Thursday, January 29, 2015

How Long It's Been: The Cardinals Won the NFL Championship


This Sunday night, Super Bowl XLIX, the NFL championship game, will be held at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, outside Phoenix.

The host team, for the 2nd time, is the Arizona Cardinals.

Despite playing their home games in a State that didn't even gain Statehood until 1912 -- 103 years ago, within the lifetime of a few people alive today -- the Cardinals claim to be the oldest active professional football team. But they've only been in the Phoenix area since 1988, calling themselves the Phoenix Cardinals until 1994, when they officially made it "the Arizona Cardinals."

From 1960 to 1987, they were the St. Louis Cardinals -- keeping the name even though St. Louis already had a baseball team with the same name. This was once common. The New York Giants were named for the baseball team now in San Francisco. The Pittsburgh Steelers began as the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Washington Redskins were the Boston Redskins, and, before that, the Boston Braves. The Chicago Bears are named after the Chicago Cubs, and the Detroit Lions (sort of) after the Detroit Tigers. There were also, but are no longer, NFL teams named the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Cincinnati Reds, the Cleveland Indians and, yes, a few defunct pro football teams, including 2 that played in the NFL, named the New York Yankees. There was also one named for a long-gone minor-league baseball team, the Minneapolis Millers.

Before that, they were in Chicago. The current Arizona team traces its lineage to 1898, to an organization called the Morgan Athletic Club. Club founder Chris O'Brien negotiated to play at Normal Field on Racine Avenue, and called them the Racine Normals. In 1901, he bought used uniforms from the University of Chicago, whose teams were called the Maroons. But they'd faded, and he said, "That's not maroon. It's cardinal red!" So, because of the uniforms, he changed the name again, to the Racine Cardinals.

O'Brien suspended operations in 1906, revived the team in 1913, suspended operations again in 1918 due to the manpower shortage of World War I, and started again in 1919. Nevertheless, in 1998, the team wore 100th Anniversary patches.

In 1920, O'Brien represented the Cardinals at the NFL's founding meeting in Canton, Ohio. Since another original applicant was the Wisconsin-based Racine Legion, he changed the name again, to the Chicago Cardinals.

The Chicago Cardinals won the NFL Championship, finishing 1st in a single-division League, in 1925, led by quarterback John "Paddy" Driscoll. They won another title in 1947, taking the Western Division Championship, and then beating the Eastern Division Champion Philadelphia Eagles at Comiskey Park. They reached the NFL Championship Game again in 1948, this time losing to the Eagles at a snowy Shibe Park (later renamed Connie Mack Stadium).

Through 11 more seasons in Chicago, 28 seasons in St. Louis, and now 27 season in Arizona, the Cardinals have never won another NFL Championship. They have reached the Playoffs just 7 times, including this past season, winning the NFC Western Division Championship. They have won just 5 Playoff games, 3 of those in the 2008 season, when they reached Super Bowl XLIII, losing to Pittsburgh.

But they have not won a title since December 28, 1947. That was 67 years and 1 month -- and 2 cities -- ago. How long has that been?

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The stars of the 1947 NFL Champion Chicago Cardinals, coached by former Cardinal star Jimmy Conzelman, were rookie halfback Charley Trippi, quarterback Paul Christman, fullback Pat Harder, and halfback Marshall "Biggie" Goldberg. They became known as "the Million Dollar Backfield" (a name later adopted by the 1950s San Francisco 49ers) and "the Dream Backfield." They also played on defense. It wasn't until the early 1950s that NFL teams began playing some players just on offense and others just on defense.

Trippi is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (which didn't exist until 1963), and Goldberg's Number 99 was retired by the team during their St. Louis period. Of the 4 members of the Dream Backfield, only Trippi is still alive. He is 93 years old. (That's him in the photo at the top of the page.)

Another fine player on the '47 Cards was two-way tackle Stan Mauldin. During a regular-season game with the Eagles in 1948, he suffered a heart attack, and died at age 27. His Number 77 was the first ever retired by the Cardinals.

