Bears' McCaskey a throwback to NFL founding owner Halas

May 24, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

Everything about George Halas, who as a founding father breathed life into the National Football League while seated on the running board in a Canton (Ohio) automobile showroom in 1920, was pointed toward preparation - of finding out all he could about a rival team, pending trades or, ultimately, even a future son-in-law.

Halas, who won the second-highest number of games in NFL history, 324, with the Chicago Bears, is the only man who was his own team owner, general manager, coach, player, ticket-taker, publicity director and an early writer of a team song. It was the struggling era of the early 1920s, and pro football hadn't even been measured for short pants.

Halas, who died at 88 in 1983, has a son-in-law, Ed McCaskey, who along with Halas' only daughter, Virginia, provided him another team - a cheering section of 11 McCaskeys, a family of three girls and eight boys. Halas once wanted to know all about this young fellow named McCaskey, then attending the University of Pennsylvania who wanted to marry Virginia, a student at Drexel Institute.

So Halas, utilizing his football and fatherly instincts, dispatched personal emissaries on a fact-finding mission to check out McCaskey. His designated "agents" were two other club owners and friends, Bert Bell and Art Rooney.

What they heard was all positive. Yes, McCaskey sang with the university band and also with a notable outfit called "Chet Lincoln & The Pennies" on weekends around Harrisburg, York, Lancaster and Reading. That he was a band singer did make George and Min Halas, back in Chicago, none too happy.

But otherwise McCaskey was a worthy sort. A young man of good judgment, highly principled and a dispenser of more than a bit of pleasing Irish humor. His great grandfather, John, was principal of a Lancaster (Pa.) high school for 5 years, also had been mayor of the city and wrote the Christmas song, "Jolly Old St. Nicholas."

Obviously, McCaskey didn't come in on a load of coal. In 1940, orchestra leader Harry James was losing Frank Sinatra as his lead singer, who was joining the Tommy Dorsey band, and needed a new male voice. McCaskey was invited to join James for a live audition in Buffalo but, in a photo finish, Dick Haymes drew the role.

Meanwhile, a businessman, George W. Marshall, whom Ed had caddied for at the Lancaster Country Club, decided McCaskey ought to be off in college, not scrambling to make a living on a bandstand, and arranged a senatorial scholarship to Penn. That's where Ed was when World War II broke out. He had met Virginia at a tea dance and was smitten. Stronger than that; he had fallen in love.

Ed's father was working as an electrician in a Baltimore shipyard and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad ran Chicago-to-Baltimore. So this was the convenient route for a planned elopement. Virginia took the train to Baltimore, met Ed and they went to Mass at the Basilica.

Then a bus ride to Bel Air, where a priest friend of another priest, a Father Reed, married them in the nun's chapel, which had four pews and two windows. A woman who worked at the church served as the matron of honor and another recruit, presumably the church sexton, was best man.

And, in storybook bliss, the McCaskeys went off to live happily ever after. But first they had their own private wedding breakfast at a restaurant in downtown Bel Air with a menu of ham, raisin sauce and mashed potatoes. The bill totaled $1.20 for the new Mr. and Mrs., but Ed couldn't cover it because he had used $10 to pay for getting married and only had $1 left in his wallet ... so Virginia gave him another 50 cents."I'm telling you this was all a miracle," says Ed in reflection. "When I got called to the Army, it meant I graduated in absentia in 1944 from Penn and my mother went to receive the diploma. I was at Camp Wheeler, Ga., where my pay, coming out of ROTC, was $66 a month."

He was assigned to Europe with the 317th infantry, 80th division of the Third Army, whose battle philosophy was, "We Only Move Forward." McCaskey, later a captain, was injured, refused the Purple Heart but was in military hospitals in France, England, Virginia, New York and Washington and was later at Fort Meade, where he was being treated for hepatitis.

He had his evenings free so why not go to Baltimore and see if he could entertain in clubs to earn extra money. He met Les Sponsler, who was a nightclub owner, theatrical agent and manager of boxers. Sponsler, of note, was married to the striptease queen, Margie Hart."He was one great man," says McCaskey. "Les booked me for a lot of work at the Club Madison and a few other places. Some joints too but I didn't care. I'd take the bus into Baltimore from Camp Meade, put on a tuxedo in a room I rented, do the show, singing and MC work, come back at 2 a.m., and go to sleep. I'd get up the next morning, put on my Army uniform and go back to camp on the 6 a.m. bus and then spend the rest of the day in the Army hospital, where I was a patient."

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