You stumble across some strange things in the cobwebbed corners of pro football history. They don’t get much stranger, though, than this particular episode.
It involves the 1934 Chicago Bears, one of the greatest teams ever assembled. The Bears were 13-0 that season and had five future Hall of Famers — Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Bill Hewitt, Link Lyman and George Musso — not to mention the NFL’s first 1,000-yard rusher, Beattie Feathers. Heading into the title game against the Giants, they’d won 18 in a row (and the last two championships), the longest winning streak in league history up to then.
But after beating the Giants in New York on Nov. 18 to run their record to 10-0, they came home to the following story in the Chicago Tribune:How’s that for an off-field distraction? Both players were rookies. Masterson was just a backup, but Feathers was one of the club’s best-known players and averaged an incredible 8.4 yards a carry in ’34.
An accompanying story provided more detail. The woman, “known as Nell Walker,” was 26 years old and “a former showgirl.”
Her leap to death in the street below was the second tragedy of the kind within five days. The other death was that of Lucille Nolan, 21-year-old nightclub hostess, who jumped last Wednesday from the 17th floor of the Medinah Club of Chicago.
Miss Walker, before her eight-story leap, dramatically attracted the attention of passersby by screaming as she stood in the window. Her falling body narrowly missed two persons.
Police hurried to question the occupants of the eighth-floor apartment. . . . They included Miss Walker’s sister, Mrs. Thelma Walker Smith, 22 years old; Lucille Moyse of 820 Grace Street, Mrs. Alice Bennett, former Detroit nightclub hostess, and Mary Frances Smith, 6-year-old niece of the dead woman.
The women told of having been celebrating the 10 to 9 victory of the Bears over the Giants in New York. They said Miss Walker was especially happy because “she had a sweetheart on the Bears team.”
After the radio reports of the game had ended, Miss Walker dispatched a telegram of congratulation to Bernie Masterson, former University of Nebraska star.
Then, the other women told police, Miss Walker insisted on having a celebration, opened a bottle of liquor and became intoxicated.
Just before she took the fatal leap through the window she because hysterical and Miss Moyse, who is a trained nurse, gave her a shower bath. Then Miss Walker donned a pair of black pajamas, apparently more composed.
Walker was reportedly estranged from her husband and “had been brooding over it,” Bennett, her roommate, told police. Bennett also said Walker was, in the words of the Tribune, “inordinately interested in Miss Nolan’s tragic plunge” and “once before had tried to climb through the window.”
There were two games left in the Bears’ regular season — both against the Lions, their chief competition in the West Division. After disposing of Detroit, they began preparing for the championship game against the Giants. On Thursday of that week — 80 years ago today — this short item ran in the Tribune:
Temporary insanity due to excessive drinking. You don’t see that every day.
The Bears’ trip to New York didn’t end so well, either. The Giants, who switched to sneakers in the second half because of the icy field, outscored them 27-0 in the fourth quarter to pull a 30-13 upset. Feathers didn’t play because of an injury; Masterson, meanwhile, saw only brief action off the bench. The loss kept Chicago from winning its third straight title, which would have tied the league mark (one that still stands).
Nobody’s suggesting the “showgirl death” had anything to do with the defeat. It’s just my way of saying: Pro football has always been a circus — even in the 1930s, when hardly anyone was watching.