The Chicago Bears enjoy a rich history and play a big part in our city’s past, as well as that of professional football. From the Monsters of the Midway to the Superbowl Shuffle, “Da Bears” have never failed to keep Chicago’s attention.
Many believe that George S. Halas was the father and founder of professional football, but this isn’t quite true. The first recorded football game to be played was on August 31, 1895 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, before Halas’ time.
Professional football got its start in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Teams were pretty much just thrown together, their rosters consisting primarily of those who couldn’t find a job anywhere else.
To get to the real beginning of professional football (and the beginning of the Bears), one needs to go all the way back to the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company. This corporation (a starch manufacturer) opened its doors in Decatur, Illinois in 1912. Being big sports fans, both Mr. Staley, Sr. (the owner) and his general superintendent G.E. Chamberlain decided to sponsor company athletic teams.
The “Staley Fellowship Club” started off sponsoring a baseball team in 1917. It did well in its first season, winning the Commercial League and City Championship. For the next five years, the baseball team continued its success. Because of the baseball team’s success, Staley decided to beef up his football and basketball programs. He decided that he needed some major talent to command his football team, someone who could organize the program, recruit players, as well as coach and play on the team. George Halas was chosen for the job.
Halas had his hands full; he was to learn the starch business, play on the company baseball team, plus put together the 1920 company football team, the “Decatur Staleys.” This would prove to be the very beginning of the Chicago Bears.
Halas started work in the company’s mill house on March 18, 1920, and the football team quickly flourished. Everyone able wanted to play for the Staleys, and for good reason. Each player was guaranteed a job at the company. The team was also allowed to practice up two hours a day, during company time, with pay – something unheard of in depression-wracked America.
Halas went on a recruiting spree. He handpicked his new team from college stars and players from the previous company team.
One problem he had was putting together a set schedule. Other teams were loosely thrown together and game scheduling was all but impossible.
Frustrated, Halas wrote a letter to Ralph Hay of the Canton Bulldogs, who had tried to start a league in his automobile showroom in July of 1919. Halas’ letter rekindled Hay’s interest in creating a league, and resulted in a meeting to discuss rules that threatened to kill the old league of the previous year. Eventually, a new league was born.
September 17, 1920 saw the first official meeting of the teams in Canton, Ohio. There were 11 teams total. Each team would pay a franchise fee of $100 to belong to the league (this was probably meant to show the legitimacy; no money ever changed hands).
The Decatur Staleys played their first game at Staley Field in Decatur, Illinois on October 3, 1920. 2000 fans were on-hand to see the result of Halas’ recruiting efforts (and with good reason). The Staleys shut out the Moline Tractors, 20-0. They were off to a good start, and wound up completing the season with a record of 10-2-1.
The Decatur Staleys went to the Western Division Championship, which was held at Cub Park (now Wrigley Field) on December 4th in front of 11,000 spectators. Even though the game ended in a tie, the Staleys took home the title (due to their record).
Unfortunately for the next year’s 1921 team, the U.S. economy was getting worse and worse. The A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company was not immune to the plight. Staley had to look deep into his operation to determine how to stay afloat, and the intramural athletic programs got the axe.
Rather than disband the team altogether, Staley offered the team franchise to Halas. He even sweetened the pot with $5,000 to cover the team expenses for the year. The Decatur Staleys would move north to Chicago where the crowd size was considerably bigger, increasing the chances of the team’s success. The only stipulation was that the team would be called the “Chicago Staleys” for their first year in Chicago. Halas accepted the offer.
After the second game of the season, and armed with a deal with the owner of Chicago’s Wrigley Field and a new partner (Edward “Dutch” Sternaman), the Chicago Staleys played the remainder of their home games in Chicago.
Halas’ recruiting handiwork paid off again in 1921. The team became the first to bring the National Pro Championship to Illinois with a record of 9-1-1. By virtue of their successful record, and the tie in the Championship Game with the Chicago Cardinals, the Staleys were the National Champs in 1921.
