February 21, 2018

From Automatic Jack to The Galloping Ghost: The 1933 NFL Championship Game

Chicago Bears 23, New York Giants 21

Sometimes a championship game lives up to its name—and the first one ever played in the National Football League did. Wilfrid Smith wrote in the December 18, 1933, edition of The Chicago Tribune: “Bring out all the superlatives and shuffle them like you would a jigsaw puzzle. All will fit in a description of this championship game.”

1933 was a landmark year for the National Football League. After a dozen years of a revolving door existence, the NFL stabilized into two divisions of five teams each. The winner of each division would face off in a never-before-played NFL Championship. As it turned out, the game was played on December 17, 1933, on Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Bears (10-2-1) won the Western Division, while the New York Giants (11-3) won the Eastern Division.

Chicago was a fitting place for that historic event, because Bears founder, owner, and coach George Halas was a pioneer in the founding and developing of the NFL. Halas would, decades later, become an original inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Joining Halas on the 1933 Bears were fellow future Hall-of-Famers: legendary fullback Bronko Nagurski, end Bill Hewitt, left tackle Link Lyman, right tackle George Musso, and halfback Red “The Galloping Ghost” Grange, a legend who was on the downside of his career.

The visiting Giants had their own list of future Hall-of-Famers: halfback/kicker Ken Strong, end Red Badgro, end Ray Flaherty, center Mel Hein, and right tackle Steve Owen, who also served as the team’s head coach.

Players in those days deserve special commendation because the game was a lot less specialized, meaning the men played both offense and defense. Think the Wildcat formation with the running back taking the snap is something new? Think again. Back then, it was far more common for a running back to throw a pass, a quarterback to catch a pass, or an offensive lineman to run down field in hopes of catching a lateral.

In front of 26,000 fans at Wrigley Field, the players took the field. Sports historian Jeff Miller writes in his book, Papa Bear: “The Giants wore blue jerseys with red trim and white numerals, red pants, and blue helmets. The Bears came out in white jerseys, blue piping, and 20 orange helmets for the 22-man roster.” Miller also points out that Hewitt and Musso liked to play without helmets.

According to a website called Golden Rankings, the high temperature that day was 42 degrees. “A light rain fell in the first half with mist and fog hanging over the gridiron as the game began. The field was slippery, especially in the grassy spots.” Did the wetness dampen the game? It doesn’t appear that it did.

In the opening quarter, the Bears scored first on 16-yard field goal by “Automatic Jack” Manders. (Back then the goal post was located on the goal line.) Soon afterward, Automatic Jack hit a second field goal, this one from 40 yards out.

The Giants got on the board in the second quarter, when Harry Newman hit Badgro with a 29-yard touchdown. Strong kicked the extra point to put the Giants up, 7-6.

Just before halftime, Grange gained 17 yards on a gallop to the New York 9. However, Jack wasn’t Automatic, as he missed a field goal to allow the Giants to take their one-point lead to the half.

In the third quarter, the Automatic Jack put the Bears back up, 9-7, with his third field goal of the day.

Then the game turned into sandlot football.

The Giants scored on a 1-yard run by Max Krause to go back up, 14-9. The Bears had an answer.

Think Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles catching a touchdown in the Eagles’ Super Bowl LII win over the New England Patriots is something new? Think again. 84 years earlier, the Bears’ quarterback did something similar. On a fake punt, punter George Corbett threw to quarterback Carl Brumbaugh, who ran 67 yards to the 8-yard line. On the next play, Nagurski faked a run up the middle and threw a jump pass to rookie end Bill Karr for the touchdown. Automatic Jack’s extra point made the score, 16-14.

The Giants then drove to the Bears’ 8, and the third quarter ended. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Newman handed off to Strong, who lateraled back to Newman and took off for the end zone. With the Bears defense fooled, Newman hit a wide-open Strong for the touchdown. Strong’s extra point made it 21-16, Giants.

The Bears, refusing to let the Giants stay up, drove to the New York 33. Nagurski took a direct snap from Charles “Ookie” Miller and fired a bullet up the middle to Hewitt for 14 yards–and the play was not over. Hewitt lateraled to Karr 19 yards away from the end zone. Strong was in position to stop Karr, but George Ranzini cut him off, springing Karr for the touchdown. Automatic Jack kicked the final point of the day to make the score 23-21.

The Giants had one more chance. On the last play of the game, Newman, who finished 12 out of 17 for 201 yards, hit Dale Burnett with a long bomb. The Giants’ Hein ran downfield hoping to get a lateral. Grange, who was still a fine defensive player, wouldn’t have it. Grange wrapped Burnett up and took him down. Papa Bear Halas called it the best defensive play he ever saw. In front of the hometown fans, the Bears prevailed, 23-21.

