As the 1941 Major League Baseball season entered its final weekend, baseball fans wondered if the great Ted Williams would achieve the always exciting yet still impressive .400 batting average. He was hitting .401 entering Boston’s final series against the Athletics, and there was talk that perhaps he should sit out that series to make sure his average didn’t dip.
But the Splendid Splinter was no louse. “If I’m going to be a .400 hitter, I want more than my toenails on the line,” he reputedly said. He played the entire series, cranked out seven hits in 12 at-bats, and finished the season at .406.
Fans were ecstatic. This was a brilliant show of batting, drama and athletic boldness.
What it was not, necessarily, was historic.
That’s because Williams’ 1941 was the 28th time a major league ballplayer bagged the big 4-0-0, and ranked only 17th for the highest single-season batting average ever, far behind Hugh Duffy’s record .440.
Only in retrospect did Teddy Ballgame’s .406 season average become part of history. After all, no one knew then that Williams’ 1941 would be remembered by future generations of baseball fans as the most recent .400 season MLB has ever seen.
There was nothing particularly spectacular about it at the time. We trailed 10-3, tied the game with 10 seconds remaining in the first half on a Shane Matthews touchdown pass to Eddie Kennison, scored on touchdowns in each of the next two quarters to go up 24-10 and held on against Drew Bledsoe and the Pats to get the W.
That was December 10, 2000, a day remembered at the time as John Shoop’s first game as Bears offensive coordinator, following the pre-mature self-relieving of Gary Crowton. Our strong offensive showing came largely on the legs of James Allen, who grinded 97 yards on 37 carries and scored twice, once on a run and once on a catch.
Other things people were talking about that day:
- Rookie Brian Urlacher, who was all over the field with nine tackles
- Patriots first-year head coach Bill Belichick, who looked like his second NFL head coaching stint would be only nominally more success than his first
- The aforementioned Shoop, who helped the team produce its best passing attack in two months
- The thrill of the Bears building a two-touchdown lead, only the fourth of the season, and maintaining control of a game through the fourth quarter
What they were not talking about was the specific thrill of the Bears beating the Patriots. The Pats could have been any opponent that day and Bears fans would have been happy.
But 18 years later, that game in December of 2000 stands as the final time the Bears have defeated New England, their opponent this Sunday. What felt normal in the moment has become a historical beacon of a bygone time.
What changed, arguably, is another element no one was talking about 18 years ago: the Patriots rookie backup quarterback, Tom Brady.
Yes, Ol’ Five Rings is a perfect 4-0 against our Bears. He got his first crack at us in Champaign in 2002. He was a Super Bowl-champion by then but far from the Hall of Fame, yet he engineered a dramatic comeback on the road, overcoming deficits of 27-6 in the 3rd and 30-19 with five minutes to go to lead the Pats to a 36-33 win, the game-winning score coming with 21 seconds remaining.
We’ve played him every four years since then, with outcomes ranging from horrifying to distressing. In 2006, both teams came in with Super Bowl aspirations. The 7-3 Pats won a dogfight against the 9-1 Bears, 17-13. This game is probably best remembered for Brady juking Brian Urlacher, and was the biggest “failed test” of the Bears v. Brady era.
We entered the 2010 game as possible Super Bowl opponents once more, us at 9-3, them at 10-2. This one was over at halftime. The Pats went up 33-0 at the midpoint, scoring a 59-yard touchdown to Deion Branch on the half’s final play, and won 36-7. In my darkest, most cynical moments after the NFC championship game, as I clawed through a season’s worth of evidence to find proof that, “Well, we wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl anyway,” this game was where my brain went.
Yet nothing was as ugly and draining as 2014. Under the impression that our previous game to Miami could be deemed “hideous” (the Brandon Marshall “unacceptable” game), we learned the next two weeks just what hideous looked like. The Pats started it off, going up 38-7 in the first half, and yet somehow making things worse by winning 51-23. (As for the next game, well... don’t click on this, I beg you.)
And there you have it: four games against Brady, four losses.
He is 41 now, and if he reaches his goal of playing until he is 45, we might get another shot at him. But four years is a long way to go, and in the meantime I have to assume that Sunday’s game will be our final chance to beat the Hall of Famer.
From an in-the-now standpoint, no win would be bigger for our Bears at this point in the season. Even with our MVP ailing, we have a shot to beat the NFL’s benchmark franchise. A win against the Pats would validate our collective inklings about this team’s potential. It would be a statement win, the first of the Nagy era.
That said, readers of my work know that I am a sports fan who believes to a degree in Signs and Symbols and Enticing Statistical Irrelevance. And so I noted last week that the 2018 Bears play all of the same teams as the 2006 Bears, and that our only regular season losses that year were to the Dolphins, Pats and Packers.
Just a reminder that the Bears play all the teams in 2018 that we played in 2006. We went 13-3 in 2006. Our three losses that season:— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 15, 2018
So far, so good.@WCGridiron
The prophecy states, therefore, that we will lose Sunday to New England, and then run the table to reach 13-3, ultimately losing to some schlubby carpet-treading dome-huddler in the Super Bowl. However I have instituted the 1984/1985 prophecy corollary to declare that our loss this year will be a Here We Come year, and we shall be glorious champions in 2019.
But really, who wants to play that game? The Bears have bagged wins against just about every other significant quarterback I can think of, and I would prefer to send TB12 into retirement being just the least bit skittish around Bears or bears for the rest of his days.
Also, I want to finally beat the Pats for the first time in 18 years, not to mention right here in the present tense knock off a Super Bowl contender and prove our might as a rising force.
Losing to New England to preserve the prophecy (which might not even be real, when you think about it) would be the equivalent of resting for the final weekend to keep our average at .400. I’m with Ted on this one: if my team is going to be Super Bowl champs, I want more than our toenails on the line.
Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.