No Potatoes For Fat Men! George Halas and the 1946 Chicago Bears

There are comebacks…and then there are comebacks!

In 1946, the Chicago Bears won still another championship in the National Football League under head coach and owner George Halas. Yet, this was not an ordinary year for both Halas and the Bears. Not only did the team rebound from an ugly 3-7 finish in 1945 to finish with an 8-2-1 title-winning performance in 1946, but Halas and many of his players literally “came back” from lengthy service commitments in World War II.

During this episode of “When Football Was Football” on the Sports History Network, we’ll examine how Halas (and his players) were able to merge back into the NFL after their often-horrific experiences during the war. How does a coach discipline a player who has encountered the challenges of modern warfare and the hopeless brutality that went along with it?

And, how does a coach even attempt to establish team rules for mature, former soldiers who might now view the game of football as child’s play after being shot at just months previously?

As a child, I remembered a story my father shared with me regarding a similar situation he experienced as a young coach. In 1946, he was a high school football coach who also doubled as a junior college track coach. War veterans were encouraged to take advantage of the ”GI Bill” which offered them financial assistance, beginning in 1944, to pursue educational opportunities.

As such, many of them decided to enroll in the college of their choice. In this case, it was Morgan Park Junior College on the south side of Chicago, which also offered athletic teams.

For my father, it was a bit intimidating. Although he was a big guy, a former football player and an NFL draft choice of the Chicago Cardinals, he quickly discovered that most of the members of his track team were older than himself due to the years they spent in the service.

He also couldn’t help but notice that some of his squad members displayed their own personal souvenirs of the war in the form of scars from bullet wounds or other related injuries.

All Rules Were Scrapped

However, he was pleased that the team members were not only polite but also very respectful to the young coach. Still, I wondered what it must have been like for coaches to welcome back football players—at any level—who were savvy war vets.

The NFL was flooded with veterans in 1946 and the league overflowed with a wealth of talent. This was in contrast to the lean years from 1942 through 1945 when the league stumbled courageously to survive with a lack of both players and talent.

Teams like the Eagles and the Steelers combined forces in 1943 to become the Steagles while the Steelers and the Cardinals merged in 1944 as the Card-Pitts, which we covered in a previous episode of “When Football Was Football.” Nothing was easy for the NFL during the war years.

Of course, the league did survive and the abundance of available players made the NFL much stronger across all teams after the war. But how would the spirit and the morale of the individual teams survive? Would the returning players from 1945 mingle well with the returning war vets, and would the veterans be receptive to the old-fashioned rules and discipline of the typical NFL team?

Coach George Halas of the Chicago Bears realized that this would be a challenge, and yet he was quite certain that he should probably ease up on his own stringent team regulations. Halas wrote in his autobiography: “Having been in the service 39 months, I knew my veterans would be fed up with petty regulations. When the spring training camp opened, I announced all rules were scrapped. Bears were men, responsible men, self-disciplined men, and would look after themselves.”

We Will Wear Shorts and Jackets

Halas clearly adopted a “hands-off” policy when it came to team rules in 1946, but he had also been a stickler for players dressing and behaving in a first-class manner when the team traveled. Perhaps he was a bit surprised when he asked the team to assist him with guidelines for team travel attire.

 “At a team meeting, I asked, ‘How do you fellas suggest we dress when traveling as a team?’ Someone said, ‘I think we should all wear shirts and jackets.’ ‘Fine gentlemen,’ I said. ‘We will all wear shirts and jackets. Anything else?’ Someone said, ‘A tie?’ More a question than a fact.

‘Thank you for the excellent suggestion,’ I said. ‘Is it agreed we all wear ties?’ More a fact than a question. Silence. ‘Fine,’ I said. It is all agreed we all wear shirts and ties and jackets. And I assume you gentlemen all insist that shoes be well shined!’”

And so it was that George Halas managed to maneuver around two of his major concerns when dealing with mature and world-weary war veterans returning to the Chicago Bears. He simply discarded his previous team rules and then wisely decided to allow the players to determine their own dress code. His main challenge, however, remained: would he be able to build a competitive football team from a core of holdovers from 1945, some wide-eyed rookies, and a solid group of proven war veterans? 

In fact, when Halas opened up his training camp at St. Joseph’s College in Indiana on August 6, 1946, there were 14 rookies invited to the festivities, along with a solid group of war veterans. The Chicago Tribune covered the squad on an almost daily basis but offered no predictions for the upcoming season: “It’s too early to say whether these 1946 Bears, most of whom have been away to war for two or three years, still have the physical resources to regain their pre-war position as pro football’s No. I team.”

We've Got A Lot of Football Left!

If Halas expected his war vets to return as cynical or uncaring, just the opposite seemed to be occurring in the early days of the camp where everyone struggled with two practices each day in the withering Hoosier heat. However, the players, led by quarterback Sid Luckman and center Bulldog Turner, kept the squad out for even more drills, especially focusing on the beloved T formation that Halas preferred.

One evening, after finishing his third practice of the day, 28-year-old fullback Bill Osmanski, a navy veteran who saw action in the Pacific, said: “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time—just get in there and work alongside Sid Luckman, George, and Bulldog and the others. Don’t worry about us. We’ve got a lot of good football left!”

