When you mention the name of George Halas, several things may come to mind. Born in 1895, Halas was the founder of the Chicago Bears as well as the National Football League. But he was also an outfielder for the New York Yankees and the MVP of the 1919 Rose Bowl before settling in as the owner and coach of the Bears for several decades.
Below we have a short bio of Halas’ life and career, a couple of podcast episodes, and even a unique twist to an interview. Joe Ziemba (host of When Football Was Football) combed through many of Papa Bear’s quotes and career to have an “interview’ with him in 2021.
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George Halas' Early Life
This time as we step off our DeLorean, the date is February 2nd, 1895 and we are in Chicago, Illinois. This is the day that our hero was born. This time our hero is none other than Mr. George Stanley Halas.
They called him Mr. Football for everything because he was a player, a coach, an administrator, an owner, a founder, probably painted the lines on the field, everything. He did all of it. So basically what I want to say is before I go any further there is a disclaimer I am going to issue to you.
There is no way that this episode, or even multiple episodes could cover everything that George Halas did for the game of football and the NFL. I could create an entire podcast revolving around the life and career of George Halas aka “Papa Bear”.
I’m just going to hint and touch on some of the highlights and I’m going to continue to bring him up throughout the rest of The Football History Dude. But before I get into his career, we are going to take it back a little bit. His parents were immigrants from Pilsen, Bohemia back in the 1880’s. His father was Frank Sr. and he was a tailor.
His mother’s name was Barbara and she was a grocer. His father would end up passing away in 1910, so George and his four siblings would end up helping their mother (Barbara) at the grocery store and also at the apartment building that the family owned. George had to grow up quick and toughen up.
George lost his father at the age of 15, and it seems that this unfortunate event forced him to become a leader. He had to take charge and help his mom out. During this time, George went to Chicago’s Crane Technical High School where he played baseball, basketball and football.
To sum up his love for sports George Halas is quoted as saying on the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, “I’ve loved sports since I was old enough to cross a Chicago street by myself. I’m happy that I made pro football a career.
It has been good to me in the material sense, but more important is that I have been associated with youth in all my years as a pro football coach and owner.” Throughout this episode, we are going to find out that a lot of people thought of him as a crusty old dude on the outside, but a teddy bear on the inside.
He was known to help many youth in the area and paid for kids to go to school among other things.
College and Baseball Career
He was a kid himself, and then he graduated from Chicago’s Crane Technical High School back in 1913. Then he would proceed to enter the University of Illinois. His best sport, even though he ended up becoming known for football, was baseball.
He would mostly play in the outfield and had a batting average of .350, which if you know baseball at all-that’s a pretty good average. In basketball, he would end up becoming the captain of the varsity as a senior. But, they said he was only ok at football because he was a little dude.
He was 6 foot and 170 pounds, so he would get pushed around a lot. There were two injuries that were pointed out. In his sophomore year he had a broken jaw. In his junior year he had a broken leg. But he kept coming back for more.
He played for the legendary Bob Zuppke and the coach liked his spunk, but played him at the end to keep him away from the chaos. In the summer while at college, he worked for Western Electric Company.
This company was pretty big at the time and had extravagant events. At one event, they took cruise ships from Chicago over to Michigan City and would have this huge company picnic. There were all kinds of sports games and things to do for the family. George was supposed to be on the first of the two boats going to Michigan City.
He was late and had to take the second boat. It may have not seems like a big deal at the time, but this decision to wait for the second boat could have led to the NFL. We will talk about that later though. We have a lot to talk about first; I mean he gave 63 of his 88 years to the NFL. Before his last semester at college, the U.S. entered the Great War.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy. While in the Navy he was awarded his college diploma in Civil Engineering even though he missed his last semester. While in the navy, he was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Base. He was ordered to organize the great U.S. service teams in football and basketball.
From the beginning its like, thank you Navy for setting George Halas on the right path to being an administrator/owner or whatever you want to call it of setting up teams, because we have the NFL. During the time he was playing football at the Great Lakes Naval Base, there was a game in 1919 on New Year’s Day that was the Rose Bowl.
He would end up having his ten minutes of fame. In this game, the Great Lakes would end up defeating the Mare Island Marines 17-9. But at the time the football was a little larger. We have discussed in the past passing wasn’t the thing to do, but he still caught two touchdown passes and returned an interception for 75 yards.
He would be the MVP of the Rose Bowl back in 1919. I don’t know if he was actually given the title “MVP”, but I would say he was top in that game. George would end up being discharged from the Navy soon after that Rose Bowl game. So he decided to get back into sports.
