Tag Archives: helmetless players

The perils of Wrigley Field

While we’re sitting around playing solitaire, waiting for the NFL’s annual Free Agent Madness to begin, I thought I’d post something for your amusement.

In the first half of their existence (1921-70), before they moved to their current stadium/spaceship, the Bears played their home games at Wrigley Field. The place was built for the baseball, though, which made a football field a tight fit.

Close behind one end zone was the brick outfield wall. Close behind the other was the visitors’ dugout. Actually, the dugout was more than close behind; it intruded on the left corner of the end zone and made it shallower than the standard 10 yards.

In 1938 Dick Plasman, the last man to go without a helmet in the NFL, ran into the wall trying to catch a pass. He suffered a broken wrist, a cut-and-bruised head and who knows what else. (He also met his future wife — one of his nurses — in the hospital, so it wasn’t a total loss for him.) Here’s an AP photo of him being carried off:

Plasman being carried off

The dugout could be dangerous, too. A few years ago, Harlon Hill, a star wideout for the Bears in the ’50s, told the Chicago Tribune he once “hit a part of it” while scoring a touchdown. “It really hurt,” he said. “I tried to stop and I went half way over into the [box] seats.”

If you’re wondering what the end zone looked like with a dugout jutting into it, this screen shot from a 1944 Bears-Cleveland Rams game gives you a rough idea:Wrigley dugout intruding on EZ in 1944

Finally, here’s the video of the play leading up to the screen shot. The target is the Rams’ Jim Benton, one of the top receivers in those years — and a guy you could make a decent Hall of Fame case for. Unlike Hill, his momentum didn’t carry him into the dugout (which looks like it was covered with either canvas or thick plastic). But as you can see, he had to slam on the brakes to keep from falling into the stands.

OK, back to solitaire.

Helmetless players on parade #2

As you may already know, one of my hobbies is gathering photos of early NFL players plying their trade without a helmet. I do this because (a.) they were nuts;  (b.) it serves as reminder of how far the game has come.

Back in November I posted a shot of Link Lyman, the Bears’ Hall of Fame tackle, standing bareheaded on a goal line play. Today — thanks, once again, to The New York Times — we have Redskins tackle Jim Barber (15) running around, sans headgear, against the Giants in 1939. (Barber, by the way, was a first-team all-pro that season.)12-4-39 NYT Helmetless Redskin Jim Barber

What I’m not sure of is whether Barber played without a helmet all the time or just occasionally. Some guys would shed their headgear if it was a really hot day — clearly not the case here (it was December 3) — or if the action on the field got particularly contentious.

The legendary Ernie Nevers was famous for the latter. It was his way of saying, “All righty, then. Let’s get down to business!”

Helmetless players on parade #1

From time to time, since we’re in the midst of The Great Concussion Discussion, I’ll post photos I’ve come across of helmetless NFL players from the early days. The league didn’t make headgear mandatory until 1943 — two years before socks were required, by the way. Which makes you wonder: How did we get from there to the Fashion Police?

I found this photo the other day while nosing around The New York Times’ archives. It’s from a Giants-Bears game at the Polo Grounds in November 1934. The big bareheaded fellow in the middle, watching Ken Strong score a touchdown for New York, is Chicago’s left tackle, Link Lyman. We know this because, if you blow the photo up, you can see he’s wearing No. 12. That was Lyman’s number, according to the Bears’ media guide that year.

So we have a Hall of Famer scoring and a Hall of Famer, sans helmet, unable to prevent him from scoring. Nice. (In Link’s defense, it looks like the play might have been run away from him.)

But here’s what’s even better: Lyman’s NFL career began in 1922 with the Canton Bulldogs, who won the title his first three seasons. (They were the Cleveland Bulldogs in ’24.) Strong’s career, meanwhile, ended in 1947, by which time he was 41 and strictly a kicking specialist. So when you’re looking at this photo, looking at Lyman and Strong, you’re essentially looking at the first quarter-century of the NFL.

Link Lyman helmetless, 1934

Note, too, in the background, how every seat seems to be filled — in the depths of the Depression, no less. The Times put the crowd at 55,000.

“[Bears running back] Red Grange, who attracted professional football’s largest crowd of more than 60,000 back in 1925, did not even get into the game as a substitute,” the newspaper reported. “Giant[s} officials clamed that yesterday’s crowd was the largest, college or professional, to see a football game in New York this year.”

Pro football in 1934 wasn’t quite the colossus it would become in the postwar years, but it was getting there.