Papa Bear George Halas is most famous for being the original head coach and eventually owner of the Chicago Bears, which he owned and/or coached from 1920 to his death in 1983.
However, Halas was not just a great football coach and owner – or, for that matter, a great football player, and he was that, too. He was also a first class outfielder that once so impressed the manager of the Yankees that he was added to the big league roster without having to serve an apprenticeship in the minors. And, he was a letter winning college basketball player.
George Stanley Halas was born 2 February 1895 to Frank and Barbara Halas. Both Frank and Barbara had been born in what used to be Bohemia (and later was part of Austria-Hungary and finally Czechoslovakia). Frank was a grocer and Barbara handled raising four kids – Frank, Jr., Lilly, Walter, and George. The last two were very successful athletes – both Walter and George played all sports while students at Crane Technical High School and later at the University of Illinois.
(Frank, Jr. was later a postmaster rising quickly through the postal ranks and his wife, Mary, would become the president of the woman’s auxiliary of National Federation of Postal Employees, working nationally to improve the pay for postal workers all over the country.)
Of the two younger sons, George was likely the better athlete. Walter was a fine baseball player, a strong pitcher who would pitch at the collegiate level, spend a couple of seasons in the low minors and in Chicago area semi-professional leagues, and eventually get into coaching at the high school and college level. In fact, Walter would eventually become a baseball and basketball coach at Notre Dame, and spent some of his fall time as an assistant football coach for Knute Rockne.
George, though, was an excellent player in three sports. As a baseball player, he was remarkably aggressive and fast. He could play any position on the field, though he rarely pitched or caught as his athleticism usually meant he was in the middle of the infield or the outfield. He played end and fullback at the University of Illinois, and walked onto the college basketball team and was so good defensively that he not only lettered in basketball, but he was voted captain as a junior.
As a freshman in Crane Tech, the high school indoor baseball team lost its best pitcher, Walter Halas, when Walter played in a game that included a professional player, though that player (Charlie Bird) was actually paid to be an umpire and not a player… Anyway, Halas took on some relief pitching duties, played shortstop and outfielder, and led Crane Tech to the county championship in 1910. They repeated the trick in 1912, going undefeated (by then Walter was a member of the Illini) for the season.
The 1910 Champion Crane Tech High School Indoor Baseball team. George Halas is in the bottom row, second from the left. His brother Walter isn’t pictured as he was kicked off the team for appearing in a game with a paid professional player in a church league game.
George was not just an aggressive player – he was TOUGH. Football was as savage as you can imagine and the limited padding of the days (and lack of hard helmets and face masks) led to frequent serious injuries. As a freshman at Illinois, Halas joined quarterback Potsy Clark as members of “The Order of the Broken Jaw” society – though Halas broke his jaw in two places. In later seasons, he would break his collarbone and a cheekbone playing football.
However, he shined equally brightly on the diamond. In 1916, Halas led his team by batting .312 and didn’t make a single error in the field. Illinois won the Big Nine baseball championship in consecutive seasons, creating a Midwestern baseball dynasty. Meanwhile, he was helping the basketball team become a powerhouse in the conference. Writers praised his effort: “Halas, without previous experience, has developed rapidly into a reliable guard,” wrote a Decatur Daily Review scribe. “Halas incidentally bids fair to be one of the greatest all round athletes in Illinois history, as he has won his letter in baseball and is certain to win a place on (Bob) Zuppke’s eleven this fall.”
In 1917, he would lead the baseball nine from the lead-off spot, adding a two homer game to beat the University of Chicago, and later that fall he would shift from right halfback to right end and wind up catching a key bomb for a touchdown to beat Purdue. In between, he would register for the draft by claiming he was the sole provider for his mom (Frank, Sr. had passed away) and would be using his engineering degree working for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (eventually merged into the Burlington Northern). This managed to stave off his service work for half a year – he finished school and joined the navy and was put into the public works department at the Great Lakes Naval Academy.
