Monthly Archives: July 2015

Papa Bear’s sip of coffee in MLB

More than a few players in pro football’s early years dabbled in major-league baseball — including, by my count, seven Hall of Famers. Jim ThorpeGreasy NealePaddy Driscoll, Ernie NeversRed BadgroAce Parker — all made it to the big leagues. Heck, Neale led the Reds with 10 hits in the infamous 1919 World Series.

George Halas was another one. In that same 1919 season, Papa Bear briefly auditioned for the Yankees as a switch-hitting right fielder. He was 24 and had just been discharged from Great Lakes Naval Station, where he’d served during the war. This was the year before Babe Ruth came to New York from the Red Sox in the most regrettable trade (from a Boston standpoint) in sports history. The Yanks had yet to win an American League pennant, but they were good enough to finish third with a veteran core consisting of shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, Hall of Fame third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker, first baseman Wally Pipp, second baseman Del Pratt, outfielders Ping Bodie and Duffy Lewis and 20-game winner Bob Shawkey.

Halas, who played his college ball at Illinois, had flashed at Great Lakes and drawn interest from MLB clubs. During spring training, The New York Times said he looked like “the find of the season as far as the Yanks are concerned” — such an impressive prospect that “he may be chosen to cover right field and have the distinction of being leadoff batsman for the Yanks this season.

An April 1919 headline in the Times.

An April 1919 headline in the Times.

It is an unusual thing for a college player to jump into the big leagues and become a regular the first season, but this is just the thing that Halas threatens to do. He is swift of foot and is a heady and proficient base runner. He covers lots of ground in the outfield and, best of all, he has a world of enthusiasm for the game. As a batsman Halas has his faults, but he can sting the ball hard, and the defects in style which [manager Miller] Huggins has discovered can easily be adjusted, as Halas is a willing worker and by following the advice of Huggins has already improved his stick work.

Halas is young and is an all-around athlete. At the University of Illinois he played baseball and football and was a star in both sports. Early in the war he enlisted at Great Lakes Naval Station and was one of the best athletes in the thousands of promising young men who were developed at the station. It was his great speed and strength which first attracted Huggins’ attention, and if he fails to make good his first year it will only be because he needs a little more experience in major league tactics.

As it turned out, Halas played only 12 games in the bigs and batted just 22 times. But they were an amazingly eventful dozen games, as you will see. A brief summary of his “exploits”:

May 6, Shibe Park (L, 3-2 to Philadelphia Athletics)

Halas batted first, played right field and went 1 for 4 with a single.

May 6 boxThe Times: “With the score tied in the eighth . . ., the New York team fell asleep while opportunity pounded on the door. [Bill] Lamar’s double, putting runners on second and third with one out, was the signal for the recall of [Socks] Seibold, who had succeeded Scott Perry. [Miller] Huggins took out Halas, who was playing in his first major-league game, to let [Sammy] Vick bat against southpaw Walter Kinney. Vick fouled out.”

The A’s won it in the 10th on Red Shannon’s run-scoring single.

May 8, Shibe Park (W, 2-0 over A’s)

Halas, still in the leadoff spot and still in right, had a single in four ups against Bob Geary.

The far bigger story was Shawkey, who after walking the leadoff man proceeded to allow just one other base runner — on a single by Braggo Roth. How close did he come to a no-hitter? “From the stand it seemed that he shot a third strike over on Roth . . . ,” the Times reported, “but Umpire Owens called it a ball. On the next pitch Roth singled to left.”

May 11, Polo Grounds (T, 0-0 with Senators, 12 innings)

Three days after Shawkey’s gem, Halas got to witness an even shinier one — by the legendary Walter Johnson. The Big Train retired George on a fly out in the bottom of the first, gave up a single to Peckinpaugh, then proceeded to retire 28 straight batters and throw 9 2/3 hitless innings. Poor Walter. He didn’t even come away with a win, never mind a perfect game or no-hitter, because the game was halted — erroneously, it turned out — at the end of the 12th and declared a tie.

