On December 18, 1932, with waist-deep snow and frigid weather plaguing Chicago, the Bears moved their NFL championship game against the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans from Wrigley Field to the indoor arena of the city's NHL team. The league's first playoff game—and first contest played indoors—produced what an Ohio newspaper called a "sham battle on Tom Thumb gridiron.”
Chicago Stadium could only accommodate a field 60 yards long, 40 shorter than regulation, and 48 yards wide, five shorter than normal. The end zones were condensed, too. Because a circus had recently been held at the venue, the teams played on a field composed of 400 tons of dirt. Certain circus leftovers added an unmistakable odor to the night’s array of oddities.
The arena’s restricted confines forced radical rule adjustments, including a no-field goal agreement. Most punts sailed into the seats, forcing spectators into evasive maneuvers. One boot plunked the stadium’s organist mid-performance.
But with America in the midst of the Great Depression, Bears owner and coach George Halas and the league were eager to play a championship game before a big crowd. The week before, only 5,000 fans had attended the Bears' season finale at home against the Green Bay Packers.
“I don’t think anything could compare with the game between Portsmouth and the Bears in 1932,’’ Halas later said. “The only thing not ridiculous about the whole mess was we won the game.”
The title game relocation and stipulations overshadowed the actual result—a 9-0 Bears victory—and the strange game laid the groundwork for seminal NFL changes.
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No Playoffs in Early Days of NFL
In the first 12 seasons of the NFL, which played its inaugural season in 1920, no playoff format existed. Regular-season winning percentage determined a champion, with ties excluded. In the league's early days, teams often did not even play the same number of games.
In their 1932 season finales against Green Bay, Portsmouth and Chicago won, leaving each team with a 6-1 win-loss record (the Bears had six ties, the Spartans four). To determine the NFL champion, the Midwestern teams agreed to play a winner-take-all game in Chicago.
Portsmouth Spartans' Star Unable to Get Time Off
Quarterback Dutch Clark anchored the rushing attack in the single-wing offense for Portsmouth, the underdog against the Bears. But the versatile playmaker couldn't play in the championship game because of a conflict with his offseason job.
During the two weeks between the Spartans’ regular-season finale and the title game, Clark left for his winter gig as head basketball coach at Colorado College. The Colorado native graduated from the school in 1930 and stayed on as its basketball coach.
Portsmouth requested the school give its high-profile employee a personal day, even offering to pay for transportation from Colorado for the game. Not happening, the school said.
Pfftt, said Portsmouth Roy Lumpkin, who declared Portsmouth would beat the Bears "anytime, anywhere—even without Dutch Clark."
Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange on the other side made that prospect difficult. The two Hall of Fame-bound backs were Bears teammates for five seasons, with Nagurski—a 6-foot-2, 226-pound fullback—Chicago's centerpiece. The hulking ball-carrier, who had 10.2-second speed in the 100-yard dash, was one of the most difficult players to tackle of his generation.
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A 1927 knee injury had stripped Grange, a star at the University of Illinois, of his celebrated elusiveness. But “The Galloping Ghost” remained a quality defensive back capable of contributing on offense.
Nearly 12,000 Fans Attend NFL's First Indoor Game
Validating the decision by Halas and the NFL to play at Chicago Stadium, nearly 12,000 fans piled into the hockey venue for the championship game. The contest devolved into a punting duel, as runners struggled to gain footing in the six-inch layer of dirt. As players plodded through the mess, dust kicked up.
In another bizarre twist, the teams agreed to move the ball back 20 yards after crossing midfield, further hampering the offenses. Multiple goal-line stands highlighted a scoreless first three quarters.
The Bears' defense, which shut out seven opponents during the regular season, stood strong. The Spartans sorely missed their leading man, Clark. But Chicago briefly lost one of its own stars when three players crashed into Grange, who was carried off the field.
After Bears defender Dick Nesbitt snared one of the game’s eight interceptions—compared to five pass completions overall—a fourth-quarter Chicago possession neared the Portsmouth goal line. Three Spartans stops kept the Bears on the 2-yard line.
With a field goal not an option, Nagurski took the pivotal carry. But the Spartans' defense changed his plan. The third-year fullback lobbed a pass to Grange—who had re-entered the game in the final quarter—for the game’s only touchdown.
“The defenders converged and there was no way I could get through,” Nagurski later said. “I stopped, moved back a couple of steps and Grange had gone around and was in the end zone, all by himself.”
Spartans coach Potsy Clark ran onto the field arguing Nagurski was not five yards behind the line of scrimmage. (In 1932, the NFL required passers to throw from at least five yards back.) Referee Bobby Cahn ruled the play legal. Later, the Bears scored on a safety.
NFL Rules Changes Following 1932 Title Game
Mixed reviews emerged after the indoor experiment. A wire service reporter called the game a football comic strip. "Officials spent more time picking large clinkers out of the soil than they did blowing whistles," he wrote. A headline in an Ohio newspaper called the game a "football comedy."
But the drama in the do-or-die contest moved the NFL to scrap its regular-season-only format. Two months later, Washington owner George Preston Marshall proposed a two-division alignment that would end with an annual championship game. The NFL used that setup for the next 33 years. In 1967, the first Super Bowl was held.
Irked by the 1932 title game’s defining sequence, Potsy Clark nevertheless backed a rule that made passes legal if thrown from any point behind the line of scrimmage. “Nagurski will pass from anywhere, so why not make it legal?” Clark said at the league meeting.
The Spartans' near-miss in 1932 was about the end for the financially strapped team, which moved to Detroit in 1934. A year later, the former Spartans won the NFL title as the Lions.
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Chicago parlayed its indoor triumph into another title the next season. From 1933-46, the Bears appeared in seven championship games. Each occurred on a regulation field outdoors.
In 1986, the franchise won its only Super Bowl championship, at New Orleans' Superdome, another indoor venue. That conquest is the Bears’ most celebrated win, but their other indoor coronation proved more important for the sport.