Of course, Halas was training to be in the navy – even though he had spent two years in college in cadet training. Meanwhile, though, the Great Lakes Naval Academy was also the finest athletic program in the military. His baseball team featured Red Faber and his football team included All Americans Hugh Blacklock (Michigan) and Paddy Driscoll (Northwestern). Driscoll himself was a multi-sport athlete. When not playing quarterback for Northwestern, he found himself signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1917 and spending some time in the Pacific Coast League. After former Yale footballer Bo Olcott was fired as the coach of the football team, Driscoll and Halas took over training the eleven and turned them into the nation’s championship military football team. The Great Lakes eleven finished the season playing in the Rose Bowl (the fifth Rose Bowl featured military teams, considering that we just concluded the first World War), with Halas earning the game’s Most Valuable Player award. (As an aside, Driscoll and Halas were both removed from that team briefly during the early practices for falling behind in their studies.)
Playing in Chicago for the Great Lakes nine, Halas was courted by both the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. However, his former baseball coach at Illinois, George Huff, told him to hold out for the best offer. And that offer came from a team that needed a new right fielder, the New York Yankees.
As 1919 started, there are a number of articles announcing Halas’s signing, but few praised him as much as that of umpire Billy Evans who gushed about Halas’s skills.
“I am inclined to think that when the New York Americans take the field for the opening game of the 1919 season, Halas will be in center field. Only lack of experience will keep him from landing the job, because he has remarkable ability to all departments.
“Halas is a graduate of [the] University of Illinois. That means Halas has a pretty good idea of how baseball should be played, because no college coach knows more baseball than George Huff, or knows better how to reach his players.”
“He is fast and a daring slider. He hits the dirt much after the style of Jack Murray, for years with the New York Giants. He hits the turf hard and at full speed, and on reaching the bag is instantly on his feet.” – Evans, Billy. “Watch George Halas Perform As Yankee, Tip by Billy Evans”, Chicago Tribune, 04 February 1919, Page 18.
Halas was a rugged six foot tall and weighed about 180 pounds in fighting trim. He was frighteningly fast – Ty Cobb without the mean spirit. Not only could he run, he could throw…
“When (Wally) Pipp had done enough, Huggins sent George Halas, the collegian gob athletic start, to the first corner, and the youngster shot the ball around the infield so fast that he had the other infielders yelling for help.” – New York Times, 26 March 1919.
And, he could hit for power…
“Halas is an outfielder by choice, but can also play first base and has the habit of hitting the ball out of the park…” – Logansport (IN) Pharos-Tribune, 28 March 1919.
And he hit from both sides of the plate.
“The debate is still on as to which side Halas should bat from. He seems to be ambidextrous in this regard, switching from port to starboard with baffling ease and celerity. Miller Huggins is of the opinion that it would be best for him to keep his club on the starboard side. Right now, though, he seems to be doing pretty well from either side.” – W.O. McGeehan, New York Tribune, 03 April 1919.
A wire copy photo of Halas during spring training in 1919 with the Yankees.
Unfortunately, after making such a big splash and being installed as the team’s leadoff hitter, Halas injured his leg or hip (it was called a Charley Horse) by stretching a double into a triple and missed most of the last two or three weeks of camp. When he finally was healthy enough to play, he lost the timing of his bat. He made four starts – got one hit in each of the first two starts, then went 0 – 5 against Walter Johnson (heck, the whole team managed two hits in twelve innings) and then was collared in four at bats with three strikeouts in the fourth start. The rookie was likely pressing.
Taken out of the lineup, he was given two shots to pinch run and in both cases was picked off by the pitcher right after entering the game. After mid-May, you didn’t see Halas in the lineup except as an occasional defensive replacement, pinch hitter, or pinch runner. He still had just two hits in twenty-two at bats when he was optioned to St. Paul for outfielder Al Wickland in July.
Halas spent the last two months of the season with St. Paul, batting .274 in 39 games with a modicum of power. Still, the Yankees kept him on their restricted list heading into 1920 – even after they signed another outfielder, Babe Ruth, from the Red Sox. Ruth didn’t replace Halas (Sammy Vick did), but since nobody had played well enough in right field all season, Ruth was needed to do what Halas, Vick and a few other failed to do. That being said, Halas was still in the Yankee’s plans. The hope was that Halas would come back and get better with another year of training.
Instead, Halas did what he always did when baseball season ended. He played football. He signed with the Hammond Crackerjacks – he was an end, Paddy Driscoll was the QB, and the line was loaded with various players from Midwest colleges – and they were likely the best professional football team in America, except – perhaps – for a couple of squads who played in the Ohio Football Association. Though the team claimed to be from Hammond, Indiana, the Hammonds played football in the baseball park where the Chicago Cubs played baseball.
