On a warm summer evening in Chicago, with the sun about an hour from setting, hundreds of runners, walkers and bike riders were taking advantage of the remaining daylight. On a pathway that winds through the city along the Chicago River and then splits at the mouth of Lake Michigan, people everywhere were donning Chicago Bears shirts, hats and just about any other apparel featuring the football team’s famous logo.
The most ambitious people on the trail turned when they got to the big lake and headed north or south. Those who took their journey south would soon find their way to Soldier Field, about two miles down the trail. The famed football stadium has been home to the Bears since the team moved there almost 50 years ago, following a half century of games played a few miles north of the river and about another mile inland from the lake, at Wrigley Field.
Football season may have still been three months away, but the spirit of Bears football lives year-round in the Windy City. That aura, that love and passion, began when George “Papa Bear” Halas brought the team to Chicago in 1921.
“We recently had the Bears’ 100-year celebration weekend,” said George Halas McCaskey, grandson of Halas and the current chairman of the team. “The response of the fans was overwhelming. The enthusiasm and energy that millions of people have for the Bears is unbelievable. It was humbling and gratifying to see how much the Bears mean to people, not just in Chicago or in the United States, but throughout the world. The root of it all is George Halas. Without him, without his vision, his drive and determination, there would be no celebration.”
Even with basketball legend Michael Jordan in the conversation, Halas -- who founded the Bears, played nine seasons in navy blue and orange, coached the team for 40 seasons and owned the organization from 1920 until his death in 1983 -- has arguably impacted sports in Chicago more than anyone else.
“It’s really hard to compare him with anyone else in this town,” said McCaskey from his office at Halas Hall, the Bears’ headquarters. “He was and still is everything to football in Chicago.”
Although Halas passed away more than 35 years ago, the imprint of the Bears’ founder and one of the National Football League’s originators is not only found along running paths, but rather, everywhere in and around Chicago.
Beyond the everlasting tributes to Halas, which include his initials having a permanent home on the left sleeve of the Bears’ jerseys, and the National Football Conference championship trophy displaying his name, Papa Bear’s family still owns the team. His place in football history is secure and inarguable. Less known to many, however, is Halas’s place in Yankees history.
One hundred years ago, a rookie right fielder arrived for the Yankees’ Spring Training camp in Jacksonville, Florida, with a healthy amount of promise and hype.
No, it wasn’t Babe Ruth, but rather a 24-year-old Halas, an outfielder who manager Miller Huggins and the team’s brass were plenty excited to get onto the field.
“Unless we are very much wrong, this boy is going to stick,” the New York Sun newspaper reported at the start of Spring Training. “For he looks every inch the ballplayer and handles himself like one.”
Prior to signing with the Yankees, Halas had already discovered that fate was on his side.
“He was supposed to be a passenger on a boat that was going to travel on the Chicago River and Lake Michigan called the Eastland with other employees of the Western Electric Company,” McCaskey said. “That morning, for some reason, he literally missed the boat, and it capsized. Hundreds of lives were lost, but he was late getting to the dock that morning.”
Halas had already reached great heights before he took his first swings in 1919. The son of Bohemian immigrants, Halas was born in 1885 in Chicago. He attended Crane Tech High School on the city’s Near West Side, lettering in football, basketball and indoor baseball. In the fall of 1914, Halas enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he began studying engineering. Athletics remained a significant part of Halas’s life in college, as he quickly established himself as a star on the Fighting Illini’s baseball and football teams, while also playing basketball.
During his sophomore season on the diamond, Halas batted .350, garnering the attention of Yankees scout Bob Connery. Shortly after that, the scout invited Halas to Spring Training, but he turned the offer down. Although Halas was more interested in finishing his degree, that journey would soon get delayed for a much larger cause than professional baseball.
When the United States entered World War I, Halas joined the Navy, intent on fighting for his country. Instead, he was stationed outside of Chicago at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, where his main focus became playing football. Halas, the team’s end -- a pass catching position now known as wide receiver -- and the rest of the team won enough games during the 1918 season to earn an invitation to play in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1919.
From its very first day, that year was a whirlwind for Halas. He opened it by catching a touchdown pass and intercepting another, which he ran back 77 yards, in his team’s 17-0 victory over the Mare Island Marines on New Year’s Day.
Shortly after carving his name into Rose Bowl history (he was retroactively named the game’s Most Outstanding Player after the award was created in 1953), Halas was discharged from the Navy and was awarded a degree from Illinois, despite not finishing all of his coursework due to his military service.
About a month later, the Yankees came calling again. This time, Halas was ready to listen. But before inking a contract that included a $500 signing bonus, Halas gave the world a glimpse of his slick negotiating skills and sharp business acumen.
