Chicago’s Really-Forgotten Pro Football Team

NFL opening day!  You may have heard about Chicago’s forgotten pro football team, the Cardinals.  But let’s go back seventy years, and talk about the city’s really forgotten team.

Arch Ward

Arch Ward

The year was 1946. World War II had ended, and golden times were ahead.  Though baseball was still the national pastime, football was the up-and-coming sport. Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward was convinced there was room for a second pro league to challenge the existing National Football League.  He eventually found enough interested entrepreneurs to launch a new eight-team league called the All American Football Conference.

The Chicago franchise in the new league was awarded to Jack Keeshin, a trucking executive who’d failed in a bid to buy the White Sox. The city already had two NFL teams, the Bears and the Cardinals.  But the Cardinals were underfinanced, and had been forced to merge with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the war.  Keeshin thought he could drive them out of town.  He called his new team the Rockets.

Chicago Rockets Program

Chicago Rockets Program

Naturally, Ward’s Tribune gave the AAFC wide publicity.  Stories were leaked that the Rockets would sign Sid Luckman and other Bears stars.  The team announced it would play in Soldier Field, which wasn’t being used for much of anything in 1946 and had 100,000 seats to accommodate the expected crowds.

Then things began to go wrong for the Rockets. In a pre-season practice rookie halfback Bill McArthur fractured his leg.  Complications developed, and the leg had to be amputated.  Meanwhile, most of the top-level players preferred to stick with the NFL.  The Rockets were unable to recruit Luckman or any other big names.

The Rockets opened at home against the Cleveland Browns on September 13 and lost, 20-6. After a tie the next week, the team ran off two straight wins, before descending into mediocrity.  The season ended with the Chicago Rockets at the bottom of the AAFC Western Division, with a record of 5-6-3.

Trying to find a winning formula, Jack Keeshin had gone through five head coaches. At the end of the season he bailed.  AAFC commissioner Jim Crowley stepped down and took over as head of the new ownership.

Crazylegs Hirsch, in better days in L.A.

Crazylegs Hirsch in L.A.

The 1947 Rockets were even worse than the previous season. They lost their first ten games, eked out a victory, then dropped three more for a 1-13 record and another basement finish.  Meanwhile, across town, the Cardinals won the NFL championship.  Even if the Rockets had fielded a super-team, they wouldn’t be driving out the Cardinals any time soon.

The Rockets continued their losing ways in 1948, with another 1-13 record and their customary spot at the bottom of the standings. On September 26, halfback Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch was kicked in the head during a game, putting him out of action with a fractured skull.  Hirsch was the team’s one marquee player.  With Crazylegs gone, there was little reason left for fans to freeze at Soldier Field while watching the Rockets lose.

For 1949, the team changed its name to the Chicago Hornets. Legendary NFL coach Ray Flaherty was hired.  The team’s record improved to 4-8, but still landed in last place for the fourth straight year.  After the season was over, the NFL and AAFC finally ended their war, and the Chicago Hornets (aka Rockets) disbanded.



3 Responses to “Chicago’s Really-Forgotten Pro Football Team”

  1. 1 JKC September 11, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    Arch Ward lived at 5848 N Washtenaw, next door to my grandparents. The Halas family lived a few blocks away at 5510 N Campbell. Interesting that Ward would be a force behind a new pro football league, since he knew the Halases both professionally and socially. Also interesting that the sports editor of the Tribune felt free not just to report the news but also to create the news.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt September 12, 2016 at 4:49 pm

      Arch Ward organized the 1944 meeting in St. Louis, at which the AAFC was founded. He was also responsible for the Baseball All-Star Game, the College-Pro All-Star Football Game, the All-Star Bowling Tournament, among other things. And don’t forget, when Ward was the Tribune sports editor, Colonel Robert McCormick was the publisher. The Colonel wasn’t always non-partisan in reporting the news—but at least he admitted it.

  2. 3 Bob Heck June 10, 2017 at 3:37 pm

    Crazy Legs fractured skull would qualify his desendents for the class action concussion payout

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