The Strange Setting for the NFL’s First Playoff Game
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because necessity transformed football for the better.
By Vince Guerrieri
It was a first for the young National Football League. When the Chicago Bears beat the Green Bay Packers 9-0 in its regular-season finale on Dec. 11, 1932, it left the Bears at 6-1, deadlocked with the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans (in that era ties didn’t count in the standings). The two teams’ identical records set the stage for the league’s first playoff game, which turned into one of the strangest contests in NFL history — one whose effects are still felt to this day.
The Bears’ win at Wrigley Field had come in front of a crowd of 5,000 who braved whipping winds and falling snow to watch their team prevail. “Less favorable conditions for a football game than those existing today scarcely can be imagined,” intoned The New York Times.
The circus was in town — meaning the stadium floor was covered with dirt. All the footballers had to do was lay down sod over it.
And then the weather got worse. During the following week, waist-high snowdrifts started piling up at Wrigley Field, and league officials began scrambling to find alternate arrangements for the tie-breaking playoff game scheduled for that Sunday. Pushing the game back another week would bump up against Christmas, so that wasn’t an option. Finally, officials found a solution: The league’s first postseason game would become its first indoor game as well.
The 1932 season was a tough one for the NFL, which had been founded a dozen years earlier in a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio. Like the rest of the country, the league was battling the Great Depression, and the number of franchises had dwindled from 15 in 1920 to just eight in five cities. The 48 games that season tended to be low-scoring affairs, with roughly eight points notched per team per game. The Bears were a good example: Even with dynamic players like Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski, the team’s first three games that year were all scoreless ties, followed by a 2-0 loss at home to Green Bay. “This was not great entertainment,” says sports historian David Neft. “All the teams in your league are either in New York, Chicago, Green Bay, Boston or Portsmouth. The number of bad-weather games definitely contributed to the lack of offense.”
The Spartans, who had joined the NFL in 1930 after a year as a semi-pro team, had Dutch Clark, the league’s leading offensive player that year — 581 rushing yards and 55 points scored, including 10 extra points and three field goals.
Or did they have him? Clark, a Colorado native, had to return to his home state for his off-season job, coaching the basketball team at Colorado College. “Of course, we’ll miss Dutch,” an anonymous teammate told the Portsmouth Daily Times. “But we’re a plenty strong team without him, don’t forget about that. We figure to beat the Bears if we get an even break in luck.”
Two days before the game, officials from both teams met, and George “Papa Bear” Halas, the Bears’ owner (he’d retired as a player coach two years earlier, ceding coaching duties to Ralph Jones), suggested Chicago Stadium for the game. Then regarded as the largest indoor facility in the world, it had hosted both the Democratic and Republican conventions that summer, and the Bears had played an exhibition game there. The circus was in town — meaning the stadium floor was covered with dirt. All the footballers had to do was lay down sod over it.
Because the field was so small (80 yards long and 45 yards wide), some alterations had to be made to the game. Field goals were banned, and the goalposts were placed on the goal line instead of behind it. It was also the first NFL game to use hash marks — marks on the field that allowed players to line up farther away from the walls that were just beyond the sidelines.
The indoor experiment drew a near-capacity crowd. “While many of the 12,000 fans sat warm and snug in comfortable seats, they saw a battle that lacked few of the thrills of the outdoor game,” wrote Portsmouth Daily Times sports editor Lynn Wittenburg.
For three quarters, the teams battled to a scoreless tie. Then, in the fourth quarter, with the Bears at the Spartans’ 2-yard line, Nagurski took a handoff from quarterback Carl Brumbaugh, stopped, backpedaled a couple of steps and fired a pass to Grange in the end zone to put the Bears on the board.
Spartans coach Potsy Clark (no relation to Dutch) maintained it was an illegal forward pass (rules of the day said passes had to be thrown at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage), but the touchdown stood. A late safety made the final score 9-0 in favor of the Bears, who claimed the NFL title. The Spartans, who moved to Detroit the following season and became the Lions, dropped to third behind the Green Bay Packers, who had a higher winning percentage.
The game had far-reaching effects. The hash marks stayed, and the goalposts remained on the goal line in an effort to boost scoring. The rules were changed — at the behest of Halas — to legalize any forward pass thrown behind the line of scrimmage. And perhaps most important, the league expanded to 10 teams and split into two divisions that met every year in a championship game. In 1966 the winner of the NFL championship game — the Green Bay Packers, led by quarterback Bart Starr — met the winner of the upstart American Football League title game — the Kansas City Chiefs, led by Len Dawson — in the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, later known as Super Bowl I.
- Vince Guerrieri, OZY Author Contact Vince Guerrieri