By Scott A. Rowan
The National Football League owes its existence to the success of the Chicago Bears, and the Chicago Bears, in turn, owe their success to the Cubs. According to the transitive relationship of mathematics, that means the NFL owes its existence to the Chicago Cubs.
The NFL began as the American Professional Football Association in 1920. The Decatur, Illinois, Staleys—founded by George “Papa Bear” Halas and named after the team sponsor (the Staley Starch Company)—was one of the league’s charter members. In 1921, Halas moved the team to Chicago and agreed to a one-season, $5,000 deal to keep the team name the same. Playing at the home of the Cubs, the Staleys won the 1921 AFPA championship with a 9–1–1 record, marking the first championship season of any kind at Wrigley Field.
On January 28, 1922, the team was renamed the Bears. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “Halas reasoned that because football players were generally bigger than baseball players, and the city’s baseball team was the Cubs, then logically the football team should be the Bears.” That same year, the AFPA was renamed the National Football League.
Fans can’t help but wonder what the Chicago Bears would have been called had the Cubs not existed. But the Cubs did more than provide inspiration for the Bears’ name. They also gave them a home so large (thanks to temporary stands erected for the football season) that Halas’ team had a significant advantage. Their crosstown rival, the Chicago Cardinals, played at Normal Field and Comiskey Park, but never assembled a successful team—meaning seating capacity wasn’t really a concern. The Bears had the advantage of both a better team and playing in one of the most popular stadiums in the country. In fact, it can be argued that the Cardinals clung to their very existence from their first game, in which they beat the Chicago Tigers 6–0 in 1920 with the loser agreeing to leave town. The Cardinals won, but never put a team on the field that could consistently compete with the Bears.
In 1922, the Bears averaged an NFL-high 7,000 spectators per game, while the Cardinals had only 4,600. Attendance figures for early NFL games are hard to establish because of the lack of media coverage and the fact that teams would appear for a season only to disappear the next. But Joe Horrigan, curator of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, sifted through old newspaper accounts to determine that during the first years of the NFL, while the average attendance per game was 5,000 people, the Bears increased their average attendance in the mid 1920s to 10,000 per game at Wrigley Field.
In 1925, Halas signed star Harold “Red” Grange. Approximately 36,000 fans packed Wrigley Field for his debut game, against the Cardinals, who fought to a 0–0 draw, holding Grange to just 36 yards.
The Bears called Wrigley Field home for the next 45 years, playing their last game at the Cubs’ home stadium on December 13, 1970 (a 35–17 drubbing of the Green Bay Packers). The Bears began playing at Soldier Field in 1971.
The Bears won eight NFL championships during their tenure at Wrigley Field, with four being won at Wrigley Field (1933, 1941, 1943, and 1963).
Despite teams coming and going, the NFL succeeded through its tumultuous first several decades because of the constant presence of Halas, who kept his team at Wrigley Field for 50 years because the sellout crowds increased excitement in the fan base and provided his team with solid income while allowing them to avoid building a stadium of their own. Without Wrigley Field, the Bears would not have become the cornerstone franchise that allowed the NFL to flourish.
“Nicknames,” profootballhof.com,http://www.profootballhof.com/history/nicknames.aspx, accessed July 2, 2013.
James Quirk and Rodney D. Fort, Pay Dirt: The Business of Professional Team Sports, second ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 335.
Quirk and Fort, Pay Dirt, 334.
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