By Mark Schmeltzer
For those old enough to have picked sides in Chicago’s crosstown football rivalry of yore between the Wrigley-based Bears and the Comiskey-based Cardinals, certain commonly accepted local sports truisms don’t ring quite so true.
One is that Chicago is and always has been exclusively a Bears town, and that the Monsters of the Midway are that one thing that could always unite even the most antagonistic Cubs and Sox fans.
Another is that the storied Bears-Packers rivalry is the league’s oldest.
And finally, they would dispute the notions that only one of our city’s teams was ever forced by a mystical curse to wander a championship-free wilderness for generations, and that another was the only team ever involved in a corrupted championship.
While not as widely publicized today as the infamous Black Sox Scandal that rocked professional baseball in 1919, a controversy surrounding the 1925 NFL championship did threaten to undermine the foundations of a very young league, which had only been formed in 1920. But like the earlier scandal in baseball, the 1925 football affair also involved a Chicago team. And it is believed by some that the citizens of a small town in Pennsylvania placed a curse on it as punishment for its alleged theft of the NFL crown.
The Chicago Cardinals, along with the Decatur Staleys, were among the league’s original members. Player-manager George Halas moved the team to Chicago the following year where it won its first league championship. That team was redubbed the Bears the year after that, a nod to their stadium hosts, the Chicago Cubs. These were the early days of a spirited and historic rivalry between the league’s only remaining original teams, which has spanned 98 years and three cities.
Following their 1921 championship, the Bears were second-place runners up each of the next three years. But 1925 looked like it might be the Cardinals’ turn to reach the top. They would have to find a way around a December 6th loss to the Pottsville (PA) Maroons, a result which gave that team a better record.
In those early days of the league, the championship was decided not by a final head-to-head contest, but rather by the team with the best record at season’s end. To boost their rankings in the standings, however, clubs could also schedule extra games late into December, preferably against lesser opponents.
That’s what Cardinals’ owner Chris O’Brien decided to do when he arranged two additional games against the Hammond Pros and the 0-6 Milwaukee Badgers. O’Brien later claimed his real motivation was to entice the crosstown Bears to accept another contest, which would increase team revenue. The Bears, who had acquired the wildly popular Red Grange from the University of Illinois that year, were a big fan draw.
Complicating matters for O’Brien was the fact that both of the invited teams had already disbanded for the season. The Badgers’ owner Ambrose McGuirk lived in Chicago, adding to his challenge of reassembling his team to play the Cardinals. O’Brien’s account in the Chicago Daily Tribune in late December was that he had wondered aloud whether McGuirk would be able to field a full team, and that this had been overheard by the Cardinals star quarterback Art Folz. Folz, he said, offered to scrounge up some extra men to keep the contest on the schedule.
Folz said publicly that he intended to recruit some old teammates from Englewood High who were now playing professionally. While visiting his alma mater to talk with some of its young players, he convinced four boys, Charles Richardson, William Thompson, Jack Daniels, and James Snyder, to participate in the game for Milwaukee and furnished them with Badgers jerseys. The already inferior opponent was now further diminished by four young amateurs and would provide little resistance to the Cardinals’ quest to best Pottsville in the standings.
But sometimes a scheme can succeed too well.
On December 10, the Cardinals trounced the rag-tag Milwaukeeans 59-0. Folz himself scored four touchdowns.
Once the ploy was uncovered, Folz was handed a lifetime ban from the league. It was later reversed, though he never played professionally again. The league fined the Cardinals and put them on a year’s probation. Badger’s owner McGuirk was forced to sell his team, which folded in 1926.
Yet, the championship still did not go to Pottsville, PA.
That’s because the Maroons also ran afoul of the league’s rules by playing an unauthorized exhibition game against the Notre Dame All Stars on December 12. Pottsville claimed that it had obtained approval to hold the game in Philadelphia because the anticipated crowd could not be accommodated by its own small stadium. But league officials maintained that the move violated the territorial rights of the Frankfort Yellow Jackets who had lodged a complaint.
Pottsville was suspended as a result and therefore was unable to complete its own season and challenge Chicago’s record. Meanwhile, the league allowed the Cardinals’ easy victory over Milwaukee and its more hard-earned win over Hammond to stand. The Cardinals were awarded the 1925 championship.
After Chris O’Brien learned about the scandal, he disavowed the championship, claiming not to want an unearned and tarnished trophy. But the Bidwell family who owned the team since 1933 began to claim the 1925 championship for the Cardinals. The team did win the title outright in 1947, but their drought since then became the longest in North American Pro Sports after another team that played its games at Wrigley Field finally ended its own 108-year title drought in 2016. The aggrieved citizens of Pottsville claim that their descendants placed a curse on the Cardinals which would only be lifted once the championship was returned to its “rightful” home.
In 1963, three years after the Cardinals had moved to St. Louis, a special commission of the NFL agreed to rehear Pottsville’s ongoing claim. The commission upheld the Cardinals’ 1925 championship by a vote of 12-2. One of the two dissenting votes was cast by George Halas, whose Bears won the NFL championship that year.
The league’s owners also voted down a proposal to revisit the championship controversy in 2003. The lone dissenters in support of Pottsville that time where the two Pennsylvania teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles. The latter, ironically, were the direct successors to Frankfort Yellow Jackets—the very team whose territorial grievance led to Pottsville losing the 1925 title in the first place.
The NFL’s oldest rivals will clash on September 2, when the Bears take on the Cardinals.
Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer
who works in non-profit communications.