The Cardinals succeeded their crosstown rivals, the Chicago Bears, as NFL Champions. The other defending champions in December 1947 were the Yankees, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the champions in the inaugural season of the league that would become the NBA, the Philadelphia Warriors, who had beaten the Chicago pro team of the time, the Chicago Stags, in the Finals. Actually, there was another Chicago team, the Chicago American Gears, led by George Mikan, who had played in Chicago for DePaul University, and they won the title of the National Basketball League in 1947. He then moved on to the Minneapolis Lakers. The Heavyweight Champion of the World was Joe Louis, who had survived a fight with Jersey Joe Walcott in a widely criticized decision.

The AAFC, the All-America Football Conference, was competing with the NFL from 1946 to 1949. They included a New York Yankees, and the Chicago Rockets, whose biggest star was a receiver named Elroy Hirsch, whose speed got him nicknamed "Crazy Legs." After the AAFC folded, he starred for the Los Angeles Rams. The Rockets pursued Trippi, one in a long line of great running backs from the University of Georgia, but Cardinals owner Charley Bidwill offered Trippi a $100,000 bonus, a staggering sum for the time. (Hank Greenberg had just become the first team-sport athlete in North America ever to get that sum as a salary.)

The AAFC mainly failed because it was so easily dominated by the Cleveland Browns, who won all 4 league titles. The Browns, the 49ers, and an early version of the Baltimore Colts were absorbed into the NFL in 1950.

Up until 1947, there were only 4 officials on an NFL field: The referee, the umpire, the head linesman and the field judge. That season, a back judge was introduced. The line judge was added in 1965, and the side judge in 1978. The 1947 season also introduced the infraction "Illegal use of the hands," and the standard yardage chain, the down box, and the flexible shaft marker were all made mandatory.

The NFL also stopped allowing games on Tuesdays. Through 1969, NFL games were only played on Sundays, so as not to conflict with college football on Saturday afternoons, except when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. In 1970, we got Monday Night Football. The next year, Playoff games were played on Christmas, and expanded Playoffs meant games on Saturdays. Now, we have Thursday Night Football, Saturday Playoff games, the traditional Sunday 1:00 Eastern Time start, the semi-traditional Sunday 4:25 Eastern Time start, Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, and, starting this season, London games kicking off, due to the 5-hour time difference between New York and London, on Sunday morning. As if clergymen didn't have enough problems filling their sanctuaries.

The NFL had 10 teams. Most, you would recognize: The Chicago Bears, the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins. The team in question, the Cardinals, shared Chicago with the Bears (the Bears playing at the Cubs' Wrigley Field on the North Side, the Cardinals sharing Comiskey Park with the White Sox on the South Side). The Rams had moved to Los Angeles a year earlier, making the NFL a coast-to-coast league 12 years before Major League Baseball, 14 years before the NBA, and a whopping 21 years before the NHL.

The 10th team, you not only won't recognize, but both Yankee Fans and Red Sox fans will probably shake their heads over the name: The Boston Yanks. The owner, Ted Collins, wanted a New York Yankees team to play in Yankee Stadium, while the Giants shared the Polo Grounds with the baseball Giants. He was given a Boston franchise instead, and, being the manager of patriotic singer Kate Smith, kept the "Yanks" name, playing in Boston from 1944 to 1948. In 1949, he finally got to move the team to Yankee Stadium, but the team failed. (Boston Yanks? Hey, in 1961-62, the NBA had the Chicago Packers.)

The Rams had also just broken the NFL's color barrier, signing a pair of local stars out of UCLA, Kenny Washington (who had been a football teammate of Jackie Robinson) and Woody Strode (an older player who became better known as an actor). In the AAFC, the Browns brought in Marion Motley and Bill Willis. So pro football had 4 "Jackie Robinsons," although there wasn't nearly as much of a fuss made over it, because pro football was still far behind baseball, college football, and even boxing and horse racing, on the sports fan's radar. It was still ahead of basketball (college and pro) and hockey, however.

