Football at Wrigley has long, storied past

Football at Wrigley has long, storied past

CHICAGO -- First downs will be the focus on Saturday at Wrigley Field, not first-pitch strikes. Bunts? No. Blocks? Yes. Touchdowns, not home runs, will be the goal.

And speaking of goals, yes, those are yellow goal posts in front of the Cubs' dugout and the right-field bleachers, not misplaced foul poles.

Football will be back at Wrigley on Saturday when Northwestern and Illinois square off in the Allstate Wrigleyville Classic. Kickoff will be at 2:30 p.m. CT.

This will be the first college football game on the Cubs' home turf since 1938, when DePaul University played its home games there. It will be the first football game of any kind at Wrigley since December 1970, which was the Bears' last season at the Friendly Confines. Remember Jack Concannon? He was the Bears' quarterback that year.

It will be a tight fit, as it was for the Bears. The NFL field stretched from the first-base dugout to the left-field wall. Bronko Nagurski once ran full-speed into the brick outfield wall. On Saturday, the field will run east-west from the third-base dugout to right field.

The Bears had the home-field advantage at Wrigley. They won eight titles in five decades of football at the ballpark, including four title game victories in 1933, '41, '43 and '63.

In the book, "Wrigley Field: A Celebration of the Friendly Confines," running back Gale Sayers said he preferred the Cubs' home park. Sayers showed it. On Dec. 12, 1965, he scored an NFL record six touchdowns in a game there against the 49ers.

"I played in both Wrigley Field and Soldier Field with the Bears," Sayers said in the book, "and I must admit I really enjoyed Wrigley Field. You definitely had a home-field advantage in Wrigley Field, unlike Soldier Field, where the people in the stands are so far away from the field. Wrigley Field being a baseball stadium, the fans were right on top of you, behind you, behind the benches. They were close and they were loud and all the other teams sure knew they were in Bear territory."

Illinois and Northwestern have met at Wrigley Field before. On Oct. 27, 1923, the Wildcats and Illini squared off at then Cubs Park in front of 32,000 fans, and sophomore Red Grange was the star of the game. This year's contest will mark the 104th meeting between the Big Ten Conference rivals.

Built in 1914 and the Cubs' home since 1916, Wrigley Field regularly hosted football games from 1916-70, including about 370 NFL games. The Bears called it home from 1921-70.

Saturday's game will feature plenty of purple -- even the famed marquee outside Wrigley has been painted the Wildcats' color. The Northwestern team is scheduled to arrive from the Evanston campus around 11:45 a.m. CT on the "L" train, exiting at the Addison stop and walking into Wrigley Field.

Football timeline at Wrigley

The primary football tenants were the Chicago Bears, who called the park home from 1921 (as the Chicago Staleys) through '70. The Chicago Tigers (1920) and Chicago Cardinals (1920, 1931-39) also played professional football at Wrigley. The game, however, wasn't limited to the pros, as the park also hosted high school and collegiate football games, including a 1923 battle between Northwestern and Illinois.

Here are some football highlights in Weeghman Park/Cubs Park/Wrigley Field history, compiled by Cubs historian Ed Hartig:

1916: Weeghman Park hosted high school football games on the weekends, with as many as four games per day. Schools such as Lakeview, Schurz, Crane and Marshall would play at the park over the next several years. Cost of rental for a four-game, one-day schedule was normally $200. It was $300 on rainy days to compensate for damage to the field.

1918: The park was used on several occasions for military service games featuring teams from local camps. Proceeds from the games went directly to the athletic funds of the camps. In addition to football, members of the competing military service groups participated in boxing matches, bayonet and military drills before and at halftime of the football game.

1919: An independent football team, the Hammond All-Stars, leased the park in an effort to test the popularity of football for the Chicago market. On Oct. 26, the All-Stars, also nicknamed the Bobcats, defeated the Minneapolis Marines, 45-0, before about 3,000 fans. In subsequent weeks, Hammond played five more games there, twice drawing 10,000 fans to watch Olympic great Jim Thorpe. Paddy Driscoll, former Northwestern football star and former Cubs player, and George Halas played for Hammond.

