Monday, December 13, 2010

Blizzard Football in Chicago

I wisely decided not to use my ticket for Sunday’s Bears-Patriots game after hearing a prediction for 8 inches of snow and gale-force winds. My father attended a Bears game in a blizzard 55 years ago, and the Bears were beaten badly in that game too. He, however, was happy about the outcome.

For almost 40 years, Chicago was a two-team NFL town. The Bears were the North Side team and the Cardinals, who played most of their seasons at Comiskey Park, were the South Side team. In fact, an unwritten agreement marked Madison Street as the border for where each team could play their home games. From the 1920s through 1952, the teams played home-and-home during the season; from 1953 to 1958, the game alternated between Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park (the final game was played at Soldier Field in 1959).

Chicago Cardinals logo

On November 27, 1955, our family piled into the car and headed to our aunt and uncle’s house in South Shore. My brother, mother and I stayed there while my father and uncle went to Comiskey Park for the Bears-Cardinals game. As South Siders, we were Cardinals fans as well as White Sox fans.

Comiskey Park, configured for football

The Bears entered the game on a six-game winning streak after losing their first three games. The Cardinals, under first-year coach Ray Richards, were having their usual poor season at 3 wins, 5 losses and 1 tie. With only three games left until the end of the season, the Bears needed a win to keep pace in the Western Conference with the first-place Los Angeles Rams.

The Cardinals scored a touchdown on their first series on a 28-yard deflected pass from Lamar McHan to Don Stonesifer. Forcing the Bears to punt on their first series, Ollie Matson returned the punt for a 77-yard touchdown. The Cardinals pushed their lead to 27-0 on runs by Dave Mann and Johnny Olszewski before George Blanda’s 1-yard run put the Bears on the board to end the first half. In the meantime, the snow became progressively heavy, reaching blizzard conditions. 

Gern Negler blocks as Dave Mann runs past Ken Gorgal for a 19-yard touchdown

The Bears would fumble on their first two series of the second half, leading to two Pat Summerall field goals. Touchdown runs of 61 yards and 1 yard by Mann and Matson, respectively, and a second touchdown pass to Stonesifer closed out the Cardinals scoring before the Bears put a touchdown on the board to make the final score 53-14. Two Bears and a Cardinal were ejected for fighting near the end of the game. The Cardinals outgained the Bears 474 yards to 211 yards, and their defense, led by Dick "Night Train" Lane, forced four interceptions and a fumble recovery. The attendance was 47,314, a good crowd for the Cardinals but not a full house.

Ollie Matson

One of the worst losses in Bears history knocked them out of contention, despite winning their last two games, and they finished 8-4, just behind the 8-3-1 Rams. George Halas would retire as the only Bears head coach after the season, but he returned to the helm in 1958 before retiring again after the 1967 season. The Cardinals lost the next two games for a 4-7-1 season, barely avoiding last place.

The Cardinals, always Chicago’s other football team, hung on for four uneventful seasons before moving to St. Louis. I attended their second-to-last game at Comiskey Park in 1958 (they played their final season at Soldier Field and two games in Minneapolis) vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although Ollie Matson returned the opening kickoff 101 yards, the Cardinals lost, 27-21, as the Steelers pulled out the victory with a 78-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter from Bobby Layne to Jimmy Orr before slightly fewer than 16,000 fans.

Ticket stub, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Chicago Cardinals
Nov. 23, 1958

My uncle, who turns 99 next month, told me they got the tickets from his father-in-law, an executive with Sears. Other than the Cardinals clobbering the Bears  (they were happy about the outcome) and the weather being terrible, he didn’t remember much after that. I remember as a 6-year-old fearing I’d never see my father again. I was extremely happy to see the snow-covered brothers come through the front door that day, 55 years ago.