The Rams had brought the NFL to the West Coast, but there were no teams between Chicago and L.A. Nor were there any teams in the South. The closest thing to a Southern team was the Redskins, and team owner George Preston Marshall refused to racially integrate, because he'd built up this huge radio network of Southern stations covering the Southernmost team in the NFL, and he didn't want to lose the Southern business lords who owned the stations. The Redskins didn't integrate until 1962, 16 years after the Rams did, and 3 years after the last baseball team to do so, the Red Sox.

The NFL was only in its 28th season in 1947, so most of the founding fathers were not only still alive, but still running the teams they founded, including George Halas with the Bears, Tim Mara in New York, and Art Rooney in Pittsburgh. Cardinals owner Charley Bidwill, not a founding owner (he bought the team in 1932), died before the season could begin, missing the title. The defining players of my childhood, men such as Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Roger Staubach, Fran Tarkenton, Larry Csonka, Joe Montana, John Riggins, Walter Payton and Lawrence Taylor,were either children themselves, or not born yet. Johnny Unitas was still in high school. Vince Lombardi was coaching the freshman football and basketball teams at Fordham University in The Bronx, his alma mater.

The Olympic Games have since been held in America 5 times, in Canada and Italy 3 times; twice each in Britain, Australia, France, Italy, Austria, Norway, Japan and Russia (once before and once after the fall of the Soviet Union); and once each in Switzerland, Finland, Mexico, Germany, Bosnia (then a part of Yugoslavia) Korea, Spain, Greece and China. The World Cup has since been held in Brazil twice, Mexico twice, Germany twice, Switzerland, Sweden, Chile, England, Argentina, Spain, Italy, America, France, Japan, Korea and South Africa.

The President of the United States was Harry S Truman. Herbert Hoover, and the widows of Franklin Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt were still alive; Grover Cleveland's widow Frances has recently died. The Governor of the State of New York was Thomas E. Dewey, the Mayor of the City of New York was William O'Dwyer, and the Governor of New Jersey was Alfred E. Driscoll, whose pet project, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, he had just signed into law. (He would also create the Garden State Parkway.) In the city in question, the Mayor of Chicago was Martin Kennelly, and the Governor of Illinois was Dwight Green.

The Prime Minister of Canada was William Lyon Mackenzie King. The monarch of Britain was King George VI, and its Prime Minister was Clement Attlee. Liverpool won England's Football League in a mad scramble, only 1 point ahead of Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, (2 points for a win instead of 3 until 1981), and only 2 ahead of Stoke City. Charlton Athletic, of South London, won the FA Cup on a 114th minute goal, late in extra time of the Final, over Burnley. It remains their only major trophy. But in the new season that was underway, London's Arsenal would win the League, and Manchester United would win the FA Cup, beating Blackpool in the Final.

Major novels of 1947 included The Plague by Albert Camus, Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane, and James Michener's World War II-based Tales of the South Pacific, which became the Broadway musical and later film South Pacific. Margaret Wise Brown published Goodnight Moon. Anne Frank's diary was published under the title The Diary of a Young Girl. Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on Broadway, beginning the legend of Marlon Brando.

Major films of the year included Angel and the Badman, The Egg and I, The Farmer's Daughter, Gentleman's Agreement, Kiss of Death, The Lady from Shanghai, Life With Father, Miracle On 34th Street, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the Hope & Crosby film Road to Rio, the Bogart & Bacall film Dark Passage, the original film version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir with Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. In this film, Myrna Loy (then age 42) and Shirley Temple (19) play sisters (yeah, right), a judge and a high school student, who live together, and get into a love triangle over Cary Grant (who was 43).

