(Picture from the 1934 NFL Championship Game between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants.)
"Championships Missed: The Lost Years, Part One: The 1934 Season"
by Jonathan Henderson, edited 10 January 2011
Throughout the long and storied history of the Chicago Bears, one thing has been certain, and that has been the goal of winning championships. Over time, the franchise has gone through periods that were hit-or-miss and epic failures, but also times where Chicago fans across the amber waves of Illinois grain and the rest of the country were blessed with good fortune. Since 1963, the last season the Bears under George Halas won a World Championship, Chicago has only produced a .500 or better record on 21 occasions, with most of those coming after the 1983 season. Mike Ditka revitalized a dormant Chicago franchise that had fallen to depths as low as the Detroit Lions in its level of futility. Chicagoans have always had a thirst for victory that harkens back to the days of "Papa Bear" inventing professional football in 1920. In fact, no franchise has known victory on more occasions or has a higher winning percentage than does the Chicago Bears.
The focus of these articles is to evaluate the Bears' history of championships. The article(s) title(s), "Championships Missed: The Lost Years", will look at the years where the Bears were favored to win the NFL Championship, only to see victory slip through the cracks and shatter the dreams of players, coaches, ownership, and fans alike. The years that will be focused on the most will be the following: the 1934 and 1942 undefeated seasons that ended with the Bears losing shocking heartbreakers to the Giants in the infamous "sneaker game" of '34, and to "Slammin'" Sammy Baugh's Redskins of '42 in their revenge game from the 1940 NFL Championship Game; the 1956 sequel to the "sneaker game"; and the 1986, '87, '88, and 2006 seasons. These seasons are the years that Bears fans celebrated their teams successes all the way to the playoffs and beyond, only to see their beloved Monsters of the Midway fall unexpectedly in the heat of battle, and in humbling fashion.
In 1934, Chicago produced the first undefeated regular season in NFL history. The team finished 13-0, allowing only three opponents during the regular season to reach double figures in points scored (the Packers in Weeks 1 and 7; the Lions in Week 12). As was typical back then, the running game was the heart of the offense, with Beattie Feathers leading the team in rushing (1,004 yards and 8 touchdowns, averaging 8.4 yards per carry) at runningback while Bronko Nagurski piled up 586 yards and 7 scores, with 4.8 yards per carry at the fullback position. The team thoroughly dominated its opponents, outscoring the competition 36 touchdowns to 11. Many, including the Bears themselves, felt that the team's berth in the NFL Championship Game was merely a coronation ceremony. What they were in for was a rude awakening.
The NFL Championship Game of 1934 was a cold, frigid affair. The Bears led, 13-3, over the New York Giants at halftime, on a playing surface described by Giants Hall of Fame center Mel Hein as "corroded." To get back into the game, Giants coach Steve Owen believed that the team would require a change in footwear to combat the icy conditions on the field. Equipment staff managers went to the locker room of a local college gymnasium and retrieved sneakers from the basketball team. The Bears, however, were confident in their position in the game, and why not? They were winning at the half despite the poor footing, and had no inkling that the Giants would answer the bell in a fashion that one could say bordered on the team pilfering shoes out of desperation. Coach George Halas' response to the sneaker news? "Step on their feet!"
The Giants, however, had different ideas. The Bears were still struggling with their footing, but the Giants were beginning to glide right along. In the second half, New York scored 27 unanswered points by virtually skating their way to a 30-13 win over the undefeated Bears. Said FB Bronko Nagurski, "They just outsmarted us, is about the size of it." The mighty Chicago Bears fell before the "feet" of the Giants in a game that would live on in infamy for decades to come for the team's fans.
In that by-gone era, money came at a premium for players, especially because of the Great Depression. Players had to work in the offseason, either at jobs in towns, or on the family farm in order to feed their families. Winning championships meant extra incentives for these men. The bumps and bruises hurt a lot more when they did not win, said one player, and this one hurt, if for any other reason, because their pride was killed. However, there would be other opportunities for championship glory to come for the Bears over the coming years, even though they would suffer through another defeat in the 1937 NFL Championship Game to the Washington Redskins to close out the decade.