First in baseball, he signed with the New York Yankees in March of 1919 and only played 11 games. In one of the videos I saw he said that he could never hit the curveball. He ended with a batting average of .091, which isn’t good. He went to the Saint Paul Minor team and was coached but baseball just wasn’t his thing.
He suffered a hip injury at training camp in Jacksonville, Florida. It ended up being a pinched nerve and the doctors worked it out, but it hindered his chance of having his baseball career take off. Even though it was a short-lived baseball career, there was a moment that George Halas remembered from playing with the Yankees.
This account gave George a fresh perspective and helped motivate him to keep going. The account was with Ty Cobb, the legendary Tigers baseball player, at a game where he kept calling Cobb names. So Cobb told Halas to meet him in the parking lot.
So Halas recalled coming out of the locker room that day, looking over his shoulder. He saw Ty Cobb and was ready to fight. But Cobb didn’t want to fight, he just told Halas to keep his enthusiasm but only for good. So he had a short-lived baseball career. He went back to Chicago and used his Civil Engineer degree working for a railroad designing some bridges.
That didn’t last long and even though he promised his mom that he was done with football, he would sneak away on the weekends to play.
Pro Football Career
In early 1920, George Halas received a call from Staley Starch Works to relocate and work for that company because he had a reputation for organizing the military sports teams. This would help start leading him on the road to be able to get into the NFL.
He would end up organizing playing, and coaching for the company’s football and baseball teams. During this time, George Halas found the Decatur Staleys, which would end up becoming the Chicago Bears down the road. Halas and his partner, Dutch Sternaman, thought that it was a good idea to join some ragtag dudes at an auto showroom in September of 1920.
This led to what you and I know, as the NFL. So yes, George Halas was a founding father of the National Football League. There was a recession going on and Mr. A.E. Staley told Halas that he couldn’t afford to keep the team going.
So Staley gave Halas $5,000 seed money and told him to take the team to Chicago and keep the name “Chicago Staleys” for one year. George Halas, because they played at Wrigley Field, decided to honor the Chicago Cubs by changing the name to Chicago Bears. Now we are going to get into some of the professional career of George Halas.
He was responsible for signing Red Grange and going on a barnstorming tour across the nation that would end up putting the NFL on the map by selling out stadiums. In the middle of this tour they went to Washington D.C. and introduced to the President as Red Grange and the Chicago Bears and one of the owners, George Halas.
The President said that he always liked animal acts. At that time, that’s what people thought of when they heard the word football-an animal act. As if it would come and go, like the circus. George Halas had the forethought and the vision to be able to see into the future.
Maybe he hopped on my DeLorean, I don’t know. Maybe I should rewind the tape and see if he was there. I’m cool if he did, because his forethought with Red Grange going on this barnstorming tour definitely put the NFL on the map. He ended up having another game that was the biggest disappointment of his career.
We talked about this on the last episode, the “Sneaker Game”. The Bears 13-0 against the Giants on the icy field. They should have stomped all over the New York Giants, but the coach of the Giants outwitted Halas. When they saw those sneakers on the field, they asked George what they were going to do.
George Halas said, “Step on their toes then”. In a video I saw he also said, “I told them to step on their toes, but I guess it didn’t work.” In 1932 he assumed chairman of league’s rules committee and was responsible for many policy changes to make the game more excited.
He revolutionized the game by reviving the T-Motion. How he did this, was he put a man in motion before the snap. At the time this was just mind blowing. This would lead up to the most lopsided game in NFL history where they would beat the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the 1940 Championship game.
The crazy thing was, Washington beat them 7-3 three weeks before. George Halas was known to scout out the other team. He realized that they were playing the same defense as that last game and he had a fix for what they did wrong last time, the T-Motion. All of the other teams saw the score and decided that they needed to do that as well. George Halas was the type of guy that was always a few steps ahead.
There are many recollections of Halas being a tough guy. They said that no team in the NFL resembled the persona of their coach like the Bears. There is a quote from another guy that said, “Win or lose, you were gonna hurt after the game”.
I saw a video of a dude running down the field and he did a jump kick and put his foot into this other guy’s chest. There was another play where a guy was running, before he even got touched, he was already out of bounds and this guy from the Bears came over and tried to do this clothesline move.
It had to have been 10 yards outside of bounds. It looked like the guy tried to turn around and throw the football at him. It looked like he slipped. The Bears were the true Monsters of the Midway because of George Halas. He had this toughness to him. He even did things like psychological warfare.
