Those bitter old rivals, the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers, who take to the football field in Chicago on Sunday, really aren’t the bitter old rivals after all. You see the football teams in Chicago and Green Bay are really old business partners who needed each other’s financial support to survive in the very early days of the National Football League in the 1920s and were still dependent on each other as late as the 1950s.
In 1919, Earl (Curly) Lambeau and George Calhoun organized a football team in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Lambeau and Calhoun may not have realized what they were doing at the time, but Green Bay’s football team was named after the team’s benefactor and Lambeau’s employer, the Indian Packing Company, Green Bay was not paid of any league and played whoever was available.
The Indian Packing Company gave Lambeau $500 for equipment and allowed the team to use the company field for practices. Lambeau’s team might have been the first “pro” football club to depend on corporate backing for naming rights even if it was just $500. Interestingly enough, the Chicago Bears franchise has a similar history.
There was a momentum to organize football into some entity after World War I. In 1920, The American Professional Football Conference came about because of three reasons. Rising salaries was becoming a problem; players were jumping from one team to another following the highest offers and the use of college players still enrolled in schools. The “owners” of the day sound an awful lot like the owners of 2010 complaining about giving players too much of the revenues generated by football games.
On August 20, 1920, the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians and Dayton Triangles agreed to join a league that would follow the same rules. Four weeks later, there was another meeting in Canton with Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Dayton from Ohio, the Hammond Pros and the Muncie Flyers from Indiana, the Rochester Jeffersons of New York and the Decatur Staleys, Racine Cardinals and Rock Island Independents in attendance.
The group changed the name of the circuit to the American Professional Football Association, charged a $100 a franchise membership fee and named Jim Thorpe President of the APFA. None of the teams ever paid the $100. There was no league schedule as teams could play whatever opponent they could book and four other teams joined the league, the Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandlers and the Detroit Heralds.
The APFA’s first game was on September 26 when Rock Island defeated the St. Paul Ideals 48-0 before 800 fans at home. By season’s end, the Chicago Tigers and Detroit had folded.
In 1921, the APFA had 22 teams including the first year Green Bay Packers. A. E. Staley turned the Decatur Staleys over to George Halas who moved the team to Cubs Park. Staley gave George Halas $5,000 to retain the Staley name for another season. The Staleys who finished 9-1-1 were named champions. Staley was a big producer of corn based products and was another corporate sponsor, a much bigger benefactor than the Indian Packing Company.
In 1922, Green Bay withdrew from the league after admitting the Packers used college players the year before. Curly Lambeau rescued the team by putting up $50 to buy the franchise and promised to obey APFA rules. Lambeau went broke keeping the Packers going but local businesses arranged a $2,500 loan to keep the team playing. By year’s end, a public non-profit cooperation was set up to operate the team and that arrangement is still in place eight decades later.
On June 24, the APFA changed its name to the National Football League and the Chicago Staleys became the Chicago Bears.
Halas was already wielded an enormous amount of power in the newly named NFL. As the NFL came into existence, the owners adopted a constitution that required an owner’s vote to approve a franchise move. That night, Halas moved the Bears to Chicago without a vote.
The Bears and Packers became bitter rivals in the 1920s yet allies in many ways. Lambeau and Halas needed one another and the NFL needed them.
“Halas came up the hard way, sort of like we did, we were a town team that had to struggle through a number of financial crisis in our early history and he had somewhat the same. His wife had a laundry and they did the uniforms.
“When he started out, he did press releases in long hand and delivered them to the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times, a think it may have been a case of a common experience, a common bond and also there was a strong, intense rivalry between the two teams in part because of the two guys who coached them, Halas and Curly Lambeau who coached the Packers. Lambeau was equally intense, I can assure you,” said Lee Remmel, a long time Green Bay Press Gazette sportswriter and Packer Public Relations Director.
“In 1956 when (Green Bay) had a citywide referendum to funding the building of the stadium that is now Lambeau Field, (Halas) came up personally and spoke on behalf of the referendum, the yes vote obviously.
“He was one of the key figures in getting the equal sharing of television revenue when the league went to television. That is a big factor in our survival in the NFL. Without it, obviously we would not.”