The success of these games convinced Rube Cook, former secretary for the Cubs, that the North Side would support its own football club. Cook formed the Chicago Tigers to begin play in 1920.

1920: Weeghman Park, renamed Cubs Park, hosted eight football games for the Chicago Tigers, Chicago Cardinals and Decatur Staleys (neutral site), and drew about 58,000 fans. On Oct. 10, the first truly professional football game was played at the park as the Chicago Tigers hosted the Racine Cardinals (who were renamed the Chicago Cardinals during the season) before 8,000 fans. The game ended in a scoreless tie. A week later, the Tigers beat the Detroit Herald, 12-0, in front of 5,000 supporters. It would be the Tigers' only franchise win as they would drop their next five games, scoring 10 points.

On Nov. 7, the Cardinals beat the Tigers, 6-3, in a rematch that spelled the end for the Tigers. According to legend, Cardinals coach Chris O'Brien and Tigers coach Guilford "Guil" Falcon met before the game and agreed that the loser would disperse his team and leave Chicago as "one city could not support two football teams." The legend likely isn't true. Instead, the poor performance by the Tigers and low attendance plus the lofty rent for the park spelled the end of the team.

On Dec. 5, the Decatur Staleys beat the Cardinals, 10-0, before 10,000 to earn the title "Champions of the West."

On Dec. 12, the Staleys played the Akron Steel, the "Champions of the East," for the American Professional Football League Championship. Akron was led by its star halfback Fritz Pollard, the first black to play in a professional sporting event at the park. The matchup, billed as "The Game to Decide the Pro Football Championship of the World," was played before 12,000 fans -- 10,800 who paid the 50-cent admission -- and ended in a scoreless tie.

Halas "borrowed" former Northwestern star Driscoll from the Chicago Cardinals for the game. A week earlier, Driscoll played for the Cardinals against the Staleys.

1921: A.E. Staley, owner of the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. in Decatur, Ill., and chief-financial supporter of the football team, recognized the potential growth for the new professional league. He encouraged coach Halas to find a bigger city as home for the club, promising to support the team in its new location for one year in return for playing one game in Decatur. After one year, Staley would sell his rights to the team to Halas and Edward "Dutch" Sternaman.

Halas reached agreement with Cubs president/treasurer Bill Veeck, Sr., for use of Cubs Park for the 1921 season. The deal, reached in minutes and agreed to with a handshake, called for the Cubs to get 15 percent of the gate (20 percent when the receipts exceeded $10,000) plus the concession receipts, while the Staleys retained all rights to the game programs. According to Halas in "Halas by Halas," the agreement would remain unchanged for the next 50 years. In accordance with the move, the team was renamed the Chicago Staleys for one year. In 1922, after Halas and Sternaman purchased the team, it was renamed the Chicago Bears. Halas considered calling the team the Cubs but noted that football players were bigger than baseball players so he elected to call them the "Bears."

The Chicago Staleys/Bears called Wrigley their home for 50 years, from 1921-70, completing 39 winning seasons at the park. The Bears played at least 10 home games away from Cubs Park/Wrigley Field from 1921-70 and hosted games at Mills Stadium, Loyola Stadium, Soldier Field, Staley Park, Dyche Stadium, DePaul Field and Chicago Stadium.

1923: On Oct. 27, the University of Illinois defeated Northwestern University, 29-0, at the park before 32,000 fans. The game was moved to Cubs Park after Illinois ticket requests for the game exceeded 10,000. Northwestern's stadium held about 17,000. This game was supposed to be Northwestern's homecoming game, but homecoming was moved to a later date when the game was moved to Chicago.

Illinois led, 19-0, at halftime on three touchdowns by sophomore Grange, the second coming on a 90-yard interception return. Earl Britton kicked a third-quarter field goal while Clarence Muhl caught a fourth-quarter TD to complete the scoring.

