Monday, September 12, 2011

Red Grange and Papa Bear

The history of the Bears is in many ways the history of the NFL. George Halas was Papa Bear to Chicago, but his position in the orbit of NFL football was essential for many reasons.

It was Halas who sat on a running board in the Canton Ohio car showroom of Ralph Hay on September 17 with 14 other men to establish the American Professional Football Association which was later called the National Football League.

It was Halas who by sheer force of will kept standing while dozens of teams fell around him.

It was Halas who would play 10 years and coach for 40 seasons. No man could tell Papa Bear that he didn't know what it was like to play the game.

Owning a professional football franchise was a risky investment--at least until well after World War II. Within a few years of the league forming, other storied teams (besides the Bears and Cardinals) got their start, but it was never easy. The Green Bay Packers joined the fledgling new league, 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. Professional football was still struggling in 1937 when Football Commissioner Joe F. Carr recruited a successful fight promoter and gambler Art Rooney as an owner in Pittsburgh.

Joe F. Carr

Carr was a brilliant administrator and marketer who is credited with much of the organizational work that helped the NFL survive. As NFL President from 1921-1939, Carr was also quick to take on a problem and resolve many issues that threatened the credibility and reputation of the league. Carr was also involved in many sports endeavors outside his office in the NFL.

Art Rooney

Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney was special. Like George Halas, he was an athlete himself. He played football, baseball and boxed--and loved all three sports his entire life. The Rooneys, the Maras and the Halas-McCaskeys are wonderful owner families who continue to give back generously to their communities along with others who have also made their mark.

Early Struggles

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. In 1925, things looked desperate.

Grange Changes Everything

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 and most believe he did the same for professional football.

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.

Grange was nicknamed the "Galloping Ghost" and lauded by legendary writers Grantland Rice, Warren Brown, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyan.

Halas was approached by theater owner and promoter C. C. Pyle to sign Grange after the college season. Grange had just finished his junior year. Pyle who would get a nickname of his own, "Cash and Carry," had convinced Grange to let him represent his professional interests. Pyle was a tough negotiator and 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.

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. In today's dollars, that's $3,167,326.59 according to the Dollar Times calculator. Think of how the average player might have felt when comparing a salary of less than $1500 with Grange's $250,00 or think in today's dollars --comparing a salary of roughly $18,000 to over $3 Million.

When Pyle and Grange came back to Halas the following year, they had even greater demands including a large ownership interest in the Bears. Halas rejected the offer. Pyle established his own league, the American Football League that lasted just one season. In 1927, the NFL awarded Pyle the NY Yankee football franchise, but Grange suffered a devastating knee injury that ruined his running career. Grange returned to play for the Bears from 1929-1934 as a superb defensive back. He coached briefly and ended up working as a Bears football analyst from 1947-1961.

Many football writers say that without Grange, professional football would have collapsed. Certainly 1925 was a year that George Halas went way out of his comfort zone (if an NFL owner could have one in those days) to save the game. Not only did Red Grange leave the University of Illinois after three years, but terms of his contract were unprecedented and dictated in large part by a sports agent. Some think of player demands and salaries being outrageous today! Halas and others would come back later and establish a rule that no college player could play professional football until after his class had graduated.

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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