“The manager of the Chicago White Sox was Clarence ‘Pants’ Rowland, a friend of mine, and he kind of put in a phony bid for me,” Halas told The Sporting News in 1976. “That caused the Yanks to give me the bonus and a contract for $400 a month.”
Halas arrived in Jacksonville ready to take the sport by storm.
“I considered myself in perfect condition,” he wrote in his autobiography more than a half-century later. “I was ready to astound baseball fans with my speed and desire.”
The writers covering the Yankees prior to the 1919 season agreed with Halas’s assessment of himself.
“The experts are all smoked up over young George Halas,” reported the New-York Tribune. “He is a husky youth with 180 pounds of solid stuff to put behind every swing.”
In a March 31 intrasquad game, Halas found a way to make a significant impression on Huggins and to further elevate his status on the team. After Halas walked, star shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh bunted. Halas took off for second, but rather than stopping there, he kept going. Caught off guard, the player who fielded the ball made a rushed throw to third base, and the baseball sailed into the outfield. Halas quickly made his way to home, ultimately scoring on a play that was intended to advance him to second base.
The Yankees took on the Brooklyn Dodgers and future Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Marquard the next day in Jacksonville. Like most rookies throughout baseball history, Halas was in the first stage of figuring out how to consistently hit curveballs.
“I knew Rube had a dandy curveball, but I figured he wouldn’t risk an arm injury by throwing a curve against a rookie in the spring,” Halas wrote many years later in his memoir.
Halas was right. Marquard threw a fastball, and the Yankees’ up-and-coming star drove the pitch to deep center field. With the ball rolling toward the wall, Halas made a wide turn at second base and sprinted toward third.
Although Halas could never have known it at the time, the decision to try to turn a double into a triple changed his life. And, that fateful, deadly serious choice on April Fools’ Day 1919 also altered the future of American sports.
Halas made it to third safely with a long hook slide into the rock-hard clay that made up the infield. That success would prove to be but a footnote about that play.
“When I slid into third base, I hurt my leg,” Halas told The Sporting News in 1976. “I limped on in at the end of the inning, and for two or three more days, it felt like nothing more than a severe charley-horse. But it gave me trouble.”
Without having the advantage of modern medical technology -- namely the MRI machine -- the Yankees’ trainer, Doc Woods, did what teams would do in similar situations back then. He told Halas to take a few days off.
Filled with what seemed to be blind optimism and hopefulness, Huggins spoke to the writers about Halas on April 3, only two days after his star player injured his hip.
“You may say for me that George Halas will start in right field for the Yankees,” Huggins said. “Of course, I do not know how he will act against American League pitching, but if I am any judge of a ballplayer, Halas is a star. He has every action of a great player, and so far, he is hitting. That boy learns faster than any youngster I’ve been around, and he is here to stick.”
Despite not being at full health, Halas returned to action on April 8, striking out three times in an exhibition game. A week later, Halas singled in one of the final Spring Training games, but he experienced hip pain as he got to first base.
That compelled the Yankees to take a slightly more conservative approach, this time keeping Halas off the field for the first eight games of the regular season.
It was at Shibe Park in Philadelphia that Halas made his Major League debut on May 6, 1919. Batting leadoff and playing right field, Halas went 1-for-4 with a single in a 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia A’s. Two days later, Halas was back in the lineup for the next game of the series. Again, he went 1-for-4 from the leadoff spot with a single, this time helping the Yankees to a 2-0 win.
Huggins may have put Halas on a pedestal, declaring that he was the superstar that the Yankees had long wanted. That very praise made the fact that those two singles would be Halas’s only career hits all the more shocking to the baseball world.
Although he didn’t collect another hit, Halas had two more memorable games that month. With future Hall of Famer and eventual 417-game winner Walter Johnson on the mound, the Washington Senators took on the Yankees at the Polo Grounds, then the Yankees’ home ballpark. Batting leadoff, Halas drove Johnson’s first offering of the game, a fastball, deep to right field. Before the baseball landed in the seats, it curved foul. Johnson followed with another fastball, and Halas launched it into the right-field seats, but again, the ball landed in foul territory. Quickly understanding Halas’s ability to hit the fastball, Johnson came back with an 0-2 curveball that sent the rookie right fielder back to the dugout.
Several decades after that 12-inning game ended in a tie, Halas -- who finished 0-for-5 -- was asked by a reporter in Chicago to name his greatest thrill in sports.
“The day I hit two over the fence off Walter Johnson,” Halas said.
