On December 18, 1932, with waist-deep snow and freezing weather in Chicago, the Bears moved their NFL Championship game against the Portsmouth, Ohio Spartans from Wrigley Field to the indoor facilities of the city’s NHL team. The league’s first playoff game – and the first contest played indoors – produced what an Ohio newspaper called a “fictitious battle on the kid’s grill.”
The Chicago stadium could only accommodate a field 60 meters long, 40 meters shorter than the regulations and 48 meters wide, five shorter than normal. The end zones were also condensed. Because a circus had recently taken place on the site, the teams played on a field made up of 400 tons of earth. Some circus remnants added an unmistakable scent to the range of oddities of the night.
The arena’s tight limits forced sweeping adjustments to the rules, including a scoreless deal on the pitch. Most of the punts navigated the seats, forcing spectators into evasive maneuvers. A boot planted the stadium organist mid-performance.
But with America in the midst of the Great Depression, Bears owner and coach George Halas and the league were eager to play a championship game in front of a large crowd. The week before, only 5,000 fans had attended the Bears’ home season finale against the Green Bay Packers.
“I don’t think anything compares to the game between Portsmouth and the Bears in 1932,” Halas later said. “The only thing that’s not ridiculous about this whole mess is that we won the game.”
The relocation and game stipulations for the title eclipsed the actual result – a 9-0 Bears victory – and the odd game laid the groundwork for fundamental changes in the NFL.
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No playoffs in the early days of the NFL
During the first 12 seasons of the NFL, which played its inaugural season in 1920, no playoff format existed. The winning percentage in the regular season determined a champion, excluding ties. At the start of the league, teams often didn’t even play the same number of games.
In their 1932 season finals against Green Bay, Portsmouth and Chicago won, leaving each winner with a 6-1 record. (The Bears had six ties, the Spartans four.) To determine the NFL champion, the Midwestern teams agreed to play a win-win game in Chicago.
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Portsmouth Spartans star couldn’t get time off
Quarterback Dutch Clark anchored the rushed offense into the one-wing offense for Portsmouth, the underdog against the Bears. But the versatile playmaker was unable to make the league game due to a conflict with his offseason job.
In the two weeks between the Spartans’ regular season finale and the title game, Clark left for his winter gig as the head basketball coach at Colorado College. The Colorado native graduated from school in 1930 and remained his basketball coach.
Portsmouth asked the school to give its top employee a personal day, even offering to pay for transportation from Colorado to the game. Do not arrive, said the school.
Pffttsaid Portsmouth Roy Lumpkin, who said Portsmouth will beat the Bears “anytime, anywhere, even without Dutch Clark”.
Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange on the other side made that prospect difficult. The two Hall-of-Fame-related full-backs have been teammates with the Bears for five seasons, with Nagurski – a 6-foot-2, 226-pound full-back – Chicago’s centerpiece. The towering ball carrier, who had a speed of 10.2 seconds in the 100-meter sprint, was one of the toughest players of his generation.
A knee injury in 1927 robbed Grange, a University of Illinois star, of his notorious elusiveness. But “The Galloping Ghost” remained a quality defensive back capable of contributing on offense.
Nearly 12,000 fans watch NFL’s first indoor game
Validating Halas and the NFL’s decision to play at Chicago Stadium, nearly 12,000 fans flocked to the hockey venue for the championship game. The competition turned into a rowboat duel, as the riders struggled to gain a foothold in the six-inch layer of dirt. As the players trudged through the mess, the dust rose.
In another bizarre twist, the teams agreed to back the ball 20 yards after passing through midfield, further hampering infractions. Several stands on the goal line highlighted scoreless first three quarters.
The Bears’ defense, which shut out seven opponents in the regular season, has been strong. The Spartans were sorely missed by their leader, Clark. But Chicago briefly lost one of its own stars when three players crashed into Grange, who was blown off the field.
After Bears defenseman Dick Nesbitt caught one of eight interceptions in the game, against five completed assists in total, a Chicago fourth-quarter possession approached the Portsmouth goal line. Three Spartans saves kept the Bears on the 2-yard line.
With field placement not an option, Nagurski took the hub port. But the defense of the Spartans changed its plan. The third-year full-back passed to Grange, who had come back in the game in the last quarter, for the only touchdown of the game.
“The defenders converged and there was no way I could pass,” Nagurski said later. “I stopped, took a few steps back and Grange had gone around and was in the end zone on his own.”
Lions coach Potsy Clark ran onto the field arguing that Nagurski was not five yards behind the line of scrimmage. (In 1932, the NFL required passers to throw at least five yards back.) Referee Bobby Cahn ruled the game legal. The Bears later scored on a safety.
NFL rule changes after the 1932 title game
Mixed reviews emerged after the indoor experience. A press service reporter called the match a football cartoon. “Officials spent more time digging large clinkers out of the ground than whistling,” he wrote. A headline in an Ohio newspaper called the game a “football comedy.”
But the drama of the do-or-die contest prompted the NFL to abandon its regular-season-only format. Two months later, Washington owner George Preston Marshall proposed a two-division roster that would end in an annual championship game. The NFL used this setup for the next 33 years. In 1967, the first Super Bowl took place.
Angered by the defining streak of play for the 1932 title, Potsy Clark nonetheless upheld a rule that made passes legal if thrown from any point behind the line of scrimmage. “Nagurski will go anywhere, so why not make it legal?” Clark said at the league meeting.
The Spartans’ near crash in 1932 was pretty much the end for the cash-strapped team, which moved to Detroit in 1934. A year later, the former Spartans won the NFL title as Lions.
Chicago turned their indoor triumph into another title the following season. From 1933 to 1946, the Bears played in seven championship games. Each performed on regulatory ground outside.
In 1986, the franchise won its only Super Bowl championship, at the New Orleans Superdome, another covered venue. This conquest is the Bears’ most celebrated victory, but their other indoor crown proved more important to the sport.