The game almost didn't happen. NU coach Glenn Thistlethwaite measured the field in late August and declared it wasn't big enough and the only way to get a regulation-sized field was to run it from the southwest to the northeast corner. That arrangement, however, would make it difficult for fans to watch the game.

In early September, Illini athletic director George Huff and coach Bob Zuppke informed NU that they would agree to play on the field with reduced end zones. Nearly 4,000 rooters from U of I made the journey from downstate Champaign for the contest, including a 100-piece military band under the directorship of A.A. Harding.

Huff, by the way, served as a scout for the Cubs at the turn of the century and helped scout many of the players on the 1908 team, which was the last one to win a World Series.

According to the 2009 Illinois football media guide, the first Illinois-Northwestern game is simply listed as being played in Chicago. The '09 Northwestern guide lists the game as being played at a neutral site. Neither mentions it was played at Cubs Park.

On Nov. 4, the Bears defeated Thorpe's Oorang Indians, 26-0. The highlight was Halas' NFL record 98-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. That mark stood until 1972.

1925: On Nov. 26, Red Grange made his professional football debut as a Chicago Bear in a scoreless tie against the Cardinals before 39,000 at Wrigley on Thanksgiving Day. Prior to the game, the Bears raised ticket prices 25 cents to $1.75 for a reserved ticket.

Fearing a riot from fans hoping to purchase standing-room-only tickets, the Bears asked Chicago police to cordon off the area around the park and allowed only those with a ticket to enter the area.

1926: On Oct. 17, the Bears introduced a halftime innovation as Jack Bramhall's Band played between halves of the Bears-Cardinals game at Wrigley.

1927: On Oct. 29, DePaul University beat Loyola University, 12-6, in the first football game between the rival schools since 1922. The game drew 15,000 fans for DePaul's homecoming game. A year earlier, Loyola played its homecoming game at the park and defeated Arkansas Tech.

1928: On Nov. 29, Thanksgiving Day, Thorpe made his only apppearance as a Chicago Cardinal in a 34-0 loss to the Bears at Wrigley. Thorpe was 41 and past his prime. It was his last professional football game.

In the spirit of the holiday, three live turkeys were released during the game. Whoever caught a bird got to bring it home as a prize -- or dinner.

1931: In a surprise move, the Chicago Cardinals (considered the South Side football team) moved their home games from Comiskey Park to Wrigley Field. They would play their home games on the North Side through the 1939 season.

1933: On Dec. 17, the Bears beat the New York Giants, 23-21, to win the NFL Championship Game before 26,000 fans at Wrigley. Jack Manders kicked three field goals and added two extra points for the winners. Nagurski passed for two TDs for the other Bears' scores.

1936-38: DePaul University played several games at the park while allowing the Bears to use its on-campus practice field, later the site of the university's Alumni Hall.

1937: On Dec. 5, the Bears beat the Cardinals, 42-28, at Wrigley, the highest-scoring NFL game to date. Field conditions were terrible as a thick coating of ice covered the field. The players wore gym shoes for better traction. There were reports of three bonfires set in the stands to warm the fans.

The Cardinals' Gaynell Tinsley caught a pass and ran 95 yards, then a NFL record, for a score as Bears defenders slipped to the ground in pursuit. At this point, the game was called with about three minutes remaining. The icy conditions and darkness had made the field unplayable.

On Dec. 12, Sammy Baugh tossed two fourth-quarter TDs as the Washington Redskins beat the Bears, 28-21, in the NFL Championship Game before 15,878 fans at Wrigley.

1938: On Nov. 27, Tinsley broke his own NFL record with a 98-yard touchdown pass, this one from quarterback Doug Russell, in a game against Los Angeles.

1939: On Oct. 15, the Bears beat the Cardinals, 44-7. Halas, worried abut the mounting costs of losing footballs ($2.35 each) after each kicked extra point, supposedly ordered his team to attempt rushing extra points.

1941: On Dec. 21, three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Bears beat the New York Giants for the NFL Championship, 37-9. Only 13,341 were on hand as the Bears scored 28 unanswered points on three touchdown runs and a 42-yard fumble recovered for a TD by Ken Kavanaugh for the win.