It could have been worse: 1947 was also the year that Temple starred in That Hagen Girl, in which her character is said to be the illegitimate daughter of a man who was falling in love with her. To make matters worse, by this point, the formerly adorable little girl with the chubby cheeks and all those curls had, shall we say, developed. And the guy in question? Yes, that was Ronald Reagan (then 36) hitting on a stacked Shirley Temple. Gross. Reagan hated the film, and when he ran for Governor of California in 1966, prints of it suddenly began to disappear. At one point in the film, Reagan, who had been a lifeguard as an Illinois teenager, jumps into a river to save Temple's character from suicide. One review torched the film by saying it was too bad the attempt failed. Another critic said, "She acts with the mopish dejection of a school-child who has just been robbed of a two-scoop ice cream cone." She retired from acting just 3 years later, as she got married for the 2nd time (at age 22), ending one of the most iconic careers in the history of entertainment, but well past her "icon's" sell-by date.

Television was still new in 1947. NBC began American network TV that year, airing the World Series for the first time, and, a few weeks before, on November 6, 1947, premiered Meet the Press. It is still running today, the longest-running show in the history of television. CBS debuted its TV network the next year.

Frankie Laine scored his first gold record, for "That's My Desire." Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five recorded "Caldonia" and "Open the Door, Richard!" -- inventing rhythm & blues, and some people site "Caldonia" as "the first rock and roll record," although its hard to give that title to a recording whose electric guitar is so improminent. Merle Travis wrote and recorded "Sixteen Tons," and Roy Brown wrote and recorded "Good Rocking Tonight," but it would be a few years before either song would become widely known. Elvis Presley was about to turn 13, John Lennon and Ringo Starr were 7, Paul McCartney was 5, George Harrison was 4, and Michael Jackson wouldn't be born for another 11 years.

Nearly every American home had a radio, but half still didn't have telephones. The idea of having a phone that you could carry with you was a ridiculous. Raytheon developed the first microwave oven. Six days before the Cardinals won that Championship Game, Bell Labs demonstrated the first electronic transistor. Computers? The Mark I, ENIAC and UNIVAC were still new, and most people hadn't even heard of computers. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee wern't born yet.

In December 1947, women were first admitted to England's prestigious University of Cambridge, and were granted the right to vote in Argentina. French Communists derailed a passenger train, incorrectly believing it carried strikebreakers; 21 people were killed. A new constitution was approved by Italy. King Michael of Romania abdicated. Mikhail Kalashnikov's AK-47 was adopted for use by the Soviet Union's Red Army. The partition of India was still in the process of leading to the deaths of about 400,000 people, and a similar partition of British Palestine was being debated, which would lead to the creation of the state of Israel.

In America, the House Un-American activities Committee -- one of the most un-American institutions in American history -- was investigating Communist influences in Hollywood. The U.S. and U.K. governing bodies for the Society of Friends -- the Quakers -- were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And 2 days before the NFL Championship Game, on the day after Christmas, 26 inches of snow fell on the New York Tri-State Area, the region's heaviest snowfall until 1996.

Aleister Crowley, and and Stanley Baldwin, and the last King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, died. Ted Danson, and Tom Daschle, and Dilma Rousseff, the first female President of Brazil, were born. So were Baseball Hall-of-Famers Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk, stars of the 1975 World Series. And, on the very day of the NFL Championship Game, Aurelio Rodriguez, one of the best-fielding 3rd basemen of my lifetime.

December 28, 1947. The Chicago Cardinals win the NFL Championship Game. But 67 years -- two-thirds of a century -- and 2 cities later, the Arizona Cardinals have still never won another. In the last 66 seasons, they've only been to 1 NFL championship game under any name -- at least that was under the Super Bowl name, not that long ago.

Now, they are defending NFC West Champions. Can they keep this going, to the point where, instead of just hosting Super Bowls (this will be their 3rd), they can actually win one?

The New Orleans Saints did it. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did it. Along with the Cardinals, those are the most-mocked franchises in NFL history. (Yes, even more so than the Jets.) So anything is possible.

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