“I looked at one of our shoes. It had No. 3 on it. You know Halas’s frugality. Honest to gosh, it was Bronko Nagurski’s old shoe!”
— George Connor, recalling the 1956 NFL Championship Game
Perhaps you’ve heard of “The Sneakers Game.”
But have you heard of “The Sneakers Game Part II”?
Yes, the Bears take on the Giants this weekend, two teams with as storied a history as nearly any rivalry in the NFL. Much of it has gone the Bears’ way. The first Bears-Giants game was in New York’s inaugural season on Dec. 6, 1925, AKA the day that Bears rookie sensation Red Grange came to the Polo Grounds.
Eight years later, the Bears beat the Giants 23-21 in the 1933 NFL championship game, which Grange clinched with a touchdown-saving tackle on the game’s final play. That was the first of six NFL championship games between the two teams from 1933 to 1963. The Bears won big in 1941 and not quite as big in 1946 (gambling alert!), and they wouldn’t win another championship until 1963, again against the Giants.
The next time we even made the playoffs was 1977, which we clinched with a game-winning field goal against the Giants in the last game of the season. Sid Luckman’s 7-touchdown game came against the Giants. And of course there was the Bears NFC divisional game in January of ‘86 that Sean Landeta would like to forget, the “This is officially Lovie’s defense!” game in ‘04 that Kurt Warner would like to forget, and the Devin Hester missed field goal return touchdown game in ‘06 that the entire Giants special teams would like to forget.
And yes, we have our own Bears-Giants games that we and Jay Cutler would like to forget.
But there are two Bears-Giants games that surely George Halas would like to forget. They’re those two other championship games I haven’t mentioned yet: our 30-13 loss in 1934 and our 47-7 loss in 1956. The 1934 game is the more famous of the two, known by one of those legendary NFL monikers: The Sneakers Game.
The Sneakers Game, Part I: 1934 NFL Championship
The first and most famous “Sneakers Game” was Dec. 9, 1934, a day that could have gone down as one of the greatest days in the history of Chicago sports. After all, the Bears entered undefeated at 13-0, winners of 18 straight and the past two NFL championships. A win would have given them the first three-peat in the NFL’s postseason era and would have made them the only undefeated NFL champion until the 1972 Dolphins.
As you may have guessed, things didn’t go that way. Despite the Bears’ 13-0 record, the game was played at the Polo Grounds based on a championship scheduling rotation that saw the NFL East champ host the game in even years. (h/t to the great NFL historian Kevin Gallagher for that nugget.) This was bad luck for both teams, as the Polo Ground’s icy field surface that day was so problematic that the National Weather Service has a page on its website dedicated to the game.
Yards were sparse. After a Giants field goal in the 1st quarter, the Bears started grinding out their points, first with a one-yard touchdown run by Bronko Nagurski in the 2nd quarter and then two field goals from All Pro “honor man” Automatic Jack Manders.
That sent the Bears into the 4th quarter leading 13-3. What George Halas and his team did not know was that the Giants had made a crucial halftime adjustment, the impact of which hadn’t kicked in yet: better footwear.
As the Tribune reported under a subhead “Gym shoes aid Giants”:
The gridiron turf was frozen solid. All during the first half the players of both teams had extreme difficulty keeping their feet and at least one possible additional Chicago touchdown was not made because battering Bronko Nagurski fleet footed Gene Ronzani and Keith Molesworth lacked the sure footing to make their charges effective.
At the start of the second half, many of the Giants, including all of the back field men, came back to the field shod in rubber gymnasium shoes. This change in equipment apparently made no difference in the third period, probably because New York was on defense. But when Strong unleashed his powerful drives he undoubtedly was able to dodge more quickly on the hard surface of the gridiron than the Bears, who wore the customary cleated shoes.