Green Bay Packers officials knew Halas would do anything to win on the field, but he was extremely important in helping to maintain the franchise in northern Wisconsin. But Green Bay also helped assure the finances of the Bears as well.
“We did make a loan to Halas one time to meet his payroll in his early days,” Remmel said. “In fact, when he did his book Halas by Halas in 1979, he asked me if I could find an affidavit or an IOU and I tracked it down at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was an IOU that the Packers had loaned Halas something like $1,500 in 1930.”
Neither Halas nor Lambeau seemed to be a stickler for rules.The 1925 season would be a turning point for the league as Harold (Red) Grange signed a contract with George Halas and the Bears following his All-American season at the University of Illinois. Halas admitted to signing Grange early, before his college eligibility was up.
On Thanksgiving Day, Grange made his debut as the Bears hosted the Chicago Cardinals at Wrigley Field before a crowd of 36,000. At the beginning of December, the Bears went on an eight game, 12-day barnstorming tour in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Detroit and back to Chicago.
The Bears-Giants game at New York’s Polo Grounds drew 73,000 people and gave the struggling first year New York Giants franchise a much needed financial lift. The Bears went out west and attracted a crowd of 75,000 in Los Angeles. Because of Grange’s drawing power, the NFL faced its first competition from a league called the American Football League in 1926.
Grange made $100,000 and his manager/agent’s C.C. Pyle, often referred to as “Cash and Carry Pyle,” also made $100,000. Grange played 18 games in three months. More importantly for the NFL, the Galloping Ghost brought the pro league much needed publicity.
Pyle told Halas that Grange wanted a five-figured contract and one-third ownership in the Bears for 1926 season. Halas refused. Pyle leased Yankee Stadium in New York and then petitioned the NFL for a franchise. The NFL refused. Giant owner Tim Mara felt threatened with Pyle’s request and the NFL backed up Mara.
Pyle then started the AFL, which included a New York Yankees team led by Grange, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, Brooklyn, Newark and a road team representing Los Angeles. The ninth team Rock Island jumped over from the NFL. Grange’s presence could not save the AFL and the NFL came up with a new star, the Duluth Eskimos Ernie Nevers who played in 29 games throughout the country to earn his $15,000 paycheck.
Halas got legislation through that prevented people like Red Grange from joining a team in mid season. Teams could not sign a player whose college class had not graduated. Halas then put a stop to a common practice. In the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, there is an exhibit that goes back to those days when it was very common for a player to suit up for a college team on Saturday and a pro team on Sunday. The Grange signing clearly violated NFL rules, but the signing of Red Grange, and the subsequent national barnstorming tour of the Bears may have saved the NFL in the 1920’s.
“We have some headgear from the 1920s and 1930s. The headgear not only went over the head and behind the head, but over the face too,” said John Bankert, who was the Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the 1990s. “A lot of people say it was facial protection, but I don’t believe that though. Many of those guys played in college on Saturday and under an assumed name on Sunday.
“George Trafton, however, who played for Notre Dame as a center also played some pro football in those early days. He had part of his index finger missing. So when he would reach down on the ball, a guy across the line who says, “Hey, didn’t I see you yesterday? Trafton would say, “If you saw me then you must have played too!”
Green Bay was the last of the small towns in the NFL after Portsmouth, Ohio’s team moved to Detroit in 1934. Green Bay and Chicago’s histories date back to a place that no longer exists. The NFL of 1922 included the Chicago Cardinals, a franchise that now plays in Glendale, Arizona and the Dayton Triangles, a team that moved to Brooklyn in 1930 and ended up in Indianapolis after various attempts at success in Brooklyn, Boston, New York, Miami (All American Football Conference), Baltimore, New York, Dallas, Baltimore and finally Indianapolis. All the other teams have been relegated to the dustbin of history.
The oldest rivals in the NFL clearly are dependent on one another and football in Chicago and Green Bay would not be the same if Green Bay disappeared from the NFL. Lambeau saved Halas and Halas returned the favor in the 1950s.
Bitter rivals? Maybe not.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached at email@example.com