During Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last night, as the St. Louis Blues skated ever closer to the franchise’s first ever championship after 52 seasons, the announcers told the tale of the team’s origins, and the role that Blackhawks owner Arthur Wirtz and James D. Norris played in its creation.
The two men owned the St. Louis Arena, a decaying stadium some 30-something years old, built in 1929, and wanted to sell it. With the NHL seeking to double its team count, league officials added St. Louis as a possible city, in part because the city already had the stadium. As detailed here by our friends at Lighting the Lamp, the Black Hawks (as it was known) duo helped guide the NHL to St. Louis to start in the 1967-68 season, with the stipulation that the owner of the new franchise would also purchase the stadium.
Bears fans watching the Cup may have noted that the story of one Chicago sports team owner helping launch or save a geographic rival sounded familiar. In 1956, George Halas traveled to Green Bay to speak at a public rally and support a referendum to fund a new Packers stadium — what became Lambeau Field.
As WCG friend Laurence Holmes tweeted: “So Halas saves the #Packers. Wirtz helped birth the #Blues.”
So Halas saves the #Packers. Wirtz helps birth the #Blues. Sports...— Laurence Holmes (@LaurenceWHolmes) June 13, 2019
The “Halas saves the Packers” story is a popular one in Chicago, as we Bears fans can use it as a leg up in our neverending quest for supremacy in the rivalry. But there is another story, similar to the two above, that does not shine so sweetly on our dear Papa Bear.
It’s not a negative story, per se, but certainly not one that Bears fans will brag about. Because in this case, it was the Bears who were in peril. And it was a soon-to-be rival who bailed us out.
As Halas wrote in 1967, in chapter nine of his 20-part Bears history he published in the Tribune called “That’s The Way the Ball Bounces,” Halas came 50 minutes from losing the Bears to his old teammate, co-owner and de facto co-coach Edward “Dutch” Sternaman. In 1931, with Sternaman focused on his other businesses, he proposed a buyout to his partner Halas.
To do so, Halas needed to come up with half of Sternaman’s stake in the team: $38,000.
“Raising that $38,000 in the depths of the [D]epression wasn’t easy and I never could have managed without the help of friends,” Halas wrote. Three people bought shares in the team to give Halas his ownership stake: the mother of Bears Hall of Fame center George Trafton, former All Pro Bears guard Jim McMillan and Halas’ old friend Ralph Brizzolara.
Halas’ purchase agreement with Sternaman was to be paid off in installments. The contract stipulated that if Halas defaulted on any of the payments, ownership of the team reverted back to Sternaman.
All was well until late 1932, when despite a stellar season that ended in a Bears championship, the franchise suffered $18,000 in losses.
“When the final payment came due in ‘33, I was exactly $15,000 short,” Halas wrote. “It was a case of finding $15,000 in a hurry — or losing everything I’d worked for since moving the Staleys from Decatur to Chicago in 1921.”
Enter Halas friend — famed sportsman and soon-to-be Chicago Cardinals owner — Charles Bidwill.
As Halas wrote:
From this desperate situation, I was rescued by the joint efforts of my mother and my good friend Charley Bidwill.
Mother bought $5,000 worth of stock from her savings, Bidwill purchased $5,000 in stock and also arranged a bank loan for the remaining $5,000 needed to pay off Sternaman.
But it was a mighty close call. As I remember, I finally got all the money together at 11:10 a.m. on the day the final note came due. Forfeit time was 12 o’clock noon.
Halas notes that another huge help in guiding the Bears organization through the financial troubles of 1932 was three players agreeing to take promissory notes in lieu of their payments: Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski for $1,000 each, and Jack Manders for $500. Head coach Ralph Jones also deferred his pay for a $1,000 note.
Halas adds that the team’s financial troubles is what caused Jones to step down after the ‘32 season and take a position as athletic director at Lake Forest College. This led to Halas stepping in for what would be his second of four head coaching stints.
Later that year, in September of 1933, Bidwill purchased the Chicago Cardinals from Dr. David L. Jones for about $50,000. To do so, he said that he would immediately “dispose of his interest” in the Bears, which he did.
Bidwill died in April of 1947, just months before the Cardinals would win the franchise’s second — and as of now, last — NFL championship. The team remains in the family: Bidwill’s son, William, owns it now, following moves to St. Louis and then Phoenix.
The Bears, of course, remain in the family too: though Halas’ 10 living grandchildren from his daughter Virginia McCaskey hold a collective majority share at 41.8% compared to McCaskey’s 19.7% (per Tribune reporting in 2013), McCaskey controls the votes of her 10 children, and controls the 11.3% of the team that came from the Brizzolara stake, making her the principle owner.
A look at the ownership divisions, as laid out by the Trib’s Melissa Harris and Jared Hopkins:
McCaskey, now 96, is the team’s beloved matriarch. Last weekend at the “Bears 100” reunion, alumni players along with veteran media members took every opportunity to speak with her and pose for pictures. Her family has no plans to sell — as she told Dan Pompei of The Athletic in 2016, the McCaskeys will hold the team “until the second coming.”
If not for two mothers, one ex-player, one old friend and future NFL owner, that option may not have come at all.
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.
To learn more about Dutch Sternaman and Jack Manders — and eventually George Trafton, Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski — see the Windy City Gridiron top 100 Bears list.