There was an account that at halftime he would have the band go on the field to distract the people. He would use a dog on the sideline and tell it to go on the field so they had to stop the game. To solidify his toughness, Bill Wade said that if they lost a game they would play on this field with horse manure.
George Halas would say that if they want to play like this stuff then you might as well practice in it. He was not one to tolerate disobedience and insubordination. When you watch the different videos and games you see George Halas and everyone was scared of him. You would see this old dude run out on the field and just grip into the refs.
He was responsible for hiring the refs too since he was the top dog, so they were scared too because of that. In one game, George didn’t like what happened in the game so he ran out on the field and kicked a dude in the butt. George didn’t care what happened.
Giving So Much to the Game
He was an innovator in coaching and administrations. There were many firsts because of this guy. He was the first to hold daily practice sessions. One of the first, if not the first, to film the opponents game for study. For the first time ever, he had his teams broadcast on the radio.
He even wrote his own press releases where he would beg for it to be put in the newspaper. He would even bribe them with tickets to the game. Going back to using film of the opponent’s games, a guy on a video I saw said that they would be at practice and look up see a plane flying over and would say that’s George up there looking down at us trying to steal our plays.
All of this is just some of the things different coaches and player remembered about George. They have a documentary where Gale Sayers recalled his coach and he said that George would give him anything. He also said that George was tough, but he loved him. Gale didn’t care what everyone else said, because George would do anything for you.
There’s an interview with Dick Butkus where he said that George would drive a hard bargain when it came to contracts but he would come to Dick and say that nobody came to see Dick, they came to see Gale. Gale would also have the same conversation with George Halas. Even though he was frugal in how his contracts go, he really did care about the team.
He would take care of his players no matter what, even if they lost. He would even take time out during his extremely busy lifestyle and dedication to the team, to reach out to members of the community. There was an instance where he wrote a letter on September 28th, 1978 to a High School team after they had a huge victory against a rival that they should not have beaten.
George said he saw it in the newspaper and he just had to send it to them. He told them to keep going and he appreciates what they do. It was the middle of the football season but he still took the time out to encourage these kids.
He gave everything he had for the NFL so you and I can watch the game. And that’s one of the reasons why he was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame back in 1963. He possibly gave more to football than any other person in the history of the game.
Over the long career of his coaching, he ended up having 324 career winds and 6 championship titles, but that doesn’t even come close to everything that he did. He is Mr. everything and we are definitely going to have to end up putting more dedicated episodes or part of episodes to the career that this guy had. So to kind of tie this in as far as him giving everything to football and a lot of people wanting to give him back the credit, kind of reminds me of this movie about George Gipp.
Ronald Reagan would be the star in this movie and there is a line from this movie that is very popular now. Ronald Reagan play George Gipp, who is a former Notre Dame player, and this famous line comes when George Gipp was on his deathbed.
He told his coach Knute Rockne this, “Rock, someday when things look real tough for Notre Dame, ask the boys to go out there and win for me.” So this leads me to figure out where the term comes from. Rockne would end up using these words of wisdom during a half time pep talk in a 1928 game between Army and Notre Dame. During this pep talk he would end up saying, “Lets win this one for the Gipper”.
Ronald Reagan would forever be tied to this whole “win one for the Gipper” thing. It gets me thinking, I’m not a bears fan, but the 1985 Bears won the Super Bowl and I’m pretty sure they were all like, “Lets win this one for the Gipper!”
The Bears organization would continue to honor George Halas to this day, where they put the letters “GSH” on their sleeve to honor George Stanley Halas and everything that he gave to the NFL, most notably the Bears. When he died at the age of 88, he was the last remaining founder of the NFL.
George Halas Interview (in 2021)
Halas was one person that I always wanted to meet since his lofty stature often contains more fiction than fact due to his legendary nature. Since this gridiron legend passed away in 1983, the opportunity to personally conduct an interview session has been long gone. However, since Halas was such a legacy, he left much behind in terms of published quotations along with his esteemed autobiography simply called, Halas.
So—based on what I know in 2021 (which is very little), I decided to research suitable answers to some of the key questions that I would like to ask Mr. Halas if he was around today. Please note that all of the Halas responses are drawn from his published quotations over the past 100 years. Hopefully, they will provide us with a concise viewpoint of not only George Halas, but also the very early days of the NFL itself.
Our interview time frame begins in early 1920 and ends in 1925. By 1920, Halas had graduated from the University of Illinois and played in the 1919 Rose Bowl with the Great Lakes Naval Training Center team.
