The 1920s: New League, New Team
To expedite scheduling of games with other teams, Halas contacted the managers of other football organizations in support of forming a league. Halas and the Starchmakers, along with Ralph Hay and the Canton Bulldogs and ten other teams, collaborated under Hay's guidance to organize the APFA in 1920. As a formality, participating teams were required to ante $100 as a franchise fee, but history holds that no money actually changed hands.
Halas and the Staley team, with a record of 13-1 in 1921, were undisputed APFA champions that year. By 1922 the APFA had evolved into the NFL. Halas and Sternaman meanwhile moved the Starchmakers to Chicago where they arranged to lease Wrigley Field as a home stadium. The move to Chicago was funded by a $5,000 donation from Staley who could no longer support the team on a permanent basis. In Chicago, Halas sold cars while Sternaman pumped gas to subsidize the team. Although the rental of the field was based on a percentage of the gate profits, the Starchmakers operated at a loss of $71.63 in 1921. Halas took a job as a night watchman at a refrigeration plant to help make ends meet. Renamed the Bears in 1922, the team finished in second place for the next two seasons, upstaged by the Canton Bulldogs both times. Halas and Sternaman watched their profits mushroom from $1,476.92 in 1922, to $20,000 in 1923. Despite the impressive figures, finances were fragile. The surplus was not enough to guarantee solvency in an as yet untested professional sport.
After posting finishes of 9-3 in 1922 and 9-2-1 in 1923, the Bears, with a less-impressive season record of 6-1-4 in 1924, played runner-up to Canton for a third consecutive season. Undaunted, Halas refused a buyout offer of $35,000 and continued his strategy of recruiting the most promising young players from the colleges. The dynamic new football league had grown to support eighteen teams by that year, even after the loss of two teams over the previous season.
Finances and championships aside, Halas—playing at right end for the Bears—gave the early NFL one of its more memorable moments during a contest with the Oo-long Indians of Marion, Ohio, on November 23, 1923. Playing for the Indians at that time was Jim Thorpe, a runner of unusual speed. The stadium at Wrigley Field was drenched in rain that day when Halas and Bears' tackle Hugh Blacklock brought Thorpe to the ground, just as he was on the verge of scoring. As Thorpe hit the soggy field, he lost his grip on the ball. Halas intercepted the fumble at the two-yard line and returned the ball the entire length of the gridiron, scoring a 98-yard touchdown run, with Thorpe in hot pursuit.
In late November 1925, a dubious but shrewd business move by Halas attracted widespread interest for the Bears and for football in general. In the week before Thanksgiving, a young back—known as Harold Red Grange from the University of Illinois—signed to play with the Bears. A public controversy brewed over the legitimacy of signing a recruit while the player was still in college. Regardless, with Grange on the roster the Bears drew their first sellout crowd to Wrigley field. Beginning with a season opener against their hometown rivals, the Chicago Cardinals, the Bears attracted a total of 360,000 spectators in nineteen games that year.
At the end of the season—after settling with Grange and his manager for $250,000—Halas had profited $100,000 for the team. More importantly the strategic use of Grange as a nationwide box-office draw boosted professional football to unanticipated popularity. Grange and his manager abandoned the Bears in 1926 and established a rival football league, called the American Football League (AFL). Grange played that year for an AFL franchise, the New York Yankees. The AFL folded quickly, and the Yankees joined the NFL in 1927. A knee injury that same year put Grange on the bench for much of 1927 and for the entire 1928 season. Without Grange on the field, the New York team went out of business, and Grange returned to play with the Bears in 1929.
George Halas that year retired as a player and abandoned coaching for other business interests including a laundry, two retail establishments, and part ownership in a professional basketball team called the Chicago Bruins. His interest in football remained keen.
With support from Halas, the NFL saw dynamic changes in the 1930s. In 1932 he assumed the chairmanship of the league's rules committee and has been credited with a number of policy changes that contributed to make the game more exciting. To minimize ties and scoreless games he sponsored a rule to allow forward passing from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Before this rule, yardage gains were usually small because players had to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage in order to throw a legal forward pass, making it easier to run the ball than to pass. To encourage field goal scores, Halas repositioned the goal posts to sit on the goal line instead of ten yards back in the end zone. Also at his urging, the college draft system for recruiting players went into place in 1936, breathing new life into professional football. Later in the decade he embraced a new practice of spotting plays from the bleachers. Critics regard these innovations as Halas's legacy to professional football.
The first NFL championship playoff game was called in 1932, to break a tie between Chicago and the Portsmouth, Ohio, Spartans for the league championship. The Bears won by a score of 9-0, and the game inspired NFL executives with a scheme to extend future NFL seasons by splitting the league into two regional divisions: Eastern and Western. Division champions would then meet in a playoff for the league championship. When Halas returned to coach the Bears in 1933, the team posted a season record of 10-2-1, securing the first-ever Western Division championship. The Bears went on to conquer the Eastern Division champions, the Giants, in the first annual NFL championship game. Attendance at Bears games swelled to 280,000 for the season.
In 1934 Halas spearheaded a move to sponsor an annual college All-Star game between the reigning NFL champions and the strongest college players in the country. For the first All-Star game the spotlight landed on the 1933 NFL Champions, the Bears, to play against the collegiate standouts. To the shock of Halas and his so-called Miracle Bears, the contest ended in a scoreless tie.
The NFL Championship of 1934 was also disappointing for Halas, who went into the playoffs on the surge of an unbroken string of thirty-three games without a loss. The game was played at the New York Polo Grounds, where the field that day was a sheet of ice, so frozen that the Giants abandoned their cleats for sneakers during halftime. With Halas watching helplessly from the sidelines, the Bears suffered a 13-0 loss to the Giants. The unusual shoe-switching strategy had provided the New York team with a unique advantage in what came to be called the Great Sneaker Game.
In 1935 the Bears went 6-4-2. They finished 9-3 in 1936. In 1937 the Bears secured the Western Division title with a 9-1-1 record but lost the championship to the Redskins by a score of 28-21.
The following year Halas replaced the single wing formation with a man-in-motion T formation devised by coach Ralph Jones in the early 1930s, but the Bears dominated in only six of eleven games for the season. In 1939 Halas signed Columbia University tailback Sid Luckman and repositioned the future Hall of Famer to quarterback. The team finished second that year.