1932 was a tumultuous time in American History. The stock market crash of 1929 known as Black Friday had flushed the United States’ economy into a black hole. The Great Depression was in full swing and paranoia replaced the hope and dreams of the roaring 20’s.
The National Football League was not immune. The NFL fielded its fewest amount of teams ever. A mere eight franchises remained. The modern day Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers were among them.
Like so many Americans at the time professional football was just trying to survive. Pennies were pinched and corners were cut. This was literally the case in the 1932 NFL playoff game between the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans to determine the League Champion.
It was the first time in NFL history a playoff game was needed to decide the leagues’ champion. This snafu and circumstances to follow, led to a plethora of changes during the 1930’s, to keep the league alive and relevant during the depression.
The Chicago Bears, with a record of 6-1-6 were statistically tied with the 6-1-4 Portsmouth Spartans for first place. Chicago and Portsmouth had played twice during the regular season. The first ended in a 13-13 stalemate and the second, predictably ended in a 7-7 tie as well.
By rule during the era, ties were rendered irrelevant and seeding was based on winning percentage. In the eyes of the NFL, both teams had identical 6-1 records.
Despite winning just 6 of 13 games, the Bears would play for the title against a Spartans team winning just over 50% of their games played. The 10-3-1 Green Bay Packers, were perhaps unfairly left out in the cold ending their three year reign as NFL Champions. This was only the beginning in a series of events that made the first ever NFL playoff game, a bit of a farce.
The game was played on Dec. 18, 1932 at Chicago Stadium, an indoor facility. Originally planned to be played outdoors at the infamous Wrigley Field, sub-zero temperatures combined with a lingering blizzard, had rendered the field unplayable.
Chicago Stadium was an uneven playing field, literally. The football field had to be shortened from 100 yards to just 80. It was also 30 feet slimmer. It probably more closely resembled a modern day Arena league football field with a dirt playing surface.
Still, over 11,000 fans showed up for the NFL finale. The Bears featured notorious star power with Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange. Both became future Hall of Famers. Meanwhile Portsmouth was without its star quarterback and future Hall of Famer Earl “Dutch” Clark.
For Clark, his season was over. It was time to start his new one as head basketball coach of Colorado College, his offseason gig. Unfortunately for Clark, he was unable to get the time off to play the extra game.
The Spartans, now playing without their valiant leader at the helm put up an honorable fight. It was fitting however that the game, being decided on a controversial field, would also be decided on a controversial play.
The Chicago Bears scored the lone touchdown of the game on a Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange jump-pass. Portsmouth head coach Potsy Clark argued that the pass was illegal indicating Nagurski had not dropped back the required five yards to attempt a pass. “He wasn’t 2 yards back” Clark said.
The call would stand and the Bears went on to win 9-0 becoming the 1932 NFL Champions. It was the first Championship for Chicago since 1921, when they were known as the Staleys. Still, it was hard to consider the season a success. As was consistent with the times, the franchise would finish the year $18,000 in the red.
The Portsmouth Spartans failed to get back to the Championship game in 1933. They finished second in their division with a 6-5 record behind the Chicago Bears. A year later in 1934, Portsmouth moved to Detroit and would become the modern day Lions.
The NFL was a non-passing league in 1932. Passes were legal but could only be attempted five yards behind the line of scrimmage, thus telegraphing most passing plays. In perspective, Green Bay Hall of Fame quarterback Arnie Herber led the NFL in completions in 1932 with just 37.
Fearing further controversy, the NFL made significant changes in 1933 to avoid the embarrassment that was the 1932 playoff game. The league was divided into two divisions. The top team in each division would then play in the first official NFL Championship game in 1933.
Also, perhaps the most important rule change in NFL history was made. A forward pass could now be attempted from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Teams were still tentative using the forward pass, however passing plays became more frequent and progressed steadily.
In 1939 Cleveland Rams rookie All-Pro quarterback Parker Hall became the first player ever to complete over 100 passes. He also set the record for most pass attempts in a single season with 208. This didn’t necessarily lead to team success however. The Rams finished fourth in their division with a 5-5-1 record.