The reporter, unsure of what he meant, countered with a follow-up.
“For home runs?”
“Yeah,” Halas responded. “If they’d stayed fair.”
Three days after the game against Washington, Halas was on the bench in Detroit, but it didn’t stop him from making his presence known. When the legendary Ty Cobb came to the plate, Halas’s teammates -- in particular, Yankees catcher Truck Hannah -- encouraged the rookie to “get on” the Tigers’ often hostile superstar and future Hall of Famer.
“I started hollering at him from the bench,” Halas told The Sporting News in ’76. “He had no trouble hearing me. Finally, Cobb dropped his bat and came over toward our dugout. He said, ‘You fresh kid. I’ll kick your teeth out.’ Well, I told him that I would meet him after the game.
“The other players, led by Hannah, were quick to get dressed after the game to see what was going to happen,” Halas continued. “I have to admit now to delaying a little. The dressing rooms were close together, and when I walked out, not knowing what was going to happen, Cobb walked out of the Tigers locker room at almost the same exact second. He had cooled down, and he just looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you save that pep and energy for when you get on the field instead of popping off?’”
The two met again later in New York City and took a long walk together.
“As the years went by, we became good friends,” Halas said in The Sporting News article. “I worshipped him as a player. He could do all of the things I wanted to do on a baseball field.”
As spring turned to summer in 1919, it became more apparent that Halas was not going to turn into the type of player Cobb was anytime soon. The rookie’s hip injury was more severe than anyone originally believed, and after 22 at-bats, he still had just two hits, good for a .091 batting average.
Other than taking long walks, Halas wasn’t given any other directives as to how he could improve the condition of his hip. He had a severe limp, and on two occasions, he was picked off base after coming into games as a pinch-runner.
In mid-June, Halas asked Huggins if he could visit John “Bonesetter” Reese, a well-known trainer and chiropractor in Youngstown, Ohio. Reese diagnosed the injury as a dislocated hip, and he wasted no time in trying to fix it.
“I got up on the table in his office,” Halas told The Sporting News. “He dug those strong fingers of his into my legs and back. He told me that I had twisted my thigh bone when I slid into third base. He felt for the bone and actually twisted it back into place, and I was fine after that.”
Even though Halas was no longer experiencing pain, Huggins believed that he needed to gain experience in the Minors in order to improve his ability to hit Major League curveballs. When Halas rejoined the Yankees in Cleveland, Huggins delivered the news that the young outfielder would be spending the remainder of the 1919 season with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association.
“I was devastated,” Halas later wrote in his autobiography, Halas by Halas. “But looking back on it, I was grateful for the manner in which Miller Huggins told me. Through the years, when I had to cut a player, I tried to emulate Huggins’ grace and consideration.”
The demotion proved to be beneficial to Halas’s baseball career, if only for a short time. While working with Saints manager Mike Kelley, Halas batted .274 in 39 games. More importantly, he seemed to have made strides under Kelley’s tutelage.
“He was a terrific coach, and he taught me how to hit the curveball,” Halas told Chicago sportscaster Brad Palmer in an interview decades later. “I had previously moved up in the batter’s box and tried to hit the pitch before it broke. But he put me back deep and showed me how to wait on the ball. I felt like that season in St. Paul helped me, and Mike believed I was ready for the big leagues the next spring.”
Five days before Halas’s whirlwind year of 1919 came to an end, the Yankees made an acquisition that would completely transcend their organization -- and the entire sports landscape. It would also make Halas expendable.
On Dec. 26, 1919, the Yankees purchased the contract of right fielder Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox. While the Big Apple was buzzing from the reality that Ruth -- who hit more home runs with the Red Sox in 1919 than several other Major League teams -- would be playing for the Yankees, Halas was back in his hometown.
While still believing that his baseball career was far from over, Halas spent the offseason working for a Chicago railroad and playing semipro football in nearby Hammond, Indiana.
“When you look at what he did in 1919, it was an incredible year for George Halas,” McCaskey said. “On Jan. 1, he was voted the most outstanding player in the Rose Bowl, and by Spring Training, he was the starting right fielder for the New York Yankees. Then, later that year, he was playing semipro football.”
Halas was amenable to playing for the Saints in 1920, but he insisted that he earn the same $400 per month as the previous season. Kelley was willing to meet that demand, but only if the Yankees released Halas to the Minnesota-based team. The manager wanted the Saints to have control over how long Halas would play in St. Paul. The Yankees, fearful that another Major League team would purchase Halas from the Saints -- which could have happened if New York relinquished his rights while he was in St. Paul -- refused that proposal.