Cleveland, the ’64 King

When Cleveland Was King

LeBron James and Johnny Manziel are giving Cleveland hope that it will finally win its first major sports championship since 1964. The smarter money at this point is on LeBron and the Cavaliers as they have a talented roster even before the addition of Kevin Love and, basketball being what it is; only a few great players are necessary to take a team from the lottery to a championship.

Mr. Manziel has a far tougher row to hoe. Even when he’s eventually named the Browns’ starting quarterback he still needs about 20 other great players around him before little number 2 makes Cleveland number 1.

Whoever does take the next title for Cleveland (oh yeah, there’s also a rumor out there that the Indians are still in the playoff race) they will supplant the 1964 Browns as the last Cleveland team to have a parade, hoist the hardware and make General Moses smile.

But what about those ’64 Brownies? How good were they?

Very.

The 1964 Cleveland Browns went 10-3-1, coached by Blanton Collier who, in his eight seasons as an NFL head coach from 1963 to 1970, all with the Browns, never had a losing season and made the playoffs five times.

On the field the Browns were led on offense by Jim Brown who topped the NFL with 1,446 yards, averaging better than 100 yards per game in the 14-game season. Brown’s 1,446 yards were nearly 300 better than his closest competition, Green Bay Packers fullback Jim Taylor. Brown also led the league in total yards from scrimmage by more than 200 yards and was tied for third that year in rushing touchdowns with seven.

He also attempted one pass and completed it, good for 13 yards and a touchdown.

Mostly thanks to Jim Brown, Cleveland was second in total offense in ’64, but was also helped by a capable quarterback named Frank Ryan who started all 14 games and threw 25 TD passes, good enough for tops in the league.

When you have the NFL’s best running back and also the league-leader in TD passes you’re probably going to be good even if your defense is terrible, but the ’64 Browns’ defense was far from terrible, ranking fifth in the league in fewest points allowed.

The ’64 Browns had All-Pros on defense in cornerback Bernie Parrish, linebacker Jim Houston, defensive end Bill Glass, kicker Lou Groza and, back on offense, guard Gene Hickerson, tackle Dick Schafrath, split end Paul Warfield, and, of course, Jim Brown in the backfield.

Other than a 23-7 loss to the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers on October 10 of that season (Jim Brown only carried the ball eight times) the ’64 Cleveland Browns handled the opposition with little shame though they did turn the ball over with alarming frequency, including a six-turnover victory against the Dallas Cowboys. Strangely, the only game in 1964 that the Browns did not turn over the ball was a 28-21 loss to the Packers on November 22.

The Browns won the Eastern Division by a game over the St. Louis Cardinals, the only other team in the East with a winning record that year and earned a spot in the NFL Championship Game against the mighty Baltimore Colts who were easily champions of the West with a 12-2 record under second year coach Don Shula and league MVP Johnny Unitas at quarterback.

The game was played in Cleveland Municipal Stadium on December 27, 1964 in 34-degree weather with mud, wind and animus. The Colts were heavy favorites.

Browns 27, Colts 0.

The game was scoreless at halftime but then in the second half Ryan connected with receiver Gary Collins for three TDs and Jim Brown, though he never scored, muddled through with 114 yards on 27 carries and also caught three passes for 37 yards.

On defense, the Browns held Unitas to just 95 yards passing and intercepted him twice.

Browns 27, Colts 0.

The Browns were awarded rings for winning the title and Jim Brown’s was later stolen and has recently been up for auction, something Mr. Brown is trying to stop.

Thirty-one years after the 1964 title game the Browns decided to move, to of all places, Baltimore, which had lost the Colts to Indianapolis a decade before.

One of the stipulations of that controversial move was that the Browns themselves actually would not move, only the coaches and players would go as the team became the Baltimore Ravens while the Cleveland Browns, the team records, trophies, etc., remained in Cleveland, dormant, until the Browns were reincarnated, as an expansion team, in 1999.

One of the things the Browns were forced to leave behind when they bolted for Baltimore was their trophy for winning the 1964 NFL title. The thing of it is, though, there really was no trophy for Cleveland to keep.

In those days the NFL used to hand out the Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy, which was named for an NFL official. But that trophy was, like hockey’s Stanley Cup, handed off to a new champion each year so the next year the Browns had to give it to the Packers who still have it because after the 1966 season, in which the Packers were champs again, teams got a new trophy every year which is now, of course, the Lombardi Trophy.

The 1964 Cleveland Browns didn’t get a trophy to keep until 2004 when the NFL commissioned a brand new trophy to present to an old champion.

Cleveland still has that trophy. And is still looking for another one.