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Wrigley Field historical sleuthing: Chicago Bears edition

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It’s NFL Sunday, so why not?

The Chicago Bears aren’t having a great season. This, you already know. They’ll be in action against the San Francisco 49ers this afternoon at Soldier Field hoping to improve on a 3-4 record.

This photo, of course, dates from the Bears’ days at Wrigley Field, where they played through 1970. For many years Wrigley was the answer to the trivia question: “Which stadium hosted the most NFL games?” Of course, now 51 years after the last NFL game there, Wrigley ranks 11th with 339. The original Giants Stadium in New Jersey is first with 492; Soldier Field currently ranks second with 439.

Back to the photo: It’s one of the clearest closeup images I’ve seen of the temporary bleachers the Bears placed in right field at Wrigley — the football field ran from the left-field wall to the first-base dugout — so they could squeeze more fans into a ballpark that, back in the day, seated only around 36,000.

I had never before seen a closeup view of the stairs that led from field level to those temporary bleachers, but there they are. It would have been the only way to get to those seats, as they were not connected to the bleachers or any other part of the Wrigley seating area. I also well remember that the grass beneath those temporary bleachers was not treated well by their presence and that the right field grass at Wrigley often looked brown in April when baseball began, back in the 1960s.

Anyway, when was this photo taken? For now I’m going to assume it was taken at 10:10 a.m. on a game day — otherwise why would a photographer have been there?

First, this was clearly taken before 1960. Two things tell you that. First, the scoreboard is set up for only 16 baseball teams, the MLB limit before 1961. Second, it says “CARDS” at the top right of the board. That would have been for the CHICAGO Cardinals before they moved to St. Louis. As was the case for the White Sox, posted as “SOX” before the board was repainted in the 1980s, in those days the Bears kindly treated their crosstown rivals by putting their team name instead of “CHICAGO” on the board. The Cardinals moved to St. Louis in 1960, thus this photo has to be from 1959 or earlier.

I could have looked for all games prior to 1960 when the Bears hosted the Baltimore Colts, but there’s a better clue. At the bottom of the board it says “GREEN BAY NOV. 6”. Before the board was expanded to 24 teams in 1969, the Cubs put lists of upcoming home dates on the bottom row and so did the Bears.

There’s only one date that matches “GREEN BAY NOV. 6” where there would have also been Baltimore Colts visiting Wrigley. That’s in 1955. The Colts were at Wrigley to face the Bears Sunday, October 16, 1955, and all the other games that day match the board, so that’s when this photo was taken.

The Bears won that game 38-10, their first win after an 0-3 start, and it was witnessed by 40,184 at Wrigley Field. George Blanda — who would later go on to more fame with the Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders — was the quarterback. He threw a touchdown pass, kicked a field goal and also kicked five extra points. George Halas, though, never saw Blanda as more than a kicker, so Blanda retired at age 31 after the 1958 season. He came out of retirement when the American Football League was created and played 16 (!) more seasons as a quarterback and kicker, making the Pro Bowl four times and eventually being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after becoming the oldest-ever NFL player, playing until age 48. Blanda died in 2010 and his New York Times obituary says of his Bears years:

Halas never warmed up to Blanda as a quarterback, and Blanda spent the first decade of his career mostly as a kicker. He started as a quarterback for one season, 1953, but lost the job because of an injury.

In any case, he and Halas never got along. “He was too cheap to even buy me a kicking shoe,” Blanda once said.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (Run it through Google Translate if you don’t know what this means.)