Warren G. Harding was president, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had just been dedicated in Washington and “The Bears Still Suck Polka” was 70 years away from being recorded by Manitowoc’s Happy Schnapps Combo.
Only Wrigley Field was then named Cubs Park. Not only did it not yet have ivy, it didn’t even have an upper deck.
And the Bears?
Well, they were named the Chicago Staleys.
Those are just two of the things that have changed between that first contest and Thursday’s Bears-Packers opener which represents the 199th meeting of the NFL’s longest-running rivalry.
The Staleys won that first meeting 20-0 before an estimated crowd of 7,000. Ohio State All-American Pete Stinchcomb scored the first touchdown on a 45-yard run, while player/coach George Halas capped the scoring for the Staleys with a touchdown reception.
Fans who attended that game likely wouldn’t recognize the game in 2019 with its giant stadiums, oversized players and everyone staring at their phones for their latest fantasy updates.
But today’s fans would also be shocked by professional football in the 1920s, a stop-and-go formative era where future success was anything but guaranteed.
As the NFL celebrates the kickoff of its 100th season, here are a few notable things from the first Bears-Packers game.
The Bears were still getting comfortable in Chicago
The Bears were born in 1919 as the Decatur (Ill.) Staleys with cornstarch baron A.E. Staley providing the funding for a team comprised of factory workers and led by Halas, a recent University of Illinois graduate who was paid $50 a week to coach.
After two years, Staley realized that keeping the team in Decatur would limit the success of a team in a sport that was rapidly growing in popularity. But Staley also acknowledged that a guy who made his living selling cornstarch was probably not the one to take a football team in search of success in the big city.
So Staley made Halas a deal. He’d pay the team’s salaries the next season and send Halas up to Chicago with $5,000 on the condition the team retain the Staleys name for just one season.
The plan worked. Not only would Halas’ franchise thrive in Chicago as a charter franchise, but Staley got the advertising he was looking for. Players for the Staleys were often referred to as “the cornstarchers.”
The NFL was not yet the NFL — both literally and figuratively
The NFL officially organized in 1920 as the “American Professional Football Association” but wouldn’t be renamed the NFL until 1922. There were 21 teams in the league in 1921, many of them based around factories in smaller Midwestern cities like Canton, Evansville, Hammond and Muncie. A team based in Tonawanda, New York, lasted just a single game before folding.
While the Staleys/Bears were a charter member of the association that would become the NFL, the Packers did not join the APFA until the second season.
Green Bay, however, has already celebrated its centennial season as the Packers began life as a semipro team in 1919. They would prove Staley wrong about not being able to survive in a small market, though not without a lot of help from the community. The formation of the Green Bay Football Corporation in 1922 helped the team get through its first set of financial problems.
The first Bears-Packers game was NOT a big deal
If you go through the pages of that day’s Chicago Tribune, you’ll notice something peculiar. There isn’t a single mention of that day’s game from a preview to even a small line on a schedule. The game story detailing the Staleys’ win in the next day’s paper was just five paragraphs long. It’s even more strange considering that the Bears won the APFA title that year with a 9-1-1 record.
That’s not to say football wasn’t a big deal in the city. The Trib’s sports page was dominated by the naming of the all-Big Ten team as well as game stories from high school football games.
“FOOTBALL DEATH TOLL DROPS TO 13, MOSTLY SCHOOLBOYS,” read another front page story.
But pro football, still in its infancy, didn’t warrant the same amount of coverage in the Chicago papers as the college and prep ranks.
Two-way was the only way
The Bears and Packers will play Thursday’s game with 53 players on each roster, but the 1921 squads had only a little more than half that number — combined. Newspapers of the day reported that 15 men suited up for the Staleys while 13 Packers saw action.
Specialization was still far in the future as were things like facemasks. Despite the primitive nature of the game, one Tribune editorial lamented that the game had lost its tough-guy edge (some things never change) with the introduction of concepts like the forward pass.
The teams’ colors were different
While the Bears’ blue and orange has become as iconic as Green Bay’s green and gold, neither team wore their familiar colors.
The Staleys wore red jerseys and gold pants before Halas introduced the blue and orange after changing the team’s name to the Bears in 1922. The Packers, meanwhile, wore the blue and gold of the Acme Packing Co. The team wouldn’t switch to green and gold until the 1935 season.
Packers fans were recognized even then for their intensity
Though Chicago papers didn’t cover the game comprehensively, the Green Bay Press-Gazette devoted a large amount of Monday’s front page to what transpired in Chicago.
Of apparent chief interest to those back home was the activities of roughly 500 Green Bay fans who made the trip for the game. After staying at a hotel in the Loop, the group was led north by a 20-member band dressed like lumberjacks. According to the paper, Packers fans made a constant ruckus during the game, leading a few observers to rethink the stereotype of professional football fans not being as passionate as their college counterparts.
“Never in my experience have I ever witnessed a better display of spirit,” Chicago sportswriter Ed Smith told the Press-Gazette. “I have often been told that Green Bay was one of the best sporting towns in the northwest. I believe it now and one thing is sure hereafter whenever a Green Bay team comes to Chicago they will be given a warm welcome.”
Well, maybe the rivalry didn’t turn out quite that way.
But at least it started from a good place.
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