February 18, 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.

Comments

  1. Great history!

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