The National Football League has started its second century as the gridiron world’s highest achievable professional level. Formed in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association (APFA), it rebranded itself in 1922 as the NFL. Going back to the APFA’s birth, George Halas has been football’s most prominent and creative head coach. Moreover, had George Herman “Babe” Ruth not been slamming baseballs into outer space, Halas might have been the New York Yankees’ regular right fielder.
Halas’ success as a head coach began in 1921 when he led the Chicago Staleys to a 10–7 victory over the Buffalo All-Americans in an end-of-season league championship contest. For the next half-century, Halas was a player, head coach, owner and front office executive. Most well-known for leading the Chicago Bears, the “Monsters of the Midway,” to eight NFL titles, Halas also took credit for renaming his team. Halas had a close personal relationship with Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley. In rebranding the Staleys, Halas concluded that since football players are much bigger than baseball’s Cubs, they must be “Bears.”
But Halas’ long run as NFL icon may never have happened — or would have been delayed by a decade or so — if he had won a New York Yankees’ starting outfield slot. The Yankees had been following Halas’ baseball career since his junior year at the University of Illinois. A three major sports star, Halas played end on the football team, could shoot a basketball and starred on the baseball team, where he hit for average, knew his way around the basepaths, and excelled in the outfield. Halas hit .350 during his sophomore season, good enough to impress Yankees’ scout Bob Connery, who invited him to join the Yankees at spring training. Halas declined, but promised to keep in touch after he earned his university engineering degree. Then, World War I intervened, and Halas enlisted in the Navy.
Discharged after the war, Halas honored his pledge to Connery, signing with the Yankees for a $500 bonus and a $400 monthly salary. Earlier, Illinois awarded Halas his diploma as a tribute for his war service. His college education completed, in the spring of 1919, Halas reported to the Yankees where he made an immediate impression. The New York Times scouting report: “He is swift afoot and is a heady and proficient base runner. He covers a lot of ground in the outfield, and best of all he is a world of enthusiasm for the game.”
But from the outset, Halas had cursed luck. In a spring training game, batting against the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer Rube Marquard, Halas, trying to stretch a double into a triple, injured his hip sliding hard into third, which put him out of commission for the season’s first few months. As Halas recalled: “That slide was the beginning of the end of my baseball career.” Halas’ bum hip slowly healed. In May 1919, he led off against the Philadelphia A’s and connected for his first hit, one of only two singles in his brief MLB career. In 22 at-bats, Halas hit .091 and was demoted to the AAA St. Paul Saints. By 1920, Ruth, a blossoming superstar, was a Yankee, and Halas was embroiled in a contract dispute with the Saints. Halas then accepted an offer from the A.E. Staley Co. to form football’s best semi-pro team.
Halas lived a rich and rewarding life. Not only did Halas co-create the NFL, but he also compiled a .671 professional coaching record and was named an All-Pro end. He served in World Wars I and II, earned the rank of Captain and was awarded a Bronze Star. With his unique T-formation, Halas’ 1940 Bears trounced the Washington Redskins 73–0 in history’s most lopsided NFL Championship game. And, however briefly, Halas proudly wore a Yankees’ uniform.
In 1983, at age 88, “Papa Bear,” as Halas was lovingly called, died after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, one of his few losing fights.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.