In part I of our C.C. “Cash & Carry” Pyle series, we described the early portion of the life of the former Champaign movie theater operator. In part II, we tell you about Red Grange’s manager and his meteoric rise and fall as America’s first sports agent.
Accompanied by Champaign businessman C.C. Pyle, history reveals that Harold “Red” Grange had a busy few summer months prior to his senior football season at the University of Illinois in 1925.
Known nationwide for his exploits as an athlete, Grange was being shopped around as a prospective movie star and as a possible future spokesperson for products ranging from automobiles to clothing.
Having entered into an agreement the previous March, everything in Grange’s future was contingent upon him being same football star he’d been in 1924, headlined by his monumental performance against Michigan in Memorial Stadium’s dedication game.
The season didn’t begin as either Grange or Pyle had wished, as Illinois lost to a formidable Nebraska team in the opener at Champaign. In fact, only a narrow victory against Butler prevented Bob Zuppke’s Illini from being winless through its first four games. Fortunately, a ballyhooed Illinois victory against nationally prominent Pennsylvania at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field and a spectacular effort by Grange (363 total yards and three touchdowns) got the train back on the track.
Wrote legendary scribe Damon Runyon after that game, “This man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men and a horse rolled into one. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi, and Man o’War. Put them all together, they spell Grange.”
Rumors about Grange and his “relationship” with Pyle swirled during the week of Illinois’s 1925 finale at Ohio State. Following his 113-yard rushing performance against the Buckeyes, Grange quietly caught a train bound for Chicago. The next morning at the Morrison Hotel — Sunday, Nov. 22 — the Illini star sat down before newspaper reporters and photographers to officially sign a contract with Chicago Bears co-owners George Halas and “Dutch” Sternaman. Pyle prominently positioned himself directly to his client’s left. Read the headline in the Chicago Herald-Examiner, “Red Grange Signs Fat ‘Pro’ Contract.”
Five days later, Thanksgiving Day 1925, wearing his familiar jersey No. 77, Grange made his professional debut before a record 36,000 fans at Cubs Park against the cross-town Chicago Cardinals. The gate netted more than $9,000 for the Grange-Pyle duo. A second contest a few days later earned them a similar amount, lining their pockets with what would amount to equal nearly $300,000 in 2020 dollars.
Next on tap for Grange was Pyle’s much publicized nationwide barnstorming tour, a series of exhibition games that would see the former college superstar play 19 times in a 66-day period. Altogether, from coast to coast, more than 400,000 spectators saw the fabled All-American.
When the triumphant tour finished, Pyle and Grange headed to California to shoot a film entitled “One Minute to Play.” The predictable story line centered around Grange, as football star Red Wade. New York’s Colony Theater hosted the movie’s premiere in early September of 1926. Meanwhile, Pyle negotiated deals for a Grange doll, football, sweater and candy bar, earning him and his client more than $100,000 in profits. A second Grange movie —“Racing Romeo” — was released in September of 1927.
Capitalizing on his fame as Grange’s agent, Pyle struck a number of other business deals, including the representation of 1920s French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen.
In 1928, Pyle inaugurated the Trans-American Footrace, more familiarly known as the Bunyon Derby. This was a grueling 3,455-mile run that began in Los Angeles, directed toward Chicago, and ended in New York City. Pyle promised $48,500 to the top ten runners who crossed the line in front of Madison Square Garden. At the end, it turned out to be a financial disaster, costing Pyle more than $100,000 in losses. A second Bunyon Derby in 1929 drained his pockets of $50,000 more. In 1930, a devastating stroke paralyzed the right side of Pyle’s body and left him unable to speak. Doctors bluntly told Pyle that he’d likely never walk again. But miraculously, Pyle rehabilitated his ailing frame within three years, and he thrusted himself back into work, managing Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium at Chicago’s World’s Fair.
By July of 1937, Pyle married for a fourth time, but 19 months later he succumbed to a blood clot in his brain. Grange, his longtime friend, mourned Pyle’s death.
Grange told the Chicago Tribune, “Charlie was pictured as a notorious money-hungry promoter, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was always more than fair to me and was one of the finest men I have ever known. Pyle came up with more ideas in one day than most men come up with in a lifetime.”
Sunday: David Kerian, baseball (27)
Monday: Kyron Cumby, football (19)
Tuesday: D.J. Richardson, basketball (29)
Wednesday: Karol Kahrs, administrator
Thursday: Milo Eifler, football (22)
Friday: Steven Williams, football (53)
Saturday: Angela Bizzarri, cross country/track & field
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter