NFL Forged Ahead on A Day That Will Live in Infamy
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “A date which will live in infamy.” He was not referring to the fact that Dec. 7, 1941 had been proclaimed by the New York football Giants as Tuffy Leemans Day.
Weeks earlier the Giants had decided to honor Leemans – the star offensive and defensive back who had been one of New York’s most celebrated players since joining the team in 1936 – prior to the regular-season finale against the cross-town rival Brooklyn Dodgers.
The date of that game was Dec. 7, 1941, which, until Sept. 11, 2001, was recognized as the saddest in United States history – the day the Japanese attacked the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii which plunged the country into World War II.
A record Polo Grounds crowd of 55,051 turned out to cheer Leemans who was showered with gifts, prompting him to deliver a heart-felt 10-minute thank you speech. At almost the precise moment when Leemans finished his oration and the Giants and Dodgers kicked off their game, Japanese war planes hovered over Pearl Harbor in preparation for their devastating air raid.
Over the next 90 minutes, with the attack coming in segmented waves, Japanese bombs killed 2,403 Americans, wounded 1,778 others, and destroyed eight battleships and 140 fighter planes.
And during those 90 horrifying minutes, Americans – including those in attendance at the Polo Grounds, the 18,879 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park watching the Bears play the cross-town rival Cardinals, and the 27,102 at Griffith Stadium in Washington where the Redskins were hosting the Philadelphia Eagles – were oblivious to what was going on.
There was no CNN in those days, no internet, so news traveled slowly, especially from a place that wasn’t even recognized officially as one of the union’s states, a place the vast majority of Americans didn’t even know existed.
“I hate to admit this, but I didn’t even know where in the hell Pearl Harbor was,” former Bears star and Pro Football Hall of Famer Bulldog Turner recalled in a Pro Football Weekly story commemorating the 50th anniversary of the attacks in 1991.
As the three NFL games were played, there were hints that something was happening somewhere. Hall of Famer Sid Luckman, the Bears quarterback that day, remembered hearing repetitive pages for people in the stands.
“Over the loudspeaker, every five or 10 minutes they were calling, ‘Urgent. Emergency,’” Luckman told Pro Football Weekly. “And everybody in the stadium couldn’t imagine what it was all about. We were playing both ways, we were never on the sidelines, but you couldn’t help but hear it.”
Giants owner Wellington Mara was 25 years old that day in 1941, and he was on the sidelines watching his team play the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. Like most Americans Mara was aware of the war that had been raging in Europe the past two years, but never did he think that within a year’s time he’d be fighting in it.
“At halftime, Father Benedict Dudley, who was our team chaplain, told me that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor,” Mara said. “As the afternoon went on, there was never an announcement at the stadium.”
There was this, though, which sent a buzz through the crowd: “All Navy men in the audience are ordered to report to their posts immediately. All Army men are to report to their posts tomorrow morning. This is important.”
“Within two weeks I was notified that my class in the V-7 program would begin in February,” said Mara, who went on to serve with distinction in the Navy for more than three years in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, emerging as a Lieutenant Commander.
In Washington, two miles away from the White House where President Roosevelt was getting live updates on the situation at Pearl Harbor from the governor of Hawaii via a telephone hookup, scores of politicians and service personnel were at Griffith Stadium for the Redskins game. Many of them were paged via the public-address system, asking them to report to their offices.
“We didn’t know what the hell was going on,” said Sammy Baugh, the Redskins’ quarterback that day. “I had never heard that many announcements one right after another. We felt something was up, but we just kept playing.”
The Redskins held on to defeat Philadelphia, 20-14 in a game that meant nothing in the NFL standings, a game that meant nothing to anyone just minutes after it ended and fans began to learn of what had happened in Hawaii.
The Bears rallied to defeat the Cardinals 34-24 with a pair of touchdowns in the final five minutes, a victory that forced a special playoff game – the first of its kind in the NFL – the following week against Green Bay to determine the Western Division winner.
And in New York, the Giants, already Eastern Division winners, played lackadaisically and lost to the lowly Dodgers 21-7.
Despite the tragedy, the NFL forged on. The following Sunday George Halas’ Bears defeated the Packers 33-14 to win the West, and a week later, in front of just 13,341 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field – the smallest crowd in NFL playoff history – the Bears whipped the Giants 37-9 to win their second consecutive NFL championship.
A total of 638 NFL players fought in World War II, 355 were commissioned officers, 69 were decorated, and 18 died as well as one coach and one front office worker. During the war years the NFL barely survived, and there was strong sentiment that the league should shut down, but Marshall, Tim Mara, Art Rooney and Bert Bell advocated playing, overruling the likes of Halas. Using players who were well past their prime, the product was, according to Luckman, “terrible” but there was never a stoppage.
New York’s lone touchdown in the ‘41 title game came on a 31-yard Leemans pass to George Franck. It turned out to be a meaningless play in a one-sided loss for the Giants. About as meaningless as Tuffy Leemans Day had proven to be two weeks earlier. But then again, nothing carried the same meaning in America after that frightening and historic day, Dec. 7, 1941.