When that season ended, Halas took a job with the Staley Manufacturing company – a starch plant owned by A. E. Staley in Decatur, Illinois. Staley was a HUGE sports junkie and his factory ran a number of semi-pro sports teams in all sports: basketball, football, baseball, and more. At first, Halas worked during the day and played baseball in the late afternoons and weekends.
Halas taking cuts during practice with the Decatur Staleys
This was no ordinary industrial league team. At second base was former Browns second baseman Ray Demmitt. Bobby Veach, like Halas, had a brother named Walter. Walter Veach was a minor league catcher now playing for the Staleys. The other ten players who played regularly all served time in various minor league levels. The manager would one day find his name in the Hall of Fame: Iron Man Joe McGinnity. Once in a while, Joe would pitch. Just not very often. And, for opening day they convinced a congressman and son of a former president to toss out the first pitch – William McKinley.
The Staleys rolled up win after win – and the best player on the team, by far, was George Halas. He led the team in batting at .328 – Demmitt was 35 points behind him. The leader in doubles? Homers? Stolen Bases? Yeah – Halas. The Yankees wanted him back but Halas declined. He had a great job, was being paid to play baseball, and could roll right into football or basketball season.
When the football season started in 1920, the Staleys landed perhaps two of the biggest coups imaginable. First, Halas convinced his old friend Paddy Driscoll to take a job with the Staley company. Then, knowing how skilled his team was – and with the financial backing of A. E. Staley – Halas, now the team’s head coach, and team/company secretary Morgan O’Brien were invited to Canton, Ohio by none other than Jim Thorpe to join with other professional football teams to form the American Professional Football Association.
Staley Right End, Coach, and Owner George Halas
This was the ground floor of what would eventually become the most powerful sports organization in the country – the National Football League. Halas’s one-time industrial football team would be the kings of the western professional football teams, but couldn’t quite get past Akron from the east. Akron would be the first “NFL” champion.
As winter turned to spring, Halas was invited to meet with the Yankees, but Halas was no longer interested. Staley put Halas in charge of all the sports run through Staley’s Decatur starch company. Halas played another season of baseball and then turned his attention to the football team in the fall. This time, though, the Staleys looked to expand. Instead of Decatur, the Staleys – who had moved a few football games in 1920 to Cubs Park – moved to Chicago permanently. A year later, Staley’s business fortunes required him to cut back on the sport programs and he gave Halas the independent reins of the football team. In 1921, the Chicago Staleys were renamed the Bears – Halas was already playing in Cubs Park and he figured he could piggyback some on the Cubs fame and name.
And, being an owner, a coach, and a player, Halas no longer had time to play baseball. That part of his career was now over.
US CENSUS DATA (1900, 1910, 1930, 1940)
World War I Draft Registration
“Crane Sure of First Place”, Chicago Tribune, 22 February 1910, Page 14.
“Another Chance for Halas”, Chicago Tribune, 22 March 1910, Page 14.
“Pitcher Halas Fails to Secure His Reinstatement”, Chicago Tribune, 23 March 1910, Page 14.
Prep. “Crane Retains Baseball Title”, Chicago Tribune, 07 April 1911, Page 20.
“Clean Slate for Crane Team”, Chicago Tribune, 08 March 1912, Page 9.
The Day Book (Chicago, IL), 08 November 1915, Page 11.
“Spirit is Missing at the U. of I.”, The Daily Review (Decatur, IL), 12 June 1916, Page 5.
“Three I Reserve List Is Issued”, The Daily Review (Decatur, IL), 09 October 1916, Page 5.
“Woods Twins Say Farewell”, Decatur Daily Review, 19 March 1917, Page 5.
“Illinois 8; Chicago, 4”, Chicago Tribune, 13 May 1917, Page 1.
“Zuppke Switches Lineup”, Indianapolis Star, 23 October 1917, Page 12.
“Purdue Falls When Illini Push Attack in Final Period”, Chicago Tribune, 28 October, 1917, Page 1.
“Postal Clerks Ask 25 Per Cent Increase in Pay”, Chicago Tribune, 26 November 1917, Page 3.