5-11-19Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, it seems, was mistaken about the Sunday curfew. He reportedly thought it was 6 p.m. — and informed plate umpire Bill Dinneen of this. But “the game could have continued for some time,” the Times said, “and might have ended in a decision. When the game was called the light conditions were just as favorable as when the game started. The new Sunday law provides that baseball games may be played after 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but makes no provision about what time they shall end.”

As for Halas, not only did he make the Yankees’ first out, he also made their last when he grounded to first in the 12th. In between, he fanned twice and popped to third to finish 0 for 5.

Soggy conditions limited the attendance to 3,000. According to the Times, “Even [the crowd-pleasing] Nick Altrock, coaching at first base [for Washington], refused to come out of the melancholy state into which he had been driven by the dreary, bleak weather . . . [which was] more favorable for football than baseball.”

May 12, Polo Grounds (T, 4-4 vs. Senators, 15 innings)

Just think: Halas started a mere four games in the majors, and the last two — on back-to-back days — were extra-inning ties. What are the odds of that? Indeed, how many times has big-league baseball even seen such a freak occurrence? (A foreshadowing, perhaps, of all the deadlocks George would have to deal with in the pre-modern NFL. His 1932 championship team, let’s not forget, posted a 7-1-6 record.)

5-12-19Unfortunately, George’s fourth game was worse than his third — and he didn’t have Walter Johnson to blame it on (only the less remembered Jim Shaw). As the Times put it: “Halas, the gob from Great Lakes, played in right field, and, as he struck out three times, it was taken for granted that his name is pronounced to rhyme with alas.”

He ended up going 0 for 4 — and in the late innings another rookie was sent up to bat for him. The pinch hitter, little known at the time, was none other than Lefty O’Doul, who was making just his second major-league plate appearance. O’Doul’s career got off to a slow start — the Yankees were trying to develop him as a pitcher — but a decade later with the Phillies he would bat .398, rack up 254 hits and come in second in the National League Most Valuable Player voting. So even when George got replaced in the lineup, it wasn’t by some nameless schmo, it was by a guy who almost joined the hallowed .400 Club.

(He also might have learned a few things from his manager that day about How To File A Complaint. In the ninth inning there was a dispute about a call at the plate, and Huggins got tossed when he stormed out of the dugout “and punctuated his oration by pounding his hands on the umpire’s chest protector,” the Times said. That was pretty much how Halas dealt with NFL officials — and I’m exaggerating only slightly.)

At this point Halas was 2 for 17 with six strikeouts, which caused Huggins to bench him. The only action he saw the next seven weeks was as a pinch hitter or late-game fill-in. (Final numbers: 22 at bats, 2 singles, .091 average.) The highlight — historically speaking, that is — was probably when the Yankees were in Chicago, his hometown, and he got to bat against Eddie Cicotte. Cicotte, of course, was one of the eight White Sox banned from baseball for fixing the 1919 World Series. (He whiffed George on three pitches.)

In early July the Yankees sent Halas to the St. Paul Saints, their top farm club. He finished the season with them, batting .274 in 39 games with just three extra-base hits. In the years that followed, a myth took root — one that George seems to have perpetuated — that a hip injury dashed his big-league dreams. When he died in 1983, The Associated Press reported:

In his 12th major-league game, Halas suffered a severe hip injury as he slid into third on a triple. . . .

“It was probably the biggest break in my life,” [Halas] said. “Not too long after that the Yankees acquired a guy named Babe Ruth to play right field.”

The Ruth part is right; the Red Sox sold him to the Yankees at the end of the year. But as the statistics show, Halas never hit any triples in the majors. He did get hurt, though. In his autobiography, Halas, he claims it happened when he tripled against the Dodgers’ Rube Marquard in a spring training game. “I slid in hard,” he writes. “I was safe but when I stood, my hip was painful. I managed to get home on a long drive, but every step hurt. The trainer thought I had a charley horse.”

Halas was still slowed by the injury when the Yankees went to Cleveland in mid-May. So he asked Huggins if it would be OK if he took a quick trip to Youngstown, Ohio, to get checked out by Bonesetter Reese, “a man with no formal training but a genius in treating injuries.” (To read more about this miracle man, click here.) George had gone to Reese a couple of times when he was at the University of Illinois and gotten instant results. More from Halas’ book:

Huggins approved another visit to this marvelous man. I caught the 5:30 a.m. electric train to Youngstown, an hour and a half away. I found a line of people stretching down the block, but Bonesetter had a soft spot in his heart for athletes and took me right in.