After his discharge from the service, Halas spent the summer of 1919 with the New York Yankees organization and then completed the year with the Hammond, IN pro football team. By the spring of 1920, he was working in Chicago for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad in the bridge design department. This prompted my first question for Mr. Halas.
Please note – this is a fun exercise. This is not a real interview from when George Halas was alive.
George Halas Q&A
Ziemba: Since you had a secure job with the railroad, what made you suddenly accept a job in Decatur, IL?
Halas: In March of 1920, a man telephoned me at the railroad office and asked if I would meet him at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. His name was Mr. Chamberlin and he asked if I would like to move to Decatur, IL to work for the Staley Company, play on the baseball team, and manage and coach the football team as well as play on it.
Ziemba: Were you hired to simply play sports for the Staley Company?
Halas: In between times, I would learn how to make starch, putting my engineering and chemical training to use, and start a lifetime career in this fast-growing concern.
Ziemba: What type of salary did Mr. Chamberlin offer you? Did you make the move strictly for the money?
Halas: I don’t remember how much money he offered. It may have been a little less than the $55 per week the railroad paid me. The magnet for me was the opportunity to build a winning football team.
Ziemba: So, you spent the summer playing baseball for the Staleys as well as recruiting excellent players for the football team. In 1919, the Staleys played mostly local teams. Did you feel the need for a stronger schedule rather than agreeing to play a local team often with just a few days’ notice?
Halas: I thought the Staleys in 1920 had gone beyond this mobile situation. I wrote various teams suggesting games. Replies were indifferent and vague. We needed an organization.
Ziemba: Was there anything you did to help get the ball rolling for an organized national league?
Halas: I wrote to Ralph Hay, the manager of the Canton Bulldogs, one of the best run and most prominent teams. I mentioned our need for a league. He called a meeting on September 17, 1920, at his automobile showroom in Canton, OH. We all agreed on the need for a league. In two hours, we created the American Professional Football Association.
Ziemba: Now that you were in charge of the Staleys’ football team, what could you offer the players that you were recruiting?
Halas: In order to compete with established clubs like the Canton Bulldogs for players, the Staleys offered a package deal which included a year-round job with the starch company and a share of the profits from the gate receipts. And the real clincher, at least from my viewpoint, was Staley’s decision that the players could practice two hours a day on company time. So far as I know, we were the first pro team that ever held organized daily practice drills.
Ziemba: How did the Decatur Staleys finish in 1920?
Halas: We had won ten, lost one, and tied two. In all thirteen games, our opponents had scored just once. We proclaimed ourselves World Champions.
Ziemba: But didn’t the league declare the undefeated Akron Pros as the APFA champions? (At this point Mr. Halas shrugged, so I moved to the next question.) Overall, was the season successful in terms of the financial return?
Halas: The 1920 season confirmed my belief that professional football had a great future, but professional football was expensive. We were an artistic success, but somewhat of a financial flop. Our 1920 loss of $14,406 was assumed by the Staley Company, which charged the football team the two and one-half hours each man lost from the job each day due to practice. Mr. A.E. Staley had agreed that gate earnings would be split among the players. The share averaged about $125 per man for each game played. I, as coach, player, and the manager was voted an extra share. My take was $2,322.77.
Ziemba: What type of offense did you run in Decatur?
Halas: We were the darndest shifting team you ever saw. In fact, it wasn’t until 1921—after we had moved the team to Chicago—that we decided we were using so much of our energy shifting we had little left for play execution. We used to start in a T and shift into a Notre Dame box. Then we’d start in a T and go into a single wing. Then from a T into a Minnesota wing. Man, we had that rhythm down pretty good, but we were worn out sometimes by halftime!”
Ziemba: Tell us how the move to Chicago evolved.
Halas: Staley asked me to come to his office during the 1921 season. I had no idea what he wanted. We had only talked on the field. “George,” he said, “I know you are more interested in football than starch. As you know, there is a slight recession in the country. Time lost practicing and playing costs a huge amount of money. I feel we can no longer underwrite the team’s losses. Why don’t you take the team to Chicago? I think football will go over big there.” I was dumbfounded. “I’ll give you $5,000 seed money to pay costs until the gate receipts start coming in. I only ask that you continue to call the team the Staleys for one season.” I will do it, I said. Thank you, thank you, thank you very much. We shook hands.
Ziemba: Once in Chicago, you quickly rented Cubs Park, now known as Wrigley Field, for your home field. What did that cost you?
