Staley’s Bears 1920-1921
CHARLES WILLIAM “CHIC” HARLEY
Height: 5’8” Weight: 165
Born: 9/15/1894 Chicago, IL
Died: 4/21/1974 Danville, IL
High School: East (Columbus, OH)
College: Ohio State
It would have been nearly impossible for any human to have lived up to the hype surrounding the addition of half back Chic Harley to the 1921 Staley’s team. Before he had even played a down on the East Eldorado Street field, Decatur sportswriter and Staleys’ publicist Howard Millard explained that according to many football commentators, Harley was “the greatest back since the days of Jim Thorpe. Now, that is paying the Ohio star a great tribute, but it has been often said that you haven’t seen football until you see Harley in action. This will be Chic’s first experience at pro football and although only weighing around 155 pounds, his ability to pass, kick and carry the ball should make him as great in the pro ranks as he was in Big Ten circles.” Millard opined that the consensus opinion among sport critics was “that the Staleys landed the biggest fish in football when they secured Chic Harley….” Only a few months later, the great Harley would be broken physically and mentally and alienated from the Staley/Bears tradition.
“Charley Harley” [according to his birth register] grew up in Chicago as part of the large family of linotype operator Charles William Harley and wife Martha who had moved west from Ohio in 1893. Even though always small, Charley loved and was good at all sports. He was however, hit in the head by a baseball bat as a child and stayed unconscious for three days. In 1907 the family moved back to Columbus looking for work. It was there most people claim that kids started calling him “Chic” because he was from Chicago while his family called him “noisy” because he was usually so quiet and shy. He attended Columbus East High School starting in 1911 and excelled in football, baseball and track for the black and orange. When his parents needed to move back to Chicago for employment, school administrators convinced them to let Chic stay in Columbus with various teammate families and finish school at East. Usually playing quarterback, Harley was named captain of the Columbus All-Eleven football team at the end of the 1914 season and then captain of the city’s all-star baseball team in the spring of 1915. The Columbus Dispatch reported he received at least one concussion playing football.
After spending the summer back in Chicago, Chic returned to Columbus, enrolled at Ohio State University and played freshman football in 1915. Although he often struggled academically and would never receive a college degree, he became the most gifted and prodigious Buckeye athlete for the next few years. Now at halfback, Harley led the football team to back to back unbeaten conference championships in 1916 and 1917 while being named the school’s first All-American both years. He was also the first student to letter in football, basketball, baseball and track before leaving school. In 1916 and 1917 he played against future Staley George Halas of the University of Illinois in both football and baseball.
Like many of the future Staley football players, Harley enlisted in the armed services after the U.S. entered World War I. On February 1, 1918 he reported to the School of Military Aeronautics at OSU for eight weeks of classwork before being shipped to Souther Field in Georgia for flight training. In November 1918 he was transferred to Carlstrom Field in Florida and played in one intra-service football game. Early in 1919 he transferred to Kelly Field in Texas and eventually had problems with military rules and at least one superior officer. Chic was court martialed on May 24 and sentenced to three months labor and detention in the guard house. With the help of OSU and Ohio state officials he was given his release and an honorable discharge in time to return to campus and play football in 1919. On November 22, when undefeated Ohio State was beaten in the last minute of the last game by Dutch Sternaman’s Illini, Harley blamed himself and cried uncontrollably for hours after the loss.
According to THE ONE AND ONLY, the 2009 Chic Harley biography by Harley family member Todd C. Wessell, at least since 1919 Chic had mental problems and after college turned down managerial job offers and “had not been able to hold onto even the most mediocre of jobs.” In 1920 he helped coach OSU football but found he had little talent for instruction or organization. In the summer of 1921 Chic’s older brother Bill Harley met with Halas and agreed to get Chic to play for Staley’s if the managerial pot was split between Halas, Sternaman and the Harleys. Harley came to Decatur along with former OSU stars Tarzan Taylor and Pete Stinchcomb. Chic started at half back in the exhibition game and first four league games as the undefeated team moved from Decatur to Chicago. In the November 6 game against the Detroit Tigers Harley broke three ribs. He did not play in the next two games and was in and out periodically in the final five contests as the Staleys claimed the APFA championship. A short time later Chic was diagnosed by a Columbus psychiatric doctor as having dementia praecox which is now considered schizophrenia. A 2009 review of Chic’s life in the Columbus Dispatch opined “no one knows the direct cause [of his illness] – whether it was the result of the bat that hit him as a child, his head injuries as a high school football player, his time in the air force, or just genetics.”
While Chic was in a Michigan sanitarium in January 1922, Halas and Sternaman got the APFA leaders in Canton to acknowledge that they were giving up all rights to the Staley football franchise and creating a new Chicago football franchise known as the Bears without the Harleys or the A.E. Staley company. During 1922 Chic moved from Michigan to hospitals in Asheville, NC and Dayton, OH and finally settled with family in Chicago. In November 1923 Bill Harley filed a lawsuit against Halas and Sternaman alleging they had broken their partnership contract with the Harleys and had frozen them out of the Bears’ ownership and receipts. After 25 months Chicago Superior Court Master William W. Maxell ruled that no partnership still existed and that except for some team towels, the Harleys were owned nothing. [Bill Harley’s grievances are enumerated in the Decatur Daily Review, December 5, 1922, page 8.]
Chic Harley’s mental condition only worsened over the years. He sometimes played some semi-pro sports and charity games but could never have a real job. His family took care of him and friends at OSU set up a fund to assist him financially whenever needed. In 1936 he entered Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Chicago and then on October 15, 1938 moved into the Danville, IL veterans’ home for the rest of his life. In late 1948 he received insulin shock therapy and responded in a positive manner that allowed him to travel more often to OSU sporting events and team reunions as well as stay with relatives in Des Plaines, IL for extended leaves. Given much credit in Columbus for elevating the prestige of OSU football and for getting its famous stadium built Chic was honored on several occasions including a massive parade in November 1948 and the presentation of his charter member College Football Hall of Fame award on November 7, 1953. However, to no one’s surprise he never attended any of the Staley team reunions.
Harley passed away in Danville in 1974 and OSU football captains served as his pall bearers as he was laid to rest in Union Cemetery in Columbus, about two miles north of “the stadium that Chic built.” Back in 1948 Ohio State Journal sports editor Bob Hooey had informed young sports fans: “If you never saw him run with a football, we can’t describe it to you. It wasn’t like Red Grange or Tom Harmon or anybody else. It was kind of a cross between music and cannon fire, and it brought your heart up under your ears.” During Chic’s funeral former 1919 teammate Jack Farcasin explained “Harley was one of the most inspirational men in the history of sports. His presence gave everybody a lift on the field. He had the gift of exciting people in the stands. He was so much better than any of the rest of us there was no comparison.”
In addition to Todd Wessell’s biography, a video tribute, “Lost Legend: The Chic Harley Story” was produced by Dean Carnevale in 2009. Harley was also immortalized by his famous OSU classmate writer James Thurber in the poem “When Chic Harley Got Away.”
“The years of football playing reach back a long, long way,
And the heroes are a hundred who have worn the red and gray;
You can name the brilliant players from the year the game began,
You can rave how this one punted and praise how that one ran;
You can say that someone’s plunging was the best you ever saw,
You can claim the boys now playing stage a game without a flaw —
But admit there was no splendor in all the bright array
Like the glory of the going when Chic Harley got away.”
Copyright@ 2018 Mark W. Sorensen