Staley’s Bears 1920-1921
CHARLES WALTER DRESSEN [Nee DRESEN]
Height: 5’6 Weight: 147
Born: 9/20/1898 Decatur, IL
Died: 8/10/1966 Detroit, MI
High School: Assumption (IL) one year
In September 1919 A. E. Staley announced that he would provide $1000 for a company-sponsored Industrial League football team. Twenty-five year old Charlie “Chuck” Dressen returned from playing “bush league” baseball in the Dakotas just in time to be the starting quarterback for the Staleys. Wearing their new maroon sweaters that fall, five other future professional football Staley men joined Dressen to compile a 6-1 season as they outscored their central Illinois opponents 294 to 13. The following year Dressen was beat out for the starting QB spot on the now professional Staley football team by “Pard” Pearce, another diminutive professional baseball hopeful. Dressen subbed briefly for Pearce in only four of the 13 Staley games that year, but in his last game returned a punt 37 yards late in the fourth quarter against the Hammond Pros on November 21, 1920, his only Staley game that is counted in official NFL records. Dressen earned $535 for his 1920 football season, about 37% as much as Pearce.
Dressen’s best sport however was baseball, and after six years in the minor leagues he played mostly third base in eight major league seasons before he managed 16 seasons with major league clubs and 8 with minor league teams. His most success came while managing the Brooklyn Dodgers 1951-1953. He died of a heart attack in 1966 while he was manager of the Detroit Tigers.
The Decatur Herald-Despatch announced on September 22, 1894 that German-born Phillip Henry Dresen and his England-born wife Catherine Driscoll had a son born to them at 774 E. Sangamon Street in Decatur. After the arrival of two more children the family moved to Taylorville where Phillip worked as a coal miner before returning to Decatur where Phillip opened a saloon. On March 29, 1908, “Charley Dressen,” a diminutive fifth grader [albeit already thirteen years old] at Decatur’s Jasper Street School, was described by the local press as “a heavy hitter” on the school’s baseball team. The following year he again received recognition for leading the Decatur Daily Review’s “Newsies” team to 21 straight baseball victories. In June 1910 Charley received his first photo spread in the Decatur press when, as a seventh-grader, he led his Jasper Street School baseball team to the “Ward School League” championship.
Instead of going on to the newly-formed eighth grade class in Decatur, Charley opted to attend one year of high school [1910-1911] in neighboring Assumption, IL, where he played football, basketball and tried to organize a baseball team. This ended his formal academic career and for the next eight years he made his living working in pool halls and saloons and later as a switchman for the Wabash Railroad in Decatur. Often with Jack Mintun, his new best friend and future Staley football teammate, he organized and played on bowling, baseball and football teams. These included Hartford’s Popes, the Railroaders, the Brassworks, Decatur Blues and Come Across baseball teams, the Decatur Indians football team, and various industrial teams with the railroad, Mueller’s and Staleys. Until 1918 he was usually the ace pitcher for each baseball team before switching to play the infield. In football he was always the play-calling quarterback. He would play for anyone who would pay him a few dollars per game. He sometimes played for four different baseball teams in a given season, and in addition to Decatur, he was paid to play for Morrisonville, Maroa, Vandalia, Pana and Monticello, and played for victorious Taylorville against Carlinville in the infamous 1921 football game.
In the summer of 1918 he played mostly second base for the Staley industrial league baseball team. He came back and started with Staley’s baseball team in the spring of 1919 but then in mid-July left to play 42 games for Moline in the Three-I League before going off to the Dakotas to “barnstorm” for cash before returning to Decatur by October 5 to play quarterback for Staley’s semi-pro football squad. In 1920 he played in 138 games of baseball for Peoria in the Three-I League and then returned in October to scrimmage with George Halas and the new professional Staley football team. From 1921 through 1924 he played professional baseball mostly with St. Paul’s minor league team while still playing a few games of professional football with Jack Mintun in 1921 and 1922 for the Racine Legion team in Wisconsin. Dressen got credit for eight more NFL games including scoring two rushing touchdowns and passing for another.
In 1925, the now 30 year-old rookie [he told everyone he was 26 that spring] finally made it to the major leagues with the Cincinnati Reds. Dressen then went on to play 625 games for them through 1930. After going back to the minor leagues for a short time Dressen managed, coached and managed again until his death in 1966 when he was almost 72 years old. Baseball insiders considered Charlie very savvy, often brilliant, but he many times hurt his career by his gambling habits, arrogance and contract demands. Baseball historian Bill James wrote that he lost an opportunity to be in the baseball Hall of Fame by demanding a multi-year contract after his three-year stint with the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers and subsequently being let go. In his 1973 I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad book, Jim Bouton said Dressen “was an itinerant managerial superstar” who acted like a “Napoleon-sized advice distributor.” Baseball historian Bryan Soderholm-Difatte wrote in 2015 that Dressen was “widely considered one of baseball’s best and brightest minds …” while Peter Golenbock wrote in Bums “that Dressen took all the credit for the wins and heaped all of the blame on his players for the losses.”
On September 8, 1917, Dressen married Niantic-born Etta Agnes Smith in Decatur. Up through the early 1930s, when Charley wasn’t on the road, they lived with her parents at the now Decatur Fairlawn Cemetery where Etta’s father William Smith was the custodian. In the 1940 census the Dressens are still listed as living on North Main Street in Decatur but were spending most of their time in Miami and Brooklyn. In December 1941 Charley and Etta were divorced in Dade County, Florida. On January 8, 1942, Charley married former Detroit model Ruth Emma Sinclair in Elkton, Maryland, and they eventually spent most of their off seasons in southern California.
1953 was the pinnacle of Dressen’s baseball career and national fame as manager of the pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers. Thus he was invited back to Decatur [his first visit in six years] as Mayor Robert E. Willis declared January 22, 1953 as “Charlie Dressen Day” in the Soy City. Dressen came in on the morning train, gave a luncheon talk to about 200 folk for “Decatur Baseball Inc.” at the Hotel Orlando, had photos taken with a dozen of his former Decatur teammates at the Staley corporate headquarters, and then finished the day speaking to about 700 people at the annual Staley Awards dinner at the Masonic Temple. On October 21, 1956, Charlie joined a number of former Staley football players in Chicago for the Bears Staley Day celebration and had his photo taken with pal Jack Mintun and several other long-time Decatur natives along with George Halas. At the time, Dressen most likely was the most well-known man present. On Sunday, August 14, 1966, a few days after Charlie died, Decatur’s WAND TV station presented a 30-miunte special, The Life of Charlie Dressen, which featured teammates from the past, Jack Mintun and Loren Hodge.
Charles Walter Dressen was referred to as Charlie, Charley and Chuck, but never Charles. Before 1920 he officially considered himself a “Dresen” and signed documents as such like his German father. After 1920 he changed his birth year from 1894 to 1898 and accepted the newspaper spelling of his name as Dressen. His first wife Etta never remarried after their divorce and passed away in Decatur on September 28, 1957. She is buried in Decatur’s Catholic Calvary Cemetery. His second wife Ruth married James R. McCann after Charlie died and passed away on December 20, 1971 in San Bernadino, CA. She was interred next to Charlie in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA.
Copyright @ 2023 Mark W. Sorensen