Redskins get more first downs [18-17] than Bears at Griffith Stadium.
— Description of 1940 NFL championship game in Redskins media guide.
It seemed surreal … but it was all too real.
The score read like a misprint in newspapers around the nation in that pre-television era. And 64 years later, in a far different world, the ache and astonishment remain for older Redskins fans who were around at the time.
Dec. 8, 1940: Chicago Bears 73, Washington Redskins 0.
Notable routs punctuate the sporting ages. This was the biggest in professional sports history — and in a championship game no less. If you’re looking for a comparative drubbing, how about Richard Nixon’s 49-state victory over George McGovern in 1972?
When the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloped through biblical history as total terrors, they might have had nothing on the so-called Monsters of the Midway.
Fascinating sidelights marked the NFL’s eighth title game. The Redskins had beaten the Bears just three weeks earlier by the score of 7-3; for the rematch, Chicago simply rearranged the digits. And although the Redskins came into the championship with a 9-2 record to the Bears’ 8-3 and were playing at home, Chicago was favored by most bookmakers.
Redskins owner George Preston Marshall and Bears owner/coach George Halas suggested the oddsmakers must have been sniffing glue. This was one of the few areas of agreement between the two Georges, who for decades managed to be close friends and bitter enemies at the same time.
“That’s ridiculous,” Marshall said. “We already beat them, and we only lost two games all year.”
Replied Halas, perhaps with tongue tucked firmly in cheek: “Sure we’ve got power, but I don’t know if we can stop the Redskins.”
Actually, the Bears had an unlikely secret weapon: Marshall himself.
The Redskins’ flamboyant and bombastic owner publicly taunted the Bears after the earlier meeting, insisting, “They’re front-runners, quitters. They’re just a bunch of crybabies. They fold up when the going gets tough.”
Redskins coach Ray Flaherty surely cringed when he read those words, and well he might.
When the Bears trooped into Griffith Stadium’s tiny visitors’ locker room the morning of the game, they found Halas had been there before them — to post newspaper clippings of Marshall’s remarks all over the place. (Considering the outcome, this might be why every coach now describes every opponent as frighteningly fearsome.)
In case anybody missed the point, Halas made a little speech to his troops: “Gentlemen, this is what George Preston Marshall thinks of you. I think you’re the greatest football team ever assembled. Go out there and prove it.”
We may assume the Bears roared onto the field. Today no Hollywood scriptwriter in his right mind would concoct such a melodramatic situation and result, but on a sunny day that turned totally bleak for the Redskins and most of the 36,054 spectators, it was unfolding before their eyes.
The still-struggling NFL was a mere two-division, 10-club entity in 1940; the Bears were both a charter member (as the Decatur Staleys in 1920) and its most dominant team. From 1932 to 1939, they compiled a 68-19-10 record, winning one title game and losing others to the New York Giants in 1934 and the Redskins in 1937.
In 1940, Halas switched offensive formations from the single wing to the modernized T-formation, introduced the previous season by Clark Shaughnessy at Stanford. After devastating the Redskins, the Bears went 29-2-1 over the next three seasons and won two more titles. (Somewhat astoundingly, the Redskins rebounded to beat them 14-6 in the 1942 championship game.)
The Bears needed just 55 seconds to start their carnage in 1940. Aided by Joe Stydahar’s vicious downfield block that wiped out the last two defenders, fullback Bill Osmanski raced 68 yards to score before most of the eyewitnesses had planted their posteriors.
The Redskins did not give up. Max Krause returned the kickoff 56 yards to the Bears 40. Two plays later from the 35, Sammy Baugh — the NFL’s most renowned passer — dropped back in the single wing and fired a strike to end Charley Malone, in the clear near the goal line. But Malone flubbed the catch as a massive groan rose over the stadium at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW.
“Their plumage fairly drooping,” as Al Hailey reported in the next day’s Washington Post, the Redskins then missed a field goal. Malone’s drop clearly was a turning point and led to a famous quote by the customarily stoic Baugh. Asked after the game if the result would have been different had Malone caught the ball, Sammy cracked, “Sure — it would have been 73-7.”
So much for one-liners. The Bears rolled to a 28-0 halftime lead, and the second half was even worse for the Redskins although Sid Luckman, Chicago’s star quarterback, sat out. For the game, eight Washington passes were intercepted and three returned for touchdowns. Meanwhile, Chicago’s offense contributed touchdown runs of 42 yards by Joe Maniaci, 23 by Ray Nolting and 44 by Harry Clark.
Toward the end, the Bears were running or passing for extra points at the Redskins’ behest because all the good footballs had been kicked into the stands and a practice ball was being used in the game.
Long before the game ended, most of the fans had found other places to be. Understandably, this was a part of history they wanted no part of.
Near game’s end, a ludicrous announcement droned over the P.A. system: “Redskins season tickets for 1941 will go on sale …”
The announcer’s final words disappeared in a hail of boos.
When the final gun mercifully sounded, a press box comedian joked, “Marshall just shot himself.” This was not true. After the game, displaying his usual graciousness, the owner growled, “Some of the boys are going to be surprised when they get their contracts for 1941.”
As Marshall started from his box toward the field with two minutes left, a fan yelled, “Take [the Redskins] back to Boston, you lug!” Two policemen appeared to guard Marshall, and two young men rushed up to protect Corinne Griffith, his actress wife. But as Griffith noted in her book “My Life With the Redskins” a few years later, “What had I done?”
In the press box atop the temporary stands in right field, some of the nation’s best sportswriters strove to accurately portray the proceedings. Wrote the Philadelphia Record’s Red Smith of Marshall: “When it was over, every hair in his raccoon coat had turned white.”
All in all, Dec. 8, 1940, would be the saddest time in Washington for exactly 364 days. On Dec. 7, 1941, as the Redskins were lining up to play the Philadelphia Eagles at Griffith Stadium, Japanese bombs began falling on Pearl Harbor.