jack Manders kicked the extra point to put the Bears ahead 7-0. The game was less than a minute old. “I was delighted,” Halas wrote in his autobiography. “I knew we could collect enough points to win the championship. Our adjusted plays could go time and again through the weaknesses we had detected in the Washington defense.”
     Max Krause of the Redskins returned the ensuing kickoff to the Bears’ 32, and might have gone all the way but for a fine open-field tackle by Osmanski. A few plays later, from the 19, Baugh went to the air and found Charlie Malone all alone for an apparent touchdown. Malone dropped the ball. Washington then attempted and missed a 32-yard field goal.
     The Redskins were never in the game after Malone’s miscue. The Bears’ next drive took them 80 yards in 18 plays, all on the ground, with Luckman scoring on a quarterback sneak. The kick by Bob Snyder made it 14-0.
     Baugh was unable to move the Redskins on their second possession, and his punt was partially blocked, giving the Bears the ball in Washington territory. The Bears’ subsequent “drive” consisted of one play: a Luckman lateral to Joe Maniaci, who went around left end and scampered 42 yards for a touchdown. Phil Martinovich’s extra point gave the Bears a 21-0 lead.
     Baugh was replaced at quarterback by Frank Filchock, who fared little better. An interception by Ray Nolting set up the Bears’ fourth touchdown, a 30-yard pass from Luckman to Ken Kavanaugh.

     It was 28-0 at halftime. Unbelievably, things only got worse for Washington in the second half. On just the second play of the third quarter, Hampton Pool picked off a pass by Baugh and returned it 15 yards for the Bears’ fifth touchdown. The Bears would go on to score three more touchdowns in the third quarter and another three in the fourth, even with Luckman sitting out the entire time.
     Early in the third quarter, the fans stopped cheering. A little later, the Redskins marching band—George Preston Marshall’s pride and joy—quit playing, and Marshall himself sat in stunned silence. The fans were roused from their torpor only when an announcement came over the public-address system promoting 1941 season tickets. They booed themselves hoarse, then sat back down to watch the disaster play itself out. By the fourth quarter, the stands were largely empty, and the fans still remaining had taken to cheering for the Bears.
     One phrase became so familiar over the course of the afternoon that each time the stadium announcer started to say it, the fans chanted along in unison: “Lee Artoe will kick off for the Bears.”
     Ten different players scored the Bears’ 11 touchdowns, and six Bears were responsible for the seven successful extra points. In all, 15 different Bears scored in the game. After the 10th touchdown, the officials asked Halas not to kick any more extra points, as they were running out of footballs. Accordingly, the Bears passed on the last two extra-point attempts.
     When it was over, the Bears had gained an amazing 382 yards on the ground to Washington’s 22. They had attempted only eight passes and completed six, for 119 yards. The Redskins had passed 51 times, completing just 20 for 223 yards. Baugh, Filchock, and Roy Zimmerman had thrown eight interceptions, with the Bears returning three of them for touchdowns.
     “It was one of those days,” Halas said. “Everything we did, we did right. Everything they did, they did wrong.”

     This is how the Bears scored:
     First quarter. Osmanski, 68-yard run (Manders kick). Luckman, one-yard run (Snyder kick). Maniaci, 42-yard run (Martinovich kick). 21-0.
     Second quarter. Kavanaugh, 30-yard pass from Luckman (Snyder kick). 28-0.
     Third quarter. Pool, 15-yard interception return (Dick Plasman kick). Nolting, 23-yard run (Plasman’s kick missed). McAfee, 34-yard interception return (Joe Stydahar kick). Bulldog Turner, 21-yard interception return (Maniaci’s kick blocked). 54-0.
     Fourth quarter. Harry Clark, 44-yard run (Gary Famiglietti’s kick missed). Famiglietti, one-yard run (Maniaci, pass from Solly Sherman). Clark, one-yard run (Sherman’s pass to Maniaci failed). 73-0.
     “From the moment Bill Osmanski broke away for 68 yards and a touchdown on the third play of the game,” George Strickler wrote in the Tribune, “until little Harry Clark popped through a hole as wide as a bleacher exit for his second and the Bears’ last touchdown late in the fourth period, there was no question in the minds of the 36,034 jammed into Griffith Stadium that the colossus from the west, this day at least, was a superteam.”
     After he and Redskin coach Ray Flaherty visited the Bears’ locker room to congratulate Halas, George Preston Marshall gave his own assessment of the game. “We had the greatest crowd in Washington history, and we played our poorest game,” he told reporters. “It looked as if some of our lads had their fountain pens in their pockets trying to figure out who was going to get what share of the playoff money.”
     The victory party in Halas’s suite at the Mayflower Hotel attracted a good many senators, congressmen, and other celebrities, including Marshall himself. When he arrived late in the evening, Marshall had evidently made several previous stops on his way from the stadium. By this time, he had an easy answer for all questions about the game: “I don’t remember a thing.”
Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ron Santo, 1940 - 2010

