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A Day In Wrigley Field History: December 29, 1963

The Chicago Bears have won only one championship since this day. Here's the story of their NFL title win 50 years ago.


Think it's cold now in Chicago?

It was 9 degrees at kickoff for the NFL championship game between the Chicago Bears and New York Giants at Wrigley Field, Sunday, December 29, 1963, almost exactly 50 years ago.

It's likely unfathomable to you if you've grown up with the television-centric NFL of today, but before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, pro football was still a secondary sport to baseball. It was thought by NFL owners that they had to "protect" home attendance -- still the source of the bulk of their income, before the huge TV deals of today -- so home games were blacked out in local markets.

Yes, even the NFL championship game. Can you imagine such a scenario today? Here were the Bears, playing a title game at home for the first time in 20 years (the 1946 and 1956 title games were both on the road), and Chicago fans couldn't watch it on local television.

Thus I still have a very strong memory of my dad wrestling with the TV antenna on the roof of our house, adjusting it so we could watch the game via the Milwaukee station that was carrying it. We did get the signal and watched the Bears defeat the Giants 14-10, clinching the victory with Richie Petitbon's interception of a Y.A. Tittle pass in the end zone with only seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. It was the Bears' fifth interception of the game. Can you imagine a Super Bowl ending like that today? A game like that would be legendary.

45,801 jammed Wrigley Field for this game, but what was more interesting was the advent of closed-circuit theater television. I say "theater", but on this day, people gathered not at movie theater to watch the game, but at large arenas, as reported by Thomas Rivera in the Tribune:

More than 26,000 pro football fans enjoyed yesterday's Bear game on closed circuit, theater television in McCormick Place, the Amphitheater in the stock yards, and the Coliseum. 

Best turnout was in McCormick Place where more than 15,000 enthusiastic fans cheered or groaned depending on the Bears' fortunes.

The audiences in the Amphitheater -- some 8,500 -- and the Coliseum -- more than 3,000 -- also seemed to approve of the big screen arrangement, especially in the temperature department.

A very warm chuckle went up in all three locations when Ken Coleman of Cleveland, the Theater Network Television announcer told the audience that, tho it was 9 degrees above zero in Wrigley field at game time, it was a toasty 70 in McCormick Place, 68 in the Amphitheater and 67 in the Coliseum. Bill Osmanski, former Bear star, did the color.

The picture on the big screen was excellent altho there was some trouble with the sound during the first half in McCormick Place where Pete Rozelle, N.F.L. commissioner, watched the first quarter.

Loudspeakers blared band music while the crowds filed in as soon as the doors opened at 11 a.m. Vendors did a brisk business in the Amphitheater and Coliseum until the big picture flashed on the screen exactly at noon.

The capacity crowd in McCormick Place had to wait until intermission to whet its whistle at the bars set up in the corridor outside the big main hall. Vendors moved through the crowds at the other two sites.

That really is a bygone piece of Chicago, and American, history. No one has showings like that any more, not of sports events like a championship game, anyway. During the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup runs in the early 1970s, theater showings were arranged because of the Wirtzes' refusal to televise home games, even championship-round games. Bears fans used to drive to South Bend, Indiana, where motels offered special "Bears Sunday" deals, to watch home games, until the NFL finally lifted home-game blackouts in 1972, if games sold out 72 hours in advance.

None of the 1963 buildings where those thousands of people watched the Bears beat the Giants exists today. The McCormick Place of 1963 burned down in a fire in January 1967; the current McCormick Place was built on the same site. The Chicago Coliseum closed in 1971 and was demolished in 1982. The Amphitheater, better known by its official name, the "International Amphitheater", host of numerous political conventions, the Chicago Cougars of the World Hockey Association and the first season of the Chicago Bulls, was torn down in 1999.

And the Bears have won just one championship, the Super Bowl following the 1985 season, since that frozen 1963 title game at Wrigley Field.