I was stunned when our first child arrived on January 5, 1923.
So wrote George Halas about his first born, Virginia McCaskey. She might not be the first person you think of when you think of the Chicago Bears. But whoever you do think of, she knows him. She traveled with Red Grange on his 1925-26 barnstorming tour, had a crush on Bill Osmanski in the 1940s, adored watching Gale Sayers, mourned Brian Piccolo, found her innocent love of the game rekindled by Walter Payton, and mourned him too.
And those are just the running backs.
Virginia McCaskey, the grand matriarch of the Chicago Bears, is 100 years old today. Anyone who lives to 100 is “our link with history” but rarely is that history so well known, so simple to map to that person’s life. The franchise we revere was created more or less on September 17, 1920, as the Decatur Staleys, or the Staley Starchmakers as they were more frequently called, or even just “the Staley eleven.”
The team was part of the new grid loop her father helped form, known briefly as the American Professional Football Association. In 1921, Halas moved the Staleys to Chicago, and in 1922 he renamed them the Bears and helped rename the APFA the National Football League.
And so Virginia, born to George and Min Halas the first week of January, 1923, technically only missed one season of Chicago Bears football.
The team was so young upon her birth, and professional football’s future so uncertain, that when signing her birth certificate her father grew uncharacteristically bashful about his life’s work. Under occupation, instead of writing “football club owner, manager, coach and player,” he chose “civil engineer.”
Mrs. McCaskey’s birth certificate reveals her life story in another way, the family’s fork in the road. As Halas described in his 1979 autobiography:
I had assumed — and so had Min — that the new arrival would be George Stanley Halas, Jr. I already had visions of drawing my son into the thick of the Bears. We didn’t even have a name for a girl. After some searching we decided on Mary Barbara, for her two grandmothers. But my brother Frank already had appropriated those names for his daughter.
I filled in the baby’s certificate of birth, leaving the name blank. Many years later, upon getting a copy of her birth certificate for a passport application, my daughter discovered that the name we gave her — Virginia Marion — had been inserted in pencil.
Her name was in pencil. That sums it up. Despite being first-born, when it came to the Bears, Virginia was going to be #2. Then in 1979, her brother George Jr., known since birth as “Mugs,” died unexpectedly at age 54. Four years later on Halloween, their father followed. Papa Bear did not expect his daughter to inherit the Bears anymore than he expected his first child to be a girl. But there she was, and here she is, running the team for four decades.
“After dad died, at age 60 I started a whole new life,” she told Dan Pompei in November of 2016. “It was pretty scary. A lot of people were saying we should sell. It never occurred to me to do that. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”
Indeed, Mrs. McCaskey has become the matriarch not just of the Bears but of Chicago sports. She was born to this team, and even helped support it before she was a teenager, when her father told her and Mugs that to keep the team going, he needed to borrow the money they’d been saving from their grandmother’s birthday and Christmas checks.
“He kept saying, ‘I’ll pay you back, I’ll pay you back,’” she told author John Eisenberg in 2018. “I didn’t mind. He could have had anything I had. I was just happy he could use it.”
In her time as one of Chicago’s major team owners, she is the only one who was never out front in public, steering the ship. Oh, we see her in her box during nationally televised games, the broadcast quick to announce, “And there she is, Virginia McCaskey...” We hear from her son when she is angry (most famously in 2014, when the team’s free-fall led to George describing her as “pissed off”), and we see her when she is filled with pride.
The image that stands out for me is January 21, 2007, standing in her mink coat with the snow falling at Soldier Field, accepting the trophy that holds her father’s name.
That was a beautiful day. A mournful, bittersweet one came seven years earlier, the other moment I think of when I think of Virginia McCaskey. November 7, 1999, the first Bears game after the death of Walter Payton, when Bryan Robinson stuck his big paw up and, perhaps with an afterlife boost from Sweetness himself, blocked a would-be game-winning Packers field goal at Lambeau Field.
“I just can’t begin to tell you,” she said when asked what that win meant to her. “So many memories in this place. So many memories of Walter through the week. And the way it happened today — it’s incredible.”
When Dan Pompei and Don Pierson were working on their Bears Centennial Scrapbook, and compiling their list of the top 100 Bears, they asked Virginia McCaskey for her pick.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 5, 2019
That was easy.
Here she is after that incredible game following his passing: pic.twitter.com/nj838ryYIj
But from a football standpoint, it’s hard for fans to say where exactly her influence begins and ends. She has never been Bill Veeck, or hell, even Dick Klein. She has never been Jerry Reinsdorf, Bill or Rocky Wirtz, the Ricketts family. Few fans lay our now generational struggles at her feet. She rarely grants feature-length interviews (Pompei called their 2016 discussion “her first extensive interview”) and I can’t remember seeing her in a press conference since the calendar struck 2000.
Since 1983 when she assumed ownership, the out-front faces of the Bears have been not her but her family members. Her husband Ed was chairman of the board from 1983 until 1999, while their oldest of 11 children, Michael, was team president during the 1980s heyday, and maintained that role during the 1990s “hey, what the hell??” days.
