The National Football League is the most profitable and powerful sports league in North America. It makes and spends billions of dollars each year. It is as American as hot dogs and apple pie, and its championship, the Super Bowl, is the most watched television show in America. However, the NFL was almost over before it began in the early 1920s. Thanks to a November signing in 1925, Bears owner George Halas took a gamble in signing the “Galloping Ghost,” Red Grange. The resulting 19 game barnstorming tour changed the fortunes of the new league and marked a turning point in the NFL.
In the early 1900s, aside from baseball, college football was king. People felt more allegiance to their local colleges than they did any of the many semi-pro teams. There were a few leagues centered in Illinois, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In the late teens, players had the upper hand. They could play one team off another in different leagues. Some leagues even raided the local colleges for players. No draft existed. As a result, the leagues began to coalesce in order to gain control over their rosters and expenses. In 1920, the American Professional Football Conference was born with teams from Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Dayton from Ohio; the Hammond Pros and Muncie Flyers from Indiana; the Rochester Jeffersons from New York; and the Rock Island Independents, Decatur Staleys, and Racine Cardinals from Illinois. Four more teams would join later that season and by the end of the first season, several teams had disbanded.
For George Halas, the new owner of the Decatur Staleys, he wanted a new home in Chicago. In 1921, the Staleys moved but Halas had to keep the name for one year. In 1922, they became the Chicago Bears and the APFC changed its name to the National Football League. Still, there was no stability in the franchises. As many as 25 teams were in the league from year to year. In 1925, the Bears were not the only game in town anymore. The Cardinals had moved from Racine and were winning the league. Halas knew he needed something to improve attendance and finances.
The NFL had low attendance in the hundreds and low thousands while the college ranks routinely had crowds near 70,000. Halas, a University of Illinois graduate, saw the crowds at his alma mater and knew he could turn around the fortunes of the league if the NFL crowds could be similar. In the fall of 1925, Halas began to negotiate with Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost, to come play for the Bears when the collegiate season was over. Grange, nicknamed the Ice Man because he delivered ice back in Wheaton, Illinois, was the biggest collegiate football star in America. Against Michigan in 1924, Grange amassed 402 yards total yards by rushing, passing and returning kickoffs in addition to scoring 6 touchdowns. In 20 games over 3 seasons, he scored 31 TDs and ran for over 3,300 yards.
Famed sportswriter Damon Runyon said of Grange,
“This man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men rolled into one for football purposes. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o’ War. Put together, they spell Grange.”
Before Grange signed, speculation was rampant about which team would sign Grange. Some owners were ready with checks written out for $5,000 and $10,000 dollars. George Halas topped them all. Grange originally received $100,000 to play 13 games Eight of the games would be played in 12 days starting on Thanksgiving. On thanksgiving Day 1925, Red Grange suited up to for the Chicago Bears. Grange carried the ball 16 times for 36 yards. A crowd of 36,000 saw the Bears and Cardinals play to a scoreless tie at Wrigley Field. It was the largest crowd to that time in pro football history.
Grange and the Bears would tour the country by playing in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. In New York, at the infamous Polo Grounds, 73,000 saw Grange play the Giants helping the NFL franchise remain in New York. The Bears did not stop playing. They traveled as far west as Los Angeles and played before 75,000 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 19 games in all. A brutal schedule, Grange played halfback, defensive back, caught some passes, threw touchdowns, returned kicks, and was the only person the fans came to see. When President Coolidge met the Bears, he referred to them as Red Grange, George Halas, and the Chicago Bears.
Grange became rock star-like. He did advertisements for many products and even made couple of movies. He even made the cover of Time Magazine. In addition, comic books detailing his life were popular throughout Chicago Catholic Schools. Written by famed Tribune Sports Columnist Arch Ward, the comics detail the struggles Grange overcame.
When 1926 rolled around, the Bears and Grange knew they had a good thing going. Unfortunately, it did not last. Grange wanted a piece of ownership of the Bears. Halas refused to give Grange what he wanted. Grange went and started his own team, the New York Yankees, in the American Football League. The league lasted one year. Grange returned to the NFL in 1927, and after a knee injury, to the Bears in 1929. He would continue to play until 1934 for the Bears, primarily as a defensive back and was part of 2 championships.
Even in his later years, Halas always gave Grange credit for the NFL’s success. For Grange, it was much ado about nothing. He thought he was given too much credit.
“They built my accomplishments way out of proportion. I never got the idea that I was a tremendous big shot. I could carry a football well, but there are a lot of doctors and teachers and engineers who could do their thing better than I.”
But for Halas and the other owners, Grange brought notoriety to the newly formed league. He was the first star in professional football. By the 1930s, the now 12 team league stabilized and established a fan base in the northeast US which became the foundation for the league up until the 1950s and television. Shortly after Grange retired, the NFL instituted a draft. No longer would an owner be able to directly recruit and sign players. Grange would be one of the first members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For further reading: The First Star by Lars Anderson
Here is part of the comic book series in a Catholic School Magazine
Chicago Tribune Historical Newspapers