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From the Pages of Vine Line: The Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field

Bears

The following can be found in the August issue of Vine Line.

Playing football at Wrigley Field always presented its fair share of challenges. First, there were the shorter-than-regulation end zones and the wooden boards covering the Cubs’ dugout entrances. Add in the tilted field, mercilessly beaten-up turf, tiny locker rooms and other quirks, and the gameday experience was far from perfect.

But that didn’t stop the Chicago Bears, one of the most storied franchises in football history, from calling the Friendly Confines home for a half century. Legendary players, from Dick Butkus to Mike Ditka to Gale Sayers, all graced the field, and the Bears brought the beloved stadium its most recent championship in 1963. If anything, the now-100-year-old ballpark’s quirks only added to the lore.

Of course, the substandard field conditions didn’t faze Butkus. The rough and rugged Hall of Fame linebacker said he enjoyed playing at Wrigley Field more than at Soldier Field, where the Bears moved on a permanent basis in 1971, during the latter stages of his career.
The Bears legend recalled an episode during his rookie season in which he was sitting in the crowded clubhouse awaiting instructions on the next day’s opponent, but couldn’t hear a word coach George Halas was saying.

“I don’t know what the deal was, but all the veterans would bring their dogs to practice and have them in the room there,” Butkus said. “The old man’s trying to talk, and the dogs are barking, and I’m thinking, ‘Jesus.’ One had a pit bull. [Ed O’Bradovich] had a Great Dane. But to me, that was the pros.”

Welcome to football at Wrigley Field. It might not have been the ideal situation, but it was never dull.

* * * *
Back when football was first played at Weeghman Park—as the stadium on Clark and Addison was known at the time—it wasn’t really done with the fans in mind. Getting spectators into the stadium was obviously a priority, but the new sport was primarily concerned with finding its footing in the muddy ground of expansionism. Football games were played at Weeghman simply because teams needed a venue, and the park’s owners felt it would be a good way to make a little extra cash. The stadium was sitting dormant for half the year anyway.

But the baseball-first facility presented a number of challenges when it came to laying out a 100-yard football pitch without risking player safety—especially after the renovation that added an outfield wall and reshaped the bleachers in 1937.

The field ran north and south from left field to behind home plate. The north end zone ended just 18 inches in front of the solid brick left-field wall, while the southeast corner of the south end zone extended into the first-base dugout. To even out the surface, the grounds crew filled the dugout steps with sand. This also meant that corner of the end zone was smaller than the regulation 10 yards.

These hazards might sound ridiculous given the way the modern game is played, but according to Cubs historian Ed Hartig, there were hardly gifted wide receivers, let alone fade routes leading players into the corners of the end zones, during that era.

“Back then, it was supposed to be a running game,” Hartig said. “You didn’t run to the back of the end zone to make a catch. This is a time when the goalposts were still on the goal line.”

* * * *
In the ballpark’s early football days, it mainly drew high school, military and semipro squads. Sometimes as many as four games per day were scheduled on the field. Starting in 1919, independent teams like the Hammond All-Star Football Club, which signed a six-game lease, wanted to test the sport’s popularity in the city.

With a roster that included players like Olympic great Jim Thorpe and Northwestern standout Paddy Driscoll, the Hammond squad managed to draw upward of 10,000 fans at some games that season. The potential of the new sport sparked the interest of a few more Chicago-based teams and quickly led the Decatur Staleys to the city’s North Side.

In 1920, former University of Illinois standout George Halas was put in charge of a company football team funded by food starch conglomerate owner A.E. Staley. In his inaugural season at the helm, Halas came up from Decatur to play a few neutral-site games and then led his Staleys to a de facto championship game at Cubs Park, where the team battled the Akron Steel to a 0-0 tie in front of 12,000 fans.
Halas believed the game might have an audience in Chicago, and, coincidentally, Staley was looking for an out.

“After a couple years, Mr. Staley said, ‘We’re a starch company. We’re not a sports team,’” Hartig said. “‘I can’t keep supporting [the team]. I will for one more year, if you can get an opportunity to find your own supporters.’”

