5 Decades Of Chicago Sports: The 1980's

Rick Gregg
May 11, 2018 - 11:58 am

Mens Journal

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- The 1980s brought Chicago three division-winning baseball teams, new ownership, new lights, and a new stadium.  The greatest basketball player ever came to town, while one of hockey's greats said goodbye.

But nothing defined the decade in sports quite like that 'Shufflin' Crew', those 'Monsters of the Midway' - the Chicago Bears.

Chicago Bears

Just how bad were the Bears at the start of the decade?  Even Sweetness had turned sour.

“This is the worst I’ve felt mentally about football since I started playing,” Walter Payton would say in 1981.  “It doesn’t mean I’m giving up.”

A wise decision, because help was on the way. ‘Papa Bear’ George Halas would send Neill Armstrong packing after that season and hire an old favorite, former tight end and Cowboys assistant coach Mike Ditka.  Who quickly surveyed the team and in 1982, shared Payton’s assessment.

“It’s probably the worst football I’ve ever seen.  And I mean it.”


The rebuild was underway by then. Ditka inherited defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan and the beginnings of what would become an historic defense, led by 1980 first round linebacker Otis Wilson and 1981 second rounder Mike Singletary, who would wind up in the Hall of Fame. And about the time Ditka made that 1982 pronouncement, he also handed the keys to his offense to a ‘Punky QB’ chosen with the 5th-overall pick that year.

“I’m looking for somebody to come in and take the bull by the horns,” said Ditka.  “We’re looking for a spark right now, boys, and I think that spark might be Jim McMahon.  I hope it is.”

It was - McMahon would be named NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year in the strike-shortened season.  A few months later, the Bears would unearth one of the great draft classes in NFL history.  Tackle Jimbo Covert.  Cornerback Mike Richardson.  Receiver Willie Gault.  Safety Dave Duerson.  Mark Bortz.  Tom Thayer.  And amazingly - in the eighth round - another future Hall of Famer in defensive end Richard Dent. 

The architect of that draft, General Manager Jim Finks, left the organization a few months later and joined the Cubs.  And Halas, who moved the Decatur Staleys to Chicago in 1921 and renamed the team one year later, passed away on Halloween of that year, with daughter Virginia McCaskey taking control of the franchise.  But the road ahead was clear, and a year later - after new GM Jerry Vainisi added defensive stalwarts Wilber Marshall, Ron Rivera and Shaun Gayle in the draft - the Bears won both their first division title and their first playoff game since 1963.

They’d lose the NFC title game to the 49ers, but after adding backup quarterback Mike Tomczak - and drafting both a new kicker in Kevin Butler and a new star in 335-pound William “The Refrigerator” Perry - the Super Bears were Super Bowl bound.  They won their first 12 games in 1985, even beating the Packers at Lambeau Field despite being greeted by a five-pound bag of manure in their locker room. 

Chicago Bears Football Club/Mitch Freidman

On December 2nd, the Bears suffered their only loss - at the Dolphins on Monday Night Football.  And the day after that, they made one of the more brash guarantees in sports history - recording the “Super Bowl Shuffle” and its accompanying film, a “viral video” decades before the term would be coined.

From there: Three straight wins to end the regular season, two playoff wins by a combined score of 45-to-0, and on January 26th, 1986, a 46-10 destruction of the Patriots in what was to that point the most lopsided Super Bowl ever.

On January 27th, the Bears paraded down a frozen LaSalle Street, greeted by thousands of fans and a reported ten tons of confetti.

And on January 28th, defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan left to become Philadelphia’s head coach, ending a productive - but contentious - pairing with Ditka.

Even without the architect of the ‘46’ Defense, the Bears went 14-and-2 in the 1986 regular season.  But injuries to McMahon and Tomczak left Doug Flutie in charge of an eventual 27-13 loss to the Redskins in the Divisional playoffs. 

The 1987 players’ strike left the Bears on the sidelines, though unlike others in the league, not on the picket lines.

“This is my chance to play,” said replacement player linebacker Doug Rothschild, who got into all three “scab” games.  “I’ve got to take it.  I’m just as much a fan as anybody else is of the players.  I hope they settle it soon.  But maybe not too soon.”

Ditka would label picketing players on other teams “goons”, an insult seen by his own team as a stab in the back.  The Bears would again go 11-and-4, but lost to the Redskins again in the first round of the playoffs.  And Payton would call it quits as the NFL’s leading all-time rusher, with 16,726 yards on the ground.  His ‘34’ jersey was retired before he hung up his cleats, and the team’s indoor practice facility is named for him.