Halas: I telephoned Mr. William Veeck, SR., and asked if I could come to see him. I told him that I was bringing the Staley team to Chicago and I would like to use Cubs Park as our home, for practice as well as for our home games. He welcomed the idea. I asked him: “How much would it cost to rent your park?” He said, “Fifteen percent of the gross gate receipts, and we keep the profits from the concessions.” “That sounds fair,” I countered, “if we keep the profits from the scorecards.” “Good enough,” said Veeck. “You sell the scorecards.” I considered that very fair. I rejoiced silently that he did not ask for a fixed rent, which might incur early obligations I could not meet.
Ziemba: Why was the sale of the scorecards so important to you?
Halas: Well, we had charged ten cents apiece for the scorecards in Decatur, netting almost $300 for the season, and I didn’t want to let that plum fall into Veeck’s hands. Besides, there was a business expression I had read somewhere—“Never pay the first price”—and I didn’t want to appear over-anxious. Certainly, I didn’t want Veeck to think this was my first experience in a business deal—even though it was!
Ziemba: Now that you were off the Staley payroll and not receiving regular paychecks, what was your biggest personal challenge with the move to Chicago?
Halas: First and foremost, I had to get a job in Chicago to support myself until the team started making money, whenever that might be. Also, while supporting myself, I had to find time to sign the players, coach the club, write the publicity, distribute tickets, arrange the schedule, and handle half a dozen other chores. And, I went to work selling automobiles.
Ziemba: What did your new partner, Dutch Sternaman, do for outside work and where did you locate the team offices?
Halas: As I recall, Dutch landed a job in a gasoline station. Lacking an office, we held our daily business meetings in the rear of the lobby of the Planters Hotel. In fact, we even signed our players at the Planters!
Ziemba: How would you describe C.C. Pyle, Red Grange’s manager, both of whom became part of the Bears’ history in 1925?
Halas: I didn’t know quite what to make of Pyle, but certainly, we couldn’t lose anything by negotiating with him. Pyle was an interesting man. I noted how carefully he dressed and how well-tended was his mustache. His shoes were brilliant. He spoke well. He was suave. I felt I was in the presence of a born promoter. Frankly, Dutch and I figured that a middle-aged, small-town theatre owner who wore spats might not prove too tough an opponent in financial negotiations for a couple of smart young men from Chicago. But we considerably underestimated Mr. C.C. Pyle.
Ziemba: How so?
Halas: Dutch and I were prepared to offer Pyle a flat third of our net profits for Grange’s services. It developed that C.C. also thought a one-third split of the profits was fair. However, his proposition differed from ours in one rather important respect. He figured the Bears should retain the one-third, leaving two-thirds for Grange and Pyle!
Ziemba: It seems that once Grange was signed, the Bears and the NFL took on a new life. With typical crowds being in the 5-10,000 range before Grange, what was the ticket situation for his first NFL game against the Cardinals on Thanksgiving Day in 1925?
Halas: We sold all 36,000 tickets that day and could have sold 30,000 more. I knew then and there that pro football was destined to be a big-time sport.
Ziemba: Coach, you have been very generous with your time today. However, we would be remiss if we failed to ask you about one final topic. You were never shy when dealing with referees. We have heard that an official’s decision in the 1919 Rose Bowl on a disputed pass reception impacted how you viewed officials in the future. Could you expand on that theory, Mr. Halas?
Halas: Later in life, when victory meant the Bears ate well, I concerned myself vitally with official decisions. Since that Rose Bowl, I have always tried to assist officials to make correct calls. Over the years, I have achieved some success in this pursuit!
Ziemba: Can you recall any time when the officials might have disagreed with your input?
Halas: One time, an official named Jim Durfee called us for a five-yard penalty. I yelled, “What was that for?” He said, “Coaching from the sidelines.” [Which was illegal back then.] “Well,” I said, “That just proves how dumb you are. That’s a 15-yard penalty, not five yards!” Durfee responded: “Yeah, but the penalty for your kind of coaching is only five yards!” Another time, he penalized us for 15 yards, so I yelled “You stink!” So, he marched off another 15 yards and turned to me and yelled: “How do I smell from here?”
We thank the ever-vociferous George Halas for joining us tonight through the power of the spoken words he left behind many years ago. His insight into the very early days of the NFL and the Chicago Bears was both informative and entertaining. On the next episode of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll celebrate Super Bowl week with a look back at the last championship for the Cardinals and their 1947 title game with the Eagles at frozen Comiskey Park in Chicago.