I told him my story.

“Get on the table,” he said. “Lie on your face.”

He felt my derrière. “When you slid into third base,” he said, “you twisted your hip bone. It is pressing on a nerve.”

He pushed his steely fingers deep into my hip, clasped the bone and gave it a sharp twist. The pain vanished.

I dashed out of his office, down to the street to the station and, in Cleveland, back to the ballpark. In the afternoon I raced around like a wild horse.

Maybe so, but he didn’t play again for several more games — until the aforementioned cameo appearance in Chicago. Still, the reason he chose football over baseball likely came down to money rather than injury. We’re talking, after all, about a player who returned a fumble 98 yards for a touchdown in 1923, an NFL record that stood for 49 years. His hip couldn’t have been that bad.

Besides, in Halas, he says St. Paul wanted him back the next season, “but at a reduced salary. I objected.” A short time later, A.G. Staley, the starch magnate, made him a much more enticing offer: Come work for my company in Decatur, Ill., and put together a football team that will help promote my product.

You know the rest. The Staleys became the Bears, the Bears became the Monsters of the Midway . . . and over the years, George’s hip injury got progressively worse until it ended his baseball career.

FYI: In case you’re wondering — and it would be perfectly understandable if you were — this isn’t George Halas Month at Pro Football Daly. It’s just that, sometimes, one post leads to another . . . and another.

Added treat: The play-by-play of Johnson’s “perfect game”-within-a-game against Halas’ Yankees (courtesy of the Brooklyn Eagle).Johnson's perfect game

Bonesetter Reese: The first sports doctor?

The summer before the 1921 NFL season, George Halas, the Chicago Staleys’ player-coach, started having trouble with his knee. So off he went to Youngstown, Ohio, to “spend a few days with Bonesetter Reese,” the Decatur Daily Review reported.

Doc Reese was the Dr. James Andrews of his time . . . except for one thing: He didn’t have a medical degree — just the know-how he’d picked up watching lay healers ply their trade in the steel mills of his native Wales. But he was such a miracle worker that the Ohio legislature granted him special permission to do, well, whatever it was he did.

A 1925 newspaper cartoon.

A 1925 newspaper cartoon.

John D. Reese functioned much as a chiropractor or physical therapist might today, manipulating bones and muscles until he achieved the desired effect. Countless athletes sought him out to cure what ailed them — nonathletes, too. Indeed, traveling to Youngstown could be like making a pilgrimage to Lourdes. There was something almost mystical about the man with the “million-dollar hands,” as newspapers described them, and his secretiveness about his techniques only added to the mystery.

“Large, sinewy and knotty, [his hands] were the sort you’d expect to see upon a steel worker,” Bill Jones wrote in the Syracuse Herald.

The very sight of them created the impression of power, but gives no hint of the wonderful delicacy of touch that enables him to locate instantly a displaced muscle or a tiny broken bone.

A callus on the knuckle of each middle finger is [indicative] of the great number of cases Reese has treated. These calluses, about the size of a five-cent piece, and as hard as a stone, are the result of his bonesetting practice. It is with the knuckles of his middle finger that Reese forces broken bones together. These calluses, his sensitive fingers and powerful arms and shoulders are his only instruments.

Bonesetter’s backstory goes like this: Orphaned at 11, he came to America in the late 1800s and got a job in a Pittsburgh mill. One day a worker fell from a ladder and lay on the ground, writhing in pain. None of the first responders had a clue what to do. So Reese stepped in, applied his Magic Fingers to the man’s back and had him on his feet in no time, good as new.

Word of the incident traveled far — to the other side of the Atlantic, even. Before long, the Doc “had so much business in alleviating pain and curing cripples that he set up professionally in that line and has been at it ever since,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1922.

Halas went to Bonesetter several times over the years to fix various hurts — of both the football and baseball kind. (George was a good enough outfielder to get a brief trial with the New York Yankees.) The Doc was renowned for his ability to revive pitching arms; Cy Young, Ed Walsh and Smoky Joe Wood all sought out his services, as did boxers, jockeys and circus acrobats.