The only resolution that was left on the table was for Halas to earn less than he did the previous season. He was not willing to take a pay cut, and as quickly as he became a big leaguer, he moved on from the game.
Right around the time that Halas walked away from the Saints, a businessman in a small industrial town 180 miles southwest of Chicago was looking to make a unique hire.
A.E. Staley, who purchased a defunct starch-making plant in Decatur, Illinois, in 1909, saw his investment thriving a decade later. Now milling corn and starch in a factory that he rebuilt and expanded, Staley employed about 1,000 people.
“Staley was fundamental in growing our community,” said Laura Jahr, director and curator of the Staley Museum in Decatur earlier this summer. “He was instrumental in a lot of areas of this community because of the number of jobs he provided and because of the influence he exercised. He was a man with the golden touch, and he had great business intuition. He knew how to relate well with people, and he always got things done.”
With the belief that having his employees participate in sports would build a sense of team and factory loyalty, as well as helping the men develop sportsmanship and other character-building traits, Staley decided to create an athletic program. His vision included baseball and football teams that would compete in industrial leagues.
The football club found success right away, defeating the nearby Arcola Independents, 41-0, in the fall of 1919. Humiliated and angry, Arcola brought on Dutch Sternaman, who starred at the University of Illinois, to not only play for the team, but also to recruit other players prior to a rematch against the Staleys that was scheduled for Nov. 30, 1919.
“Staley got wind that the Arcola businessmen had been recruiting players from other avenues, and he knew that if he sent his factory workers there, they were going to get humiliated,” Jahr said. “Staley didn’t want that for himself or for his team, and he didn’t send his team to Arcola. That remains the most famous game that was never played.”
Staley didn’t stop there. Knowing that putting a team together that was at the level of Arcola would be the only way to validate his athletic program, Staley resigned himself to finding his own football star who could also build a competitive team.
“He was good at looking around and saying, ‘If they’re doing that over there and it’s working, then I’ll do the same thing,’” Jahr said.
That search ended when Staley found Halas in Chicago.
“Staley had very little formal education, but he was an expert at using his resources,” Jahr said. “That’s really how he stumbled upon George Halas. He asked the right questions, and he knew how to find the right person for the job. He wasn’t afraid to use his resources. That led him to Halas, and luckily for him, Halas accepted the position.”
Halas jumped at the chance to work for the company and also lead the athletic program, but he didn’t accept the job without making a few requests of his own. Halas insisted that the players he recruited would also have opportunities to work at the plant, that his team would be granted two hours to practice during each workday, and that in addition to his $50 weekly salary, he would also be given a percentage of the revenue from the football games.
While recruiting players for the 1920 Staley football team, Halas served as the captain of the Staleys baseball team. Now playing second base, he batted .315 and led the team in hits, runs and stolen bases.
At some point that summer, Halas convinced Sternaman to join the Staleys, and that acquisition led to several other great players relocating to Decatur.
As the football season got closer, Halas heard rumors that a meeting to discuss the formation of a professional football league was going to take place in Canton, Ohio, and he requested a seat at the table. Halas and engineer Morgan O’Brien represented the Staleys at the two-hour summit, held at Hay’s automobile showroom. The group at that meeting, representing nine teams, left Canton only after forming the American Professional Football Association, soon renamed the National Football League.
“Some history-changing events are larger than others,” Jahr said. “Some are significant for a local community and some are large on a national level. Halas’s insistence on attending that meeting ended up being significant on every level.”
Three days after the Sept. 17 meeting, the Staley football team held its first practice, and in early October, the team played its first game. In front of a crowd of more than 1,500 fans -- each of whom paid $1 to attend -- the Decatur Starchmen, as they were nicknamed, defeated the Moline Tractors, 20-0.
Playing their home games on the Staleys’ baseball field -- except the season finale, which was played at the ballpark later known as Wrigley Field -- the Starchmen’s season rolled along, and in 13 games against professional and semipro teams, Halas’s men racked up a 10-1-2 record and declared themselves champions.
Halas, who coached the team and played left end, continued to work for Staley in 1921. He played in 77 baseball games that summer, and he revamped the football team’s roster, adding 10 college football stars from Ohio, Indiana and New York.
The 1921 football season began with the Starchmen’s 35-0 rout of the Waukegan American Legion team in October. With the United States in an economic depression, Staley knew that he had to choosebetween the business of sports or starch manufacturing.
“One of the things Staley had in common with George Halas was his ability to take something and have it grow in incredible ways,” Jahr said. “With the football team, Staley thought that he was putting something in place for company morale and for local entertainment in a town that didn’t have much else to offer. Then, it outgrew what Staley’s intent for the program was. Once it got to the point that he couldn’t grow it any more, Staley knew it was time to let it go.”