On January 28, 1921, the Chicago Staleys were renamed the Chicago Bears. That’s how it all began! Throughout the following decades, many historic events in football involved the Bears, including the following:
Harold “Red” Grange (the infamous “Galloping Ghost”) signed with the Bears on November 22, 1925 and professional football really got its start. His agent C.C. (Cash & Carry) Pyle negotiated a $100,000 deal, and unheard of salary at the time.
The Bears won the 1932 championship before 11,198 fans at Chicago Stadium. The franchise lost $18,000 that season and Sternaman sold his half of the club to Halas.
The 1933 season marked the beginning of the National Football League. That year the Bears beat the Giants 23-21 in the NFL’s very first championship game. The Bears advanced to the NFL title game twice more in the 1930’s.
Halas left for war duties in the middle of the 1942 season, but the team continued to win. In 1943 the Bears beat Washington 41-21 at Wrigley Field in the NFL title game.
Halas returned in 1946 and the Bears won the title again – defeating the Giants, 24-14, before a NFL record crowd of 58,346.
The Bears won their final title under Halas in 1963, beating the NY Giants, 14-10, at Wrigley Field.
A new era was signaled in 1965 when the club drafted Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in the first round of the college draft. Sayers set a NFL record with 22 touchdowns as a rookie, including six in a single game against the 49ers.
Ed McCaskey was named team’s vice-president and treasurer in 1967, a position he held for 17 years before being named Chairman of the Board in 1983. Among his many civic contributions on behalf of the Bears was guiding the Brian Piccolo Fund from its inception in 1970 to 1987, raising millions of dollars for cancer research.
The Bears played their final season in Wrigley Field in 1970 before moving to Soldier Field (incidentally, Soldier Field had been in existence since 1924). In the same year, Halas was elected president of the NFC when the NFL and AFL merged.
In 1975, the Bears moved their training camp to Lake Forest after spending 31 years in Rensselaer, Indiana; this was also the year that Walter Payton was the club’s first-round draft choice.
After a 14-year hiatus (ouch!), the Bears returned to the playoffs in 1977, winning their final six games to finish 9-5. The Bears again made the playoffs in 1979 under head coach Neill Armstrong.
Armstrong’s tenure ended in 1982, and he was replaced by Dallas Cowboys’ assistant Mike Ditka (“Da Coach”), who had been a Bears tight end from 1961-66.
The Bears returned to the NFL elite in 1984. They advanced to the NFC Championship game (losing to San Francisco) and Walter Payton broke Jim Brown’s all-time NFL rushing record. The loss in the ’84 title game set the stage for the 1985 season in which the Bears posted shutouts in the both playoff games before ripping the Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX. The Bears won the NFC Central division each of the next three seasons, but could never get past the NFC title game.
The great Walter Payton’s jersey was retired following the ’87 season.
The Bears made playoff appearances in 1990 and 1991. The 1992 season was marked by the retirement of Mike Singletary, the end of the Mike Ditka era, and Kevin Butler becoming the club’s all-time scoring leader.
Dave Wannstedt was named the 11th coach in team history in 1993 and led the Bears to back-to-back winning seasons in 1994 and 1995.
The uniform numbers of Dick Butkus (51) and Gale Sayers (40) were retired in 1994.
The Bears became the first franchise in NFL history to win 600 games; number 600 was a 13-7 win over Tampa Bay at Soldier Field (11-23-97).
On August 1, 1998, Mike Singletary became the 24th Bear inducted into the NFL Hall-of-Fame, the most of any franchise.
Dick Jauron was hired as the 12th head coach in club history on January 24, 1999.
Sadly, on November 1, 1999, Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton died at the age of 45. The Bears named the Halas Hall indoor facility in his honor the following off-season.
The people of Chicago have been some of the most die-hard fans in NFL history. Through thick and thin (though more noticeably through thick) they’ve cheered on the Bears, from basement La-Z-Boys, neighborhood bar stools, and icy Soldier Field bleachers in January. With their rich past (and so much more to come!) and deep Chicago roots, nothing less should be expected. Go Bears!