Friday, October 17, 2014

The Little Game in Rock Island that Started It All

On October 17, 1920 there was a football game at Rock Island, Illinois.  The Decatur Staleys, under the leadership of former professional baseball player George Halas, beat the home town Rock Island Independents by a score of 7-0.  The only thing that made the game memorable was that it was the first game played by teams of the new American Professional Football Association; a fledgling professional league renamed two years later as the National Football League (NFL.)
The Staleys, who started out as a semi-pro team in 1919 sponsored by the food starch producer A. E. Staley Company, had a pretty good season finishing with 10 wins, 1 loss, and 2 ties.  They finished second to the Akron Pros.
The new league was the brainchild of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe, player-coach of the Canton Bulldogs.  He had been promoting the idea among other independent pro and semi-pro teams since 1917, but World War I and then the 1919 Spanish Influenza pandemic prevented anything from happening.  Thorpe and Leo Lyons, owner of the barnstorming Rochester Jeffersons got representatives from a number of teams to gather for a meeting in August 1920 in a Hupmobile Dealership in Canton, Ohio to launch the league.    Thorpe was elected President of the league in addition to his player/coach duties with Bulldogs. 
The teams competing that first year included Canton Bulldogs, Decatur Staleys, Chicago Cardinals, Akron Pros, Cleveland Indians, Dayton Triangles, Hammond Pros, Muncie Flyers, Rock Island Independents, Rochester Jeffersons, Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles, and Detroit Heralds.  Of these teams only 11 managed to finish the season.
In 1921 Halas got permission to take his team to Chicago.  The Staley Company gave him $5000 to keep the name for at least the first year.  The team played Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field.)  The team finished with a 9-1-1 record, and finished in first to win the League’s second Championship. 

Navy and orange not adopted as official colors until 1925,

Freed from his contractual obligation Halas renamed the team the Chicago Bears in 1922 as a nod to his stadium hosts, the Chicago Cubs.  The league was still struggling in 1925 when Hallas signed the biggest star in college football, Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost of the University of Illinois.  In honor of his prize player, Halas changed the team colors to the orange and navy blue of the Illini.
Today only two of the original franchises remain active, neither of them in their original location.  The Cardinals have moved twice, from Chicago to St. Louis and then to Arizona.  The Staleys became the Bears after only two seasons and moved to Chicago after one.  But the team is the only one still owned by the same family.  
Virginia Halas McCaskey, George’s daughter who was born in 1923, the years the team became the Bears, is the principle owner.  After her son Michael McCaskey retired as team president in 2009 he was replaced by Ted Philips and for the first time day-to-day management of the team is not in family hands.  Michael’s brother George, however, is still the Chairman of the Board.  Members of the Halas/McCaskey family own 80% of the company stock and show no signs of selling.
The team now plays in the renovated Soldier Field which famously resembles the crash site of a UFO thanks to a favorable lease from the Chicago Park District, fancy bond deals involving the City and State, and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure work provided by the City at no cost to the team at all.
Mike Ditka used to say that old George Halas “Threw nickels around like manhole covers.”  Halas would undoubtedly be proud of the scams on the public his heirs have pulled off

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