Clouds over the Goalpost: Gambling, Assassination, and the NFL in 1963by Lew Freedman
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The pro football season of 1963 was dominated by the unexpected. In April, months prior to the beginning of play, it was revealed that two All-Star players, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, were gambling on the sport and would be suspended from play for at least a year. Even worse, in May, one of the league’s bigger-than-life personalities, Big Daddy Lipscomb, was found dead, with police saying he perished from a heroin overdose, something those who knew him best still dispute.
As play began in September, the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors in Canton, Ohio, the same town where the National Football League was founded in 1921 and inducted its first class. Also, the war for players and prestige raged with the upstart American Football League trying to obtain equal footing in the public eye.On the field, it was to be the year the Chicago Bears and their aging owner-coach George Halas knew glory once more, fighting off the latest dynasty Green Bay Packers led by Vince Lombardi in a season-long chase for the Western Division title. Yet even that was overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While the nation mourned and other sports leagues suspended activity, the NFL played on with its regular season that sad weekend—a choice commissioner Pete Rozelle later called the worst mistake of his tenure.
Clouds over the Goalpost is filled with controversy not only on the field, but off it as well. From the various suspensions to an exciting championship game between the Bears and Giants, 1963 was a year that the NFL would never forget—for both the good and the bad.
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Clouds over the Goalpost
Gambling, Assassination, and the NFL in 1963
By Lew Freedman
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2013 Lew Freedman
All rights reserved.
HALAS AIMS AT THE PACKERS
GEORGE HALAS COULD always be charming, but years in the trenches had taught him how to win political battles, get his way, advance the interests of his Chicago Bears, and that growling and the tone of intimidation could be a useful weapon.
That's why when people often speak about him, they mention the staring power in his eyes and how his chin would prominently jut out in defiance for what seemed to be a half-mile. What a chin it was, seemingly almost square and a facial feature that appeared to enter a room about ten seconds ahead of the rest of him.
Many who came across Halas in his role as protector of the Chicago Bears and the NFL likely left the encounter thinking that the man should take a course in manners. It has long been a cliché about gruff football coaches—that it was their way or the highway—but the saying was probably invented for Halas.
Halas had little governor on his tongue so he was viewed as a blunt-speaking man. And saying the first thing that popped into his head while he prowled the sidelines during games was very much his habit. Nowadays, officials would slap Halas with a million yards a game in penalties for his foul mouth and aggressive gesticulations on the sideline, including slamming his fedora to the ground. The only reason Halas didn't get whacked with penalties during his coaching days was that he was pretty much the godfather of the league. A referee who wanted to continue officiating NFL games on Sundays did not want to raise Halas' ire too much. It was entirely possible that a confrontation which escalated too far could result in a termination letter. Halas had that kind of power, and you didn't want to get on his bad side.
When things didn't go right for his team on the field—even if officials had nothing to do with it—he could be equally explosive. Paul Hornung, the star Green Bay halfback, said he actually enjoyed listening to Halas rant as he violated the rules unchecked by storming down the sidelines almost to the end zone rather than staying at midfield near the team bench. "Coaches weren't supposed to be down there," Hornung said, "and he would cuss like a sailor. I loved it. It was an absolute honor to have him cuss me out during a ball game." To Hornung, it was a big laugh. If you viewed the situation with a certain attitude, Halas' behavior was a howl. In the modern era, such a performance would go viral on the Internet before the end of the game.
As for officials who didn't see the humor in Halas' tirades the way Hornung did, they were better off being anonymous rather than arguing right from wrong on the field, as Halas always thought he was right. He came by that opinion honestly. He was one of the league visionaries who had been there since its creation, and throughout the decades between the '20s and the '60s, he was a major player in every NFL decision; from team expansion and contraction to rule changes.
* * *
George Halas was born on February 2, 1895, in Chicago, Illinois. He attended the University of Illinois, and very briefly played right field for the New York Yankees. He couldn't hit his weight, going 2–22 with 8 strikeouts and recording a .091 batting average in 1919, and soon enough a newcomer named Babe Ruth took over the position and drove Halas back into football.
