For many Americans, the year 1929 ushered in the darkest era
in their lifetimes, as the infamous stock market crash in October of that year
signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. Although it took a world war on
a scale never before seen to truly fix the economy, it steadily improved
through the decade of the 1930’s.
Likewise, the fortunes of the Chicago Bears Football Club
hit a low point in the year 1929 when the team finished with a losing record
(4-9) for the first time in their history. To say the Bears also steadily
improved through the decade would technically be correct, but would minimize
the accomplishment of the warriors the team fielded in the early 1930’s.
Simply put, the 1930’s Bears revolutionized the game and
morphed into another team ready to take the league by storm again the following
Following the 1929 season, Chicago Bears co-owners and
coaches George Halas and Dutch Sternaman decided to turn their coaching duties
over to someone else for the first time, and also gave up playing on the field.
They wanted to focus their attentions on running the business, which was
becoming more challenging given the state of the American economy.
Halas reached back into his roots when he hired Illinois
assistant coach Ralph Jones to be the team’s first “non-Halas” head coach. Upon
his hiring, Jones boldly promised Halas he would bring the owner a championship
within three years.
Jones didn’t waste any time jumping into the task at hand.
Halas believed that the Bears had become boring and predictable on offense at
times, so Jones invested a lot of time retooling that side of the line. To that
point football was mostly an up-the-middle power game, so Jones worked on
opening things up.
He first lined the quarterback directly under center, the
first time this had been done. Next, he spaced out the offensive line and
devised blocking schemes that would open holes in the defense. This allowed
star halfback Red Grange-and rookie Bronko Nagurski-to scoot through the line
to daylight. Plays were even devised for “The Bronk” to fake a run and throw a
In the first season of the new decade, the Bears finished
9-4-1. Although they defeated Green Bay in the season’s final game, the Packers
were awarded the league championship for having a better overall record than
In 1931, the Bears finished 8-5, but bigger news developed
during the offseasons both prior and after that campaign. With the Great
Depression in full swing, Halas’ partner Dutch Sternaman wanted out. Not heavy
on cash himself, Halas needed to scrape together every dime he had, plus money
from private investors, to buy out Sternaman’s share for $38,000. The two
owners drafted a plan for Halas to pay his co-founder $25,000 in July 1931, and
two further payments in January and July of 1932. The fine print stated that
were Halas unable to fulfill terms of the deal, full ownership of the club
would revert to Sternaman at Noon on August 9, 1932.
Halas later told biographers that he thought the fine print
in the contract was merely “legal hocus-pocus,” but when August 9th dawned he
found out differently. $5,000 short of the payment to Sternaman and out of
resources, he seemed resigned to the fact that he would lose his “beloved
Bears.” By chance at 11 a.m., C.K. Anderson, president of a bank in Antioch, IL
called and agreed to loan Halas the remaining $5,000. The new full owner had
just enough time to get the money and run to the office of Sternaman’s lawyer.
With financial matters now settled, the 1932 Bears embarked
on helping Jones fulfill his promise to Halas, to win a championship within
three years. The team started the season with three ties and a 2-0 loss at
Green Bay, but unbeknownst to all would not lose another game for 16 straight
weeks. After beating the Staten Island Stapletons 27-7 on October 23, Chicago
tied three more games but also won five to finish the regular season 6-1-6
(ties were not counted in the standings, a practice that continued in the NFL
With incredibly brutal weather bearing down on Chicago, the
Bears were set to host the Portsmouth Spartans (later to become the Detroit
Lions) for the NFL Championship. Due to the unrelenting conditions, the teams
agreed to play the game inside Chicago Stadium. This had also been done as an
exhibition in 1930, luckily. The Bears were also fortunate to learn that the
Spartans’ star player, quarterback Dutch Clark, could not play in the game, as
he was due to start his offseason job. On an 80-yard field covered in mud and
animal dung (the circus had been in town), Chicago won its second championship
by defeating Portsmouth 9-0.
Having kept his promise to Halas, Jones left the Bears to
become athletic director at Lake Forest College in that Illinois town. Halas
decided to take the team back over as coach for “a few more years”, and the
team didn’t miss a beat. That would be an understatement, as the team won six
more games before losing, putting their unbeaten streak at 16 weeks. The team
finished the 1933 season with four straight wins, then a championship game
victory over the New York Giants in Chicago. The Bears were now NFL Champions
two years in a row.
Chicago finished the ’33 season with five straight wins,
then swept through the 1934 season a perfect 13-0. That Bears team held the
record for most consecutive victories-18-until it was broken during the 2004
season by the New England Patriots. In a championship game rematch, this time
at New York against the Giants, the Bears were embarrassed 30-13. The game was
played on an ice-coated field, and at halftime the Giants changed to running
shoes, which they felt gave them more traction than cleats. After the loss,
Halas vowed never to play without a full change of shoes available for his
From 1935-1938, the Bears compiled a 30-13-3 record but
didn’t win any championships. Red Grange had retired following the 1934
campaign, Nagurski left after 1937 (he would make a brief re-appearance the
following decade), and the team also lost Bill Hewitt and Beattie Feathers, the
first running back in history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. The NFL
draft began in 1936.
In 1938 and ’39, Halas hired University of Chicago head
coach Clark Shaughnessy to share some of his offensive ideas with the Bears. In
the process, Halas’ club revamped its attack, changing the classic
“T-Formation” (this formation was long used in college and pro football, the
Bears simply refined it in the 40’s) into a scoring machine.
To help with this transformation, in 1939 Halas traded with
Pittsburgh to acquire an extra first-round pick, and drafted quarterback Sid
Luckman from Columbia. Next he picked back Bill Osmanski, and during that
season, the team won their final four games, scoring 27 points per game on the
year, and were poised to dominate the league in the next decade.
Head Coaches: Ralph Jones, 1930-1932;
George Halas 1933-1939
Championships: 1932, 1933
Records: Best 13-0, 1934 (lost championship
game); Worst 6-5, 1938