When she does step into team affairs, it’s for moves at the top. Most famously in 1999, she made the unpleasant but necessary decision to relieve Michael of his duties as president and promote to the job the first non-member of the family, Ted Phillips. She introduced him at the press conference on Feb. 10, 1999, and on the topic of whether firing her oldest son (whom she then slid into her retiring husband’s post as team chairman) was a “sad day,” she offered a Papa Bear-esque rebuttal.
“You know when sad days are?” the 76-year-old McCaskey said. “When we lose games.”
So she gave us Phillips and got out of the way, becoming, once again, Chicago sports’s hidden hand. In the summer of 2001, when the Tribune ranked “the most powerful people in Chicago sports,” Virginia came in 7th, behind even two Bears minority owners Andrew McKenna (ranked 1st) and Pat Ryan (6th). Steve Rosenbloom wrote the piece and couldn’t quite put his finger on her influence.
“She isn’t hands-on with player personnel…” he began. “The daughter of the late George Halas stays out of the spotlight, but she’s not just collecting dividend checks. Probably could have more clout, but it’s not her nature. At the same time, unused clout might be even greater than exercising it.”
Ted Phillips was hers. Ed, Michael and George McCaskey were hers too. But what about their decisions? Are they hers? Is she the reason we won Super Bowl XX and reached Super Bowl XLI? Is she the reason the team has lost its seemingly insurmountable leads in the all-time Packers series or the NFL wins record? Is she the reason the franchise value rose from $319 million at the start of this century to close to $6 billion today? Is she the reason the team did not have a Black franchise quarterback from 1983 to 2021, or the reason we drafted Justin Fields? Is she the reason our stadium situation is always a mess? Is she the reason that, from the team perspective, it’s only now getting fixed? Is she accountable for her franchise’s use of taxpayer funds, or its role in the concussion settlement?
Fans never really feel confident in the answers to those questions. She reminds me of how Jerry Seinfeld once described wearing his father’s swim trunks: “floating around me… somewhere.” One of my earliest memories of attending a Bears game was seeing two fans walking between the seating sections at Soldier Field holding a life-size cutout of then-president Michael McCaskey, nasty words scribbled on his face, cursing him in effigy as seated fans hurled insults at cardboard. I don’t know that Bears fans would have done the same to Virginia had she been running the team. But she hasn’t, so we haven’t either.
Instead she’s maintained her position as a mostly lovable, unassailable figure of Chicago sports. Those who know her personally love her, honor her, cherish each moment. Everyone feels warmth around her. Jarrett Payton treasures her. In August, Jeff Hughes of Da Bears Blog penned a loving tribute to her. When the team tapped Pompei and Dan Pierson to write its centennial book and rank the top 100 Bears, they sought her blessing, and she gave it to Sweetness.
She is not “Bears Football!” but she is Bears football, here since nearly the start. She has lived through all but the first of our nine championships. She has overlapped with the playing careers of all 29 Bears whose busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame was earned primarily on this franchise. That includes her father, who played through the 1928 season, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Devin Hester, and everyone in between.
She has seen the championships and the title droughts, the team triumphs and tragic deaths. In her lifetime, her father had a hand in creating the modern pro football superstar, the first NFL playoff game, the NFL draft, the modern passing game, the shameful segregated NFL and the television era. She has seen her team help make famous the middle linebacker position, inventing the modern tight end position and delivering key innovations in special teams play, weight training, integrated player roommates, the 46 defense and league-wide diversity initiatives.
She was two years old when Red Grange came to the Bears, 11 when Beattie Feathers became the league’s first 1,000-yard rusher, 20 when Sid Luckman became the first to throw seven touchdowns in a game, 42 when Gale Sayers tied the NFL single-game record with six touchdowns, 52 when Walter rushed for 275, 63 for Super Bowl XX, 83 when the Bears were who we thought they were and 96 for the Double Doink. She’s had the curiosity of turning 100 before the Bears had a 4,000-yard passer but after they had a 1,000-yard rusher at QB. She’s been through two home stadiums and possibly a move to a third.
On the home front, she’s mourned the loss of her only sibling in 1979, her husband in 2003, and two of her children, including her oldest, Michael, in 2020. Those passings have increased the age gap between her and the next McCaskey in charge, until now, on the day of her 100th birthday, she sits alone at the top of the NFL’s longest familial dynasty. The good and the great, the sad and the ugly, the touchdowns, sacks and all the surprises, Virginia McCaskey has seen a century of Bears football.
Her name was in pencil.
She wrote it in ink.
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.
Along with Dan Pompei’s interview with Virginia McCaskey and George Halas’s autobiography, thank you to Jeff Davis for “Papa Bear,” John Eisenberg for “The League,” the Tribune’s Melissa Harris and Jared Hopkins, Newspapers.com, the Pro Football Researcher’s Association and Pro Football Reference.
Thank you to Kevin Anderson, Nate Poppen and host Alex Shapiro for having me on Football Night in Chicago to talk about the legacy of Virginia McCaskey, along with the Pro Football Hall of Fame odds of Devin Hester (a lock!) and Lance Briggs (a problem). Enjoy!