A Day In Wrigley Field History: September 15, 1968

Brian Piccolo - Diamond Images

The Chicago Bears did something on this day that they hadn't done in almost 30 years.

After the NFL and the Chicago Bears became more popular in the 1940s and 1950s, George Halas & Co. would set up bleachers on right field at Wrigley Field in order to squeeze in as many fans as they could. The temporary seating increased the football capacity at Wrigley to about 46,000, and the Bears would frequently sell out.

The problem with this is that those bleachers weren't portable -- once they were set up, they had to stay there for the balance of the football season. Thus, the Bears couldn't play any home games at Wrigley Field until the baseball season was over.

Until 1961, this wasn't a huge issue. The NFL season was just 12 games long until 1961, and often began the last weekend of September. Thus, though the Bears usually had to start on the road, they played at most two road games to begin their season.

When the NFL expanded by two teams in 1961, they also expanded the schedule to 14 games, and had to start two weeks earlier. This meant that the Bears had to play at least three, and in 1961, 1962 and 1964, four games on the road before they played a home game.

As the NFL and AFL prepared for their merger in 1970, the league began to mandate that all teams had to play at least one of their first three games at home. With baseball schedules also expanding from 154 to 162 games, this led to inevitable conflicts.

With that in mind, the Bears played their season opener at home at Wrigley Field in 1968, the first time they had done so since 1939, a time when they didn't need the 5,000 extra seats that the right-field temporary bleachers provided.

In 1968, they did, and though they managed to schedule the September 15 opener at home, the fact that the 1968 Cubs had not completed their home schedule meant that the Bears couldn't put the temporary seating in right field.

Here's how Cooper Rollow reported on the game in the Tribune:

This was the opener the Chicago Bears had to win. They wanted to win it so badly that they took a loss of 5,000 paying customers in order to open at home in Wrigley field to cheers rather on the road to jeers.

The inaugural opponent was one of the National Football league's patsies -- weak sister Washington of the Eastern conference.

So what happened? Final score: Redskins, 38; Bears, 28. And once again, the Bears are off to a stuttering start in the violent jungle of National league football. Once again, they must commence the long championship trek walking uphill.

Some 46,000 fans would have been on hand if the east stands had not had to be left down in deference to the baseball Cubs, who still have five home games to play. The 41,321 Bear loyalists who managed to gain admittance into the old North side ball park saw an exciting game -- more exciting than many that have been played here in recent years.

The Redskins were a really bad team in that era; they had not had a winning season since 1955 and not been in the playoffs since 1945 (sound familiar)? But Sonny Jurgensen, the quarterback who threw four touchdown passes that day, would be at the helm as the Redskins became a good team for much of the 1970s, led by former Bears assistant George Allen, who had been unceremoniously dismissed by George Halas a couple of years earlier. Instead, with Halas' retirement as coach after 1967, the hapless Jim Dooley was named coach. Dooley lasted just four seasons, posting a 20-36 record, before he was fired and replaced by Abe Gibron, who was worse.

The 1968 Bears had a chance to make the playoffs in their final game against the Packers, just as they did this past Sunday. Trailing 28-10, a furious fourth-quarter rally fell one point short, and the '68 Bears lost 28-27 to finish 7-7. Sound familiar?

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