1988 brought a November heart attack for the fiery Ditka, who returned to work within a week and guided the Bears to the NFC Championship game.  But San Francisco stormed Soldier Field, picked up a 28-3 win, and advanced to the Super Bowl - ending the Bears’ remarkable run in the process.

The Bears had 20 draft picks in the 1989 draft, including three first-rounders thanks to earlier trades.  They’d use the first two picks on cornerback Donnell Woolford and defensive end Trace Armstrong, and trade the other for more choices.  And during training camp, the Bears traded McMahon for draft picks in 1990 - choosing to stay with a combination of Mike Tomczak and Jim Harbaugh behind center.

The result - a 6-and-10 transition year that set up playoff appearances in the early part of the next decade.


The NFL wasn’t the only game in town for part of the 1980s.  The Chicago Blitz, a charter member of the United States Football League, played their first home game in the spring of 1983 at Soldier Field.  The team failed to catch on, drawing an average of just over 18,000 fans in its first year despite a playoff berth, and  folded after a lackluster second season.

Gerry Faust led Notre Dame football for most of the first half of the decade, but he finished barely over .500 after five seasons.  Lou Holtz replaced him, and took the Irish from 5-and-6 to an undefeated national championship in just three seasons.  Notre Dame’s biggest regular season win in that 1988 season came in the ‘Catholics vs Convicts’ game, when the Irish upset #1 Miami 31-30 and ended the Hurricanes’ 36-game regular season losing streak.  A 34-21 Fiesta Bowl win over #3 West Virginia sealed the title.  A loss to Miami in 1989 left that Irish team #2 in the polls.

Mike White and John Mackovic led Illinois football through the 1980’s, with White winning a Big Ten title in 1983 and Mackovic’s teams late in the decade led by quarterback Jeff George, who would eventually go #1 in the NFL draft.  But the Illini would win only one bowl game - the 1989 Citrus Bowl.

Northwestern football’s top moment of the decade was likely its win over Northern Illinois on September 25, 1982 - which ended a 34-game losing streak and led students to chuck the Dyche Stadium goalposts into Lake Michigan.

Chicago Bulls History

Chicago Bulls

You can break the Bulls’ 1980’s into two parts: the years before Jordan, and the years after Jordan.

The June 19, 1984 NBA Draft turned the franchise around.  Houston took Hakeem Olajuwon first, Portland snagged Sam Bowie second, and the Bulls pounced on North Carolina guard Michael Jordan with the third pick.  He’d go on to win rookie of the year, five MVP awards, and two slam dunk contests, plus the All-Star Game MVP in 1998, when the game was held at Chicago Stadium. 

‘Air Jordan’ would become the most popular athlete in the world, with millions wanting to ‘Be Like Mike’.

But he didn’t find that success alone.  Jerry Reinsdorf bought the franchise from the Wirtz family in 1985 and installed Jerry Krause as General Manager.  Over time, early-decade stars like Reggie Theus, Artis Gilmore, Orlando Woolridge and David Greenwood would leave or be traded.  Power forward Charles Oakley would be drafted in ‘85, followed by future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in the first round of the 1987 draft.

‘87 also brought stability at head coach. The Bulls, who went through five head coaches in the first six years of the decade including future Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan, settled on Doug Collins.  The team was swept out of the playoffs by the Celtics in round one that year.  But in 1988 the Bulls reached round two.  And in 1989 - thanks to “The Shot” by Jordan, over Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo - the Bulls made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Detroit beat the Bulls in six games, and Reinsdorf and Krause made a tough decision - replacing Collins with Phil Jackson, in an attempt to push the Bulls over the hump. 

Jackson, Jordan, Pippen, and the rest would go on to form one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports in the 1990s.

Chicago Bulls History



DePaul dominated the local college scene as the 80’s began.  The great Ray Meyer continued the school’s late 70’s success by winning national Coach of the Year honors in both 1980 and 1984 and guiding the Blue Demons to number-1 seeds in ‘80, ‘81, and ‘82.

Mark Aguirre, DePaul’s best player since the days of George Mikan, anchored those ‘80 and ‘81 squads, setting the school’s all-time scoring mark and earning national Player of the Year honors in 1980.  Terry Cummings manned the middle on those squads, and both would be first-round draft picks in the NBA.  Aguirre would go number-1 overall.

Meyer retired after taking the Demons to the 1984 Sweet Sixteen.  He finished with 724 career wins and 21 postseason appearances in 42 years.  And he turned the program over to his son, Joey Meyer, who would hold the job for 13 seasons and reach the Sweet Sixteen in both 1986 and 1987. 

Players like Tyrone Corbin, Rod Strickland, Dallas Comegys, David Booth and Terry Davis carried DePaul through the latter half of the decade.

