The 1932 NFL Championship Game

The Portsmouth Times called it “a sham battle on a Tom Thumb gridiron.” But, while the field may have been Lilliputian, the impact of the game on the National Football League was Brobdingnagian. It was the oddest game in NFL history, a fitting climax to one of the league’s oddest finishes.

Late in the 1932 season, it looked as if the Green Bay Packers were headed for their fourth straight NFL championship. They had an 10-1-1 record while their closest pursuers, the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans, had only nine victories between them. But the Bears and Spartans had just one loss apiece, to go with a whole bunch of ties.

On December 4, the Packers played their sixth straight game on the road, at Portsmouth. The Spartans had a 5-1-4 record going into the game. In Chicago, the Bears (4-1-6) were hosting the Giants, who had handed the Packers their only loss in New York three weeks earlier.

Under today’s method of figuring the standings, the Packers would have had the championship wrapped up. A tie now counts as a half-loss, half-win. But in 1932 a tie simply didn’t count; it was as if the game had never been played.

After Portsmouth beat Green Bay, 19-0, and the Bears beat the Giants, 6-0, the Packers were suddenly out of the running. Portsmouth’s season was over, but the Packers had one game left, against the Bears in Chicago. If the Packers won that game, the Spartans would be the new champions. If the Bears won, they’d be tied with Portsmouth for first place.

And that’s what happened. The Bears took a 9-0 victory on a snowy field with the temperature around zero. So the standings looked like this, with ties eliminated:

W L Pct.

Chicago 6 1 .857

Portsmouth 6 1 .857

Green Bay 10 3 .769

Under today’s method, it would have looked like this:

W L T Pct.

Green Bay 10 3 1 .750

Portsmouth 6 1 4 .727

Chicago 6 1 6 .692

The NFL had no policy for dealing with a tie for first place at the end of the season. The league didn’t even handle scheduling–that was up to the teams themselves, so it was also up to the Bears and Spartans to figure out a way of breaking the tie. They agreed on a game at Chicago on December 11. It was not, formally, a post-season championship game, but a regular-season game tacked on at the end of the schedule.

Chicago was the obvious site for the game. With attendance down because of the Depression, both teams needed the money that a big crowd at Wrigley Field would bring in. But, because of the weather, the game between the Bears and the Packers had drawn only 5,000 fans, even with the possibility of a championship on the line, and the cold and snow continued as the championship game approached.

On Thursday, December 8, Chicago co-owner George Halas met with Potsy Clark, the Portsmouth coach, and Joe Carr. the president of the NFL, to propose moving the game indoors to Chicago Stadium. He had a precedent: The Bears and Cardinals had played an exhibition game there in 1930. He also had the weather as an argument. Chicago Stadium could hold about 16,000 spectators, and might well be filled for the game, which would probably draw only 5,000 or fewer outdoors. Clark and Carr agreed to the move, and players on both teams unanimously approved.

There was one final hurdle. The Bears had a contract that required them to play their home games at Wrigley Field. But Bill Veeck Sr., the owner of the ballpark, agreed to release them from the contract for this one game.

Chicago Stadium was primarily the home rink for the Chicago Blackhawks, but it was also used for boxing matches and other events. During the week before the football game, it had hosted a circus, so the concrete floor was covered with several inches of dirt. Truckloads of dirt, wood shavings, and bark were piled on top of that base to provide more cushioning. It didn’t however, provide much traction.

Many years later, Jim Foster got the idea for Arena Football by sketching the diagram of half a football field over the outline of a hockey rink. That was much the way the field was laid out in 1932. The arena floor was only about 80 by 50 yards at its widest dimensions. The football field compressed into that area was 60 yards from goal line to goal line and 45 yards from sideline to sideline. The end lines were rounded, and the 12-foot-high hockey dasher boards formed a fence that surrounded the whole area. The fence was about 15 feet from the sidelines at midfield (the 30-yard line), allowing room for the benches, but it almost touched the field at the goal lines and actually curved through the area where the end zones should have been. Goalposts were erected at only end of the field, and they were on the goal line rather than the end line.