As an end, Halas played a season for the Hammond Pros, and then convinced the A. E. Staley Company—starch manufacturers in Decatur, located a couple of hours south of Chicago—to allow him to fund a football team. The Decatur Staleys were the forerunners to the Bears.
The meeting which founded the first organized professional football league took place in a Hupmobile dealership showroom in Canton, Ohio, on August 17, 1920. When the American Professional Football Association (APFA) began play on September 17, there were eleven teams, including the Staleys. The league's president was Jim Thorpe, who while still an active player, was the most famous name in the room. By 1922, the league was renamed the National Football League, but the starch company was experiencing financial difficulties. As a favor to Halas, the boss provided $5,000 in temporary support for one more season, as long as the Staleys in Chicago advertised starch for one final year.
Afterwards, Halas renamed the Staleys to the Bears because of help from the management of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. He was also going to call the football club the Cubs, but decided on the Bears, since football players were bigger than baseball players. Uniform colors were already orange and blue, selected for the Staleys because they were the colors of the University of Illinois, Halas' alma mater. The Bears played their home games at the Cubs' Wrigley Field; an arrangement still in place when the 1963 season began.
The Chicago Bears were like family to Halas, but the NFL was his baby. And he was protective of every single aspect of the franchise. This even included the team he loved to hate the most: the Green Bay Packers. Actually, when Halas wrote his autobiography decades later, he called the rivalry "the happiest series of games."
Happiest, huh? That would be straining the definition of the word. Intense, competitive, hard-fought, grudge matches—all of those words might percolate to the top of the list before happiest. Players on both teams fed on the attitudes that Halas and Curly Lambeau, Packers founder and coach, brought to the two meetings each autumn.
George Musso, one of the Bears' early Hall of Fame players, said he could tell that Halas and Lambeau were coaching friends, but when they played each other, friendship was not involved. "Hell, you're not friends," Musso said. "You're out to win. And you win any damn way you can."
A Packer lineman from the late '30s named John Biolo said that Lambeau matched Halas' sideline shenanigans. "During a game, nobody would want to talk to him," Biolo said of his coach. An unnamed player in a biography of Lambeau, who died in 1965, said that in the week of practice leading up to a Bears game, players thought the coach might blow a gasket. "... oh God, he hated 'em so bad."
Another thing the two coaches had in common was penury. They headed two of the three (the third being the New York Giants) biggest-name teams in the NFL and by most assessments of their hired help were cheapskates when it came to forking over player raises. It was Mike Ditka, one of the stars of the '63 Bears team, who uttered perhaps the most vivid description applied to any sports team negotiator ever when he said of the owner, "Halas throws nickels around like manhole covers." Similar to Halas, Lambeau was no more generous with his payroll.
There was irony in the Bears–Packers symbiotic relationship. Not only were they two of the founding franchises and played each other twice a season, but they were the two most successful teams, winning the most championships, with the most number of great players on each squad.
Like Halas, Curly Lambeau was a team organizer and was the team's coach for decades. While they had so many similarities, they had two distinct personalities. Halas was a strong family man, married to the same woman from the 1920s until he died sixty years later, while Lambeau was an acknowledged womanizer. He flirted with the Hollywood show business lifestyle during the off-season and flirted with the actresses he met there. Too-public relationships with women not his wife caused him much grief during his Packers tenure.
Whatever it truly meant, Halas and Lambeau did not engage in the traditional gesture of sportsmanship involving a handshake between coaches at the conclusion of a game. There was some tension between the two egotistical men, but Halas understood that the Packers were almost always going to be a major obstacle between his Bears and a championship season.
Regardless of how Halas and Lambeau felt about one another personally, aside from respect for football acumen, Halas was probably the strongest owner-supporter of Green Bay's existence in the league. This related to Halas' strongest personality traitha—loyalty. If you helped him, he never forgot. If you were with him when times were tough, you were always with him. If you did him a favor, no matter how long ago, as the Packers had when the Bears had financial troubles during the depression of the 1930s, he remembered.