Once, David Lloyd George, the British prime minister (and a fellow Welshman), showed up at Reese’s door, complaining of strain caused by shaking so many hands on his U.S. tour. Bonesetter cured him with a “gentle handshake and quick wrench,” according to Time magazine. (Another of the Doc’s patients was the daughter of Charles W. Fairbanks, Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president.)

Reese generally avoided publicity, though, despite his occasional mention in Time. In a rare interview in 1913 he said, “I despise notoriety, and I don’t know what I can say that will be of interest. I know very few ballplayers. While it is true enough that I have treated hundreds of them, I rarely ask a player’s name. In fact, I haven’t asked a man his name since 1908.”

But then, there was little about Reese that was orthodox. He didn’t, for instance, charge his patients set fees. “If you feel like giving me something,” he would tell them, “whatever you like will be all right.” Thus payment could range from a 10-cent cigar to a luxury car. No one was ever turned away from 219 Park Avenue. At his peak, he saw 80 patients a day.

Among the healed was a young girl named Elma H. Wilkins, who wrote about the experience years later in the Washington Post. The picture she painted: “My father and I boarded the Youngstown train. We found ourselves members of a little army of cripples. Some hobbled and leaned heavily on canes; others slumped still more heavily between crutches. There seemed to be a sort of ‘misery-loves-company’ spirit among us. Before long we became acquainted, and spent the time telling stories about the different accidents which had brought us together on that particular train.”

Sitting in the waiting room outside Reese’s office gave you the willies, Wilkins reminisced. “Nerve-racking shrieks” were intermittently heard through the door, and patients wondered what the heck was going on in there. But then a girl, on crutches not long before, walked happily out with her mother — the first of a “succession of miracles” performed by the Doc.

Pittsburgh Press headline, 1911.

Pittsburgh Press headline, 1911.

“What Bonesetter’s powers are is a puzzle to scientists who are always bent on determining the wherefore of everything which the ordinary run of man on the street might ascribe to divine power,” E. J. Hamilton, the Chicago newspaperman, wrote. “They’ll tell you that divine power is a lot of hokum. Then, when they come across such a man as Reese, modest, without technical training of any sort, performing miraculous things, they’ll shrug their shoulders as did Gibbon, the great historian, in one of his attempts to explain the working out of a biblical prophecy, and concede that perhaps, after all, there may be something divine in the world guiding the destinies and powers of men.”

In 1921, when Halas paid him a visit, Bonesetter was 66 years old. His hair — what was left of it — had turned white, and his bushy mustache, round features and ruddy complexion gave him an avuncular look. His wife, Sarah, had passed away, but he had five daughters to dote on him. The youngest, Gertrude, was said to have inherited his gift for healing.

Reese never entirely understood athletes. He and his daughter attended to them “night and day, getting the ballplayers’ muscles and bones fixed up,” he said in 1927. “Then we turn them back to the leagues in perfect condition and go off to recuperate from our strenuous efforts while they are getting themselves smashed up again.”

It particularly troubled him that he would prescribe rest for a player and “the next day I would pick up the paper and see his name in the box score.” By the end of his life he had stopped treating athletes, he claimed — though some, no doubt, still sneaked unannounced into his office. His celebrity had raised expectations so high, he said, that players would “feel that I should guarantee a sure cure. I have enough work to keep me busy without treating [them].”

When Bonesetter died in 1931, testimonials poured forth. Nobody “could unkink snarled muscles and joints and break and reset broken fingers” quite like Reese, said syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler. The Doc “contributed to the fame of Youngstown . . . almost as Schlitz contributed to the renown of Milwaukee.”

Revised from my 2012 book, The National Forgotten League (University of Nebraska Press).

Thousands flocked to this house in Youngstown, Ohio, where Bonesetter Reese worked his magic.

Thousands flocked to this house in Youngstown, Ohio, where Bonesetter Reese worked his magic.

