Sports History

A Century of Chicago Bears Football

By: Julius L. Jones
Oct 21 2019

The 2019 National Football League season marks the centennial for both the league and a few original teams, including our very own Chicago Bears. To commemorate the occasion, assistant curator Julius L. Jones compiled some highlights from the Bears’ first century using artifacts and images in the Chicago History Museum’s collection.

The Chicago Bears began as the Decatur Staleys in 1920 as the charter franchise of the American Professional Football Association. The Staleys, an industrial team sponsored by the A. E. Staley Company, played in the central Illinois town of Decatur until moving to Chicago the following year and winning their first NFL Championship. In Chicago, the team adopted the nickname Bears in 1922 and took up residence at Weeghman Park, the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which was renamed Wrigley Field in 1927. Chicago Bears players (from left) Frank Hanny, Harold “Red” Grange, and Jim McMillen at Weeghman Park, 1925. SDN-065677, Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, CHM


An undated photograph of the Bears versus the San Francisco 49ers at Wrigley Field, the team’s home for fifty seasons. They moved to Soldier Field in 1971. CHM, ICHi-034862


The Bears won the NFL championship again in 1932, 1933, and 1940. This football (CHM, 1968.985) was used in the 1940 NFL Championship Game in Washington, DC, on December 8, 1940, where the Bears beat the Washington Redskins 730. The score remains the most lopsided victory in NFL history. The Bears would go on to win in 1941, 1943, 1946, and 1963, bringing the team’s total championship wins to eight.


George Halas was not only the founder of the Chicago Bears, he was also a player (1920–1929) and served as coach (1920–67). Known as “Papa Bear,” Halas owned the team until his death in 1983, at which time his daughter, Virginia Halas McCaskey, succeeded him as owner, a position she still holds today. In the above photograph, Halas poses with an armful of footballs at the opening of a sporting goods store in Chicago, December 10, 1947. CHM, ICHi-065126


The Bears haven’t always been the only football team in town. They vied for fans with the Chicago Cardinals until 1959 when the Cardinals moved to St. Louis. This photograph was taken in November 1959 during the last crosstown matchup between the two teams. CHM, ICHi-22406; J. Johnson Jr., photographer


After their success in the 1940s, the Bears struggled, missing the playoffs from 1964 to 1976. In this photograph, Bears quarterback Rudy Bukich (#10) leads the team through practice at Wrigley Field, November 4, 1965. SDN-110001660023, Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, CHM


The team’s fortunes began to turn around when they drafted Walter Payton in 1975. In this undated photograph, Walter Payton breaks a tackle from the Green Bay Packers. CHM, ICHi-063777


Walter Payton's football jersey, number 34
During his thirteen-year career, Payton broke nearly every NFL rushing record and earned the nickname “Sweetness” for his unique running style and friendly personality. A nine-time Pro Bowl Selection and 1977 Most Valuable Player, Payton was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Sadly, Payton died of a rare liver disease in 1999 at the age of forty-five. Tens of thousands of mourners packed into Soldier Field for his memorial service while millions more watched on television. Home jersey worn by no. 34 Walter Payton. CHM, ICHi-066522


This helmet was worn by Mike Singletary, who played linebacker for the Chicago Bears from 1981 to 1992. He was part of the Bears’ vaunted defensive line during his career and his play earned him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998. Bears helmet. CHM, 1986.178.1e


Defensive lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry scored a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers on November 3, 1985. Due to his massive size, the Fridge was often called on the run to catch the ball when the Bears were near the goal line. SDN-500042200158, Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, CHM


The Bears’ 1985 season and its players are legendary: they set a record of fifteen wins to only one loss. At the height of their popularity and during the regular season, the confident team recorded the song and music video “The Super Bowl Shuffle” to raise money for charity. Chicagoans embraced the team’s exuberance and looked forward to a long-awaited Super Bowl match and victory. “The Super Bowl Shuffle” record cover. CHM, ICHi-075999


White pennant in triangle shape, with blue, red and orange print. Two helmet m.dngs are depicted and read "New England/Patriots/vs./Chicago/Bears" Superbowl emblem that reads "Super/XX/Bowl/" next to "Louisiana Superdome/New Orleans/January 26, 1986." Pennant was made for Super Bowl XX, won by the Chicago Bears.
Their bravado was backed up when the Bears won a dominant 4610 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Super Bowl XX pennant. CHM, 1990.88.3.


The players and coach Mike Ditka were hailed as heroes at the Super Bowl victory parade on January 27, 1986. SDN-500043270073, Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, CHM


Chicago sports fans braved the frigid cold to celebrate a rare sports championship victory at a ticker tape parade in the Loop, January 27, 1986. CHM, ICHi-036236


The Bears made it to the Super Bowl again in 2007. This time, however, they fell short, losing to the Indianapolis Colts 29–17. But as patient Chicago sports fans know, if they wait ’til next year, that elusive championship just might happen! Tickets to the NFC Championship Game (left) and to Super Bowl XLI (right). CHM, GV945 C21 M5Z Oversized

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