Grave Story: George Halas (1895-1983)

Here lies George Halas – better known as “Papa Bear.” He is the founder of the Chicago Bears, its longest tenured owner and coach, and arguably one of the more important figures in the history of professional football. So why are we talking about him on a baseball history website? Because before George Halas made football history, he was an outfielder for the New York Yankees in 1919 – for a total of 12 games.

George Stanley Halas was born in Chicago on February 2, 1895. He would become known later in life for his business acumen and coaching abilities, but Halas was an exceptional athlete. He played baseball at Crane High School – indoor baseball, that is. Crane beat Medill High to win the Cook County Indoor Baseball League in 1911, and Halas was the hitting star of the championship game. He singled and tripled in the game, scoring the first run of the 4-2 victory. He also earned a standing ovation for a beautiful catch in center field. He wasn’t the only baseball player in the family – older brother Frank pitched semipro ball in the Knights of Columbus League in Chicago, and George frequently played the field while his older brother pitched. Another brother, Walter, also pitched and was college teammates with George at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before a brief minor-league career.

The Halas Mausoleum at St. Adalbert Cemetery, Niles, Ill.

George Halas excelled at baseball, but he was equally great at football, too. Football, though, wasn’t as kind to Halas as baseball was. While he was attending Illinois in 1915, he was an unfortunate inductee into the “Order of the Broken Jaw,” along with quarterback Potsy Clark. Halas, an end, broke his jaw in two places, topping Clark’s one fracture. All things considered, though, Halas got off easy with just a fractured jaw that year. But for a delay in his schedule, he could have died.

During the summer, Halas worked for Western Electric in Chicago. That July, the company organized a picnic for its employees in Michigan City, Ind. Several boats were arranged to ferry employees and their families to the festivities. On July 24, 1915, employees went to the Clark Street Bridge to board the S.S. Eastland. More than 2,500 people were on the Eastland, and without warning, the boat rocked and then rolled into its side, trapping hundreds of people below the water line in the Chicago River. A total of 844 people died, including entire families. Many drowned, while others were struck or crushed by furniture and other falling debris. It remains the worst maritime disaster within the borders of the United States. Throughout Chicago, you can visit cemeteries where entire sections of grave markers mark the same date of death. The scene was so chaotic that the Chicago Tribune could scarcely keep up with the news. There were the ongoing rescue efforts, the legal recriminations and the list of identified dead. On July 27, the Tribune ran a list of Western Electric employees who were missing and presumed dead. On the list was “Halas, G.S., Dept. 4110.”

Obviously, Halas was not on the Eastland. He played on Western Electric’s sports teams and was to play baseball at the picnic, but he arrived at the Clark Street Bridge late. The boat had already overturned. “Two of his fraternity brothers from the University of Illinois read the newspaper with his name in the list, and they came to my grandfather’s home to express condolences to my grandfather’s mother,” grandson Patrick McCaskey told the Tribune in 2019. “They were very delighted and surprised when my grandfather answered the door.”

Source: The Nebraska State Journal, June 10, 1919.

Why was he late? Patrick McCaskey said that his grandfather was concerned about putting on enough weight to play football at U of I in the fall, so his brother took extra time weighing him that morning.

The Illinois baseball team of 1916, with Walter Halas as a pitcher and George in right field, was considered one of the best in the school’s history and won a conference championship. The Davenport team of the Three Eye League tabbed him as a reserve for the 1917 season. Halas was also named captain of the Illini basketball team in March of 1917. He kept having back luck in football, though. He recovered from the broken jaw only to be sidelined by a broken ankle in 1916.

The Chicago White Sox attempted to sign Halas for the 1918 season, but he refused to sign until he graduated in the spring. However, graduation would have to wait, as he enlisted in the Navy right after the New Year. He was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Station and continued to play whatever sports he could. In fact, Great Lakes developed something of a juggernaut football program, with Halas in the backfield, quarterback Paddy Driscoll from Northwestern and All-American tackle Lee Bachman from Notre Dame among its college players. The team blanked the Purdue Boilermakers 27-0 in December of 1918, with Halas catching a touchdown pass from Driscoll.

That mighty football team played its final game on New Year’s Day in 1919 before breaking up. Driscoll, who would have his own Hall of Fame career in pro football, was signed by the Chicago Cubs, and Halas was signed by the New York Yankees and scout Bob Connery.

Halas joined the Yankees’ training camp after receiving his discharge from the Navy in March of 1919, and he immediately fit into the team’s plans as an outfielder. Manager Miller Huggins also tried Halas out at first base, but the problem was that Halas threw the ball so hard that the other infielders were soon begging for help. Huggins let it be known he would use the switch-hitting outfielder as his leadoff hitter – a rare accomplishment for a rookie. “He is swift of foot and is a heady and proficient base runner,” read the newspaper reports. “He covers lots of ground in the outfield and, best of all, he has a world of enthusiasm for the game. As a batsman Halas has his faults, but he can sting the ball hard, and the defects in style which Huggins has discovered can easily be adjusted.”

