Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Game in Rock Island Kicked off a Football Dynasty

The 1920 Decatur Staleys professional foot ball team with owner/coach/player George Hallas front row center.

Note:  The 2018 Chicago Bears have opened the season with three wins and a close loss in overtime to the Miami Dolphins last Sunday in Florida.  Despite that loss it is their best start after some lackluster years energized by a new head coach, Matt Nagy; a young quarterback capable of throwing the ball downfield, Mitchell Trubisky; and a beefed up defense built around former Oakland Raider All-Star Khalil Mack, for whom team ownership opened their notoriously stingy purse to sign as the NFL most highly paid defensive player.  Despite the disappointing loss and the usual Monday morning carping and sniping on sports call in shows, most Chicago football fans are more excited than they have been in years.  Today we look back at the very humble beginnings of professional football’s oldest team.
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.)

George Hallas of the Chicago Bears in 1922.
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. 

Legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs was a founder of the new proffesional football league, its first president, and public face.
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. 

College football hero Red Grange, immortalized in the purple prose of sportswriter Grantland Rice,  became the fledgling NFL's first superstar when he signed with the Beats.  Hallas changed the team colors to navy blue and orange in honor of Granges's alma mater, the University of Illinois
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 year 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 Chicago Park District plunked this modern bowl with plenty of lucrative sky boxes with in the shell of its old Neo-classical Soldier Field, a lake front stadium dating to the 1920s.  The Bears lease the facility paid for by Chicago and state of Illinois tax dollar and bonds brokered by political insiders.  Untold millions of infrastructure work was born entirely by taxpayers.
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.
Former coach 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, but is probably turning over in his grave about Khalil Mack’s contract.

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