Chicago apartment developer Tom Origer was the first man to buy into the World Football League in October 1973, paying a reported $440,000 to acquire his Chicago Fire franchise. It did not turn out to be a happy investment for the 41-year old builder.
The Fire featured a handful of names familiar to local football fans, including ex-Chicago Bears Virgil Carter (QB) and Jim Seymour (WR). Rookie receiver James Scott was a breakout star. After the demise of the WFL Scott would play seven seasons for the Bears from 1976 to 1983. Another rookie – Chicago native Mark Kellar - was one of the league’s most productive running backs until a mid-season injury.
The Fire started out hot, winning seven of the first nine games in 1974. The team was also a fairly popular draw, averaging 29,220 fans for 10 home dates at Soldier Field, despite competing for fans with the Bears during the WFL’s fall season. But injuries and bad luck took their toll and the Fire lost their final 11 games to finish 7-13 in what would prove to be their only season. Origer, fed up, forfeited the team’s final contest rather than travel to Pennsylvania to play the Philadelphia Bell on November 13, 1974.
The team muddled along in semi-existence until January 1975, when Origer laid off the Fire’s final few staff members and closed up shop. The World Football League quickly put a new team into Chicago – the Chicago Winds – for the 1975 season. But the Winds went belly up after only 5 games in 1975, and the league itself closed down on October 22, 1975 without managing to complete its second campaign.
Second game from the pro career of former UCLA star and U.S. Olympian Ann Meyers, one of the great early legends of women’s basketball. Meyers was a national celebrity in the fall of 1979 thanks to the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, who signed her to a $50,000 pro contract that September. Meyers didn’t last long in Pacers’ training camp though and by the time the Women’s Professional Basketball League was set to open it’s second season in November, Meyers was the newest member of the New Jersey Gems franchise.
Earlier on the day of this very game, Meyers was featured in a segment on NBC Sportsworld seen by viewers nationwide. But despite Meyers’ notoriety, the Gems didn’t see a big spike at the box office after signing her. Barely 1,000 spectators turned out in Elizabeth, New Jersey on this Saturday night to see the Gems take on the Chicago Hustle.
Those who showed up saw an end-to-end, high scoring affair that confounded the common stereotype of the slow-paced, dull women’s game. Meyers (28 points, 8 assists) matched Chicago’s Rita Easterling (27points, 8 assists), the Most Valuable Player of the league’s inaugural season, point-for-point. Meyers also led all rebounders with 13 boards from her guard spot.
The supporting casts made the difference, as the Gems had six players in double figures including forwards Debra Comerie (21) and Wanda Szeremeta (20) both going over 20 points. The Gems beat the Hustle 114-95.
This program and the accompanying materials were acquired from the collection of women’s basketball historian John Molina. Check out the Downloads section below for some colorful original press notes and other Gems memorabilia from this game.
The Cook County Cheetahs were a low-level independent pro baseball team in Crestwood, Illinois, a south suburb of Chicago. The team’s origins trace back to the Will County (IL) Claws (1995) of the obscure North Central League, who were later renamed the Will County Cheetahs (1996-1997).
In 1998 the Cheetahs, now playing in the shaky Heartland League, were lured from Romeoville, Illinois to Crestwood with the promise of a new $3.7 million, 2,500-seat baseball stadium. The team adopted the Cook County Cheetahs name with the move, but construction on Hawkinson Ford Field was not complete in time for the season, so the Cheetahs played the 1998 season at a temporary facility, Howie Minas Field, in Midlothian. That summer the Cheetahs won the last championship of the Heartland League, which barely managed to complete the season and folded soon afterwards.
In 1999 the Cheetahs joined the Frontier League, a much more stable and reputable Midwest-based independent league that began play in 1993. Hawkinson Ford Field opened and the Cheetahs hit an attendance peak of 86,248 fans for the 1999 season.
Attendance dwindled in subsequent seasons. Crestwood mayor Chester Stranczek, a former minor league baseball player from the 1950’s and an early champion of building Hawkinson Ford Field, began to publicly criticize the management of Cheetahs’ owner David Arch. During the summer of 2003, Stranczek announced that he would not renew the team’s lease when it expired following the 2004 season. In September of that year, Arch sold the Cheetahs for a reported $700,000 to a group led by former State Senator Patrick O’Malley. O’Malley had been another early proponent of building Hawkinson Ford Field and helped secure state funding for the project in the late 1990’s.
The new ownership group re-branded the team as the Windy City Thunderbolts prior to the 2004 season, bringing the Cheetahs era to an end. The Thunderbolts continue to play in Crestwood today.
Undrafted Australian pitcher Chris Oxspring (14 appearances, 2000) was the only Cook County Cheetah to go on to play in the Major Leagues. He appeared in 5 games for the San Diego Padres in 2005.