“Illini Star Joins Navy”, St. Louis Star and Times, 03 January 1918, Page 13.
“Illinois Wonder Enters Service”, The Decatur Herald, 04 January 1918, Page 4.
“Proceedings of Congress and Committees in Brief”, Washington Post, 22 February 1918 Page 6.
“Great Lakes Team Wins Ball Game”, Decatur Daily News, 26 July 1918, Page 5.
“Blacklock to be on Jackie Eleven”, Lansing State Journal, 13 August 1918, Page 10.
“Two Star Players are Lost by Jackies”, Lima (OH) News, 16 August 1918, Page 12.
“Today’s Casualty List”, Washington Herald, 28 August 1918, Page 3.
“Great Lakes Provides Two Players for Yanks”, Washington Times, 14 December 1918, Page 10.
Evans, Billy. “Watch George Halas Perform As Yankee, Tip by Billy Evans”, Chicago Tribune, 04 February 1919, Page 18.
“Yankees Have Grabbed Star in Halas, Says George Huff”, New York Tribune, 15 February, Page 19.
“Davenport High One of String Teams of State”, Des Moines Register, 3 March 1919, Page 6.
“Leonard Has Day to Sign Contract”, New York Times, 26 March 1919, Page 12.
“Halas and O’Doul Win Meal Tickets With The New York Yanks”, Logansport (IN) Pharos-Tribune, 28 March 1919, Page 14.
“Halas Looms Up in Yankees’ Practice and May Top Season’s Batting Order”, New York Times, 31 March 1919, Page 14.
McGeehan, W. O. “Yankees Turn Tables On Dodgers by Shutting Out Uncle Robbie’s Men”, New York Tribune, 02 April 1919, Page 17.
McGeehan, W. O. “Duffy Lewis Latest Victim of Charley Horse Epidemic”, New York Tribune, 03 April 1919, Page 17.
“Yankees Have Only One Man in Hospital”, Anniston (AL) Star, 07 April 1919, Page 6.
“Nary a Tally Crosses Plate For the Robins”, New York Tribune, 15 April 1919, Page 23.
“Sammy Vick Grabs Place in N.Y. Lineup”, Oregon Daily Journal, 11 May 1919, Page 20.
Harrisburg Evening News, 13 June 1919, Page 21.
“Two Major Players Released”, The Pittsburg (KS) Sun, 12 July 1919, Page 8.
“Pro Eleven Highly Paid”, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, 01 October 1919, Page 8.
Macbeth, W. J. “Al Wickland, ‘Red’ Smith, and George Halas Released”, New York Tribune, 25 February 1920, Page 10.
“Halas Will Not Report”, Des Moines Register, 22 March 1920, Page 4.
Chicago Tribune, 23 March, 1920, Page 15.
The Decatur Herald, 25 March 1920, Page 4.
“Starch Workers Have Class Aggregation”, Decatur Herald, 04 April 1920, Page 8.
“Staley Scouts After Players”, Decatur Herald, 23 May 1920, Page 9.
“Staleys Sign Paddie Driscoll For Eleven”, Decatur Daily Review, 26 July 1920, Page 5.
“Driscoll to Play With Staley Eleven”, Decatur Herald, 26 July 1920, Page 6.
“Walter Meinert Takes Big Jump”, Decatur Daily Review, 15 August 1920, Page 7.
“Halas Chosen Coach for Notre Dame Nine”, Muncie Star Press, 15 August 1920, Page 12.
“Two Star Tackles Are Secured For Staleys”, Decatur Daily Review, 26 August 1920, Page 5.
“Strong Grid League Plan”, Decatur Herald, 17 September 1920, Page 4.
“Staleys Enter Grid League”, Decatur Herald, 19 September 1920, Page 4.
“Halas Recalled”, Decatur Herald, 21 October 1920, Page 4.
“Starch Workers Win from Fast Rockford Grid Team 29 to 0”, Decatur Herald, 01 November 1920, Page 4.
Photo of Halas in Staley’s Uniform – Minneapolis Star Tribune, 14 November 1920, Page 35.
“Capt. Halas Closes Contract for Clash Sunday In Cub Park”, Decatur Herald, 30 November 1920, Page 4.
“George Halas In Full Charge”, Decatur Herald, 17 February 1921, Page 4.