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Spygate in ’42? Bears, Cardinals renew rivalry

Two men in topcoats tried pushing through the gates to get to practice.

One took out a notebook and started scribbling.

When Chicago Cardinals head coach Jimmy Conzelman noticed, he took chase after them outside the team’s field on 82nd Street and Yates Avenue. The men were faster, though, reached a green car and sped away. The coach said later the car belonged to a friend of one of the Chicago Bears.

George Halas, the Bears’ owner, called the accusations “ridiculous stuff.”

He said he didn’t even know where the Cardinals practiced and, frankly, didn’t care to.

“I guess, maybe, we could find some Cardinal spies around us we looked hard enough,” he said.

It was “Spygate” — on Oct. 7, 1942.

And it wasn’t the first time, as detailed by Joe Ziemba’s “When Football Was Football: The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL,” which used newspaper reports and original reporting to detail the history of the former South Side franchise.

Paranoia was alive and well even back then, when World War II-era John Foxes clung to secrecy and watched for boogeymen in the name of a competitive advantage.

Conzelman was known to be creative in inspiring his players, but swore the spy story was true. He figured it was working, too, as they readied for the Oct. 11, 1942, game at Wrigley Field, the 44th meeting between the teams.

“I hope,” he said, “they won’t be worn out by all the excitement by Sunday.”

They were; the Bears continued their dominance with a 41-14 win, marching toward an undefeated regular season that would end with a championship loss. It was the lone postseason blemish in a four-year span that saw three Bears titles.

Perhaps Halas and Conzelman were trying to drum up citywide interest in a rivalry that wasn’t competitive.

More likely, though, they were practicing a paranoia that feels familiar to anyone who’s followed Fox’s reticence to divulge any tidbit of consequence, fearing foes will use it against him. Kevin White was day-to-day until he was having potential season-ending surgery, remember?

Coaches have been paranoid since the dawn of the game.

In 1934, both the Bears and Cardinals practiced at Wrigley Field the day before a game against each other. The Bears’ morning drills were paused when they spotted what they said were spies — with notebooks and binoculars — in the building across the street. The Cardinals’ afternoon practice was stopped twice to clear the field of interlopers, according to Ziemba’s book.

That sounds a lot like the Patriots’ 2007 “Spygate” scandal, doesn’t it? The team was accused of videotaping opposing team’s hand signals and syncing them up with their defensive plays. “Spygate’ still ripples today, bolstered by the theory the NFL’s punishment for underinflated footballs was really a lifetime achievement award. Some are even convinced the Patriots found a way to eavesdrop on opposing practices during Super Bowl week.

Today’s men in topcoats have digital cameras. The man scribbling notes by the green car is now searching a web site, looking for formations in the background of television reports. Real or imagined, coaches use the threat of them as a reason to grow ever more insular.

Sunday, the Bears resume their rivalry against the Cardinals — thus named when they bought used, faded University of Chicago Maroons jerseys.

The NFL should have aired the game Thursday night instead.

That was the 95th birthday of the American Pro Football Association, which was founded in a Canton, Ohio, car dealership, and two years later became the NFL.

Only two franchises remain from that day — the Bears and Cardinals.

Both can attest that, all these years later, paranoia never went out of style.

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com