Halas was pleased with the extra effort, stating: “They have ability and spirit. We’ll put a pre-war team on the field. Of course, the competition is greatly improved. Every team is loaded with players of proven ability—not merely promising youngsters. We may not win, but I wouldn’t want the job of convincing the Bears that they can’t win!”

No Potatoes For Fat Men!

Remember when we mentioned that Halas tossed aside his normal team rules out of respect for the veterans on the team? In previous years, Halas would banish any weight-challenged players to something called the “fat men’s table” in an effort to help that player lose some of that off-season extra poundage.

This really was not needed for the 1946 Bears, although a few, like Bill Osmanski, put themselves in that category, even if it was not necessarily needed.

The Tribune reported: “The 210-pound Osmanski demonstrated just how determined the old Bears are by voluntarily taking a place at the “fat men’s table,” although he’s only ten pounds overweight, which isn’t much. That meant Bill dined on steak, beets, cauliflower, and dry toast. His self-control wavered when the French-fried potatoes went by. “I was wondering,’ he began. ‘What?’ asked the other fat men. ‘If I could have another half cup of tea,’ Bill finished.”

In its pre-season preview, the Philadelphia Inquirer predicted a quick return to normal for Halas and the Bears: “For the Bears once more are the Bears. The most formidable team in the modern history of football is its old, pre-war self. Nineteen members of the 1940-43 juggernauts have returned from the war and the old coach is back at the controls.

Few coaches would be able to restrain a joyous yelp or two at the sight of the human pachyderms and greyhounds—especially if, like Halas, they could feel all this was their own, their very own. No untried rookies, these, but huskies of proven merit.”

Stydahar's Crew Sank Two Submarines

Among the 19 players Halas welcomed back fresh from warfare were crafty halfback George McAfee, returning from extended service in the navy; Chicago dentist Bill Osmanski, mentioned previously; end Ken Kavanaugh, who played briefly in 1945 after successfully flying 32 missions over Germany as a pilot and being awarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross; former all-pro tackle Joe Stydahar, a gunner lieutenant in the navy whose crew was credited with sinking two German submarines; and tackle Bill Hemple, a PT boat commander who helped sink six Japanese ships.

There were others, of course, who were anxious to return to football and forget the horrors of real-life battle. It was the keen responsibility of Coach George Halas to mix in the old with the new and create a football squad that possibly could contend for NFL championship honors.

Back in 1946, the NFL schedule began much later than it does now. Prior to the opening contest at Green Bay on September 29, the Bears managed five comfortable exhibition game wins. Halas was generous with playing time for rookies and others fighting for a roster position. It seemed that at times, Halas realized the extent of the talent on his club and was reluctant to showcase his star players.

For example, in one pre-season outing, elusive halfback McAfee was limited to just five minutes on the field. Then for the opener against Green Bay, Halas secretly held McAfee out of the game to allow a nagging leg muscle to heal. The loss of McAfee failed to hinder the Bears, however, as the Packers fell easily 30-7.

Luckman tossed a pair of touchdown passes in the first half as the Bears opened up a 17-0 lead. Halas played ball control during those two opening periods as the Bears ran off 45 plays compared to just 19 for the Packers.

He Ran Like A Runaway Steam Shovel!

And so the season progressed for the Bears, rolling up an 8-2-1 record to capture the NFL Western Division by two games over the Los Angeles Rams. This allowed the Bears to face the eastern champion New York Giants for the NFL crown on December 15.

The Bears were on a roll, although the Giants captured the only meeting between the two clubs 14-0 on October 27. It was a horrendous experience for quarterback Sid Luckman, who recalled that outing to the New York Daily News before the title game in December: “Let’s not talk too much about it. What a terrible day I had! Five interceptions by New York, among other things.” It was the first win by the Giants over the Bears since 1939 and New York grabbed the eastern division title with a 7-3-1 record.

Despite the win in October, the Bears were favored in the championship match, which did not bother Giants’ coach Steve Owen who said: “That’s all right with us. My boys certainly won’t be hoodwinked into overconfidence by these figures!”

But the day belonged to Luckman and the Bears as the Chicagoans survived the Giants 24-14 as Luckman threw a scoring pass to Ken Kavanaugh in the first half, then ran 19 yards for the winning points in the final period. The latter play caught the Giants, and everyone among the record crowd of about 60,000, by surprise. Luckman, you see, had only rushed once previously during the long season, and that effort against the Cardinals was more of a scramble than anything else.

This time, it was a play called “Bingo Keep It.” It was such a shock to Luckman when the play was called that he ran over to Halas during a penalty walk-off to confirm. The result was successful, but never a work of art as reported by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “Sid took a lot of kidding about that 19-yard lope. He didn’t look pretty. Something like a runaway steam shovel hitting tough bumps. But he did lug and shove, push and bounce the whole piece—with the aide of a 240-pound assistance from Ray Bray who blotted out the Giants’ last man.”

And so, George Halas did the unthinkable: turn a woebegone team into a group of champions in just one season. It was the Bears’ fourth title during the 1940s but would be the team’s last until 1963. Yet it will be remembered as the year when an aging coach took a bunch of battle-hardened war veterans, wisely disregarded his own rules, and led the club to a well-earned NFL championship.

Thank you for joining us for this episode of “When Football Was Football.” Please check out our next program when we’ll share the forgotten story among the five retired jerseys in Cardinals history.

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Author and Host - Joe Ziemba

Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

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