Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How the Bears Became the Bears

As the publisher of Patrick McCaskey's Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devout and the Devoted , we like to take a look at some of the more interesting Bears history here in this blog that is also mentioned in the book.

Before what we know of as professional football, there were semi-pro teams that were starting to draw a large fan base. When someone like Jim Thorpe would play in a game put on by these teams, attendance soared and there was money to be made. Some teams developed though company sponsorship so athletes might land a company job and have an opportunity to play for the company team.

An ambitious George Halas played football and baseball for the University of Illinois. When WWI drew America into war, Halas joined the service. Fortuitously, the recent college player was pegged as a recreation officer at Great Lakes Training School--a far cry from the active duty he sought. His service at the Training Center gave Halas a second chance to play football with the greats of the day.

After the war, Halas, who was an excellent baseball player, was signed by the NY Yankees. He loved the game of baseball and it was an established professional game decades before football. Nevertheless, after he signed on and played minor league ball, it was obvious that he needed more time to improve his hitting for the big leagues. Frustrated with the minor league seasoning that was still ahead of him, he quit baseball and sought the promise of a career elsewhere--time moved fast in those days at the dawn of the "Roaring 20s."

Halas saw that there was money to be made in football even at the semi-professional level and he was also impressed by how players who continued after college just kept getting bigger, faster, stronger. It was obvious by the level of the semi-pro play, that most athletes did not reach their peak potential in football until after college.

A dream job came along for George Halas. Staley Starch Company in Decatur, Illinois wanted him to become athletic director for their sports programs while joining their management training program. Halas also saw an opportunity to form a league of teams to improve the organizaton and structure of the game--and to take advantage of the game's increasing popularity. Ralph Hay the most successful car dealer in Ohio and owner of the Canton Bulldogs football team was thinking the same thing and had already worked to establish an association of a few Ohio teams. A call went out to several teams and on September 17, 1920, a meeting took place at Hays dealership in Canton that established the American Professional Football Association, the group that most scholars view as the first professional football league. In 1922, the APFA changed its name to the National Football League.

Halas ran the Decatur Staleys in that first year under the ownership of A. E. Staley. In 1921, the economy drooped and Mr. Staley thought it was not prudent to operate a sports team with funds that were needed to pay employees and run his company. He worked out an arrangement where he would seed money to Halas to get the team off to a start with the condition that Halas retain the Staley name in 1921. In that year, the team played as the Chicago Staleys in the windy city. Halas brought along a partner in the venture, Edward Dutch Sternaman, an acquaintance from his University of Illinois days who would stay with Halas in the early days.

When it was time to select a new name, Halas who was quite fond of the Chicago Cubs and an admirer of William Veeck Sr. who ran the team, was originally attracted to the name "Cubs." But after further consideration, it was decided the name should be the "Bears"--a name that seemed more fitting for men who were the larger rough and tumble sort who played football. Halas would also go on to use University of Illinois colors and bring in University of Illinois coaches to help him periodically during his many years at the helm of the team.

The Bears now pay homage to the Staley roots of the team by using the name Saley itself for the popular Bears' mascot: Staley da Bear. According to the Bears site, Staley has been the mascot since 2003.

There is little that resembled the professional football of today with the sport in in the first several decades of its existence. At first it met with resistance from purist who thought anything professional teams were demeaning to the sport. In those beginning decades, pro football seemed to fall apart during economic downturns and it played its game in horrific conditions. World War II took much of any swagger it had out of it as players left for service (including George Halas) and attendance shrunk. Owners scrambled to keep things afloat with team mergers that shared coaches and players. Only the remarkable resilience and resourcefulness of the owners kept it alive. Many believe the pro game did not become a sustainable enterprise until TV revenues.

As a business it was woeful and the only two original teams that made it to present day are the Bears and the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinal started out as the Racine Cardinals--then moved to St. Louis and then on to Phoenix. The Racine Cardinals were a Chicago team not a team from Racine, Wisconsin as many believe. The Racine team was a south side Chicago team that had a strong connection with fans and players who resided around Racine avenue and thus the name.

For the Chicago Bears to have survived to the present day, it took a larger than life man, George Halas, to get them there. Halas played for 10 years and coached for 40. In some ways he still owns the team--his spirit is alive in every aspect of the team--that's why the name Papa Bear is so fitting.

Staley the Bear mugshot from

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