The decade was good to Illinois basketball as well.  Lou Henson led the Illini to the Sweet Sixteen in 1981 and 1985, and the Elite Eight in 1984, with guard Bruce Douglas earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors.

But no team captured the state quite like the 1989 squad.  Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson, Stephen Bardo and Kenny Battle took the ‘Flyin Illini’ all the way to the Final Four

The team went 31-and-5, beating McNeese State and Ball State early, Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen, and then gutting out an 89-86 win over Syracuse in the Elite Eight.

In the Final Four, Illinois faced a Michigan team it had already beaten twice in the regular season.  But in a game that featured 33 lead changes, Illinois came up one basket short, 83-81.

Northwestern reached the second round of the NIT in 1982, the school’s first postseason appearance of any kind. Coach Gene Sullivan and star Alfredrick Hughes took an upstart Loyola program to the Sweet Sixteen in 1985 - its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 17 years. And UIC won the Mid-Continent Conference in 1984 and the Horizon League in 1988.

Notably, Aguirre, Cummings, Gill, Anderson, Hughes, and others listed above were all homegrown stars.  So was Ben Wilson, considered the number one high school player in the country when he was murdered just steps away from Simeon High School on November 20, 1984.

Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Sipa USA

Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks would reach hockey’s playoffs in every year of the 1980’s, including the first, when even with the mid-season retirement of the legendary Stan Mikita, the Hawks would claim the Smythe Division crown. But they’d finish the decade with a record under .500!

The Hawks would leave the Smythe for the Norris before the 1981-82 season, and win the division title in both 1983 and 1986. Starting with that 1985-86 season, Blackhawks games would air on WBBM for seven years, with Pat Foley and Dale Tallon on the mic.

Arthur Wirtz passed away in 1983, leaving son Bill Wirtz in charge.  In 1984, goalie Tony Esposito retired after 15 years with the Hawks.  And in 1985, Blackhawk fans began the now-famous tradition of cheering during the National Anthem.

Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Glenn Hall, and Tony Esposito would all have their numbers retired during the decade.  Esposito had retired in 1984, and the Blackhawks saw mixed results in net until the emergence of Ed Belfour in 1989.

A whopping eight coaches led the Hawks in the decade before the team settled on a ninth, Mike Keenan, for the 1988-89 season. He would eventually take the team to the Stanley Cup Final in the next decade.

Denis Savard led the Blackhawks in scoring in each season between 1981 and 1988.  He, Steve Larmer, Ed Olczyk and Troy Murray helped define the Hawk offense through the decade.  And in 1989, a 19-year-old Jeremy Roenick scored 18 points in 20 games - setting the stage for a breakthrough in the 1990s.

Stephen Green

Chicago Cubs

The 1980s really began in earnest for the Cubs with the 1981 sale of the team from the Wrigley family, which had owned it for six decades, to the Tribune Company.  Soon after that, Dallas Green was hired away from Philadelphia as General Manager, and soon after that, Green traded for young Phillies second baseman Ryne Sandberg.  Sandberg would win nine gold gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, and an MVP award.  He would eventually go to the Hall of Fame.

That MVP honor came during a magical 1984 season that saw the Cubs reach baseball’s postseason for the first time since 1945.  The team finished at the bottom of the National League East in ‘80 and ‘81, and barely avoided the cellar in ‘82 and ‘83.  But Green hired Jim Frey as manager that offseason, and after a nip-and-tuck battle for the division lead through the season’s first months, the Cubs grabbed first place for good on August 1st.  One week later the lead was 4.5-games and fans, so used to ‘waiting until next year’, believed ‘Next Year’ may very well have come.

With an offense led by Sandberg, catcher Jody Davis, and first baseman Leon Durham, and a pitching staff bolstered by midseason trades for starting pitchers Rick Sutcliffe and Dennis Eckersley, the Cubs clinched the East title in Pittsburgh with a week to spare.

Sutcliffe won the Cy Young Award, Frey would be named Manager of the Year, and the Cubs would win the first two games of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley.  But then the series shifted to San Diego, and the Padres shocked the favorites by sweeping the next three and dashing hopes of a World Series win.

The Cubs slipped back to mediocrity in 1985, and midway through a dismal 1986 season Green fired Frey.

Green would exit after the ‘87 season, but not before signing another future Hall of Famer in outfielder Andre Dawson.  The former Expo wanted out of Montreal for Wrigley Field’s softer turf, and showed up at Cubs spring training with his agent and a blank contract, telling the Cubs to pick a number.  Dawson turned out to be one of baseball’s great bargains - he hit 49 home runs and won MVP honors on a team that finished last.