With the temporary backing of Staley, Halas took the team from central Illinois to the big city in 1921 and quickly found a home—albeit one with a field that fell a few yards shy of regulation. Halas reached out to Cubs President and Treasurer Bill Veeck Sr. about using Cubs Park.
The two sides reached a handshake one-year agreement in just minutes. The Cubs received 15 percent of the gate (20 percent when the receipts exceeded $10,000) and the concessions, while the Staleys retained all rights to the game programs. According to the coach’s autobiography, Halas by Halas, the deal would remain unchanged for the remainder of the partnership.

“The deal they got at Wrigley in terms of concessions and that type of stuff was very, very favorable to the team,” Hartig said. “The Wrigleys weren’t looking to make a big amount of money off the Bears.”

In conjunction with the move, the team was renamed the Chicago Staleys. One year later, with the contractual obligation completed between Staley and Halas, the new owner changed the moniker to the Chicago Bears, noting that his football players were larger than the Cubs baseball players with whom they shared the stadium.

The Bears would call Wrigley Field home for the next 50 years, enjoying seven NFL titles, franchise-defining superstars and incredible individual performances. The field conditions were rarely pristine due to the team’s heavy practice load—the grass was usually gone so the team would paint the playing surface green—but some former players wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Even though it was a baseball field, I just felt it was great playing there because that was the essence of being a pro,” said Butkus, who called Wrigley home from 1965-70. “A pro should be able to play at a prairie on the South Side if need be.”

Off the field, the locker rooms were also far from ideal. The Cubs clubhouse back then was a smaller version of the cramped quarters the North Siders call home today. But imagine that room with more people, bigger pads and larger human beings. Butkus joked the rooms were probably too small for a basketball team. Still, he believed it was a better situation than what the visiting teams had to deal with.

“I don’t think they were too happy with the field when they played here,” Butkus said. “I really don’t think the opposing team liked walking down from their locker room, with those screens there [and] with everybody yelling and throwing [stuff] at them.”
That’s home-field advantage at its Chicago best.

* * * *
Despite the stadium’s shortcomings, there was no shortage of great play on the field. One of the best individual performances in NFL history occurred at the Friendly Confines on Dec. 12, 1965, when Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers tied an NFL record with six touchdowns in a single game. All day long, he wove in and out of a hapless 49ers defense that had a difficult time keeping its footing in the heavy mud.

“It was my game, it’s as simple as that,” Sayers said. “I’ve always said, and I’ll continue to say, ‘God gave me a gift to go out there and run with the football,’ and that’s what I did. I probably could have scored 10 touchdowns that day, but, hey, the time ran out. It’s just a day that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Another notable performance on the Wrigley Field turf occurred in December 1963, when the Bears—led by quarterback Billy Wade and standout tight end Mike Ditka—wrapped up the NFL championship with a 14-10 win over the Giants. It marked the last time a Chicago team claimed a title at Wrigley Field.

Eventually, as the game grew, football became too big for the cozy confines of a baseball stadium. Attendance continued to soar, and the small ballpark was unable to expand to meet demand. In 1970, it was announced that the next fall’s season would be the last at the facility. While Wrigley Field generally held slightly less than 37,000 fans for baseball, the Bears drew at least 40,000 to each of their final 56 games there, a stretch that began on Dec. 16, 1962.

“There are a couple of reasons why they left,” Hartig explained. “The NFL wanted bigger stadiums, and the park just couldn’t do it. In addition, the NFL … got more into television coverage. They wanted cameras in the end zone, and there wasn’t really room for it [at Wrigley Field]. And the end zone was dangerous.”

On May 13, 1971, the Bears announced Soldier Field would become the organization’s new home. The bigger stadium held 52,000 fans—8,000 more than Wrigley held at capacity—and was much more prepared for the NFL’s massive growth. Despite the new venue, it wasn’t a hit with all the players.

“I really enjoyed playing [at Wrigley Field]. I thought it was better than going to Soldier Field the first couple years,” said Butkus, who spent three seasons at the Bears’ current home. “They put in the damn Astroturf, and in the locker room over there, you can see the beams holding up the stadium. It was ready to cave in at any moment, it looked like.”

