Chicago Bears: A ‘Decade-by-Decade History’ Book

After spending months combing through nearly 100 years of archival photographs and newspaper articles, the Chicago Tribune is releasing a comprehensive look at the Windy City's football team.

The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Bears: A Decade-by-Decade History features material that’s been unseen for decades, like a first-hand series penned for the Tribune by George Halas.

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Joe Knowles, associate managing editor for sports at the Tribune, joins Chicago Tonight to talk about what fans can expect from the book.

Scouring the archives

George Halas, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Walter Payton: For Chicago Bears fans, those aren’t just names. They’re legends.

A new book from the Chicago Tribune follows the team’s tumultuous history from the 1920s until today. It features rare archival photos and articles, many that haven’t seen the light of day for years.

The project began nearly a year ago deep in the bowels of the Tribune Tower downtown. The building’s five subfloors once were home to enormous rolls of paper that came in from the Chicago River. Now, they’re home to the Tribune’s extensive – but not always well-organized – archives.

“We were digging through the archives, we realized there was a lot of interesting stuff in there that we were not even completely aware existed,” said Joe Knowles, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports.

While photo editor Marianne Mather was assembling photographs for the Bears book, she uncovered plenty of other forgotten material of note, including archival images of the Eastland Disaster the paper made public earlier this year. And in digging through historical articles, Knowles found long-unseen gems, too.

“For example, we found a first-person series George Halas had written for the Tribune in the early days of the Bears and the NFL,” Knowles said.

They also uncovered historical anecdotes that even many die-hard fans might not know – like that then-Cubs president Bill Veeck, Sr. encouraged Halas to move his fledgling league’s games to Sundays so as not to compete with the behemoth that was college football.

Because the Tribune has covered the team since its inception, “the hardest part was figuring out what to leave out and what to leave in,” Knowles said. “This book could have been twice the size, but we wanted to make sure people can carry it home!”

Knowles said it struck him while working on the book how many Bears greats like Butkus and Sayers were standout players on sometimes less-than-stellar teams. He was also struck by the often “anachronistic” writing style in many of the older articles, and by the in-depth coverage of star players like Payton.

“I don’t know if the players you see on today’s team have a connection with fans like that,” Knowles said. “He was a great person, and the access we had to Payton – the interviews he did, the stories we were able to write, we don’t get that now.

“It’s something people can enjoy, looking back at the stories about those players and getting to know them a little more as people.”

Below, an excerpt of the book.

The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Bears: A Decade-by-Decade History



By Don Pierson

In Chicago, the Bears win every year whether they win or not. Their grip on the city spans generations and cultures, endures disappointments, and celebrates triumphs great and small. 

Professional football was practically born in Chicago, nurtured by George Halas through the Depression and a world war until it not only caught baseball but surpassed everything on the sports landscape. 

Unlike the White Sox and Cubs, whose fans find it agonizing to embrace each other even through a rare World Series victory, the Bears unite the city. It took six basketball titles for the upstart Bulls to join a parade that the Bears lead, even through years of failure. 

Once upon a time, there were the Chicago Cardinals, and before that the Racine Cardinals, who preceded Halas’ Bears onto the fledgling pro football scene. 

Halas, however, not only was born and raised in Chicago, he became Chicago, and his Bears, named after his boyhood favorite Cubs, soon captured the imagination of a city that was growing as fast as the sport. 

Pro football’s roots are in the coal mines and steel mills, where men with broad shoulders and thick wrists found common ground with the work ethic of small towns and farms. When the sport moved to America’s big cities, it quickly appealed to ethnic populations who could relate to the adversity and hard labor indigenous to every single football game ever played. 

The game was made for Chicago, in Chicago, by a Chicagoan. 

“My wife likes to tell me everything starts in the Midwest,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose wife, Jane, daughter of former U.S. Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner, is a Chicagoan. 

Chicago Bears head coach George Halas. (Photo © Chicago Tribune)Chicago Bears head coach George Halas. (Photo © Chicago Tribune)

Halas represented the Decatur Staleys when he traveled to Canton, Ohio, in 1920 to organize the forerunner of the NFL. He moved the franchise to Chicago in 1921 and it became the Bears in 1922. 

