The following is the first of four excerpts from the Chicago Bears Centennial Scrapbook, which is authored by Hall of Fame writers Dan Pompei and Don Pierson. This passage focuses on George Halas and how he helped found the NFL and build it into what it is today.
George Halas created the Chicago Bears, the only team in American sport that can boast of a single family spanning the entire history of an industry. He named the National Football League and left a legacy that his only daughter, Virginia Halas McCaskey, and her family are determined to maintain.
Mrs. McCaskey became the unsuspecting heir after the premature death of younger brother George "Mugs" Halas, Jr., in 1979. She calls it "a wonderful burden" inherited not by choice.
The franchise cost $100. Halas was sitting on a running board of a car in a Canton, Ohio, Hupmobile auto showroom in 1920 at a league organizational meeting. The stipend was strictly for show as Halas admitted there wasn't a hundred bucks among those gathered for the meeting.
A hundred years later, the Bears and all NFL teams are worth billions each, thanks to the optimism and tenacity of Halas and a few other pioneers who were able to envision almost everything except the unprecedented riches. A plaque in Halas Hall written by former team official Bill McGrane reads: "By the sheer weight of enormous will, he demanded that America pay attention to professional football."
It is an American story of immigration and opportunity meeting ingenuity and diligence. Though the origins of the game stem from versions of soccer and rugby played in Europe, and even China, American football rules evolved from pre-Civil War regional randomness to more uniformity starting in 1880 and initiated by Yale's Walter Camp. Professional football is uniquely American, with the first documented pro, Pudge Heffelfinger, being paid in 1892 for a game in Pennsylvania three years before George Halas was born.
Football melds ethnicities and races into a tense and harsh struggle for territory, identity and livelihood. It depends on more teamwork, requires more perseverance, employs more strategy, rewards more preparation, encourages more toughness, endure more ferocity, and present more obstacles than any other sport, all qualities that mirror the Halas family story.
In Bohemia, Halas was pronounced Halash, accent on the second syllable. George Halas' ancestors immigrated to Chicago and gave daily thanks for their new life in the new world. Resourcefulness accompanied them. Father Frank Halas worked as a reporter for a Bohemian language newspaper before becoming a tailor. Mother Barbara sewed such meticulous buttonholes that her reputation became a part of family lore and pride.
After suffering a stroke, Frank sold the tailoring business and built a three-story structure at 18th and Wood, where he rented apartments and where Barbara opened a grocery store. George Stanley Halas was their eighth child, one of four who survived infancy, three brothers and a sister.
A little over a mile from home was Cubs Park, and sometimes the Halas boys had to fight and sprint their way through neighborhood bullies to visit. Occasionally, Cubs manager Frank Chance invited George and brothers Walter and Frank through the pass gate to the field, where they could witness the celebrated double plays of Tinkers to Evers to Chance. When George began reading Frank Merriwell stories and dreaming of a life in sport, his father tore up the magazines. It was too late.
Undersized, Halas overcompensated with determination and speed. His brothers called him kid, and he grew up calling everyone else kid. When he was 15, his father died on Christmas Eve, and his mother increased his weekly salary for chores from 50 to 75 cents, demanding he save a portion for college. At Crane Tech high school, George ran track and played indoor baseball. He made the football team, the lightweight version because he couldn't top 120 pounds. When George was 16, he demonstrated early aptitude for his life's work. He helped organize a neighborhood baseball team, collected dues, and played other teams for money, sometimes taking along hand-picked umpires.
Baseball was his favorite sport at first. "I'm still amazed that I ever got into pro football in the first place," Halas wrote in a 1967 article for the Chicago Tribune. "I made more base hits than tackles at the University of Illinois."
Brother Frank convinced the family to delay George's college a year so he could gain weight. George worked in the payroll department of Western Electric, played baseball and ate. By the time he entered college, he weighed 140 pounds, and freshman football coach Ralph Jones made him a backup halfback.
Another summer at Western Electric added another 20 pounds. One providential afternoon, George was late for a Lake Michigan boat trip to the company picnic—the 1915 Eastland disaster that claimed 844 lives when it capsized during loading, the worst maritime toll in Great Lakes history.
Illinois coach Bob Zuppke lamented the loss of players to graduation just as they were developing. Halas figured the ragtag pro teams scuffling around Pennsylvania and Ohio mining and mill towns since the 1890s, often illegally luring collegians under assumed names, might not be such a bad idea.
In 1918, at the tail end of World War I, Halas joined the Navy. He was assigned to the sports program at Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago, where he played football with Northwestern's Paddy Driscoll and other stars. They won the 1919 Rose Bowl against the Mare Island Marines, and Halas was named Most Valuable Player. Halas said the experience left him "astounded" by the high level of post-college play, confirming Zuppke's view.
The New York Yankees thought he was better at baseball, and Halas played right field for the team at the start the 1919 season until a hip injury and the curveball sent him to the minors. He loved to tell people he was replaced by Babe Ruth, a good story exaggerated by a time gap of one season.
Using his civil engineering college degree, Halas got a job designing railroad bridges, but his love for football led him to play in 1919 with the Hammond, Indiana semi-pro team with Driscoll and Jimmy Conzelman. Then and there, the always optimistic Halas said he believed in the future of pro football, even though his mother kept imploring him, "Go back to the railroad, dear. You'll have a steady income there."
