November 26, 2009

1925: Red Grange Debuts With Bears

The degree to which halfback Harold “Red” Grange enhanced the stature of the young NFL can be debated, but there is no question that he had been a huge college talent at the University of Illinois, with his speed and outstanding open field running ability, and was a major drawing card when he went professional with the Chicago Bears. Pro football was still largely a Midwestern small-town phenomenon in the mid-20s and it was by no means assured that top college players would turn professional, nor was it encouraged – Grange’s coach at Illinois, Bob Zuppke, warned him away from it.

But through the efforts of his agent, C.C. “Cash & Carry” Pyle, and the Chicago Bears, who weren’t yet restrained by the need to wait for a draft of college talent, Grange went from college to pro player quite literally in the same weekend. On a Saturday, he played his final college game against Ohio State in Columbus, gaining 235 total yards and intercepting a pass on the final play to preserve a 14-9 Illinois win. The next day he was sitting on the Chicago Bears’ bench, having signed a contract that guaranteed him $3000 a game (a staggering amount for the time – per game salaries typically ranged from around $50 to $400) against a cut of the gate receipts.

Grange didn’t play in that first game, but he did play five days later at Wrigley Field on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1925 against the crosstown rival Chicago Cardinals. 36,000 fans were on hand for his debut, the largest crowd up to that time to witness a pro football game.

Grange didn’t do much in his first appearance; Paddy Driscoll, the halfback who also handled the punting for the Cardinals, did an admirable job of kicking away from the player known as the Galloping Ghost. He gained 36 yards rushing in all and failed to complete any of his six passes, although he did make an interception deep in his own territory, and the Bears and Cardinals deadlocked in a scoreless tie. As Driscoll put it afterward, “Kicking to Grange is like grooving one to Babe Ruth. It was a question which of us would look bad – Grange or Driscoll. I decided it would not be Paddy.”

The Bears played one more scheduled game, a 14-13 win over the Columbus Tigers in front of 28,000 on a snowy day, with Grange accumulating 140 total yards and throwing a 37-yard touchdown pass to HB Laurie Walquist. They finished with a 9-5-3 record, in seventh place in the 20-team NFL. But they weren’t quite done yet.

Grange and the Bears headed out on the first of two grueling barnstorming tours in which they played eight games in 12 days, starting in St. Louis on December 3 against a team called the Donnelly Stars and ending back in Chicago on December 13 against the New York Giants. The schedule was brutal, especially since the squad numbered just 18 players and they (other than Grange) had already put in a full season. Turnout ranged from 5000 in St. Louis (Bears 39, Donnelly Stars 6), Washington (Bears 19, Washington All-Stars 0), and Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh All-Stars 24, Bears 0) to 65,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York (Bears 19, New York Giants 7).

The Galloping Ghost started strong, scoring four TDs and running for 86 yards against the Donnelly Stars and putting on a solid all-purpose performance before the large crowd in New York with 53 yards on 11 carries, 23 yards on a pass reception, and a 35-yard interception return for a score. However, wear and tear had an effect, especially a lingering arm injury suffered against the Giants. Grange was booed for subpar performance while playing hurt in the next three games and didn’t play at all in the final two (9000 tickets were turned in for refunds in Detroit as a result). While some of the games were mismatches, others were brutal affairs against teams gunning for the Bears in general and Grange in particular. The Bears staggered through with a 4-4 record.

A second tour ran from December 25 in Coral Gables, Florida (against the Coral Gables Collegians, who held the Bears to a 7-0 win) until January 31, 1926 in Seattle (an easy 34-0 victory for the Bears over the Washington All-Stars). The Bears went 8-1 and drew the largest crowd in Los Angeles (75,000) for a 17-7 win over the Los Angeles Tigers. The pace was more reasonable, Grange stayed healthy and, while not up to the standards of his spectacular college performances, played well.

The Bears certainly squeezed all the money and publicity they could get out of the star halfback, but Grange and Pyle sought to squeeze back for 1926 – they demanded a one-third ownership of the franchise. George Halas, the co-owner, head coach, and still an active player, refused, and Grange not only left the Bears but, with Pyle, started a rival league. It was the first to be called the American Football League, with Grange playing for the New York franchise, and it folded after a year. The Galloping Ghost would eventually return to the Bears in 1929, after a knee injury had robbed him of his elusiveness as a runner, and he stayed until 1934, more noted by this point for his play in the defensive backfield. But in 1925, he certainly kept pro football in the headlines and spurred interest across the country.