When Machine Gun Jack Met The Galloping Ghost!

Some may claim that Chicago has a bad reputation…and not necessarily just in football! Much of this aura stems from the glorified gangster days of the 1920s and 1930s when Al Capone and his cohorts ruled the Chicago area underworld.

These were not nice people, but Capone attempted to position the reality of his local status by claiming to be just another businessman. He offered help to the needy and opened soup kitchens to help feed the hungry during the early days of the Great Depression.

No Desperado of the Old School Is Scarface Al

His personal marketing efforts were so successful that Time Magazine placed him on the cover of its March 24, 1930, issue, along with a lengthy article on his business activities. The publication summarized its coverage of Capone by stating:

“No desperado of the old school is ‘Scarface Al,’ plundering or murdering for the savage joy of crime. He is, in his own phrase, a ‘businessman’ who wears clean linen, rides in a Lincoln car, and leaves acts of violence to his hirelings. He has an eleven-year-old son known for his gentlemanly manners.” 

On this episode of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll share the story of how one of Capone’s most notorious employees brushed shoulders with one of the greatest legends in the history of football, and no one at the time thought anything of it!

Our story begins in 1929, which, unfortunately, was the worst season in the brief history of the Chicago Bears. The team finished with a woeful 4-9-2 record and co-coaches Edward “Dutch” Sternaman and George Halas decided that they should “retire” from the coaching profession. Halas explained the situation in his autobiography years later:

Bears Team Lost It's Morale

“We believe our hope for the development of a winning team would be increased if we could turn the squad over to a professional coach. Neither Ed nor I had time to coach the Bears. Last season, the worst since we entered professional football with the old Staleys, the coaching responsibility was divided between us. As a result, our offense was ragged and by midseason, the team had lost its morale.”

While Halas and Sternaman would remain in their current ownership capacity, the organization would eventually hire veteran high school coach Ralph Jones to lead the team into the new decade.

As the key players began to head home after the disappointing 1929 campaign, one member of the Bears quickly found another opportunity in which to both stay in shape as well as earn some much-needed cash during the infant days of the depression.

Center George Trafton, a dominating player with Halas since 1920 was known for his rugged (and sometimes overly aggressive!) play as well as for his enjoyment of nighttime adult activities. In other words, he was considered a champion brawler off the field as he was on it!

Battle of the Clowns!

So—it was of no surprise when Trafton accepted an offer to participate in a boxing match for charity. His opponent would be a confident first baseman named Art Shires from the Chicago White Sox. The boxing match was scheduled for December 16, 1929, just a day after the end of the 1929 Bears’ NFL schedule.

Shires was a 23-year-old first baseman for the White Sox who lasted four years in the majors with a nice .291 batting average. He also enjoyed talking about himself, often referring to himself in the third person as “Art the Great.” Never much of a team player, Shires was once suspended from the White Sox for slugging his manager during a disagreement. The manager was left with a black eye…

There was considerable excitement around Chicago in anticipation of this event and it also attracted significant media attention who initially defined the match as the “Fight of the Century.” Later, it would simply be remembered as the “Battle of the Clowns!”

In his later years, the great Red Grange of the Chicago Bears recalled his role in the unusual bout: “I actually helped promote it. One night we were helping Trafton celebrate his birthday. He had never lost a fight in a nightclub.

After midnight, someone brought in a copy of the Chicago Tribune. Its big sports story announced that Art Shires, then trying to make some extra bucks in the ring to carry him through the winter, had signed to fight some chump. “I can beat him with one hand,” Trafton snorted. Why not, we thought. My brother Garland was in the party and he was a neighbor of Jim Mullen, who was promoting the Shires’ bouts.

So, along about 2 am he called up Mullen. “Great,” Mullen said, “we’ll sign the contracts tomorrow.” Next day, we’d forgotten all about it, but not Mullen. And Trafton suddenly remembered when he was offered a $1,000 guarantee for three rounds.”

This was a very attractive purse for Trafton, who, according to documents from the Sternaman collection at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, earned just $2,595 for the Chicago Bears’ 15-game 1929 season.  

Who's Going To Win?

While Trafton was pulling double duty as a member of the Bears as well as training for the lucrative match with Art Shires, Grange remembered that the Trafton camp was soon invaded by some strange individuals: “A few days later, when Trafton was going through the motions of training, a couple of harsh looking characters walked into the gym. ‘Who’s going to win?’ one of them asked. ‘Trafton,’ one of our group replied. ‘He’d better not,’ one of them growled.”