1988 brought Frey back as general manager, Don Zimmer to the manager’s chair, Mark Grace to first base, an All-Star nod for pitcher Greg Maddux - and lights to Wrigley Field, in time for its 75th Anniversary.  Sutcliffe started the first night game, on August 8th - until the skies opened up in the fourth inning, and a deluge forced the game to be canceled.  The first ‘official’ night game came one evening later.

And the Cubs closed out the decade in style, surging to the National League East title yet again in 1989.  Jerome Walton won rookie of the year in center field, Dwight Smith finished second in the balloting in left, Maddux won 19 games, and Zimmer was named Manager of the Year as the Cubs won 90 games, clinching the title in Montreal with just days left in the regular season.

The Cubs split the first two games of the National League Championship Series with the Giants, but San Francisco took the next three at home, leaving Cub fans waiting yet again.

Chicago White Sox

For the first two seasons of the 1980’s, White Sox games had a home on WBBM.  And at the start of the decade they had a new manager in Tony LaRussa, the youngest skipper in the game at just 35.  The Sox finished 5th in the American League West in 1980, but jumped to 3rd in the division in an eventful 1981 season.  Baseball’s players went on strike, splitting the season in half.  The White Sox signed veteran catcher Carlton Fisk, fresh off a contract dispute in Boston, against whom he would hit a game-winning home run on Opening Day.  And after two rejected tries to sell the franchise to Eddie DeBartolo, owner Bill Veeck sold the White Sox to a group led by Jerry Reinsdorf.

LaMarr Hoyt led the American League with 19 wins in 1982, but the White Sox still finished third.  They finally broke through in 1983, when an offense led by veterans Fisk, Harold Baines and Greg Luzinski were joined by Rookie of the Year Ron Kittle, who hit 35 home runs and drove in 100 runs.  LaMarr Hoyt won 24 games and the Cy Young Award, while Richard Dotson, Floyd Bannister and Britt Burns helped the Sox to the second best ERA in the American League.  And LaRussa was named Manager of the Year for leading the Sox to the AL West title - their first postseason berth since 1959.  Sadly, Baltimore stopped the Sox with a 3-1 victory in the League Championship Series.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago White Sox

From there, the Sox fell into a rough patch, finishing fifth in the division or worse in six of the next seven seasons.  The team added future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver in the 1984 free agent compensation draft, and he spent two-and-a-half seasons on the South Side, picking up the 300th win of his career in the process.  Also in 1984, the Sox also played the longest game in baseball history, a 25-inning, eight-hour, 7-6 win over the Brewers.

Shortstop and future manager Ozzie Guillen won Rookie of the Year honors in 1985.

Late in 1985, Reinsdorf made announcer Ken ‘Hawk’ Harrelson his general manager.  Harrelson and LaRussa clashed, and Harrelson fired the manager during the 1986 season, replacing him with Jim Fregosi.

Harrelson himself only lasted one season in the GM’s office before returning to the broadcast booth.  Larry Himes took control, and by 1989 Himes had both replaced Fregosi with Jeff Torborg and traded the fan favorite Baines to Texas in a package that brought back both pitcher Wilson Alvarez and young outfielder Sammy Sosa.  He also used the seventh pick of the 1989 baseball draft to take a slugger from Auburn named Frank Thomas.

The Sox nearly left Chicago for the Tampa area in 1988.  A last-second funding package approved in the state legislature allowed Reinsdorf and the team to break ground on a new Comiskey Park in May of 1989.


Chicago Sting soccer brought two national championships home in the early part of the decade.  The franchise beat the New York Cosmos 1-0 at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium to win the ‘81 Soccer Bowl and the North American Soccer League Title.

And in 1984, in their final games in the NASL, the Sting beat Toronto in a best of three series with Pato Margetic earning Finals MVP honors.

The Sting would leave for the Major Indoor Soccer League as the NASL disbanded, but would not find success, and would fold in 1988.

Chicago NASL

The Chicago Marathon found its footing, as it were, in the middle part of the decade.  “America’s Marathon/Chicago” started seeing world-class entrants in 1982.  Steve Jones broke the world record in 1984 and set a course record in 1985, and that same year Joan Benoit Samuelson set a women’s course record that would last until the next century.

John Henry won the first Arlington Million in 1981, with the legendary Willie Shoemaker on board.  And the horse would win again, in 1984, with jockey Chris McCarron. John Henry is the only horse to win the race twice. 

On July 31, 1985, what started as a small electrical fire tore through Arlington Park’s grandstand and clubhouse, eventually burning the entire 58-year-old structure to the ground.  Just 26 days later, using tents and temporary bleachers, the ‘Miracle Million’ was run - with Teleprompter winning in front of more than 25-thousand dedicated fans.

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