1942: On Nov. 7, St. John's Military Academy beat Culver Military Academy, 19-3, at Wrigley before a crowd of 4,000. Proceeds from the game went to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. In an on-field ceremony at halftime, about 100 18- and 19-year-olds were inducted into the army.

1943: On Dec. 26, after a scoreless first quarter, the Bears' Sid Luckman passed for five touchdowns in a 41-21 win over the Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship Game.

1946: On Sept. 1, the Bears beat the New York Giants, 19-0, before a crowd of 32,367 in the inaugural Armed Forces Game. The game raised $69,395.29 for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force service funds. The Armed Forces Game would be held annually for 25 years, the first nine years at Wrigley. Eventually, the game outgrew Wrigley and was moved to Soldier Field.

1948: The Cubs paid $125,000 to erect a 50-tiered temporary football bleacher over the right- and center-field bleachers. The extra seats increased total capacity by about 4,000, even though the new bleachers forced the Bears to close off about 3,500 obstructed seats in the right-field corner.

Because of the bleachers, the Bears were no longer allowed to play home games at Wrigley Field until after the Cubs' season was over. The NFL typically accommodated the Cubs' schedule, but on a few occasions, the Bears had to play home games at Soldier Field, DePaul University, Dyche Stadium, Loyola Stadium and Mills Stadium.

The firm that installed the bleachers hired off-duty fireman from the fire house north of the park. It took 12 10-hour days to complete the installation. Halas later moved the bleachers to the north end zone of Soldier Field when the Bears moved after the 1970 season. The rickety seats were eventually condemned in 1978.

On Dec. 12, the largest football crowd in Wrigley Field history -- 51,283 -- packed the park as the Bears hosted the crosstown-rival Cardinals and lost, 24-21.

1950: On Oct. 15, a crowd of 51,065 presented a special challenge to Andy Frain Ushers at Wrigley for the Bears-Packers game. Fans were running off with footballs either thrown or kicked into the crowd. According to club officials, fans walked off with 26 footballs that the ushers simply couldn't get back because of the throngs of fans.

1963: On Dec. 29, the Bears defeated the New York Giants, 14-10, at Wrigley to claim the NFL title before 45,801 fans. Another 50 million watched on TV across 210 stations in the USA and 43 in Canada. The game was played with temperatures in the single-digits.

1965: On Dec. 12, Sayers scored six touchdowns to set an NFL record in a 61-20 route over the San Francisco 49ers before 46,278 fans at Wrigley.

1970: Citing the length of the baseball season, the inability to play exhibition games at the park, and having to open on the road, the Bears announced they were going to let their lease at Wrigley Field expire. Other issues included player safety, because part of the north end zone was only 18 inches from the outfield wall and the south end zone extended into the first-base dugout. NFL rules were changing, too, as the league wanted to put TV cameras in the end zones and the league wanted stadiums that could hold at least 60,000 fans.

On Dec. 13, Concannon passed for four touchdowns and rushed for another as the Bears routed the Packers, 35-17, in their last Wrigley Field game. The crowd was announced at 44,957. While Wrigley Field generally held slightly less than 37,000 for baseball, the Bears drew at least 40,000 over their final 56 games there, a stretch that began on Dec. 16, 1962.

The Bears did renew their lease because other options weren't viable. The Big Ten nixed a move to Northwestern Stadium in Evanston, Ill., while the White Sox offered the team use of Comiskey Park.

1971: On May 13, the Bears officially left Wrigley Field when they signed a three-year lease to use Soldier Field. Their new home would seat 52,000 (with plenty of room for expansion) compared to only 46,000 at Wrigley.

1978: The Chicago Sting of the North American Soccer League used Wrigley for part of their home games from 1978-82 and '84. The field was set up from east to west. The Bears had set the football field from north to south.

2007: The final traces of football at Wrigley were uncovered as the playing surface underwent renovation. Crews found the cement blocks that had surrounded the bottom parts of the old goal posts from Bears games at Wrigley. They had been buried under the infield for nearly four decades.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.