An unlikely sports tradition in Chicago

Here’s the headline on page 1 of the Chicago Tribune from 70 years ago today. It was front-page coverage of the long-defunct Chicago Charities College All-Star Game, which pitted the NFL champion from the previous year (in this case, the Philadelphia Eagles) against a team of star college football seniors from the prior year:

Check out that attendance – over 93,000 fans at a then-mammoth Soldier Field, 21 years before the lakefront stadium was reconfigured and made smaller in order to accommodate the Bears, who moved to Soldier Field in 1971, after spending the previous 50 years playing in Wrigley Field.

Believe it or not, that was a drop from attendance for the game in the two previous years, when the game drew over 100,000 fans. The 1947 and 1948 games had additional local appeal, since the NFL champs playing the game were the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals, respectively.

The preseason game was staged annually in August from 1934 to 1976 at Soldier Field, except for 1974 (due to an NFL players strike that year). Like the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, it was the brainchild of Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward. But Tribune was not involved with the All-Star Game after the first one at Comiskey Park in 1933. By contrast, the newspaper sponsored the Chicago Charities College All-Star Game until its last year.

Unlike most college and pro football games in 1949, this one was played at night. Check out the halftime light show in this photo spread below – something tells me that this was a real novelty for the time:

It was a busy weekend for sports in Chicago. That Sunday (Aug. 15) in Comiskey Park, another 35,000 fans attended the 17th annual East-West Negro League All-Star Game. That baseball event was also an exclusively Chicago event, although by this time it had lost some of its star luster with the recent integration of the major leagues. 

It’s amazing that the College All-Star Game lasted as long as it did, what with the injury concerns for both the pros and collegiates, many of whom were already drafted by NFL teams. The last one, which I remember watching on TV as a child, was a memorable one involving the Terry Bradshaw-Franco Harris-“Mean Joe” Greene Pittsburgh Steelers. As with most of these games, the NFL dominated. But the 1976 game was postponed after the 3rd quarter, due to monsoon-like rains which flooded Soldier Field.

It was a wild scene – after the game was postponed, fans rushed the field and essentially took over the facility. This was all broadcast live on ABC, with “Monday Night Football” announcer Frank Gifford providing theplay-by-play.

Despite this, the Tribune wanted to continue the event in 1977. But the NFL had no desire to keep it going, and this long-time Chicago-centered sports event breathed its last.


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