To Halas’s horror, the Giants and their new sneakers turned a 10-point 4th quarter deficit into a 30-13 championship bloodbath, with four touchdowns in the game’s final 10 minutes. After a Giants touchdown made the game 13-10, the Bears went three-and-out and punted; the Giants scored; the Bears were stuffed on a 4th down Nagurski run; the Giants scored (the Bears blocked the PAT); the Bears threw an interception on 1st down and the Giants scored once more to close out the win.
In Halas’s 1979 autobiography, Nagurski described the team as “helpless” while end Luke Johnsos offered his own exasperation.
“Some players took off their shoes,” said Johnsos, who turned 29 that day. “That helped a little bit but not much. I kept my shoes on. I had holes in my socks. We just flipflopped around. The Giants could go anywhere they wished.”
Game over, undefeated season over, three-peat gone.
At training camp in 1935, someone anonymously sent George Halas a box filled with tennis shoes, perhaps as a gag. As Halas wrote: “I swore that no Bear ever would go to another game without two pairs of tennis shoes in his equipment bag.”
He learned his lesson. Only too literally.
The Sneakers Game, Part II: 1956 NFL Championship
After The Sneakers Game, the Bears didn’t win another championship for six years. You might remember that one. That historic romp kicked off our four championships in the 1940s (though we once again blew a shot to be an undefeated champ), followed by one bad quarterback decision (selling Layne) after another (not making Lujack happy) after another (not understanding Blanda).
But Blanda was part of our next run, an offensive juggernaut that launched in 1954 with the rookie year of the great Harlon Hill, and peaked in 1956 behind Hill, Pro Bowl quarterback Ed Brown and rush champ / All Pro Rick Casares. We averaged 30.3 points per game — the last time we led the league in points — with the 7th ranked defense, and entered the title game at 9-2-1, three-point favorites over the equally formidable 8-3-1 Giants, who were top five in both points scored and fewest points allowed.
“Seldom in the history of professional football have two more evenly matched machines than the Bears and the Giants squared off in this clutch contest,” wrote Gene Ward in the New York Daily News on the morning of the game, his words accompanied by a cartoon of nondescript members of each team simultaneously pummelling each other.
The hype was enormous. The game, at Yankee Stadium (even-numbered year!), generated a then-NFL record $517,385 in revenue, about $200,000 of which came from NBC’s TV deal. The nearly 57,000 fans in attendance were rewarded for braving the 22-degree day and whipping winds — so long as they were Giants fans.
“It was the coldest I had been in my whole life,” Ed McCaskey told the Tribune’s Bill Jauss in 1996. As Jauss noted, even the mustard at the refreshment stands froze.
The Giants heeded the lessons of 1934. Giants defensive star Andy Robustelli owned a sporting good store, and he picked up 48 pairs of basketball sneakers for his team to wear. Halas wasn’t the Bears coach that year — he had taken a two-year hiatus and given the coaching duties to Paddy Driscoll — but he was still owner and GM and he also remembered 1934.
So like the Giants, Halas made sure his team wore sneakers.
Unlike the Giants, Halas ignored the difference between “Wear sneakers like 1934” and “Wear sneakers from 1934.”
“Andy Robustelli ... got his team the latest, best shoes,” Bears assistant and retired linebacker great George Connor said in 1996. “I looked at one of our shoes. It had No. 3 on it. You know Halas’s frugality. Honest to gosh, it was Bronko Nagurski’s old shoe!”
The shoes, Connor said, were “poor sneakers with little rubber cleats. ... I guess they were the same ones Halas ordered after the 1934 sneakers game. The rubber was starting to crack, they were so old.”
The Bears weren’t old, but they did crack. The Giants walloped them 47-7, one of only five times the pre-Super Bowl NFL Championship Game or Super Bowl was decided by 40 or more points.
“It looks like we run into trouble every time we get into one of these ‘tennis shoe’ games with New York,” Johnsos, then a Bears assistant coach, said.
Or, as the saying goes: If the shoe fits, that’s great, just don’t give it to your football team 22 years later.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.