     Ron Santo, who passed away early Friday morning at the age of 70, was unique in Chicago sports history. No other person was so prominent as a player and so beloved as a broadcaster for such a long time.
     Santo the player was easily the best National League third baseman of his day and one of the best of all time. He was a nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover, and four times finished in the top ten in MVP balloting.
     For the period of 1964 through 1969, Santo had the highest WAR (wins above replacement player) in the major leagues—better than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, or anyone else. His figure of 45.7 means that the Cubs won that many more games with Santo in the lineup than they would have won with an average player in his place. By that measure, Santo was the most valuable player in the major leagues over the six-year period.
     Unfortunately, the Cubs never won any championships during Santo's career, and (as has been well documented) his considerable accomplishments did not land him in the Hall of Fame—at least during his lifetime. That was a bitter pill, but Santo swallowed it with the same forebearance that carried him through his long and harrowing struggle with diabetes.

     Santo the broadcaster is better known than Santo the player, at least to fans under the age of 45 or 50. He spent two decades in the Cubs' radio booth, teamed first with Thom Brennaman and Bob Brenly, and then, for the past 15 years, with Pat Hughes.
     As a broadcaster, Santo was a mirror for the feelings of his listeners in good times and bad. No one was more delighted than Santo when the Cubs won, and no one was more disappointed when they lost. Few fans will forget Santo's anguished cry of "Oh, nooooooooo!" when left fielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball in 1998 that cost the Cubs a late-season game and almost cost them the wild-card playoff berth they eventually won.
     It was easy to criticize Santo for being too much of a cheerleader, for not doing his homework, etc., but most of his listeners didn't care. They knew that he was genuinely invested, as they were, in the fortunes of the Cubs. And Hughes was a very generous partner. He cleverly found a way to make their broadcasts work not in spite of Santo's limitations, but because of them. One of my favorite exchanges between the two went something like this:
     Hughes: "Ruben Quevedo now coming on to pitch for the Brewers."
     Santo: "Who is it?"
     Hughes: "Ruben Quevedo."
     Santo: "He hasn’t missed too many meals."
     Hughes: "You could say that, Ronnie."
     Santo: "He reminds me of someone we had not too long ago."
     Hughes: "Who might that be, Ron?"
     Santo: "Hmmm."
     Hughes: "Should I give you a hint?"
     Santo: "It's on the tip of my tongue, Patrick."
     Hughes: "Might it be Ruben Quevedo?"
     Santo: "Oh gosh, I’m not sure."

