Nov 25, 2020 4 min read

The greatest Thanksgiving game in Chicago history

It was not only one of the most important games in Chicago Bears history, but a turning point in the early survival of the NFL.

It attracted a sellout crowd to a place then known as Cubs Park, received attention from newspapers around the country and might've been the first (but not the last) time that Americans were infatuated with a pro football game played on Thanksgiving Day.

Yet not a single point was scored and the game ended in a tie.

That boring outcome still didn't change the fans' excitement that followed after the game or the historical significance of it going forward.

Thursday marks 95 years to the day that the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals fought to a 0-0 tie. The contest carries great weight because it was the pro debut for Red Grange, a star halfback from Wheaton who'd become a national hero after making three straight all-American teams at the University of Illinois.

And once Grange signed a pro contract to join forces in Chicago with player-coach and fellow Illini product George Halas, the sport would never be the same.

"Today brings a new era in professional football," read the Chicago Daily Tribune on the morning of November 26, 1925.  "Not many years back the pioneers of what until then had been a college institution started out on an apparently hopeless journey. The game had flourished in the small places where civic pride helped to swell the receipts. Then it took root in the large cities, notably Chicago, but its growth was slow and this morning when 35,000 pour in the Cub park (sic) the collegiate world will have to sit up and acknowledge that the pro game is here to stay."

* * *

As that last passage acknowledges, Grange entered the professional game in a much different sporting landscape for football. The college game was king and even the results of high school contests would often get higher billing in the papers than the outcomes of the pro contests played between factory workers in smaller Midwestern hamlets.

The pro game was so looked down upon that those who filled Memorial Stadium in Champaign to watch Grange wanted something "better" for their homegrown hero. Illini fans assumed he'd be off for Hollywood, a career in politics or building a traditional business on the power of his name and wealthy Illinois alums who'd love to be his teammate..

But the day after Grange played his final game — a 14-9 win over Ohio State in front of 74,000 people in Columbus — he signed a deal with the Bears giving him a salary and a share of the gate receipts. The deal was worth a reported $100,000, just a tad bit more than the $100 per game most players were taking home those days.

Grange's contract was negotiated by CC Pyle, a Champaign theater owner who'd sit on the sidelines with Grange and saw his future plans in a more positive light than other downstaters did.

Pyle should have felt that way, given that he was getting a healthy cut, but check out the shade that others close to Grange were throwing.

"I have nothing against professional football," Illinois coach Bob Zuppke said at the team's annual banquet a few days after Grange signed with the Bears. "The only thing I regret is that Red will no more graduate from Illinois than will the kaiser return to power in Germany ... Grange will pass on, he will be forgotten. I will tell you that no other $100,000 player is going to be on one of my teams."

The quote is crazy on its own. But consider that Grange himself was sitting just a few feet away from Zuppke as he made the remarks.

Uh, gee, thanks coach?

Zuppke's assertion about Grange being forgotten, of course, was hugely wrong. Chicagoans mobbed the Cubs offices in the Wrigley building and the Spalding sporting goods store on State and Adams when tickets were released. Priced between one and two dollars and sold only in pairs, they went quickly. Scalpers instantly commanded over five dollars for their tickets and 17 people were arrested on gameday for trying to sell counterfeit tickets outside the park.

RedGrangeandagent.jpg

The Cardinals and Bears played on Thanksgiving Day every year between 1922 and 1933, but the teams were rarely a big draw. According to ChicagoBears.com, the team's average attendance before Grange was only around 6,500 per game.

The Galloping Ghost changed that in 1925 and more than earned his share of the gate. For his debut, Cubs Park, which didn't yet have an upper deck, was packed to capacity with an estimated 6,000 people — the size of a normal game, previously — holding standing room tickets.

The crowd was there to see Grange break off one of his famous long runs didn't quite get what they came for. The Cardinals' stout defensive line held Grange — playing on just five days of rest — to just 36 rushing yards. Meanwhile, Cardinals kicker Paddy Driscoll aimed his punts away from Grange, causing the North Side to boo every time that he did. Grange finished the day with 56 return yards, an 0-for-6 day while throwing the ball and an interception while playing defense.

The game ended in a 0-0 tie, but it didn't damper the fans' enthusiasm for seeing Grange up close.

Wrote the Tribune's Don Maxwell: "When the pistol barked the end of the game, Grange was surrounded by Cardinal players. All wanted to shake hands and wish Red well in pro football. A few minutes later, hundreds of fans were galloping over the field to surround Grange. Police formed a flying wedge and rammed Red through to the dugout."

Grange and the Bears would play the Columbus Tigers at Cubs Park three days later before playing five games in eight days — no, that's not a typo — on a barnstorming tour.

Like I wrote before, it was a different time.

And while the NFL as we know it really wouldn't start taking root until the explosion of televised sports in the 1960s, Grange's first game provided the roots the young NFL was desperately seeking.

A cool postscript: In 2019, a trio of brothers from the North Shore were going through their father's belongings and found something incredible.

The footage predated anything the Bears previously had on file by 11 years and gives us a chance to get in a time machine and climb out during a pivotal Thanksgiving in NFL history, just 95 years ago.

Kevin Kaduk
Kevin Kaduk
Kevin is the founder of Midway Minute.

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