Remember the infamous “Spygate” scandal from a few years ago? As a reminder, one prominent NFL team was severely penalized for allegedly, and illegally, filming another team’s defensive signals from an on-field camera during a game, thus offering the offending club a significant offensive advantage.
On this episode of “When Football Was Football” we’ll dance around the “Spygate” scandal from 2007-2008 and zoom back to one of the original NFL spying controversies in 1934. Back in 1934, this particular scandal involved the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cardinals, the only two remaining original league members.
Things could certainly be tough when two NFL teams who really didn’t like each other were not only in the same town but also for a time, shared the same field! Such was the case for the Bears and the Cardinals during the 1930s.
Although the teams traditionally operated out of the north side (Bears) and the south side (Cardinals), both clubs counted Wrigley Field as their home base beginning in 1931. During this program of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll examine not only the unusual scheduling procedures that were in place when two NFL teams shared the same field but also how the close-knit atmosphere contributed to growing suspicions of “spying” between the two local squads.
Why Were Both Chicago Teams Sharing A Field?
With two rosters sharing virtually the same space, the “spying” charges could easily be expected. After all, there was probably someone from each team drifting around the area when the other club was practicing during its allotted time share.
While there were many skirmishes between the two clubs regarding the “spying” issue, we’ll look at a couple of the more prominent cases. But first, why were the two Chicago clubs sharing a field? Wasn’t the vast city of Chicago big enough so that each could afford its own facility?
When the Bears, then known as the Decatur Staleys, moved to Chicago during the 1921 season, the club was known for one year as the Chicago Staleys. By 1922, co-owners George Halas and Dutch Sternaman incorporated the organization as the Chicago Bears and quickly found a permanent home at Cubs Park in Chicago. Of course, the name of this venue is now well-known (since 1926) as Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs of major league baseball.
George Halas, who served as both the co-owner and coach of the Bears, initially rented Cubs Park in 1920 for the Decatur Staleys, playing a pair of “home” games there with two other “home” games staged at Staley Field in Decatur, IL.
When the Staleys departed for Chicago in 1921, Halas managed to wrangle a very favorable rental agreement for the use of Cubs Park, paying just a 15% fee from attendance and concessions to utilize the facility. This was in contrast to the usual flat fee expected for the rental of an athletic facility at the time. The reason it was so favorable to the Staleys was that even if a horrendous crowd was in attendance, let’s say 1,000 at an average of $1 each, Halas would only need to pay $150 for the rental fee.
This generous arrangement heavily favored some type of profit, even if it was minimal. On the other hand, if the Staleys were required to pay a flat fee of perhaps $5,000, the team would quickly find its way out of business if gate receipts for the same game in question were only $1,000.
Bears Drew Four Times The Attendees
Over the years, the Chicago Bears built up a very solid following for home games at Wrigley Field. Remember in the 1920s, pro football was still considered the step-child to the powerful collegiate game which attracted massive crowds when the major schools played each other.
Still, according to Pro Football Reference, in 1929, the Bears hosted 84,500 fans to their home games. On the other hand, the neighboring Chicago Cardinals club managed to attract just 19,300 followers for its 1929 home battles. As such, the Bears drew four times as many attendees than the Cardinals when both played in Chicago.
Earlier in 1929, Cardinals’ owner Chris O’Brien sold his beloved squad to Dr. David Jones, the city physician for the city of Chicago. O’Brien had endured difficult financial challenges and the arrival of the Great Depression certainly hindered professional sports as well.
For the astute Dr. Jones, the battle for football survival in Chicago depended on building up that attendance, and the logical way to accomplish that would be to identify a more attractive location (in his mind) for the Cardinals’ home games. Prior to 1931, the Cardinals had called Comiskey Park home for most of the team’s existence.
Cardinals Move To Wrigley Field
So, Dr. Jones conceived a unique idea: if the Bears drew so many more fans at Wrigley Field than the Cardinals did at Comiskey Park, it only seemed logical that the Cardinals could do likewise simply by moving the team’s home games to Wrigley Field!
What a marvelous concept!
The only problem was that the move to Wrigley Field never did work. The Cardinals’ fans from the south side of Chicago were reluctant to follow the team north, while the Bears’ fans were completely disinterested. As a result, the attendance at Cardinals’ games at Wrigley Field never bore fruit, unless the team was playing the Bears!
Another factor that affected the team was scheduling. While the Chicago Cubs were still using the stadium through September of each year, the Chicago Bears were next in line for selecting game dates, while the Cardinals brought up the rear—often not experiencing a home game until November when the weather in Chicago can be a bit iffy!