Friday, December 3, 2010

1985 Bears Flashback: The Super Bowl Shuffle

     Twenty-five years ago today, on December 3, 1985, the “Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew” entered a studio to record “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” the audacious rap song that would be heard almost incessantly over the next two months and has endured, somewhat surprisingly, as a landmark of sorts in the subsequent quarter century.
     Despite having sustained their first defeat of the season (after 12 consecutive victories) the very night before, the Bears remained quite sure that they were headed to the Super Bowl, and the “Shuffle” was a bold statement to that effect. The project was the brainchild of Dick Meyer, a lifelong Bears fan who enlisted Willie Gault, the elegant wide receiver and aspiring actor/singer, to be his point person with the players. “A substantial portion” of the proceeds was to be donated to charity.
     Meyer and Melvin Owens wrote the lyrics, which were tailored to each of the ten featured “singers”: Walter Payton, Gault, Mike Singletary, Jim McMahon, Otis Wilson, Steve Fuller, Mike Richardson, Richard Dent, Gary Fencik, and William Perry. Bobby Daniels and Lloyd Barry wrote the music, and Meyer acted as producer and choreographer.
     In addition to the ten front men, 14 other Bears also participated in supporting roles. All are listed below. The players might have done the project as a lark, but “The Super Bowl Shuffle” was a genuine phenomenon. It sold more than half a millon copies as a 45-RPM record, ascended to No. 41 on the pop music chart, and was nominated for a Grammy. At the end of the day, some $300,000 was donated to the Chicago Community Trust to provide food, shelter, and clothing for needy families.

Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew (featured singers, in order of appearance)
34 - Walter Payton, running back
83 - Willie Gault, wide receiver
50 - Mike Singletary, linebacker
  9 - Jim McMahon, quarterback
55 - Otis Wilson, linebacker
  4 - Steve Fuller, quarterback
27 - Mike Richardson, cornerback
95 - Richard Dent, defensive end
45 - Gary Fencik, safety
72 - William Perry, defensive tackle/fullback

Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew Band (in alphabetical order)
  8 - Maury Buford, punter (cowbell)
29 - Dennis Gentry, running back (bass)
98 - Tyrone Keys, defensive end (keyboard)
33 - Calvin Thomas, running back (saxophone)
18 - Mike Tomczak, quarterback (guitar)

Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew Chorus (in alphabetical order)
21 - Leslie Frazier, cornerback
23 - Shaun Gayle, safety
75 - Stefan Humphries, guard
51 - Jim Morrissey, linebacker
89 - Keith Ortego, wide receiver/punt returner
48 - Reggie Phillips, cornerback
53 - Dan Rains, linebacker
20 - Thomas Sanders, running back
31 - Ken Taylor, cornerback/punt returner

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

No. 1 Overall

     Before the current season began, Derrick Rose of the Bulls asked, "Why can't I be the MVP?" Judging by his sensational performance so far, the answer would have to be "No particular reason."
     If Rose ever does win the Most Valuable Player award, he would become the first Chicago athlete to do so after also being selected with the first overall pick in his league's annual draft. Two such players have made it to the Hall of Fame, and both were drafted by teams that no longer exist--Charley Trippi by the NFL's Chicago Cardinals and Walt Bellamy by the NBA's Chicago Packers.
     The draft is an inexact science in every sport, and as often as not the first overall pick fails to justify the expectations placed upon him. Below is the list of players in whom Chicago teams have invested the hopes, not to mention dollars, that go with the first overall draft choice. Some panned out, and some did not.

National Football League (draft established 1936)

1941 - Tom Harmon, halfback, Michigan
1947 - Bob Fenimore, halfback, Oklahoma State

1939 - Ki Aldrich, center, TCU
1940 - George Cafego, fullback, Tennessee
1945 - Charley Trippi, halfback, Georgia
1958 - King Hill, quarterback, Rice

National Basketball Association (draft established 1947)

1961 - Walt Bellamy, center, Indiana

1962 - Bill McGill, center/forward, Utah

1999 - Elton Brand, forward, Duke
2008 - Derrick Rose, guard, Memphis

National Hockey League (draft established 1963)

2007 - Patrick Kane, London Knights (Ontario Hockey League)

Major League Baseball (draft established 1965)

1982 - Shawon Dunston, shortstop, Jefferson High School, Brooklyn, NY

White Sox:
1971 - Danny Goodwin, catcher, Peoria Central High School, Peoria, IL
1977 - Harold Baines, first baseman, St. Michael High School, Easton, MD

Mildly Interesting Trivia Department: Danny Goodwin was drafted first overall by the White Sox in 1971, but elected not to sign and enrolled at Southern University. In 1975, having completed his college career, Goodwin was drafted first overall again--this time by the California Angels. He is the only athlete in any sport to go No. 1 overall more than once.