This unusual visit was a bit disconcerting for Grange and Trafton, who were well aware of the underworld interests in Chicago sporting events. Of course, Al Capone was the king of the Chicago mob at that time. He was often seen at important sporting events in the city, including events at Comiskey Park and Soldier Field. Earlier in 1929, the Capone organization was believed to be responsible for the deadly St. Valentine’s day massacre where seven individuals were gunned down in a north side garage.

But could these two individuals be part of that Capone connection? Grange would soon find out…and he remembered still another visit from a stranger on the eve of the Trafton-Shires fight which helped clarify the situation:

Is The Fight on the Up and Up?

“A day or two later, a slick young fellow walked in and asked the same question [as to who would win the fight]. My brother replied: “Up until yesterday, we thought Trafton was” and then told him about the visitors the day before. “Forget ‘em,” the guy told us. “They’ll never bother you again.

I’ll take care of them. All I want to know is if the fight is on the up and up. If it is, I’ll bet on Trafton.” We learned later who the young man was: it was Machine Gun Jack McGurn [one of Al Capone’s leading henchmen].”

McGurn was widely blamed for the St. Valentine’s Day tragedy, but never convicted as charges against him in conjunction with that multiple murder crime were dropped on December 2, 1929. He was trusted by Capone and known for his skills in that particular business. Author Richard Shmelter wrote a detailed book on McGurn called Chicago Assassin.

In his book, Shmelter analyzed not only McGurn’s crime capabilities but also his athletic interests as a former boxer and an exceptional golfer. These were traits that allowed Capone and McGurn to share their passion for sports, according to Shmelter: 

“McGurn was seen at nearly every sporting event the boss attended. From Cubs and White Sox games at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park to football games at Soldier Field to boxing matches, McGurn usually sat right next to Capone in the best seats available…Another sport that had captured the public’s imagination was golf, whose popularity was sweeping the nation. Like countless others, Capone and McGurn were on the links often during the summer months.” 

My Hands Weight 100 lbs. A Piece

But back to the night of December 16, 1929, when the big fight was staged. A surprisingly large crowd of about 5,000 showed up for the battle, which was dominated by the much bigger Trafton, who enjoyed a 30-pound weight advantage. Trafton out-slugged Shires throughout the match and was awarded the decision in the five-round attraction. According to an article that later appeared in the Chicago Tribune, neither boxer appeared to be in the best of shape:

“From the first bell, there was good reason to suspect that neither would go the full five. Shires, obviously hoping for a quick knockout, came out like a bear but walked into the real Bear’s long left. He went down but bounced back without a count. Trafton dropped him twice more before the bell. Trafton’s endurance was little better. Yells of “hit him!” came from the Bear cheering section, but all Trafton could give was an ex post facto reply that ‘I couldn’t get my hands up. They weighed 100 pounds apiece!’”

But what about Jack McGurn? Author Richard Shmelter was not surprised that the interaction between Grange and McGurn was indeed possible, especially with the shadow of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre still looming over McGurn. In a statement for my book Bears vs. Cardinals: The NFL’s Oldest Rivalry, Shmelter commented: “McGurn was just cleared of involvement in the massacre two weeks prior to the Trafton-Shires fight.

For this reason, it seemed to me that he would not have looked to draw more attention to himself over a boxing match at that time. Strictly in my own opinion, with his star starting to dim within the Capone organization, McGurn might have spouted off about not allowing anyone to “fix” the fight just to make himself still feel relevant. Once again, that is only my observation. I do believe that McGurn might have visited the training camp, and even watched the fight. For he was a huge sports fan, as well as an incredible athlete himself.”

Knocked Him Out In 54 Seconds!

And so the brief interaction between the legendary Galloping Ghost and Machine Gun Jack quietly disappeared until Grange brought it up years later. Grange concluded his playing career after the 1934 season and is now a member of both the college and the professional football hall of fames. Shires was gone from major league baseball after 1932 but continued to secure prize fights when available.

Trafton is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who stayed with the Bears through the 1932 season. Like Shires, he managed to book a few more fights, but that all came crashing down (literally) when future heavyweight champ Primo Carnera knocked him out in 54 seconds in 1930. Trafton did become a successful coach in both the NFL and the Canadian league. As for McGurn, his link to the St. Valentine’s Day massacre signaled the beginning of his end with the Capone organization. He was assassinated in 1936.

Thank you for joining us for this episode of “When Football Was Football” here on the Sports History Network. Please join us next time as we explore some little-known fun facts and stories from the long history of professional football in Chicago.

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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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