CHICAGO (CBS) -- The idea of the Bears moving to a site on or near the Arlington International Racecourse property in Arlington Heights may be a shock for Chicagoans, but it's far from new.
In fact, the idea has come up over and over again throughout the years, going back all the way to when the Bears were first looking for a new home after half a century playing at Wrigley Field.
According to the Bears' own official website, Arlington Heights was considered as an option for a new home for the team when they were looking to move from Wrigley Field in 1970. The Bears had shared Wrigley Field with the Cubs going back to 1921, in a setup under which the Cubs had the upper hand. As the Bears' website puts it:
"Back when professional football started and the team needed a place to play, Bears founder, longtime coach and owner George S. Halas made an annual handshake deal with Cubs chairmen William Veeck Sr. and P.K. Wrigley, allowing the Bears to play their home games every fall at Wrigley Field (originally called Cubs Park). Halas wrote in his autobiography that in exchange for allowing the Bears to use the ballpark, the Cubs received 15 percent of the profits from ticket sales and concessions, unless the gate receipts exceeded $10,000, in which case the Cubs got 20 percent. Halas negotiated that the Bears kept all of the money from selling game programs. The main stipulation from the Cubs' side, however, was that the Bears had to open the season every year on the road, since the baseball team needed the stadium for games through September."
That setup remained in place for nearly 50 years. But by the end of the 1960s, the Bears found both the playing field setup and the locker rooms at Wrigley Field too cramped. During the 1970 season, the Bears began looking for a new home – and one option they considered was Arlington Park.
"As the '70 season went along, with the remainder of the home games at Wrigley Field, Halas continued to seek options for future stadiums," the Bears website recounts. "In the spring of 1971, Bears management toured Arlington Park racetrack, but it did not hold enough spectators to fit the football team's needs."
Meanwhile, Soldier Field – though it dated back to 1924 – had only ever had one pro-football team, or pro-sports team at all, as a tenant - in the form of the Chicago Cardinals. They played their last season in Chicago at Soldier Field in 1959 - amounting to all of four home games - before moving to St. Louis the following year. They in turn moved on to Arizona in 1987.
When the Bears arrived at Soldier Field, they initially signed on for a three-year commitment. By 1975, a move to Arlington Heights was being floated again.
As quoted by the Daily Herald, Bears owner George S. "Papa Bear" Halas told the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce, "I hope and pray that 1977 will find the Bears contending for a title in a new stadium in Arlington Heights."
Mayor Richard J. Daley was not pleased.
"Like hell they will. They can use the name Arlington Heights Bears, but they'll never use the name of Chicago if I'm the mayor," Mayor Daley Sr. was quoted in published reports.
A 1995 Chicago Tribune article reported the Bears' 1975 plan to move was scuttled due to high bond costs. But it was far from the last time before today that the idea of moving to Arlington Heights would come up.
Improvements were made to Soldier Field in the ensuing years. In 1978, bench-style seats were replaced by seats with armrests, and the Bears went on to sign a 20-year lease.
In 1982, Mike Ditka became the head coach of the Bears. Three years later, the 1985 Bears became what remains the most celebrated football team in Chicago history, making a hit out of "The Super Bowl Shuffle" and going on to win Super Bowl XX on Jan. 26, 1986 against the New England Patriots after a one-loss season.
But on July 31, 1985 – shortly before that season began – the Arlington Park racetrack burned down. No people or horses were injured, but the entire grandstand and several other buildings were destroyed.
CBS 2's John Drummond reported at the time that the fire broke out early that morning during a pouring rainstorm. Firefighters from some 20 northwest and western suburbs came to the scene, but firefighters had difficulty fighting the blaze due to numerous void areas they couldn't reach. Firefighters at one point thought the blaze was under control, but then the grandstand erupted in a firestorm all over again early that afternoon – and firefighters ended up having to stand by and let the fire burn itself out.
Everything was rebuilt, and the racetrack reopened in 1989. But before that, according to published reports, the Bears started talking about the possibility of moving to Arlington Heights yet again.
As Bob Oates reported in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 7, 1985 – one short week after the fire – the Bears were floating a plan to redevelop the site with a new racetrack along with a sports stadium "similar to the Meadowlands in New Jersey."
Oates quoted then-Bears President Michael McCaskey: "My grandfather surveyed the whole Chicago area for a new (Bear) ballpark 10 years ago and put Arlington at the top of the list. I'm hopeful."