“Of course I do not know just how he will act against American League pitching, but if I am a judge of a ballplayer Halas is a star,” the manager added.

George Halas as a member of the Decatur Staleys. Source: Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1968.

Had the 1919 season gone the way Huggins and Halas had hoped, the rookie would have been the everyday starting right fielder in an outfield with Ping Bodie in center field and Duffy Lewis in left field. Unfortunately, Halas suffered a spring training injury right before Opening Day. “Rube Marquard, then with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was pitching against us in an exhibition game in Jacksonville,” he recalled many years later. “I knew Marquard wouldn’t waste a curve on a busher like me that early in the year, so I laid for the fastball and hit it for a triple. Hurt the hip sliding into third base.”

His injury kept him out of the starting lineup until May 6, the Yankees’ ninth game of the year. He led off and played right field against the Philadelphia Athletics, and he singled off starter Scott Perry in 4 at-bats. He got another start against the A’s on May 8 and singled off Bob Geary. Those were the only two hits he would collect in the major leagues, unfortunately.

Halas started against Washington on May 11 and 12 and went a combined 0-for-9 with 5 strikeouts. After that, Sammy Vick got the majority of the starts in right field, and Halas was mainly used as a pinch-hitter or runner. In his final game on July 5 against the Senators, he played center field as part of a double switch and struck out in his only at-bat. He was then sent to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association to learn the game from the renowned manager Mike Kelley. In 39 games there, he batted .274 but didn’t show much power, with just 2 doubles and a triple among his 23 hits. The Yankees released him to the Saints in February of 1920, but it was largely a meaningless gesture. Halas already had left professional baseball to pursue other endeavors in sports. New York did alright finding a new right fielder. After all, the team had acquired Babe Ruth a couple of months prior.

In 12 games with the Yankees, Halas had 2 hits in 22 at-bats for an .091 batting average. He struck out 8 times. He didn’t commit an error in the field, with 8 putouts in 40 innings in right field. His time in professional baseball was brief, but those other endeavors I mentioned above? They kept him busy until his dying day.

The Decatur Staleys were an independent football team founded by A.E. Staley, a businessman in the food starch industry. He organized several sports teams for his employees, and he brought in some pretty impressive athletes to run them. “Iron” Joe McGinnity, for instance, was manager of the baseball team. Staley hired Halas to lead the football team as well as play baseball and basketball, and he immediately set to work to make the Decatur Staleys something much more than a company football team. A.E. Staley Co. superintendent G.E. Chamberlain announced the hiring of Paddy Driscoll on July 26, 1920, but it was Halas’ credit in securing one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. Along with halfback Dutch Sternaman, the Staleys were the top team in the new American Professional Football Association. Halas was part of the original meeting for the APFA, held in a car dealership in Akron. The executives famously sat on the running boards of the cars in the showroom because they couldn’t all fit in the office. The Staleys went 10-1-2 on the season, with 10 shutouts. The season ended in a 0-0 tie with Akron at Cubs Park (Wrigley Field) in Chicago, in front of 12,000 fans.

George Halas celebrates with his Bears team after a 73-0 win over Washington. Source: The Courier (Louisville, Ky.), December 9, 1940.

Halas was promoted to athletic director of the Staleys in 1921. He saw bigger things than a company football team, but Staley was not in the sporting business. For $5,000, he sold the team to Halas, provided it kept his name for one year. Halas moved the football team to Chicago and, after a season as the Chicago Staleys, gave them a new name – the Bears. He served as a player-coach and scored 10 touchdowns in his career, including two fumble recoveries while on defense. His playing career petered out around 1928, when he was 33 years old. By then, though, football had become larger than he had ever imagined. The league had renamed itself the National Football League and showed that baseball wasn’t the only sport capable of becoming a sustainable professional sports league. Halas tried to duplicate that feat with a pro basketball league, and he founded a Chicago club called the Bruins. However, the league and Chicago’s first pro basketball team ended up as casualties of the Great Depression. The Bears struggled as well, but Halas ran enough businesses on the side that he was able to fund the football team, even when it was losing money.

Halas helped to give the fledgling football league nationwide credibility when he signed University of Illinois star Harold “Red” Grange, one of the greatest college football players of the era. Bears fans would also note that the signing kicked off a team tradition of underpaying for players whenever possible. “I know that several eastern teams have offered him $40,000 to play three games,” Halas said as he was denying rumors of the signing. “We cannot meet this figure, but most of the men on our team are former University of Illinois players and I am hopeful that sentimental considerations will cause Grange to play with us for a smaller figure.”

