How could a hundred-year-old ship derail our own Monsters of the Midway? Well, in two words – no, better four words – George “Papa Bear” Halas.
Born George Stanley Halas in Chicago on February 02, 1895 to working-class parents, Barbara and Frank J. Halas, George was the youngest of four surviving children. His father, Frank, died when George was attending Crane Tech High School, and George was forced to learn the value of hard work at a young age. Upon graduation from Crane in 1913, George had hopes of attending U of I at Champaign-Urbana, his older brother, Walter’s, alma mater. Though George went out for football, track, and baseball in high school, he wanted more than anything to play college football. But George had one handicap. He couldn’t gain weight. He was a mere 120 pounds when he graduated Crane. George received another blow to his college plans that summer. With his father gone, there wasn’t enough money for U of I, and George would have to work full-time for a year to save for school.
He got a job in the payroll department at Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero (his high school sweetheart, Min, who later became his wife, worked there as well) and played baseball for the payroll team. He utilized that year to gain weight. By the fall of 1914, George was 140 pounds and ready for freshman football tryouts.
He made the U of I team, but only as a reserve halfback. So in the spring, he went out for baseball. Come summer of 1915, George was back at the Hawthorne Works, ready to earn money for his sophomore year and anxious to gain more weight for another football tryout. He was also ready and anxious for the highly promoted 5th annual employee picnic on July 24th. George purchased a .75 cent ticket and made plans to meet co-workers, Ralph Brizzolara and Charlie Pechous, on the first ship scheduled to department for the picnic grounds – the SS Eastland.
But destiny intervened that rainy Saturday morning. Older brother, Frank, insisted George hang back for a weigh-in. Happy with his 163 pounds, George hurried to the docks on the Chicago River only to find that the Eastland had capsized. Stunned, George made it back home, uncertain of the fate of his two friends. He later learned that Ralph Brizzolara had been pulled from the water and survived. Charlie Pechous, like George, had been delayed and missed the boat.
The next day, Sunday, July 25, 1915, The Chicago Sunday Tribune printed “… the most tremendous descriptive list of unidentified dead ever compiled in America.” On that list was a Hullis, T. (later confirmed as Western Electric drill press man, Theodore Hallas, 25, single – no relation to George’s family).*
There was some confusion and I assume, panic, among George’s college fraternity brothers, and two of them appeared at the front door Sunday evening to offer their condolences to Mrs. Halas on the loss of her son. George answered the door. Imagine the surprise.
Later in life, George said, “When I missed connections on the ill-fated Eastland, I realized I was a very lucky man. Nothing which has happened since has given me any reason to think otherwise.”
George Halas did eventually play football. He was one of the organizers of the American Professional Football League in 1920 (later known as the National Football League). George also managed and owned a local team some of you may know.
Chicagoans – indeed all Americans – owe Frank Halas a debt of gratitude for delaying younger brother, George, with a weigh-in the morning of the disaster. Without George’s push for an organized, professional football league, European soccer may have become American’s game. Imagine the lakefront without Soldier Field. Ditka’s restaurants would be Chinese buffets and CBS Sports would be out of business without fantasy football leagues. The word “da” would not be part of our vocabulary. My husband’s basement man cave would be decorated in Cubby blue and white instead of orange and navy. And I might even be able to spend Sundays with him August through January instead of being a football widow for six months of the year.
*In all my research on the Eastland, I never came across George Halas’s name on a list of the dead. As I stated above, a T. Hullis was listed in the Chicago Sunday Tribune the day after the disaster. Quite possibly this could have been the name that George’s fraternity brothers saw. Misspellings and confusion were common in the aftermath as many of the deceased had complicated Czech and Polish names. Younger employees of Western Electric Americanized their names, but their parents came looking for their missing teenagers, giving authorities the traditional spelling instead of the Americanized version. The fraternity brothers could have assumed that T. Hullis was an erroneous misspelling of their friend, George, who was supposed to have been on the Eastland.
If anyone knows of a printed listing of the dead with George Halas’s name on it, please let me know. I’m always happy to learn some new and interesting fact about the Eastland. My intent is not to diminish Halas family folklore in any way. The story of those two fraternity brothers at the front door is priceless – truly – and a story that would and should be told from generation to generation. But maybe just maybe we could clear up one of the many urban legends that persist about the disaster. That would make my day.
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