The Bears have long had a reputation as a gritty, smashmouth football team. And while Soldier Field is packed with its own history, much of the dirt and grit that defined the organization’s early years first manifested at the corner of Clark and Addison.

“I enjoyed playing here at Wrigley Field,” Sayers said. “I’ve always said it was 50 yards wide and 100 yards long, and that’s all I needed.”

Cubs blue, Wildcats purple

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for INSIDE THE IVY LOGO.jpgLooking up at the scoreboard, where there normally would be a line score for a Cubs game, it read: NOVEMBER 20 2010.

Most of the men wearing suits had purple ties accompanying them. Northwestern University flags flew above the scoreboard along side the United States flag.

On either foul pole, purple mixed with yellow, as Northwestern flags flew where Billy, Ryno, Fergie/Greg, Ernie and Ron usually fly.

Even on the podium the Northwestern logo had supplanted the Cubs logo. In the center of the stage sat two Northwestern football helmets and a football. The flavor of the morning was unmistakable.

NW helmets 2.jpgIt was announced today at a press conference this morning that Northwestern football would host the University of Illinois at Wrigley Field on Nov. 20 at 11 am CST. It marks the first college game played at Wrigley Field since 1938. 

Some dignitaries attending the event were the Bears’ matriarch Virginia McCaskey and her son, Brian, Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, two Northwestern players–quarterback Dan Persa and lineman Corbin Bryant, as well as former Bears players Ronnie Bull and Mike Adamle. Northwestern football radio play-by-play man and longtime WGN sports director Dave Eanet emceed the event.

NW Ricketts McCaskey.jpgDown in the Cubs clubhouse, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts presented Virginia and Brian McCaskey with a framed print of Wrigley Field’s marquee welcoming back Virginia to the park where her Bears played so many games.

This will be the first time in more than 87 years that Northwestern and Illinois will play at Wrigley Field.

On Oct. 27, 1923, the Wildcats and the Illini squared off at the Friendly Confines (then called Cubs Park) in front of 32,000 fans.

–Mike Huang

Five minutes with…Mike Ditka

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for FIVE MINUTES LOGO    I was 15 when the 1985 Chicago Bears hoisted their head coach up into the air after crushing the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX..

Now I was having “Da Pork Chop” with Da Coach.

At his steakhouse “Ditka’s” just off the Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago, Mike Ditka was kind enough to offer about an hour of his day and allow me to catch up with him.

He’s got his own line of cigars and a new line of gourmet wines, the restaurant chain and does color commentary for ESPN during football season. He’s been heavily involved with GridironGreats.com, a charitable group that helps disabled ex-NFL football players. And not surprisingly, he speaks just as fast as his schedule moves.

He’s a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame and also a former guest conductor of Wrigley Field’s own seventh-inning stretch. While the latter probably runs a distant third to the two other honors, Da Coach has fond memories of singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Vine Line: So Coach, when are we going to see you back in the press box helping us conduct the seventh-inning stretch? It’s been a while.

Mike Ditka: Aw, I’ve done it plenty of times, nobody wants to hear me sing anymore.

VL: I’m not so sure about that. C’mon you could just wear a shirt or a hat like Ernie Banks does and it’s right there on TV–your wines or your cigars…

MD: Hey, we got a clothing line, too, ya know.

VL: See? What do you say? We’d love to have you back.

MD: Well, let’s see. Have the Cubs call me and maybe. But the last time I did it, I nearly had a heart attack.

VL: That’s right! I remember that. What happened?

MD: We were late getting to the ballpark. I can’t remember if it was bad traffic or we were just coming back from something. I get to Wrigley, and it’s the top of the seventh already. So we

ditkaweb.jpg run up the ramps, darn near sprinting and by the time I get there, the organ’s already playing. I was running fast–and I don’t run anymore, you know–so I just kept singing fast. Some people said they didn’t like it, so what. I was out of breath.

VL: Does coming back to Wrigley Field bring back memories? What was it like to play football at Wrigley Field? [Editor's note: The Bears played at Wrigley Field from 1921-70.] 

