|Inside the Chicago Stadium the Chicago Bears prepare to kick off to the Portsmouth Spartans.|
Seventy-one years ago on December 18, 1932 the Chicago Bears won the championship of the National Football League in a playoff game for the first time in league history. But don’t call it, as lazy sport writers sometimes do, the first National Championship Game. That didn’t come until the next year when the league divided its teams into two divisions for the first time and had a post season game between the leaders of the divisions.
The ’32 game was technically an extra regular season game hastily added to the schedule by league officials after the Bears and Portsmouth Spartans each completed the season with identical records of six wins, one loss and two ties—and the ties were in the two games they had played with each other. Under the rules which eliminated ties, each had a .857 winning percentage, topping Green Bay which had a 10-3 record and a .769 winning percentage. A tying record was broken by the team with the best record against the other. But in this case that was a meaningless double tie itself. Are we dizzy yet?
League officials were caught in a bind. Their own rules, which mimicked the championship rules of collegiate conferences, forbade a post season playoff. So they decreed the teams would play a 14th regular season game against each other, the winner taking home the championship crown. The loser would slip below the Packers’s win percentage and officially end up in third place.
The game was scheduled at the Bears Wrigley Field home, probably because it had twice the seating capacity of small the small market Rhode Island team. If the game had been played there, it would be relegated to a footnote in history, and the next year’s real Championship Game, now hardly remembered, would get all of the attention.
But fate, in the form of shitty Chicago weather, would intervene. The week before the big event was marked by blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. Although players were expected to tough out any conditions, officials were worried about the safety of fans, particularly after critical stories appeared in some of the press.
They frantically cast about for alternative venues. There were really only two possible candidates after the Armory where polo matches were sometimes staged was eliminated for its small seating capacity. The Coliseum on Wabash Avenue just south of the Loop had been the home of the Chicago Blackhawks after the Civil War museum housed within the walls of the old Confederate Libby Prison reassembled on the spot had closed years earlier. But the Blackhawks had decamped to the new Chicago Stadium on Madison Street west of downtown. The new building had housed both the Democratic and Republican national political conventions earlier in the year.
The newer building was available and had open dates allowing for the hasty creation of a dirt playing field on the Stadium floor. That floor was not big enough to accommodate a full football field. The game would be played on a field 80 yards long and ten yard narrower than standard. Seating ran right up to the side lines. The goal posts were moved from the rear of the end zone to goal line.
The arrangement called for a bunch of special rules. All plays began between hash marks well inside the sidelines to allow some room for maneuver instead of approximately where the ball had been downed as in the college game. Whenever an offense crossed midfield, the ball was set back to the 20 yard line to make up for the shortened field.
Confusing new rules were not the only challenge players faced. The loose dirt field was hard to get footing on, the iron cleats of regular football shoes rendered useless. Worse the incredible noise from the confined crowd of 11,198 fans made hearing play calls from the quarterback nearly impossible.
Under the circumstances neither team’s offence could get traction and the game went scoreless through three quarters a defense dominated and turn-overs on downs were frequent. Officials began to fear that their worst nightmare would come true—a scoreless tie with no provision in the rules for overtime play.
Then in the fourth quarter two of the Bears most famous and ultimately iconic players would team up to break the tie. Quarterback Carl Brumbaugh handed off the ball to the giant fullback Bronco Nagurski. Instead of running the ball, Nagurski faded back and lobbed a pass to Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost himself, in the end zone.
Portsmouth protested that Nagurski had not hurled the ball from five yards behind the line of scrimmage as the collegiate rules in place required. With no film or re-play available, it is impossible to know if he was indeed far enough back. But field officials, perhaps fearing that tie, allowed the touchdown to stand.
After scoring the point after, the Bears iced the game when the defense tackled Fay “Mule” Wilson in his own end zone for a two point safety. The Bears won the championship 9-0.
After the game, the League was astonished at the interest the game had generated. A national radio broadcast generated more listeners than had ever tuned into an NFL game. Newsreel companies reported coverage of the game was the most popular feature of their weekly sports films. The national press paid more attention to a title deciding game than they ever did to a championship determined on statistics.
Over the winter, the NFL jettisoned, once and for all, the collegiate rule book and began to put their own together. Important rules changes were those first used in the ’32 game or inspired by it—including the placement of the goal posts, the use of hash marks to spot plays, and allowing a forward pass to originate anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Most important of all was the change to Division play and an annual Championship Game. From that point on the professional league which had struggled for identity and often played second fiddle to collegiate sports, began its sure and steady climb to becoming a national obsession.
And that first “real” Championship Game in 1933? The Bears, with their ’32 squad largely intact, edged the New York Giants 23-21. And this time they played in Wrigley Field.