This proposal also would have had the Cubs moving to Arlington Heights from Wrigley Field – as the Cubs were unhappy with the lack of lights for night games at the time, the LA Times reported. Lights for night games came to Wrigley Field in 1988.
The idea of a move to Arlington Heights for the Bears kept coming up over and over again as the years went on.
A 1987 Chicago Tribune report indicated that a developer at that time pushed a plan for a Bears stadium across the street from Arlington Park. This came as Mayor Harold Washington's administration worked to find a new site for the Bears in the city – possibly on the West Side, the Tribune reported. Once more, the Bears ended up staying where they were.
Four years later, a November 1991 UPI report noted that Arlington International Racecourse Chairman Richard Duchossois said he and McCaskey were discussing the possibility of a new stadium on the northwest corner of the racecourse property. The plan did not work out.
In December 1994 - as Lester Holt reported on CBS 2 - Illinois Senate President James "Pate" Phillip once again raised the idea, after Arlington International Racecourse announced its 1995 racing schedule would be canceled. Phillip was a Bears season ticketholder, and said he would support building a stadium with public funds. The Wood Dale resident said he was tired of fighting Chicago traffic to go to Bears games.
The following year, with the Bears' lease at Soldier Field set to expire in four years, talk of moving ramped up again – setting the stage for a big fight between Bears brass and Mayor Richard M. Daley. This time, Arlington Heights was not one of the main locations under discussion – the Bears first secured an option for a 207-acre site in Aurora. They were also heavily courted by northwest suburban Hoffman Estates, and Warrenville and Naperville were also put on the map as possible new homes for the team.
Like his father before him, the younger Mayor Daley was indignant at the idea. He said, "They can go to Alaska."
The Bears later turned to a plan for a $482 million new stadium and entertainment complex in Gary, Indiana called Planet Park. Meanwhile, Mayor Daley complained that the Bears wanted to make a profit of $26 million per year and had requested a special city tax to make up the difference if they were to stay at Soldier Field.
Ted Phillips, now the Bears president and then the Bears vice president for operations, denied that the Bears ever asked for such a tax. As CBS 2 Political Editor Mike Flannery reported on Dec. 6, 1995, Phillips said the mayor was "doing nothing to keep the Bears" and called Daley's remarks "verbal diarrhea."
Ultimately, the Gary plan fell apart, and the Bears renewed their lease at Soldier Field.
After the 2001 season, the Chicago Park District began the 20-month, $606 million renovation project to restore structural integrity and expand seating at the stadium. Many were not pleased with the new look, comparing it to a flying saucer having landed in the middle of the old stadium and towering over its historic colonnades. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin called the renovated Soldier Field a "monumental eyesore," and it was stripped of its landmark status a few years after it reopened.
But the newly-renovated stadium reopened nonetheless on Sept. 29, 2003 as the Bears took on the Green Bay Packers.
Talk of the Bears moving quieted for many years after that. But even with that upgrade, Soldier Field still has a capacity of only 61,500, smallest in the NFL. There are 13 stadiums that hold more than 70,000.
So once again now, the possibility of a Bears move to Arlington Heights is in the news. But it seems far more serious this time than anytime in the 70s, 80s, or 90s.
On June 17, the Bears released a statement saying they submitted a bid to purchase the Arlington racetrack property.
The racetrack was forced to close for a couple months last year due to the pandemic, but resumed horse races in July. But Churchill Downs announced in February that the racetrack would be going up for sale, and its last horseraces were held this past weekend.
On Wednesday, the Bears confirmed that they have signed a $197 million deal to buy the Arlington property. That was a step much farther than any previous proposal for the Bears to move.
Despite the purchasing agreement with Arlington Racecourse, the Bears said it's not a done deal. A statement read in part:
"Much work remains to be completed, including working closely with the Village of Arlington Heights and surrounding communities, before we can close on this transaction. Our goal is to chart a path forward that allows our team to thrive on the field."
"The news yesterday was not unexpected," said Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Mayor Lightfoot insisted she is not throwing in the towel, but offered no specifics on what she can do to keep the Bears in the city - and out of Arlington Heights.
"I want to talk to them. I want to do what we can," Mayor Lightfoot said. "I'm a Bears fan first and foremost. I want them to stay in the named city - and if we can keep them here, we'll keep them here."
Despite the late Mayor Daley Sr.'s warning when the Bears proposed moving to Arlington Heights 46 years ago, the team will still be called the Chicago Bears if they move to Arlington Heights.
But the present mayor said if the Bears break their lease – which runs until 2033 – they will have to pay. That would be about $80 million if the lease is broken in the next few years.
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