Chicago: Sudden Death For Many Teams -- Windy City A Graveyard For Pro Clubs

CHICAGO - When he looks back on it today, Pro Football Hall of Famer Elroy ``Crazylegs'' Hirsch finds it rather amusing.

Imagine, a big-league pro football franchise so cheap that it left its whole team to sleep in its charter plane in an airport hangar rather than pay for hotel rooms.

And yet, that's the way things have gone through the years for folks who have struggled to put pro teams into Chicago and keep them there.

Financial disaster has seemed to lurk just around the corner from teams that dared to compete for entertainment dollars against the established franchises such as the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls.

More than a score of pro teams in baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer and tennis have had to fold up or leave Chicago. Money, specifically the lack of it, was usually the reason.

The Chicago Rockets were such a team. They were a brand-new team in the brand-new All America Football Conference when Hirsch joined them as an often-injured rookie running back in 1946.

Three years later, Hirsch went to the Rams, switched to flanker, regained his health and became a Hall of Fame pass-catcher. His career in Chicago consisted of a torn-up shoulder, a blown-out knee, a fractured skull and an adventure almost every payday.

``The team was always in financial trouble,'' recalls Hirsch, now 65 and the recently retired athletic director at Wisconsin, his alma mater. ``We'd run to the bank with our checks to get there before they bounced.''

Hirsch's words are familiar ones to hundreds of athletes, however briefly they wore ``CHICAGO'' on their uniforms. These athletes probably can identity also with Hirsch's story of a night spent in a team charter in a hangar at La Guardia Airport.

``We played the Brooklyn Dodgers in a downpour in Ebbets Field on a Friday night,'' Hirsch recalls. ``We were so muddy, we showered with our uniforms on. Then we packed our uniforms and went to La Guardia.

``There a tidal wave hit us,'' Hirsch says. ``We couldn't fly out. But they wouldn't pay for rooms. We taxied to this hangar and slept under those skinny airplane blankets.''

The AAFC lasted four years. So did the Rockets, who switched their name to Hornets.

The Rockets/Hornets had talent. Alex Agase, Angello Bertelli, Bill Daley, Bob Dove, Bob Hoernschemeyer, Max Morris and Ray Ramsey all teamed with Hirsch. However, Chicago's two established NFL teams had bigger names.

The Cardinals had their ``Dream Backfield'' of Paul Christman, Elmer Angsman, Charlie Trippi and Pat Harder. And the Bears were owned by the ``Father of Pro Football,'' George S. Halas, who would eventually squeeze the Cardinals out of town.

Strangely enough, however, Halas himself had been financially burned by a Chicago pro franchise that failed. Not the Bears, of course. The Chicago Bruins of 1926-29 in the American Basketball League, which Halas served as commissioner, were his downfall. The Bruins were the first of four Chicago pro basketball teams that flopped before the Bulls caught on for good in 1967, so Papa Bear was 50 years ahead of his time.

In his biography ``Halas on Halas,'' he tells of signing New York Celtics star Nat Holman and paying him $6,000 for half a season.

``That was more than I could afford,'' Halas said. ``It was a sporting success but a financial disaster.''

It's a wonder more of these franchises didn't catch on in Chicago, regarded from coast to coast as ``a good sports town.'' Many of the teams had dynamic owners, sound managers, gifted players and catchy nicknames.

Abe Saperstein and Lee Stern join Halas on the list of owners of teams that folded. Joe Tinker, George Allen, Abe Gibron, Jim Pollard and Marcel Pronovost were some of the coaches or managers. Playing ranks included George Mikan, Bobby McDermott, Ollie Matson, Hirsch, Sweetwater Clifton, Billie Jean King, Willy Roy and Karl-Heinz Granitza.

Team nicknames did not lack for imagination: Whales, Gears, Spurs, Sting, Hustle. Some names had a military ring: Majors, Rockets, Blitz. Some were zoological: Bruins, Stags, Cougars, Mustangs. Some connoted the airborne: Hornets, Vultures, Cardinals, Owls.

Here's a rundown on some of their deeds and misdeeds:


-- Chicago Whales, Federal League, 1914-15 - We're hearing all this hype about the 75th anniversary of Wrigley Field. Guess who played in the brand-new park at Clark and Addison in 1914. The Chicago Whales did.

The Whales were owned by restaurateur Charles Weeghman. They were managed by Joe Tinker, the Cubs shortstop who had been immortalized in Franklin P. Adams' poem about the double play team of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.

The Federal League was well financed. Had it not been for World War I, the Federal might have cracked baseball's National-American monopoly that still hasn't been cracked.


-- Chicago Rockets/Hornets, All American Football Conference, 1946-49 - When the AAFC folded in 1949, three of its members, Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore, were admitted into the NFL. Chicago never had a chance. It had seven coaches and three owners in three years. While people stayed away from Soldier Field, the Bears or Cardinals played in the NFL title game in each of the AAFC's first three seasons.

-- Chicago Cardinals, NFL, 1919-1959 - The Cardinals actually started playing in Chicago the year before Halas brought up his team from Decatur. But Halas didn't want another team in town, especially after TV arrived. He produced a document prohibiting the Cardinals from playing north of Madison Street. The Cards finally got the hint. In 1959 they flew to St. Louis.

-- Chicago Fire, World Football League, 1974 - Owner Tom Origer struck a coup when he signed Virgil Carter, the QB whom Halas had fined and fired for calling the Bears ``chicken-bleep.'' Carter threw 25 TD passes in his first 10 WFL games. But the Fire ran short of healthy bodies and money. Exit after one season.