George Halas’ premature “death”

A hundred years ago tomorrow, George Halas “died.” The word is in quotes because, well, he didn’t really die. At 20, he still had the Chicago Bears to found, the NFL to establish, the game of football to transform. But he easily could have died if he’d stuck to his original plan on July 24, 1915 to take the SS Eastland across Lake Michigan to the annual Western Electric Co. picnic. Indeed, one Chicago newspaper listed him among the 844 fatalities when the ship, packed with three times that many passengers, flipped over on its side while docked.

It’s one of the great what-ifs in sports history. What if Halas had boarded the Eastland that gloomy day — and suffered the fate so many did? What would pro football in Chicago look like today? Would the NFL still have climbed to the top of the sports mountain? Would teams be running souped-up variants of the single wing instead of Papa Bear’s baby, the T formation? Terrific cocktail-party questions, each and every one.

The Eastland disaster is Chicago’s version of the Titanic — all the more haunting, perhaps, because it happened not in the dark of the distant North Atlantic, where the cries for help couldn’t be heard, but on a Saturday morning in the Chicago River, smack downtown. The tragedy unfolded right before the city’s disbelieving eyes. Photographers shot picture after harrowing picture of passengers clinging to the side of the ship, victims being pulled from the water, bodies lying silently side by side in the 2nd Regiment Armory, where a makeshift morgue was set up.

The next day in the Chicago Tribune, a local theater chain ran an ad that said: “[It] has [been] decided that, “owing to the horror of the Eastland disaster, no motion pictures of the catastrophe will be shown.” (Interestingly, this past winter, the first known footage of the fiasco was discovered in a Dutch newsreel.) Here’s The New York Times’ story about it. And here’s the clip itself:

At first, there was wild speculation about the death toll. The Times reported that 1,800 had drowned.  The Boston Post put the number at 1,500, the Syracuse Herald at 1,300. The high, that I’ve seen, was 2,000 (Salt Lake Tribune, among others), the low 919 (Chicago Tribune). It probably depended on when the paper went to press.

7-25-15 Chi Trib p. 1

7-25-15 NY Times p. 1

Halas, a rising sophomore at the University of Illinois, was working that summer in Western Electric’s payroll department in Cicero. It was invaluable experience for a future NFL owner. As he wrote in his autobiography, Halas, “I learned to be precise and to keep meticulous records.” During the lean early years, especially — when franchises were always failing — his ability to keep the books balanced would serve him well.

The company picnic was held in Michigan City, Ind., on the other side of the lake from Chicago. Five boats, leaving one after another, were to ferry employees, family and friends to the event. Halas was booked on the first to depart, the Eastland, and over the years he offered two explanations for why he wasn’t on board when it capsized.

The first was that he’d been delayed at home by his brother Frank, who’d stopped him as he went out the door and told him to step on a scale. George was trying to put on weight for football — he’d been a wiry 140 as a freshman — and Frank wanted him to add 40 pounds before the next season.

“I never won an argument with Frank,” George wrote, “so off came the clothes.” He weighed in at 163, certainly an improvement.

“Just do everything I tell you and you’ll be OK, kid,” Frank told him. “Now get dressed and catch that boat.”

Anybody buy that story? Me, neither. After all, how long does it take to weigh yourself, even when you have to strip down to the bare essentials? George would have had to be cutting it awfully close to miss his boat.

In a 1967 series for the Tribune, he gave another version of events. He was supposed to play for the company baseball team that day as part of the festivities, he wrote, and “I had my ticket and my name was on the list of Western Electric employees slated for the Eastland. But the ballgame was scheduled for late afternoon, and I decided to take another boat leaving an hour after the Eastland.”

This sounds more plausible. Still, there’s at least one other possible scenario. Ralph Brizzolara, a lifelong buddy of Halas’, also worked at Western Electric that summer and he, too, was booked on the Eastland. (Brizzolara later owned a small piece of the Bears and helped run them when Halas enlisted in the Navy during World War II.) Anyway, after waiting in vain for George at the dock, Brizzolara boarded the ship – and was fortunate to escape with his life.

“My father was pulled through a porthole [to safety],” his son, Charles, says in Jeff Davis’ book, Papa Bear.

Charles, who’s heard all the stories, has his own theory about why Halas wasn’t aboard: “George just overslept.”

Impromptu weigh in, schedule change, inability to rouse himself — take your pick.

