The NFL's original Spy vs. Spy: Packers-Bears
In NFL news, a head coach complains bitterly to reporters after a road loss that his phones from the press box to the bench didn't work. Though he doesn’t say it, the implication is that the responsibility lies with the shady, win-at-all-costs character coaching the other team.
The coach? Curly Lambeau.
The alleged culprit? George Halas.
The day? Nov. 9, 1947.
There really is nothing new in the NFL. Stand aside Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick. Your season-opening brouhaha this week have nothing on Lambeau, Halas and the formative years of the NFL.
On that game day in November ’47, Halas’ Chicago Bears defeated their great rival, the Packers, 20-17 at Wrigley Field. And the faulty phone lines weren’t the only possible gamesmanship that irked Lambeau. The Bears had been playing at Wrigley since 1921, and this was the first time the Packers’ bench was on the same side of the field as the Bears.
“Two of our marches failed (inside the Bears’ 5) because we couldn’t get our substitutes in place fast enough — they had to run 80 yards to reach the play on both cases,” Lambeau was quoted as saying in the Press-Gazette the day after the game. “We didn’t know what yard line it was on, what plays to use, because of that.”
Cheating, spying (or at least the perceived threat thereof) and all manners of subterfuge have been a part of the NFL since the league formed in 1920. And the Packers and Bears, whose bitter rivalry dates to 1921 and continues Sunday when the teams meet at Chicago's Soldier Field, have been in the middle of it from the start.
In fact, the Packers were one of the NFL’s original cheaters — or at least one of the first to get caught.
In the early days of professional football, it wasn’t unusual for college players to play in professional games under an assumed name, though it was against the rules of the American Professional Football Association, which was the forerunner of the NFL. The Packers joined the league in 1921 and in a non-league game that season against Racine, Lambeau used three players under assumed names who still had eligibility at Notre Dame.
According to a blog last May by the Packers’ official historian, Cliff Christl, the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune reported about a week later that Notre Dame had declared all three players ineligible and stripped them of their varsity letters for playing in that game. The bad publicity reflected poorly on the fledgling professional game — college football was king at the time — so commissioner Joe Carr booted the Packers from the league.
Some books and online sources say Halas tipped off the school and league about the Packers using illegal players, but there’s zero evidence to back that up. Whether he helped convince Carr that banishment was the appropriate punishment after the fact is unknown. Regardless, in a vintage Halas move, he signed all three players in 1922.
In the meantime, Lambeau’s persistence got the Packers reinstated in 1922. Not long after, the Packers-Bears rivalry took root. By 1925, the Bears were the Packers’ biggest home draw, and the Packers beat the Bears for the first time. Though it’s hard to know exactly when, somewhere along the line the two hyper-competitive men who ran these teams began suspecting each other of spying.
Maybe it started in 1925. According to the book “Mudbaths and Bloodbaths: The Inside Story of the Bears-Packers Rivalry” by Christl and Gary D’Amato, Lambeau conducted his first closed practice the week before beating the Bears.
Jerry Vainisi, the former Bears general manager who joined the franchise in 1972, says he often talked with Halas about the early years of the NFL. Halas never said anything about spying or being spied upon, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t engage in the practice.
“That would not surprise me, it honestly wouldn’t,” Vainisi said this week of the possibility that Halas spied on the Packers. “Coach was one of the most competitive people I ever met, and he had to be in order to accomplish what he accomplished. Any edge that he could have gotten he would have tried to get, especially against Green Bay. That was kind of half a season’s worth, those two (Packers-Bears) games, in his mind because of the rivalry.”
Through the years, neither caught the other spying on a practice, but suspicion thrived.
According to “Mudbaths and Bloodbaths” Lambeau told players to avoid talking to strangers the week of the Bears game because he was convinced Halas had spies in hotel lobbies, the YMCA and bars in downtown Green Bay.