Halas signed University of Illinois star Red Grange from Wheaton to go on a 1925 national tour that helped promote pro football from New York City to Los Angeles.

In 1932, the NFL’s first playoff game was between the Bears and Portsmouth Spartans on an 80-yard field at Chicago Stadium. The game was moved indoors because of snow, and the Bears won when Bronko Nagurski threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Grange.

In attendance was Halas’ only daughter, nine-year-old  Virginia, who became the matriarch of the McCaskey family that now owns the franchise, keepers of a unique heritage.

In 1934, the Tribune sponsored the first College All-Star Game between the NFL champions and college stars. The Bears were held to a scoreless tie in the inaugural game, starting a tradition that lasted until 1976 and strengthened Chicago’s bond with pro football.

The Bears became the Monsters of the Midway by dominating the sport with four NFL titles in the 1940s, starting with a 73-0 championship victory over Washington that reverberates to this day by popularizing the T-formation that is still the foundation for modern offenses.

Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus. (Photo © Chicago Tribune)Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus. (Photo © Chicago Tribune)

The next year, “Bear Down, Chicago Bears,” was written by Al Hoffman, who also wrote, “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake.” Never have so many Bears fans learned and sung the words as this season, when they were displayed on Soldier Field video screens after every score.

Despite seven winning seasons in the 1950s, the Bears reached only one championship game, in 1956, when Paddy Driscoll had taken over coaching duties from Halas for two seasons.

After Halas returned, he coached one more title team in 1963, a team that included tight end Mike Ditka. After Halas traded Ditka and left the sidelines himself at 73 because of a bad hip, the team declined until Halas’ son, George “Mugs” Halas, hired Jim Finks as general manager in 1975 “to run the show.”

When Halas brought back Ditka to coach a team loaded with talent drafted by Finks, the Bears of the 1980s rekindled the city’s passion into a full-blown love affair.

The Super Bowl champions of the 1985 season were like the Grange tour in boosting nationwide popularity.

It was a team that literally grabbed microphones and rode a wave of media attention that is still cresting. In their primitive efforts to record a slick, ground-breaking video, they still looked like Ditka’s “Grabow-skis” in the “Super Bowl Shuffle.”

The 1990s tested the devotion of even their most ardent fans until Ed and Virginia McCaskey reorganized and once again allowed outsiders Ted Phillips and Jerry Angelo “to run the show.” Like it or not, the rebuilt Soldier Field is testimony to the team’s status in civic affairs.

Throughout the decades, the Bears’ style of play has matched the style of the city—tough, cold, fundamental, relentless. It’s a style distinguished by defense and middle linebackers, running backs and linemen, and only an occasional quarterback capable of navigating the Windy City.

Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. (Photo © Chicago Tribune)Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. (Photo © Chicago Tribune)

When a coach named Lovie arrived, the name seemed out of place among the Bronkos and Bulldogs and Butkuses. But Lovie Smith’s no-nonsense, hard-hitting, straight-shooting, blue-collar philosophy of football got the Bears to their second Super Bowl in 2006. Smith became a victim of his own early success and when the team failed to reach the playoffs in five of his final six seasons, it left the Bears longing  for more.

Phil Emery replaced Angelo as general manager and hired Marc Trestman as coach and when that experiment quickly fell short, the Bears didn’t hesitate to change again in the pursuit of excellence. Chairman George McCaskey and Phillips hired 37-year-old Ryan Pace from the New Orleans Saints organization as the new general manager. Pace had no ties to the Bears and when he brought in veteran John Fox, it marked the first time the Bears had ever hired a head coach with previous NFL head coaching experience.

Fox guided the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos to Super Bowls and quickly addressed his mission in Chicago.

“That trophy looks pretty lonely out there in the hallway,” he said.

Reprinted with permission from The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Bears edited by The Chicago Tribune Staff, Agate Midway 2015. 

In January, the Chicago Bears hired John Fox, former head coach for the Denver Broncos, as the team’s 15th head coach. Fox is the first head coach hired by the Chicago Bears who has previous experience as a head coach (with the exception of George Halas).

Scroll over the image and click the red dots to learn more about the team’s head coaches.  

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