And, so, Staley brought Halas into his office for a seminal conversation.
“I know that you’re more interested in football than business,” Staley said to Halas. “But we simply can’t underwrite the team’s expenses any longer. Why don’t you move the boys up to Chicago? I think that football can go over well up there -- and I’ll give you $5,000 to help you get started. All I ask is that you continue to call the team the Staleys for one more season.”
Halas took Staley up on the offer, and a Chicago sports institution was born. Halas and Sternaman immediately moved the team to the Windy City, and Halas quickly negotiated a deal with Chicago Cubs team president William Veeck Sr. for the Staleys to play their home games at Cubs Park -- which was renamed Wrigley Field in 1926. The Cubs took 15 percent of the gate receipts and all profits from concessions, but Halas’s team had a much-needed home to hold practices and games.
Besides coaching and playing for the team, Halas, along with Sternaman, worked diligently to promote the Staleys. The two men handed out flyers across the city and took out advertising in local newspapers. Right from the start, their efforts paid off on the field and at the turnstiles. In front of an average crowd of 7,000 people, the Staleys posted a 10-1-1 record and were crowned league champions.
Halas’s good fortune grew over the next few years. In 1922, he changed the name of the team to the Bears, believing that synergy with the already-established Cubs would help the football club gain recognition. That same year, Halas married Min Bushing, and the couple would have two children, Virginia and George Jr.
Midway through the decade, with the NFL still struggling and in the shadows of college football and Major League Baseball -- whose popularity had boomed largely because of Ruth -- Halas convinced Illinois halfback Red Grange to join the Bears. That was the move that put the NFL on the map.
“One of the best lines I’ve heard about my grandfather is that he demanded that the American sporting public pay attention to pro football,” McCaskey said. “There were a lot of people who couldn’t believe young men would accept payment to play football. It really wasn’t until he signed Red Grange that there was potential for professional football to be a great American sport.”
Halas relinquished his coaching duties in 1929, only to return to the sidelines a few years later, much to the dismay of Sternaman. And, as the case is with many business relationships, the Halas-Sternaman partnership reached its expiration date in 1932. Having much more invested in the team, Halas bought out Sternaman for $38,000.
From that point forward, Halas guided the Bears in some fashion for the next five decades. He won a total of eight NFL championships, stepping away for military
service during World War II and a brief retirement in 1956 and ’57, keeping a promise that he had made to his wife. Halas won his 324th and final game as the team’s head coach in 1967 -- an NFL record that lasted until Don Shula bested it in 1993 -- and he ran the team almost until his final days.
A few years after Halas’s son, George Jr., died of a heart attack in 1979, the Bears’ patriarch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Before his death in 1983, Halas did everything he could to ensure that the Bears would not only be left in good hands but that the team would specifically remain in his family forever. So far, that has been the case.
“That was very important to him,” said McCaskey, who as the team’s fourth chairman has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, his father and his brother. “That’s why a crucial part of his estate plan was to leave the team to his descendants and to put his daughter, and my mother, Virginia, in charge. We take that responsibility seriously. We feel that we are uniquely qualified to carry on George Halas’s legacy, and that’s what we’re trying to do. No other family can claim ownership from the beginning of the sport to the present day, and that means a lot to us. Our goal is to hang on to the Bears until the second coming.”
Like every organization in sports, the Bears have had good seasons and bad seasons in the decades since Halas passed away. But Chicago’s 1985 Super Bowl championship team, coached by Halas’s former tight end, Mike Ditka, cemented itself as one of the greatest football teams in history. That club posted a 15-1 regular season record, falling only to Shula’s Dolphins, and it dominated the competition in the postseason like few teams ever have.
From Ditka’s steakhouse in downtown Chicago, where a photo of Halas and Ditka hangs near the bar, to his bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, located a short distance from where the NFL was born in Canton, Papa Bear’s legacy lives on.
The centennial anniversaries of Halas’s brief big league career and of the Chicago Bears’ existence illustrate that this is not a story of what could have been, but rather what would not have been had Halas continued his pursuit of greatness with the Yankees.
“Getting the opportunity to compete for the New York Yankees was a thrill for him,” McCaskey said. “But our family is thrilled that he couldn’t hit the curveball! There are several people who have founded professional sports teams, but there are not many people who can say that they are also one of the founders of professional football. Then, when you take into account that he amassed 40 years as a successful coach and was, for decades, the leader in professional football victories, it’s pretty obvious that his influence on the American sporting scene is considerable, and that is putting it mildly.”