So the Cards were seen by just 1,500 for a Wrigley game against the Cleveland Indians on November 28, 1931, and another 1,500 for a contest with the Philadelphia Eagles on November 8, 1936.
Although the move to Wrigley Field by the Cardinals never did turn out to be financially successful, the team remained there for the remainder of the 1930s. One can imagine that if two NFL clubs are placed in the same building there might be plenty of opportunity for spying or other gridiron intrigue!
And, of course, there were no private or indoor practice facilities in place back them—just the lone field for both teams. Usually, the Bears would practice in the morning, while the Cardinals would do likewise in the afternoon.
Cleared The Field of Suspected Bear Spies
The first incident we’ll discuss emerged on October 12, 1934, while the Bears engaged in that early practice session. As it is today, Wrigley Field in the 1930s was surrounded by residential and commercial buildings. Taller structures existed just outside the left and right field walls where visitors could look out the windows of the upper floors and have a clear view to the field below.
And so it was on October 12, 1934. In two days, the Bears would host the Cardinals on this very same field, and the hosts were busily preparing for that battle, perhaps adding a new wrinkle or two to the team’s offensive scheme.
Suddenly, someone on the field pointed at a building across the street at what looked to be a couple of gentlemen using binoculars to secure a better view of the field. After the pair was accosted and asked to leave the premises, the Bears continued their practice.
Then, during the afternoon session for the Cardinals, a nearly identical situation arose when the Cards’ coaches asked two suspected “spies” to leave the area. The entire day was fueled by rumors of enemy spies and infiltrators on both sides, prompting the Chicago Tribune to summarize the circumstances for interested readers: “Both teams practiced at Wrigley Field yesterday.
The Cardinals completed their drill in the afternoon after twice being interrupted to clear the field of suspected Bear spies. The Bears’ drill in the morning was held up while two men in buildings opposite the park were relieved of field glasses and notebooks. These were said to have been Cardinal scouts, but the Cardinals denied they had scouts.”
While this 1934 exchange of spying accusations was certainly not the first, nor the last, occurrence of finger-pointing by the two Chicago teams, it apparently had little effect on the outcome of the game itself as the Bears breezed to an easy 20-0 win. But the bitter accusations did demonstrate that even in 1934, NFL teams were not shy about engaging in subtle efforts to discover information about their opponents.
If we close our eyes, we can see the guy with the binoculars crouching behind the window in the building across the street from Wrigley Field! Not very high-tech today, but apparently effective, and imaginative, in 1934! Just don’t get caught…
Two Mysterious Strangers Watching Cardinals
By 1942, the Cardinals had returned to Comiskey Park on the south side of Chicago for their home games. If practices were not held at or near Comiskey park, they usually took place at a park at 83rd and Yates. However, this did not stop the usual shenanigans between the Bears and the Cardinals.
This time, it was Cards’ coach Jimmy Conzelman who was front and center in this particular controversy by claiming that there were two mysterious strangers who had attempted to sneak into the Cardinals’ practice field prior to the Bears’ game on October 11, 1942.
Although the two apparent invaders were unable to solve the locked gates to gain entrance, they stood outside the fence, and with notepads in hand, began writing down their observations of the Cardinals’ plans and formations. At least that was what coach Conzelman stated.
Upon observing the unwelcome pair watching his practice, coach Conzelman chased the duo away from the field whereupon they sped off in a green sedan. Edward Prell of the Chicago Tribune later reported: “Conzelman said one of the Cardinals’ players obtained the license number, and that the name and address of the owner was traced. Furthermore, said Conzelman, the car’s owner is a friend of at least two Chicago Bears.”
Of course, Bears’ coach George Halas denied the report and told the Tribune: “Ridiculous stuff! I haven’t the slightest idea where the Cardinals practice and care less. We’re too busy getting ready for Sunday’s game to pay any attention to that. I guess maybe we could find some Cardinal spies around us if we looked hard enough.”
As with the similar situation in 1934, the spies, real or imagined, may or may not have contributed to another victory by the Bears over the Cardinals, this time by the lopsided score of 41-14. About the only thing illegal about the 1942 game was the aggressive playing style of the winning Bears. The over-anxious men of Halas were flagged for a then-NFL record of 12 penalties for 150 yards. But even that astounding number of free yardage was of little assistance to the Cardinals.
Thank you for joining us on this episode of “When Football Was Football” here on the Sports History Network. Our brief glimpse at the old-fashioned spying techniques used by NFL teams decades ago pales in comparison to the high-tech options available to teams today. Unless of course, you agree with the opinion of George Halas in 1942 that the existence of spying in the NFL is “ridiculous stuff!” Maybe…maybe not…
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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