MD: It was great. Everything was so close. The field ran from the leftfield wall to the visitors dugout. Man, a lot of guys took a dive into that dugout after scoring touchdowns. They built these temporary bleachers in rightfield and man, it felt like people were right on top of you.

VL: What is your fondest memory?

MD: Winning the 1963 NFL Championship. We beat the New York Giants. They were a good team, but we were a good team, so it wasn’t a good game because we just cancelled each other out. But I loved winning that championship….Hey, you want some lunch?

VL: No, Coach, you don’t have to do that.

MD: Nah, you gotta eat, kid. Have Da Pork Chop. It’s great.

–Mike Huang

 

Five minutes with….Oneri Fleita

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for FIVE MINUTES LOGOThe story goes something like this:

George Halas, looking for a suitable name for his football club, the Staleys, saw that sportswriters were calling the Chicago National League Ball Club, the Cubs. Halas liked the name so much and wanting to keep some continuity to the city’s mascots, briefly decided he’d rename his Staleys the Cubs, as well. But then it occurred to him–if baseball players are Cubs, and his football players were significantly larger than baseball players, wouldn’t that make them Bears?

And the rest is history.

About a month ago, Cubs VP of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita (below) was in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, the annual evaluation of college football’s top players. It is here where NFL teams put into empircal data the skills and physical attributes of players into whom they
FLEITA O 05180746.JPGmight be investing millions of dollars. It is also where Fleita saw first-hand the vast
disparity in just sheer size between his baseball players and these football players.

I guess Halas was right.

Fleita was there as a guest, a precursor visit to his real objective–the NFL pre-camp workouts. He was interested to perhaps glean some player development techniques, exercises or programs he could install into the Cubs farm system. With the NFL Draft on the near horizon, the Combine acts as a clearing house of scouting information and Fleita came away impressed.

Vine Line: I overheard at Spring Training that you had attended the NFL Scouting Combine. What was that like? 
Oneri Fleita: Well, the first thing I was thinking was I wish we could get some of these great athletes out on the diamond to hit a round ball with a round bat squarely. These guys were really impressive athletes. Elite. We have to get more of these kind of guys playing baseball.

VLWhat were the differences or similarities between scouting techniques used for baseball and those used for football?
OF: I’d probably compare the scouting methods comparble to what we do in the Dominican Republic in the sense that we really can’t go to see a lot of high school games or college games. It’s a lot more of open tryouts, physical tests like making guys run the 60 [yard dash]
bench.jpgand time them or put them through some agility drills like catching fly balls, ground balls, those kinds of things. Pitchers throwing a bullpen would be similar to what the Combine did with quarterbacks and having them throw to receivers running pass patterns or through targets.

VL: Are football scouting staffs smaller or larger in size than baseball scouting staffs?
OF: 
Well, baseball staffs are much larger. Football guys are scouting mainly at college games because for them, college is like their minor leagues. But there aren’t that many games in a season. What, maybe 14, 15 games? Our guys easily see over a hundred games between minor-leagues, high school, college and the majors. So I think the Combine allows
jump.jpgthe NFL scouts to measure certain things using drills such as speed or strength. I mean, heck, we don’t ever have anyone see how many times they can bench 225 pounds! Seeing some of these guys who look like toothpicks fire it up and down was quite impressive. (Photos by NFL.com) But their scouting reports are very detailed. We don’t measure things like hand size or vertical leap. But they don’t do a lot of projecting like we do. Their guys have to go and step in and play, whereas we’ll try to project maybe a kid will develop a second or third pitch or he’ll get a little bigger. In the NFL, these guys often have to go straight from college to the NFL gridiron.

VL: I guess that’s the big difference between the sports, personnel-wise. The NFL teams don’t have that reserve of guys who have time to learn. Most have to be ready to play now?
OF:
In just listening and observing and understanding what many of the teams have to contend with, things are very tight. They have a salary cap, so their numbers are very tight to where you just can’t carry a lot of guys who aren’t ready to step in and contribute to winning a game every Sunday.

–Mike Huang

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