A Day In Wrigley Field History: October 16, 1921

SDN-065677, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

The Chicago Bears played at Wrigley Field for 50 years. Here's the story of the very first football game played at Wrigley, then known as "Cubs Park."

You need look no farther than the photo at the top of this post to understand how different professional football was in 1921 than it is today.

Leather helmets. Not very much padding. Beyond that, pro football was in its infancy in 1921, so much so that the league wasn't even called the National Football League The then-American Pro Football Association had 21 members -- but as more of a loose association than an actual league with set schedules, games were played by mutual agreement between the teams. Some of the 21 teams, including the charmingly-named Cincinnati Celts, Tonawanda Kardex, Muncie Flyers and Louisville Brecks, played just a couple of games. College football was far more popular.

And then there were the Chicago Staleys, the predecessor to the team we now know as the Bears. Founded the previous year in downstate Decatur by car dealership owner A.E. Staley (thus the name), control of the team was turned over to George Halas and his then-partner Dutch Sternaman in 1921. Halas, still a player then, also became head coach and made a deal with the Cubs to move the team to Chicago and play games in what was then known as "Cubs Park."

Thus the very first home professional football game involving the team we now know as the Bears at the park we now know as Wrigley Field was played October 16, 1921, between the Staleys and the Rochester Jeffersons. Here's the recap from the Tribune; it's a sign of how little was thought of pro football in those days that the article didn't even have a writer's name attached (note that the article still refers to the team as being from Decatur):

Despite the brilliant playing of Howard Berry, former University of Pennsylvania athlete, who scored all the points for the visitors, Staleys of Decatur came from behind and defeated Rochester in an interesting football game at Cubs park, 16 to 13.

Rochester secured an early lead when Berry made a drop kick from the 23 yard line in the first quarter. Staleys evened the count in the second quarter, when "Dutch" Sternaman booted the oval between the posts from placement at the 30 yard line.

Shortly after the second half, Staleys forced the oval to Rochester's 10 yard line. They were held on two attempts and on the third down, Berry intercepted a forward pass and sprinted 85 yards for the touchdown. He then kicked the goal.

Staleys then set to work. They forced the ball well into Rochester territory, but lost it on a fumble. Berry elected to punt. The first kicking attempt was blocked, but Berry recovered the ball for his team. On his second effort, Trafton broke through and blocked the punt. Scott fell on the oval back of the goal for the Staleys' first touchdown.

In the fourth quarter Staleys called the passing game into commission and after a few attempts, which went wide of their intended marks, Huffine shot a 35 yard forward to Hinchcomb, who was stopped on the Rochester 85 yard line. A successful attack was made on the visitors' line, which resulted in Huffine driving through the right side for the winning touchdown.

The game was hard fought and cleanly played. A crowd of 8,000 fans was on hand.

A few notes on that recap, which appears to describe a very different game than the football we know today:

  • Berry clearly played both offense and defense (and kicked, too). This was common before World War II; the last "two-way" player was Chuck Bednarik, who retired in 1960.
  • "Kick from placement" is a field-goal attempt.
  • I'm not entirely sure what an "85 yard line" is, but that's the way it appeared in the original article. It might be a typo and instead mean "8-yard line" or "5-yard line"; either of those would make more sense in context.
  • "Kicked the goal" refers to what we'd now call an extra point kick.
  • Drop kicks were common in the NFL's early days; before 2006, when Doug Flutie, then with the Patriots, converted one successfully, the last successful drop kick in the league had been by Scooter McLean of the Bears in 1941.
  • You can see how unusual the passing game was still seen in 1921, just 16 years after the forward pass was legalized.

The Staleys finished 9-1-1 in 1921. The following year, 1922, the NFL was formed and the Staleys renamed the Chicago Bears, in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Cubs (quite a number of NFL teams did this in its early years; it's why we still have the New York Giants, once known as "New York football Giants" when MLB's Giants still played in New York).

The Bears (including their year as the Staleys) played 344 games at Wrigley Field through 1970. For many years that was the record for most games at a single stadium; it's since been passed by the original Giants Stadium and Candlestick Park, among others, and soon will be passed by Lambeau Field.

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