Maybe the strongest evidence that justified the suspicions came during the four-year tenure of Gene Ronzani as Packers coach, from 1950 to 1953. Ronzani played for Halas from 1933 to 1938 and again in 1944 and 1945, and was an assistant coach for him from 1947 to 1949.
As Packers coach, Ronzani was so fearful of Halas stealing his plays that he didn’t give playbooks to his players. Instead, when installing the offense he’d put up a large drawing of a play for about 10 seconds, which was enough time for players to get their own assignment but not everyone else’s. If the player later left the Packers, Halas couldn’t sign him and learn the Packers’ playbook.
Also, before Packers-Bears games, Ronzani went to great lengths to prevent spying. The Packers practiced at Joannes Stadium, which was a minor league baseball park next to City Stadium, and Ronzani had injured players stand in front of any holes or openings in the fences that lined the first- and third-base lines.
“An airplane would fly over, he’d stop practice,” said linebacker Deral Teteak in “Mudbaths and Bloodbaths.” “He was really paranoid. He used to always say, ‘(Bears spies) are around here somewhere. I know they are. They always did it when I was there.’”
Halas had similar suspicions of Lambeau and the Packers. Former Bears defensive back Don KIndt said that at his rookie training camp in 1947 in Rensselaer, Ind., Halas constantly was on the lookout for Packers spies.
“(Halas) would say something like, ‘They’re spying on us, so we’re going to camouflage this play,’” Kindt said in the book, “We Are the Bears!: The Oral History of the Chicago Bears.”
The suspicions from both sides carried over to the Vince Lombardi era. Or at least feigned suspicions, because with competitors like these, you never know if they really thought there was spying, or just wanted their players to think there was spying to make them mad.
For instance, after attending a Wednesday practice in the week leading up to the Packers-Bears game in November 1963, a reporter from the Associated Press wrote a story devoted to whether a man shooting pictures from the third-story window of one of the apartment buildings across from Wrigley was a Packers spy.
Halas had the man removed but claimed he was a newspaper photographer, not a spy.
“I know who’s up in that window,” the story quotes Halas saying to his players. “I know just about everything that’s going on around here.”
Chuck Lane, the Packers’ public relations director for Lombardi’s final two seasons as coach, still isn’t sure whether Lombardi was serious when he talked about Halas spying.
“Hard to say,” Lane said. “It was all part of the mystique.”
If it was an act, it was a good one. Lane doesn’t recall the Packers’ Oneida Street practice field having any tarps to block the view, and he said Lombardi sounded convinced that Halas had a spy in one of the homes or buildings near the field.
Lane remembers Lombardi having players wear different numbers in practice the week of a Bears game. He’d have Bart Starr, who normally was No. 15, wear No. 51, and Zeke Bratkowski, who was No. 12, wear No. 21.
“Like they couldn’t figure that out,” Lane said. “Everybody kind of got a kick out of it. He thought he was being clandestine as hell.”
The biggest spying incident in the rivalry in more recent times was perfectly legal at the time. It happened in 1980, in the second meeting of the teams.
The Bears knew that Bratkowski, then a Packers assistant coach, was signaling in plays from the sidelines, so the 85-year-old Halas had Bill Tobin, the Bears player personnel director, study videotape of the signals and match them with plays. In the second meeting, the Packers started with two signal callers — one was a dummy — but after a delay of game penalty early had only Bratkowski signaling.
Tobin decoded the signs, relayed the call to Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, and Ryan called his defense. The Bears won 61-7 at Soldier Field.
“Let’s just say it worked,” Tobin said this week.
How much spying and gamesmanship still is going on in today’s NFL is anybody’s guess. There’s obviously plenty of suspicion, especially of Belichick and the Patriots.
But if the methods today are more sophisticated, it’s still only more of the same.
“Teams do spy on each other,” Vainisi said. “There’s so much more film exchange that there’s less reason to do it. Back in the days Halas was doing whatever he was doing you didn’t have the availability of all the data and video, and you had much smaller staffs. I think it’s been going on forever and it’s part of the game and you deal with it and do whatever you can to counter it.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.