Chicago had two pro indoor teams at the time. Although the popularity of the Chicago Sting of the Major Indoor Soccer League had begun to dip substantially, they were still in existence and vastly overshadowed the Shoccers, who were essentially a minor league club playing in second rate venues. The Shoccers played their first season at the tiny Odeum Expo Center arena out in suburban Villa Park. For their second and final season, the Shoccers moved into Chicago proper and the UIC Pavilion.
The Shoccers featured quite a few ex-Sting over their two seasons, including Arno Steffenhagen, Dave Huson, Elvis Comrie, Mike Lashoff, Greg Ryan and Mike Glenn.
The Shoccers folded after the 1986-87 AISA season.
A little more than a decade earlier, back in August 1974, the Miami Toros and the Los Angeles Aztecs met in the NASL championship game. The Toros won the right to host the match at the Orange Bowl, but the uncertainty of who would advance through the playoffs to host the final left promoters scrambling to sell tickets. The Toros were never a strong draw to begin with and organizers pinned their hopes on a massive discount coupon effort which papered the city of Miami with hundreds of thousands of ticket vouchers. August in Miami isn’t a great time to be outdoors at 3:30 in the afternoon and the resulting crowd of 15,507 was considered a major disappointment.
NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam decided that the league needed a neutral site championship game, modeled on the NFL’s Super Bowl. With a host city selected months in advance there would be plenty of time to promote ticket sales. Thus the Soccer Bowl concept was born in 1975, with San Jose’s Spartan Stadium hosting the league title match between the Portland Timbers and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. By the late 1970’s, the Soccer Bowl was consistently drawing over 50,000 fans to first class venues such as Giants Stadium and RFK Stadium.
Then came 1982. The NASL was in major trouble, having shrunk from 24 active clubs to just 14 in two years with more departures on the horizon. Midway through the 1982 season, exasperated league owners effectively replaced Woosnam by hiring former industrialist and government official Howard J. Samuels as the new President and CEO of the League. One of Samuels first impressions of the NASL was the misfire of Soccer Bowl ’82, hosted by the San Diego Sockers organization at Jack Murphy Stadium. For the first time in three years, the Soccer Bowl was not carried on network television. And the live attendance was an embarrassment – only 22,634 showed up for the game, despite the fact that the hometown Sockers had advanced as far as the semi-final round which should (in theory) have goosed advance sales. It was by far the smallest Soccer Bowl crowd since the concept debuted in 1975.
Samuels drew the exact opposite conclusion as Woosnam had eight years earlier. Neutral site championships were a “disaster” for the league in 1981 and 1982, Samuels told The New York Times. Samuels envisioned a best-of-three series between the finalists, with matches in their respective home cities, drawing 50,000 fans per match. It would be two years before Samuels could implement the idea – Vancouver would get to host the 1983 Soccer Bowl before Samuels could toss the neutral site model onto the trash heap once and for all. (Naturally, Vancouver drew 53,000 for the 1983 match – 2nd highest in Soccer Bowl history – despite the fact that the local Whitecaps failed to reach the final).
Howard Samuels finally got his desired format in 1984. The Chicago Sting and the Toronto Blizzard met in a best-of-three championship, now re-branded as the “Soccer Bowl Series ’84”. Fan turnout was far below even the “disaster” levels of the 1981 and 1982 Soccer Bowls. Only 8,352 fans turned up at Chicago’s Comiskey Park for Game One. Strangely, the crowd was even smaller than Chicago’s modest regular season average of 8,376.
The game itself was exciting and somewhat strange. Blizzard defender Bruce Wilson opened the scoring in the 16th minute with an outlandish goal. Wilson collected the ball about 40 yards out from the Sting goal and chipped a high lob back into the penalty area. No one was in the vicinity except for Sting goalkeeper Victor Nogueira who waited calmly in front of the descending ball…and then shocked the Comiskey faithful by allowing it to nutmeg him and roll unmolested into the Sting net. Nogueira writhed on the ground in abject humiliation. But the Sting keeper dusted himself off and shutdown the dangerous Toronto trio of David Byrne, Roberto Bettega and Ace Ntsoelengoe for the rest of the evening.
The Blizzard carried the 1-0 lead into the locker room at halftime. But the second half was all Chicago. Pato Margetic even the game in the 51st minute, the first of three goals for the young Argentinean striker in the 1984 Soccer Bowl Series. Chilean midfielder Manny Rojas, a midseason acquisition who scored only one regular season goal for the Sting, notched the game winner in the 85th minute.
Two nights later, the Sting travelled to Toronto and put the series away with a 3-2 victory. That proved to be the last game the NASL ever played. The league folded in early 1985.
NASL President & CEO Howard Samuels didn’t live to see the bitter end. He died suddenly of a heart attack on October 26, 1984, three weeks after his preferred Soccer Bowl format got its first and only showing.
1st half of the 1984 Soccer Bowl Series Game One between the Sting and the Blizzard at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.