Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How Wheaton Ice Man Saved Professional Football


The history of the NFL was fraught with peril. Many times over the course of its history, it didn't look like it would survive financially.

George Halas sat on a running board in the Canton Ohio car showroom of Ralph Hay on September 17, 1925 with 14 other excited men that established the American Professional Football Association which was later called the National Football League. Failure however would prove to be the norm as dozens of teams came and went during the first few decades of the league's existence.

A few teams succeeded. The Racine Cardinals had joined the league with the Bears and like the Bears would be an orignal charter team to survive until today. The Green Bay Packers joined the fledgling new league shortly after it was established, but they were impaired by financial weaknesses that made them an on-again off-again team in the early days. In 1925 Tim Mara an entrepreneur and legal bookmaker bought the rights to a New York team that would become the Giants. The New York franchise was critical for the success of the league, but in those days New York was a baseball town.

It was probably not players' salaries that created the greatest challenge then. In the early days, most players were paid $50 to $100 per game. Often the ticket price was $1 and during this period it is estimated that the Bears were pulling 7-10,000 fans at home games and about 5,000 away. With that kind of attendance and cheap seats, in 1925, things looked desperate.

Grange Saves the Game

The fledgling football world was hit by a meteor from the University of Illinois. Harold "Red" Grange was football's first superstar and he brought huge numbers of fans to games wherever he played. Some credit Grange with bringing college football into the national limelight. It's hard to argue. Grange who worked as an ice man during his summers in Wheaton, Illinois was big news.

When the Illini played Michigan in 1924, Grange scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game. He ran back the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, and scored three more touchdowns on runs totaling 167 yards. Later in the game, Grange scored another touchdown on an 11-yard run and passed for a sixth score to give Illinois a 39-14 that put an end to a Michigan 20-game unbeaten streak. Totals for the day were 402 yards -- including 212 rushing, 64 passing and 126 on kickoffs. His play became a national story--Grange was on the cover of Time Magazine October 4, 1925--two years before Knute Rockne would grace the cover in 1927.

Theater owner and promoter C. C. Pyle approached the Chicago Bears owner George Halas and convinced Halas to sign Grange after the college season. Grange had just finished his junior year so he was leaving school early employing Pyle to represent his professional interests. Pyle was a tough negotiator whose nickname "Cash and Carry" seemed appropriate. Halas agreed to unprecedented terms for Grange's services. Perhaps taking a clue from baseball's highly successful barnstorming tours, Halas created an ambitious schedule that included both NFL and exhibition games that would put Grange in the spotlight and help lift professional football out of the doldrums.

Beginning on Thanksgiving Day, Grange suited up as a Chicago Bear and attendance exploded to 36,000 fans. The Bears and Grange would continue to play until mid-February under grueling schedule that left the players totally exhausted, but was credited with saving the game financially. In one game out east, a crowd of 65,000 showed up at the Polo Grounds to see the Bears defeat the Giants 19-7. That game not only helped the Bears, some say it saved the Giants franchise.

It was reported that the deal that C.C. Pyle concocted for Grange paid handsomely--some say it was a $100,000 contract; others put the total value of the deal in the area of $250,000. Regardless, it was huge money for Grange.

Pyle would move on to established his own league, the American Football League that featured Grange, but failed due to lack of attendance outside of the New York team games. In 1927, the NFL awarded Pyle the NY Yankee football franchise, but that failed as well and a few years later Grange signed another lucrative contract with the Bears. Grange was never the same however, having injured his knee playing for Pyle in New York. He would however adjust and become a very good defensive back whom the Bears loved.

Many football writers say that without Grange, professional football would have collapsed. He helped increase the gate especially in 1925 and he certainly showed just how exciting the game could be for spectators.

Copyright 2011 by Sporting Chance Press. Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of Chicago Bears Senior Director Patrick McCaskey's new book Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout. McCaskey's book is his personal chronicle in which he takes stock of faithful and inspirational people he has known both on and off the football field.

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