As the old guard changed, all of the teams from smaller towns started to fade away. Green Bay began to lose money. The Packers were playing before smaller crowds and some owners wanted to push them out in favor of a team that would provide them a larger road gate. The other owners sought to pressure Green Bay management to move the team to Milwaukee full-time, first at State Fair Park, and then in County Stadium, where they played twice a season. Halas wouldn't have it. He did everything he could to defend the Packers. To the astonishment of many in Chicago-and in Green Bay-in 1956, Halas was a guest speaker at a Green Bay sports banquet, where he waxed eloquent about the importance of the Packer franchise and helped raise money for a new stadium. "He was a real friend," said Art Daley, a Green Bay Press-Gazette sportswriter of the time.
Halas told everyone on his visit that the Bears-Packers rivalry was one of the most important aspects of the NFL's success and continuity.
That was the good side of Halas. But no matter how much he did for the Packers franchise, none of that graciousness ever spilled over to game day. When it was time to play the Packers, there was not a single thing more important going on. Longevity, and Halas, played a large part in making Chicago–Green Bay the most intense rivalry in professional football.
It wasn't really the same in the '50s, when Lambeau, who presided over six league championships, left for the Chicago Cardinals, and the Packers fell into the bottom ranks of the league's teams, posting such horrible records as 2–9–1 in '53 and 1–10–1 in '58.
The arrival of Vince Lombardi in 1959 rejuvenated the Packers. By 1960, Lombardi had the Packers back in the title game, though they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 17–13. In '61 and '62, Green Bay won back-to-back crowns and looked just as strong as the '63 season approached. Add Lombardi's wins in those two seasons to the Lambeau total of six, and the Packers had eight titles on their resume as a franchise—at that moment one more than the Bears.
Lombardi had paid his dues. He played for Fordham as one of the school's famous "Seven Blocks of Granite" in the early 1930s, had been a high profile assistant coach for Earl Blaik at Army, and an even higher profile offensive coordinator for the New York Giants' powerful offense in the late '50s. By the time someone entrusted him to lead an NFL team, Lombardi was forty-six. He brought his East Coast accent and gap-toothed smile to Northern Wisconsin and within three seasons had not only become an icon in Green Bay, but was being acclaimed as one of the greatest coaches of all time.
Sometimes people left out the words "one of," and that began to get on Halas' nerves. Lombardi was at least as much a dictator to his players as Halas was, but Lombardi had savvy political instincts and did not want to make an enemy out of one of the league's most powerful individuals. A former Chicago Tribune sports editor has recounted a story that he heard about a special dinner between Lombardi and Halas—at Lombardi's invitation—where the two men bonded, exchanged stories, shared drinks, and walked out friends. That was in no small part to Lombardi's political instincts, where he apparently repeatedly called Halas the greatest football coach of all time. Not "one of " the greatest, either. This was a man whom Halas respected; who was the talk of the football world. And it probably felt mighty good for Halas to have his ego stroked by Lombardi. It didn't matter in the least if Lombardi was sincere, and it made no difference whatsoever to how either man prepared for those twice-annual gridiron collisions, Lombardi had paid tribute to the older man, and that solidified their relationship in a way that Halas and Lambeau never shared.
Whether or not he believed he was a better coach than Halas, even in front of his own team, Lombardi sometimes praised the rival coach.
"Vince Lombardi loved George Halas because he had been one of the founders of the league," said former Green Bay center Bill Currie. "He'd say, 'I love that old man and every single thing he represents.'" The Packers couldn't believe it when words like that flowed from Lombardi's mouth, but it was Lombardi taking note of Halas being the personification of the history and tradition of the league. "We couldn't believe he was expressing love for an opponent," Currie said. "That just wasn't his shtick."
In comparison to Lombardi's praise for Halas, Halas had great respect for Lombardi. He was impressed with what Lombardi had been able to do in such a short time for the Packers. What that really meant, though, was the rivalry was back to its old level of intensity and that Halas burned to beat Lombardi and Green Bay.