Some special rules were adopted, based on the rules that had been used for a 1930 exhibition game in the stadium. Kickoffs were made from the 10-yard line and, after a kickoff return, the ball was moved back 20 yards. Field goals were prohibited. On a touchback, the ball was brought out to the 10-yard line instead of the 20.

If the ball went out of bounds, it was brought in just one yard from the sidelines under the rules in effect in 1932. Because of the proximity of the fence at Chicago Stadium, the teams agreed that the ball would be brought in 10 yards and the team in possession would have to forfeit a down. (Some accounts say 15 yards.)

Sportswriters generally expected the shortened field to produce a high-scoring game. The Bears were definitely favored, mainly because the Spartans were without their best player, Dutch Clark. A charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Clark was the quarterback on the All-Pro team six times in his eight-year NFL career. A dangerous runner, excellent kicker, and reliable passer, he led the league in scoring in 1932. But he had returned to his alma mater, Colorado College, as basketball coach immediately after Portsmouth’s victory over Green Bay and the school wouldn’t release him from his duties to play against the Bears.

Nevertheless, the Spartans pretty much controlled the first half, thanks to the running of Glenn Presnell. They were in scoring range twice and probably would have had a 6-0 halftime lead if field goals had been allowed. Near the end of the second quarter, Portsmouth faced fourth down at the Bears’ 6-yard line and Presnell carried the ball on the cutback play out of the single wing. As he tried to make his cut into the hole, he lost his footing on the loose dirt and went down without being touched. Presnell was certain that he would have scored if he hadn’t slipped.

But the game was still scoreless with about ten minutes left in the game, when Dick Nesbitt intercepted a pass thrown by Clark’s replacement, Ace Gutowsky, and returned it to Portsmouth’s 7-yard line, where he was pushed out of bounds. The ball was brought in 10 (or 15) yards from the sideline and the Bears were charged with a down, under the special rule. On second down, fullback Bronko Nagurski smashed down to the 1-yard line, but he lost a yard on the next play, bringing up fourth-and-goal at the 2. Once again, Nagurski took a handoff and headed toward the line. But he stopped before he got there, took a step or two backward, and threw a touchdown pass to Red Grange.

A furious Potsy Clark charged onto the field, protesting that Nagurski hadn’t been 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball, as required at the time. But referee Bobby Cahn ruled that it was a legal forward pass and he allowed the touchdown, Tiny Engebretsen kicked the extra point to give the Bears a 7-0 lead. A little later, a bad snap went over the head of Portsmouth punter Mule Wilson and rolled through the end zone for a safety, making the final score 9-0.

Reports of attendance range from 11,000 to more than 15,000. The most reliable figure, though, seems to be 9,623 paid admissions, plus “several hundred Annie Oakleys,” meaning complimentary tickets. That number appeared in the Portsmouth Times and probably came directly from team management, based on the Spartans’ share of the gate receipts. Whatever the exact number, it was undoubtedly a lot more than would have turned out for a game in the snow and cold at Wrigley Field.

Each Chicago player was paid $240 and each Portsmouth player received $175 for the game, from receipts of about $15,000. The Bears had the full 22-man roster, but Portsmouth had only 16 players, so the players’ share was just over $8,000. Other expenses are unknown, but renting the stadium and getting it ready for a football game must have eaten up quite a lot of the other $7,000 or so.

Regardless of the financial outcome, though, the game was considered a success. At their meeting in Pittsburgh in February, 1933, NFL owners adopted three rules changes inspired by the championship game:

1. The ball was to be moved 10 yards in from the sideline after going out of bounds, without costing the offensive team a down, and hashmarks were added to the field.

2. The goalposts were moved from the end line to the goal line.

3. A forward pass was allowed from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. (A still-disgruntled Potsy Clark reportedly said, “Nagurski will pass from anywhere, so we might as well make it legal,” when he voted for the change.)

Those changes helped to increase scoring and noticeably reduced ties. In 1932, only three of the NFL’s eight teams scored more than 100 points, led by the Bears with 160. The following season, five teams scored more than 100 points; the New York Giants led the way with a whopping 244 and the Packers were next with 170. The number of ties was cut in half, from 10 in 1932 to five in 1933.