-- Chicago Winds, World Football League, 1975 - This combination looked unbeatable. The popular Gibron would coach. Pete Beathard would pass. Mark Kellar would run the ball. The Winds, making the Fire look long-lived, blew away in midseason.

-- Chicago Fire, American Football Association, 1981 - This team skirts the edge between major and minor league. Former St. Rita and Wisconsin star Billy Marek was the top runner. Ex-Deerfield and Minnesota Mark Carlson passed well. This Fire lost to West Virginia in the title game. Creditors lost more than that. Some settled for 10 cents on the dollar.

-- Chicago Blitz, U.S. Football League, 1983-85 - George Allen, whom Halas sued before Allen left to coach the Rams, sprang one coup over the Bears. He signed Tom Thayer some 90 minutes before the Bears drafted him. Allen's '83 team blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead and lost in the playoffs.

In 1984, Allen jumped to Arizona and took with him virtually every decent player. Marv Levy did a remarkable job coaching the culls he was dealt. Money ran low, and the USFL took over team operation.


-- Chicago Bruins, American Basketball League, 1926-29 - The Bruins offered a young law student named Blair ``Barney'' Varnes a showcase for his rare skills. Among other things, Varnes invented the one-hand shot. ``They thought I was a showoff, but I did it out of necessity,'' said Varnes, now 85 and a retired judge in Wheaton. ``The game was rough then. When the ball went into center, two or three hands slapped you and tied you up.''

Among his other achievements, Varnes coached ``The Coach,'' Ray Meyer, at St. Patrick High.

-- Chicago Stags, NBA, 1946-50 - This was a charter NBA team and the first of three that would represent the league in Chicago. Hometown favorite Mickey Rottner and super set-shooter Max Zaslofsky were crowd favorites. Olly Olson and Phil Brownstein coached.

-- Chicago American Gears, American Basketball Association, 1946-47 - This team played in the Amphitheatre and featured one of basketball's best inside-outside combos: rookie Mikan, just out of De Paul, and sensational set shooter McDermott. The team moved to Minneapolis and became the Lakers.

-- Chicago Majors, American Basketball Association, 1960-63 - Saperstein owned the league and liberally supplied players from his Globetrotters. Clifton, longtime local hero, was signed to hype the gate. Saperstein's league gave birth to the three-point basket.

-- Chicago Packers/Zephyrs, NBA, 1961-63 - Dave Trager organized this bunch. Rookie Walt Bellamy was the scoring leader for the team that won 18 of 80 games its first year. Owners, players and fans debated whether De Paul hotshot Howie Carl was too small and too slow to play. Sihugo Green had the best moves ... until the team moved to Baltimore after two seasons in Chicago.

-- Chicago Hustle, Women's Pro Basketball League, 1979-81 - Coach Doug Bruno started five sub-6-footers who were all coaches themselves. The Hustle lost in the title game to Iowa the first year but won the title for partying. Several Iowa players left the champions' dull postgame fete and joined the Hustle bash. Ask Janie Fincher or Rita Easterling. Things never got any better than that.


-- Chicago Cougars, World Hockey League, 1972-74 - Pronovost coached Pat Stapleton & Co. at the Amphitheatre. Like other brief new leagues, the WHL, largely due to Bobby Hull at Winnipeg, created larger salaries for all players.


-- Chicago Mustangs, North American Soccer League, 1967-68 - Stu Holcomb left his job as Northwestern athletic director to become general manager of the Mustangs, who played home games at Comiskey Park.

-- Chicago Spurs, National Professional Soccer League, 1967 - Like pro basketball with the Majors and Packers in the early '60s, soccer began in Chicago with two, not one, pro teams. Somebody had to go. The Spurs, including Roy, now soccer coach at Northern Illinois University, moved from Soldier Field to Kansas City.

-- Chicago Sting, North American Soccer League, 1975-84 - Stern presided over a decade-long run that included titles in 1981 and '84.

Stern confides now that, ``I should have quit on top,'' when Mayor Jane Byrne threw a downtown parade for Granitza, Pato Margetic and champion teammates in '81. That was the high-water mark.

-- Chicago Vultures, Chicago Shoccers - Both played indoor soccer at the Stadium in the 1980s. And the Horizon played at the Horizon. The current indoor team, based at the Horizon, is the Granitza-coached Power of the American Indoor Soccer Association.


-- Chicago Aces, World Team Tennis, 1974 - The Aces drafted 20 players headed by Chicago-reared Marty Riessen but failed to sign him or No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4. Actually, they failed to sign 13 of the next 16 picks. ``Crowds'' at an indoor club on Fullerton Avenue sometimes numbered more freeloading media types on their lunch breaks than paying customers.

Other Team Tennis squads represented Chicago in the '80s. One, called the ``Fyre,'' named for a radio station, featured King as a player and played outdoor matches at Daley Center.


-- Some of the soccer and tennis teams just listed may not stack up as ``major league.'' Sometimes, it's a tough call between major and semipro.

Take the Chicago Owls, who played football at Soldier Field. Were they ``major'' because Bob Kuechenberg once was one of them? What about the Lake County Rifles? Or the second Fire team, featuring Marek? For that matter, were the players that Allen left Levy ``big-leaguers?''

Old-timers recall that, between the two World Wars, the level of semipro baseball in Chicago matched that of the high minor leagues.

Finally, isn't any average 16-inch softball team from Chicago ``big league'' because it can go anywhere on earth and knock off the best 16-inch squad that place can put together?