Over the ensuing years, the NFL continued to evolve and change, and Halas was there to champion necessary rule changes. Along the way, he kept the team competitive. Between 1920-1950, the team had only one losing season. The Bears won NFL championships in 1933, 1940 and ’41. The 1940 championship game is the infamous 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins, which is still the most lopsided victory in NFL history. Halas left the Bears in 1942 to enlist in the Navy, and he served until 1946. When he returned that year, be once again named himself coach and led the Bears to another championship.

Halas was devoted to marketing football – not just the Bears, but the NFL in general. By the 1940s the league was drawing crowds that had baseball owners envious. “We’ve just begun to grow,” he said in 1944. “After the war we’ll really get out of our swaddling clothes. Great players, great teams will make pro football the biggest thing in the American sporting scene.”

Halas took time off from coaching for a couple of seasons but returned in 1958, when he was 63 years old. He won his final championship as a coach in 1963, when he guided the Bears to an 11-1-2 record. He was one of the last surviving founders of the NFL and the last one still active in the game. When the Bears rallied to beat the New York Giants 14-10 in the championship game, Halas praised his players, his coaches and the Giants. His players praised him, though. Mike Ditka, then a tight end, gave Halas a big handshake and told him, “You did it for us, coach.”

Souce: San Francisco Examiner, March 3, 1944.

For all his efforts in marketing the league, Halas marketed himself very little. Many of his philanthropic efforts were behind the scenes, and he didn’t seek out the spotlight. When the Chicago Press Club named him “Chicagoan of the Year” in 1963, he was hesitant at first. “I don’t know – you’re putting me up there in pretty fast company,” he said, according to Tribune columnist David Condon.

That same year, Halas was inducted into the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His short speech mainly consisted of references to his fellow founders and other greats from the game’s past, and not his own role in it. “To all of you who have contributed so much to the realization of this Hall of Fame, you people of Canton, Mr. Umstattd [William Umstattd, a Canton businessman who helped bring the Hall of Fame to town], and all the rest of you, let me say for all the Chicago Bears right from the original Staley’s in 1920 down to the 1963, just two heartfelt words. Thank you,” he concluded.

Halas retired as head coach on May 27, 1968 – the same say that the National League announced it was expanding into San Diego and Montreal. He was 73 years old at the time and suffering from very painful arthritis. He said that toward the end of his final season, he “started rushing after the referee who was pacing off a penalty and it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t gaining on him. I began to wonder whether the officials were speeding up or I was slowing down.”

Halas has a career record of 318-148-31, with 6 championship titles. He remained the Bears owner, but the team fell on hard times in the 1970s. It’s fair to question if the game had passed him by at that point. The Bears had one of the greatest running backs of all-time in Walter Payton, but the team finished the decade with a record of 67-92-1. The quarterback was becoming the most important position on the field, but the Bears never found their franchise quarterback. Until relatively recent times, the Bear’s all-time quarterback was Sid Luckman, who played for Halas back in the 1940s. Halas, who could be generous on civic matters, kept the Bears running through the early years by pinching pennies, and it’s not a habit he ever forgot. That attitude doesn’t necessarily lead to championships or satisfied fans.

Halas with quarterback Sid Luckman. Source: Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1983.

Halas started to put the pieces together for the Bears’ next championship team. Following a petition by his defensive players, he kept Buddy Ryan as the team’s defensive coordinator, and he hired Mike Ditka as his head coach. During this time, he actually took back some of the power he had ceded to outside personnel, like team president Jim Finks. He continued to work six days a week at the office – including Saturdays.

“I’ll never retire,” Halas vowed in a 1982 interview. “I thought about it just once in my life. That’s when I was 20 years old. I told myself I’d work hard so I could retire when I was 45. Of course that’s when I was goofy. Once I get over this gimpy leg, I’ll be able to put in a full day.” (The gimpy leg was a lingering after-effect from his old baseball injury).

Halas never got to see the Bears in the Super Bowl. He was diagnosed with cancer and other ailments and died on October 31, 1983, at the age of 88. The Bears beat Philadelphia in the last game he ever watched, 7-6. Tributes poured in from across the football world, honoring the man who was generally acknowledged as the father of professional football.

“He was the National Football League,” said Commissioner Pete Rozelle. “Perhaps the greatest tribute to him is that our game has assumed many of the characteristics of George himself – wisdom and creativity, vitality and endurance and that singular trait of all athletes – competitiveness.”

George Halas is buried in the family mausoleum in St. Adalbert Cemetery, in Niles, Ill.

Halas married Miss Minnie E. Bushing on February 18, 1922, in Chicago, and they remained together until her death in 1966. They had five children, several of whom held positions in Bears’ management. His son George “Mugs” Jr., who had been designated as the heir apparent of the Bears, died of a heart attack in 1979. The last surviving child, Virginia Halas McCaskey, is 99 years old as of this writing and is still the team’s principal owner.

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