SideLines: The title that Bears fans forgot

It’s like the forgotten championship. Fifty years ago last month, on Dec. 29, 1963, the Chicago Bears defeated the New York Giants, 14-10, to win the NFL championship for the eighth time in team history and the last under legendary owner/coach George Halas.

The ’63 title has been buried under the avalanche of hype over their Super Bowl XX win, their only title since. As a longtime Bears fan, I was aware of the game, especially since it happened in my lifetime, but I don’t remember watching it or anyone talking about it. Even Mike Ditka, the Bears’ starting tight end, admitted in his 1986 autobiography he doesn’t remember that game as much as the one that got them there.

Through eBay, I got a copy of the NBC radio broadcast of the game, which wasn’t decided until the final play, when the Bears picked off a Hail Mary pass in the end zone.

More than the details of the game, I was intrigued by how much football has changed since then. The broadcast, for instance, was a straightforward account of what was happening, like you get for a local high school game today. There were few stats, little analysis and absolutely no inside stories or second guessing the way there is on today’s sports radio, which, like eBay, was unheard of back then. Sponsors included a well-known cigarette company and a prominent bank claiming the best way to save money was putting it into a savings account.

Grandstand tickets were $10 and you could still get them the morning of the game. Prime Sports is charging $2,237 in advance for end zone seats for this Sunday’s Super Bowl. (Not to change sports, but two box seats for Game 6 of last year’s World Series reportedly went for $24,000, more than the cost of many homes in 1963.)

For winning, each of the Bears got $5,899. A record then, it pales to the $83,000 each player on this year’s winning team will get. The Bears were also expecting fur coats for their wives as an extra bonus. Instead, Halas sent out a City of Chicago paperweight, which one surprised player accidentally dropped onto an expensive glass coffee table, shattering it.

According to U.S. News and World Report, each NFL team got $325,000 as part of the $4.65 million CBS paid to broadcast regular-season games in 1963, which covered most of the Bears’ payroll that year. (NBC broadcast the championship). Today, that’s about what a player gets for being on a team’s practice squad. In 2013, Forbes reported each NFL team will split $28 billion of TV money for the next nine seasons. The Bears, valued at $1.25 billion, have an annual payroll of $125 million.

The average Bears’ salary in 1963 was $16,000, which most players doubled with off-season jobs. The highest NFL salary in 1963 was Jimmy Brown’s $45,000 – what Denver quarterback Petyon Manning will make every three minutes of every game in 2014. (If they continue to escalate at this rate, can you imagine what payrolls and salaries will be 50 years from now?)

Even if I don’t remember it, I’m sure the 1963 title was a big deal at the time. “It was like payday at the mill, Christmas at home, a kiss from the best gal,” sportswriter Dave Condon wrote in the Chicago Tribune the next day. “It put Bears fans in orbit.”

Coming a month after the assassination of President Kennedy, many felt the game should never have been played. But, in the words of the late Red Smith, the exciting outcome “helped some fans forget.”

Regardless, 45,800 people crowded into Wrigley Field that fateful day. The record low turnout was 13,341 for the Dec. 27, 1941, title game, just two weeks after Pearl Harbor. Incidentally, the Bears beat the Giants in that one, too, but who remembers that game, either?

Weather forecasts for this Sunday’s Super Bowl, which will be played in New Jersey, call for seasonably cold temperatures. In her 1995 memoir, Diane Little DeLact wrote of the 1963 title: “It was shocking at all that anything could move in that landscape, much less run or jump.” Whether we remember them or not, some things change and some don’t.

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