One hundred years ago, football was known as a college game. Rivalries drew thousands of fans to campuses from coast to coast but a professional league was considered a fly by night venture at best. Teams sprung up in unlikely places. Green Bay, WI. Akron, OH. Rock Island, IL. Dayton, OH. Decatur, IL.
Now, a photo of one of those first squads–a team that unlike most others of the time–had staying power.
Estimated to net $10,000 or more, a rare, potentially one-of-a-kind team photo of the 1920 Decatur Staleys recently surfaced and is now up for auction. The Staleys would soon become the Chicago Bears and the image features players who became some of the founding fathers of pro football.
The image ranks as one of the earliest NFL team photos, one that is likely the only surviving example.
In short, it’s a Holy Grail for a Bears or NFL/APFA collector, one that likely won’t come around again. Featuring three Hall of Famers, bidding is expected to be fast and furious as the “Summer Platinum Night Sports Auction” heads toward the finish line on August 22.
According to the Internal Revenue Service’s “Returns of Net Income,” the average American reported an income of $3,269.40 in 1920. A little over a century later, the final bid on this item will once again be a reminder of how much has changed.
It’s an unusually large photo for the era, with dimensions that measure (10 x 13.5”) and includes the original frame (13×17”). There also isn’t a helmet in sight, as the only headgear are top hats and scally caps.
It also features the ringers from the 1920 roster assembled by A.E. Staley, the owner of a starch manufacturing plant. Staley himself is also visible with his bowtie (standing far right), as is ex-University of Illinois gridiron star George Halas (seated middle, third from right), who also had a stint with the New York Yankees.
The versatile Halas would go on to be known as “Papa Bear” and “Mr. Everything,” as he originally served as a sales representative for the A.E. Staley company, while also acting as a player-coach for the Decatur Staleys and an outfielder on the Staley baseball team.
Halas would also be instrumental in moving the team to Chicago, where they played at Wrigley Field for a stretch—deciding on the name of the “Bears” eventually to give credit to their hosts. Halas would even go on to be the head coach and owner of the team, making him one of the true jacks-of-all-trades and synonymous with Chicago sports.
While Halas is a figurehead of the photo, Heritage also believes that Hall of Famer Dutch Sternaman is the figure in the back row, wearing the suit and tie. A third Canton-inductee, Jimmy Conzelman, can be seen seated in the front row next to Staley. Another legend in his industry, Andy Lotshaw, can be seen standing far left. Lotshaw served as a trainer for the Staleys, then the Bears, and even Chicago Cubs—a career that started in 1920 and lasted until 1952.
It’s a photograph that certainly tells a tale of the origins of the NFL we know today, featuring some of the masterminds who helped turn football into a pastime.