By the 1960s, the Bears had won seven championships on Halas' watch. Chicago was an early league power, winning titles in '21, and again in '32, '33, '40, '41, '43, and '46. But Halas and the Bears had not won a title since. That was seventeen long years without a crown, and a month into the 1963 season Halas would turn sixty-eight years old. It was not clear how long he could continue to handle the demands of being the owner and the coach. Worse, though, his drought, coupled with Lombardi's ascension, meant that the Packers owned one more NFL title than the Bears and Halas. That was unacceptable.
As early as March of '63, six months before kickoff of the next season, Halas was on record with his optimism about how well the Bears could do. His forum did not get wide circulation because his quotes were only recorded in the team newsletter, "Bear News."
Halas had a lot to say about how the '62 season had gone wrong, although 9–5 wasn't really that bad.
Halas is noted as saying:
Actually, the 1962 season was a nightmare of improvisation. We had so many injuries to key backs and receivers that our offensive platoon didn't really settle down till the last month of the season. We have some rookies who figure to help us, but the real improvement should come from smoother execution.
In 1962, the NFL draft consisted of 20 rounds. This was the height of the war with the American Football League, though, so the selection of a player did not guarantee his signing. The choice players who made the Bears from that draft were first round pick Ronnie Bull (7th overall), a running back from Baylor who was also picked in the AFL draft by the Dallas Texans, second round pick Bennie McRae (21st overall) from Michigan, fourth round pick Jim Cadile (49th overall) out of San Jose State, and seventh round pick Ed O'Bradovich (91st overall) from Illinois. They gained experience in a season pockmarked by injuries to many regulars.
Due to the competition for talent with the AFL, the NFL held its draft earlier and earlier, just as the college and pro seasons were ending, so they could jump in and negotiate quickly. Halas was already talking about rookies in March of '63 because that year's draft had taken place on December 4, 1962. In that session, he swung and missed more than connected in terms of plucking immediately employable players. The only memorable name was defensive back Larry Glueck, who was chosen out of Villanova in the third. Halas was wrong about his new draft class, but he was lucky that the '62 class made up for it.
In December of '62, Halas attended a Lombardi football-related party in Green Bay, and whether he was irritated by fawning over Lombardi, the comments of sportswriters about the burgeoning Packer dynasty, or something else entirely, he displayed a very determined outlook. Chuck Mather, a Bears assistant coach, said Halas returned from Wisconsin and said, "We're going to beat that son of a bitch." It didn't matter that he and Lombardi were friendly, but it would not be untypical for Halas to refer to a football rival in such words.
It might even be said that Halas began obsessing over Green Bay long before training camp began. Mather told a Halas biographer that the boss ordered him to study up on Packer plays and tendencies and dissect them thoroughly—and that was in January, a month after the '62 season ended and nine months before the '63 season started.
Excerpted from Clouds over the Goalpost by Lew Freedman. Copyright © 2013 Lew Freedman. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Meet the Author
Lew Freedman is one of today’s most prolific sportswriters. The author of over twenty-five books and the recipient of over
200 journalistic awards, Freedman has covered almost every major sport from baseball to Alaskan dogsled racing. He currently lives in Columbus, Indiana, with his wife, Debra.
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A very good book, thoroughly researched. Paints a very realistic and detailed picture of not only pro football but also of American life in 1963. The "All American" image of pro football was shaken by the gambling scandal, and the country was shattered by the assasination of its president. My problem with the book are careless errors. If you are going to take the time to write a historical text based on events 50 years ago then you should also hire a good proofreader. Examples: former Green Bay center Bill Curry is quoted, but his name is misspelled as "Currie." Dan Currie was a Packer linebacker, but Bill Curry is the man being quoted, and he has become an author in his post-football life as well. One of the captions of a photo says that Paul Hornung is chaking Jon Arnett's hand after a "1960 playoff victory." There were no playoffs in the NFL until 1967, and within the text this is stated, and yet a photo caption in the same book mistakenly contrdicts this. These are not reasons that should prevent one from reading the book- it is very good- but a pro like Lew Freedman should be more careful.-- Les Conley