The Monday evening after the disaster, a couple of Halas’ fraternity brothers showed up at his house. They had seen Halas’ name in the paper — “a reporter had obtained a list of Western Electric employees assigned to the Eastland and assumed that I was on board,” George wrote in the Tribune series — and came to pay their respects to his family.

“I’ll never forget the shocked look on their faces when I opened the door,” he said. “When I missed connections with the ill-fated Eastland, I realized I was a very lucky man. Nothing which has happened since has given me any reason to think otherwise.”

Amazingly, that might not have been the only time Halas and the Eastland crossed paths. After being raised, the ship was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve, which turned it into a gunboat and renamed it the USS Wilmette. In fact, it was used as a training vessel at Great Lakes Naval Station when Halas served there during World War I. Did George actually ride the waves on the Erstwhile Eastland when he wasn’t playing football for the Great Lakes Bluejackets (who, by the way, won the 1919 Rose Bowl)? There’s a good chance, yeah.

If so, he survived that encounter with the “death ship” as well. Though the Wilmette managed to stay afloat until it was sold for scrap in 1946, it was hardly a monument to engineering. Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent, had this memory of it from a reserve-duty stint in the ’20s: “It was still in sinking condition, I assure you. It constantly shied to the right, and once in a while felt as though it wanted to lie down in the water.”

Halas Yankees BoxOnce discharged from Great Lakes, Halas briefly played major-league baseball, getting 22 at bats with the 1919 (pre-Babe Ruth) Yankees before settling on pro football as a career. The rest, as they say, is history — volumes of it. It’s reasonable to wonder, though, how differently the NFL might look today if he’d caught the first boat leaving for the picnic.

Would the Decatur Staleys, the first team he ran, even have joined the league — and would they have moved to Chicago when A.E. Staley’s starch company, trimming expenses, stopped sponsoring them? The Windy City, after all, already had an NFL franchise: the Cardinals. Besides, how many towns could adequately support two clubs, particularly during the Depression?

So maybe, under another man’s direction, the Decatur Staleys would have remained an independent team — of which there were many in that era. And maybe, without Halas’ boundless energy and ambition, they would have disbanded when forced to go it alone in 1922. That’s right, the Chicago Bears might never have existed . . . and the Cardinals might be playing at Soldier Field.

Then there’s Halas’ pet project, the T formation. It turned the game on its head with its spread alignments, direct snap to the quarterback and man-in-motion. Nobody in the pro game — absolutely nobody — was tinkering with the T in the early days except George, who had played it in college at Illinois. Every other club was running the single wing and/or double wing. Heck, even the Bears included some single wing in their offensive mix. Without Papa Bear and collaborators Clark Shaughnessy and Ralph Jones, would the T have evolved, taken root the way it has? There are no guarantees.

It was also Halas who brought Hugh “Shorty” Ray into the league as a technical advisor. Ray, a former Big Ten official, had a huge — if below-the-radar — impact on pro football’s development. He tidied up the rulebook, increased the pace of the game and made it much more of an offensive show.

“Shorty Ray was the greatest thing I ever did for the National [Football] League,” Halas once said. “He was the smartest man in rules ever. He was a genius.”

Remove Ray from the equation and there’s no telling what shape pro football would be in today. In the single-platoon era, before he was hired, the games could be ponderous, low scoring and, in many ways, held back by the rules. By the time he was done, pro football was no longer a rattletrap of a Model A. It hummed. (Shorty, for instance, was the guy who told officials to speed things up by throwing the ball back to the line of scrimmage instead of carrying it back, which ate up time and cut down on the number of plays in a game.)

I could go on, but you get the idea. A century ago, five years before the NFL was born — when the pro game was decentralized and teams like the Massillon Tigers and Fort Wayne Friars roamed the earth — George Halas missed the proverbial boat, a boat that, for 844 cursed souls, took them only to The Hereafter. Exactly how and why this happened will never be fully known, which is part of the fascination of it. Something to think about as the league, America’s most successful by several touchdowns, gets ready to kick off its 96th season. What if.

The scene at the 2nd Regiment Armory.

The scene at the 2nd Regiment Armory.