An offer from A. E. Staley's starch company in Decatur, Illinois, lured Halas into taking a job that paid him to recruit and coach a company football team. The first player of note he signed was former Illinois teammate Dutch Sternaman. The Depression of 1920-21 caused Staley to downsize, and he offered Halas $5,000 to take his team to Chicago to advertise the name "Staleys" for one season. Halas gladly pounced before Staley realized his shortsighted benevolence. In 1921, Halas invited Sternaman to become a 50-50 partner before realizing he should have made it 51-49 to avoid a future problem.
"I was stupid, and I saved $100 a game because I didn't have to pay a player and a coach," Halas explained. Halas said he would have preferred Driscoll as a partner, but Driscoll was player-coach of the crosstown Cardinals.
In 1922, the Bears were born as bigger, meaner versions of Halas' beloved Cubs. Halas was negotiating to play for 50 years in what was soon named Wrigley Field. The Bears' shoulder pads fit Carl Sandburg's "city of big shoulders" perfectly, confirming Halas' instinct that a game of toughness would appeal to both urban and rural values of hard play following harder work.
As player-coach with Sternaman until 1930, Halas was a 6-foot, 175-pound end. He was named to the NFL's all-decade team, though Halas bragged about only one play—his 98-yard return of a fumble in Wrigley Field, the ball slipping free from Jim Thorpe of the Oorang Indians in 1923.
"The wet, muddy ball squirted from Jim's hands into mine. I sidestepped and took off. I heard an angry roar. It was Thorpe, coming after me. I ran faster, and faster, but I sensed he was gaining. I could hear the squishing of his shoes in the mud. When I could almost feel his breath, I dug in a cleat and did a sharp zig. Thorpe's momentum carried him on and gave me a few feet of running room. I zigged, I zagged. Zig. Zag. Just short of the goal, Thorpe threw himself at me and down I went, into a pool of water. But at the same time, I slid over the goal (legal at the time). No professional had run 98 yards for a touchdown. None did so again until 1972."
Halas saw frugality as a necessary character strength and hardly a flaw. He worked as a car salesman, took over a mail order jewelry and sporting goods business, dabbled in real estate, owned a laundromat, got into the oil business, and even started and coached a pro basketball team to help keep his dream alive.
On the birth certificates of his children, Halas' profession is noted as "civil engineer" and then "realtor." From the start, the Bears were among the most profitable teams in the new venture, paying each player a bonus from gate receipts of approximately $1,600 in their first season. Halas even paid "our praiseworthy sports writer" $100 to send out game stories because the press wasn't paying attention.
The only time Halas lost money was in 1932 during the Depression, when players took IOUs and Halas borrowed from friends and family members, including a raid on the piggy banks of Virginia and Mugs. When he bought out Sternaman in 1932 for $38,000, Halas scrambled for cash until he was rescued just before a deadline to complete the sale by Antioch, Illinois, banker C.K. Anderson, and former Bear Jim McMillan, who made money by wrestling and became an unsung investor himself. Had the deadline passed, the team would have gone to Sternaman.
When Mike Ditka later voiced a majority opinion that Halas, "Threw around nickels like they were manhole covers," Halas proudly acknowledged: "That is correct."
As owner, coach, general manager, treasurer and chairman of his hand-picked board of directors, Halas kept track of every cent, nursing his enterprise with such care that he remained as wary as he was hopeful of television's growing gold mine. Eventually, his reputation for generosity to players and friends matched his reputation for thrift. When NFL players formed their union in 1956, the Bears refused to join at first because Halas paid more for preseason games and treated them better in general than proposed union standards.
Shrewd, stubborn and secretive, Halas confided in a few close friends but seldom sought advice, aside from carefully soliciting ideas about football strategy. He could charm in public and attend Mass regularly, yet swear like a sailor, which he was. As important as football was to Halas, he felt he owed service to the country. Unsatisfied with his peripheral role at the end of World War I, Halas left the Bears to rejoin the Navy in World War II at age 47. He implored authorities to send him to the Pacific, where Halas worked in welfare and recreation, but was at least closer to the action.
Virginia McCaskey recalls her family standing up in their home whenever they heard the National Anthem, believing it a requirement as much as a privilege. Husband Ed McCaskey fought in World War II and came from a long line of military men. Halas started a preseason Armed Forces game played in Chicago from 1946 to 1971 that provided $1.2 million to service relief funds, calling it "one of the most satisfying experiences of my life," a fitting tribute by the sport most linked to war strategy.
Though he built a league, Halas never owned a house, preferring Chicago apartment living close enough to his Loop office that he could drive to work every day into his 80s. His daughter's lifestyle was even more modest. Her 11 children had to convince her well into middle age that she no longer had to clean her suburban house by herself, let alone paint the gutters.
Minus the colorful vocabulary, Virginia inherited a distaste for losing from her father, who said, "I speak no praise for the good loser." Fondly respected as the first lady of the NFL, Mrs. McCaskey is keenly aware and grateful that the professional football Hall of Fame is located on George Halas Drive.