Saturday, March 13, 2021

Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame the Chicago Cardinals for Moving to St. Louis

March 13, 1960: Violet Bidwill moves the National Football League's Chicago Cardinals to St. Louis. The widow of former team owner Charles Bidwill, she had married Walter Wolfner, and St. Louis was his hometown.

The Cardinals were a charter franchise in the NFL in 1920, along with another Chicago team -- the Chicago Tigers, who folded after that one season. Before that, they had been the Racine Normals, and before that, the Morgan Athletic Club. They began playing in 1898, playing at Normal Field on Racine Avenue on the South Side.

In 1901, they bought used uniforms from the University of Chicago, which called its teams the Maroons. But the reason UC had been willing to sell the uniforms is that they had faded. Chris O'Brien, the original owner, looked at the uniforms, and said, "That's not maroon, it's cardinal red." So the team became the Racine Cardinals. In 1922, they moved to Comiskey Park, sharing it with the White Sox.
Comiskey Park, set up for football,
before the installation of the famous "exploding scoreboard."

A move to Soldier Field in 1959 didn't work out, so they moved to St. Louis, in spite of that city already having a baseball team named the St. Louis Cardinals. To differentiate themselves, the baseball team tended to call itself the Redbirds, and the football called itself the Big Red.

I suppose the football team could have named themselves after Walter: The St. Louis Wolves. After all, no team in major league sports then had "wolves" as part of their name. But the name "St. Louis Wolves" had already been used as the name of the baseball team in Abbot & Costello's "Who's On First?" routine.

They shared Sportsman's Park until moving into the new Busch Memorial Stadium in 1966. By that point, Violet's sons Charles Jr. and William had inherited the team, and forced their stepfather out. Billy bought Charles out in 1972.

The move to St. Louis didn't work out, and after the 1987 season, Violet's son, Billy Bidwill, moved he team to the Phoenix area, becoming the Phoenix Cardinals in 1988, and changing the name to the Arizona Cardinals in 1994.

In 1998, the team celebrated its 100th Anniversary, claiming to be the oldest active professional football franchise.  Even if you don't count the Canadian Football League -- the Hamilton Tiger-Cats can trace their history back to 1869, and the Toronto Argonauts theirs to 1873 -- the claim is dubious. The Racine Cardinals had suspended operations after the 1906 season. They started up again in 1913, but stopped again in 1918, due to World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic, starting again in 1919.

They won the NFL Championship in 1925 (the story of how they were crowned is a doozy, and it's still disputed), beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1947 NFL Championship Game, and lost a rematch to the Eagles in 1948. Then things went sour, as several seasons were disastrous: 3'9 in 1951, 1-10-1 in 1953, 2-10 in 1954, 3-9 in 1957, 2-9-1 in 1958, and 2-9 in 1959. And so, for 1960, they moved.

Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame the Chicago Cardinals for Moving to St. Louis

5. The Death of Charley Bidwill. Charles Bidwill Sr. had been a minority owner of the Bears, and wanted to buy them from George Halas. But "Papa Bear" wouldn't sell, because he loved being the dictator of that team. So, following a handshake agreement with Dr. David Jones, owner of the Cardinals, Bidwill sold his Bears stock, which he had to do first, and then bought the Cardinals for $50,000 -- a shade over $1 million in today's money. Sounds like a steal.
Charley Bidwill

Things got rough: They merged with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1944, due to the manpower shortage of World War II. There were listed in the standings as "Card-Pitt," but were so bad, they were nicknamed the Carpets, because everyone walked over them. They went 0-10. But things got better after The War, and they won the 1947 title.

It was too late for Charley: On April 19, 1947, he died of pneumonia at the age of just 51. His widow, Violet, became the 1st female majority owner in pro football history. But she knew nothing about running the team. Nor did her next husband, Walter Wolfner. The quality on the field plummeted, and so did attendance, to the point where the Bidwills were barely afloat.
Violet Bidwill Wolfner

Had Charley lived, he could have kept the team winning in the 1950s, or perhaps rebuilt into a contender, and maybe they wouldn't have had to move.

4. The AFL. The Bidwills were almost broke in the late 1950s, and wanted to move. But the NFL -- with Bert Bell as Commissioner, and his good friend George Halas helping to call the shots -- demanded a large relocation fee.

So the Bidwills looked to out-of-town investors. The problem was, while the family was willing to move, they would only sell a minority stake, as they still wanted control of the franchise. That turned out to be unacceptable to the would-be investors.

Those would-be investors included:

Lamar Hunt of Dallas, who had already tried to get an expansion team for his city, and was turned down. So he founded the American Football League, and placed his team, the Dallas Texans, in his city. The NFL struck back, by placing the Dallas Cowboys there. After 3 seasons that were successful on the field but not at the box office, he moved them, and they became the Kansas City Chiefs.

* Bud Adams of Houston. He hooked up with Hunt, and became the founding owner of the Houston Oilers, winning the 1st 2 AFL titles in 1960 and '61, and losing the '62 title game to Hunt's Texans.

* Max Winter of Minneapolis. In 1961, after failing to buy the Cardinals and move them to the Twin Cities, he succeeded in getting an NFL expansion team, the Minnesota Vikings.

* Bob Howsam of Denver. He was the owner of minor-league baseball's Denver Bears, and was trying to get a major league team for his city. He, Hunt, Adams and Winter were among the backers of the Continental League, which got outflanked when the American League and the National League chose to expand for the 1961 and '62 seasons.

Howsam became the original owner of the AFL's Denver Broncos, but quickly had to sell to Gerald Phipps. He also sold the Denver Bears, but became the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, building the Big Red Machine. He was not a part of the Colorado Rockies' ownership group when they began play in 1993, but he lived just long enough to see them win their 1st Pennant in 2007.
The AFL's logo

With the AFL's founding, the NFL's owners, led by new Commissioner Pete Rozelle -- Bell had died during the 1959 season -- were concerned that the AFL would plant stakes in cities without NFL teams, and succeed there.

They were right: While New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco (through Oakland) got challengers, Boston, Buffalo, Dallas, Houston and Denver did not (yet) have NFL teams. Since expansion was a possibility (and the AFL did put teams in then-NFL-less Miami and Cincinnati), St. Louis would have been a target. So the NFL decided to make it easier for the Bidwills to move there.

3. St. Louis. Baseball's Cardinals had succeeded there. Thus far, so had basketball's Hawks. Two previous NFL teams had failed there, but the 2nd was back in 1934, during the Great Depression. It seemed like time for the city to try again.
Downtown St. Louis, circa 1960

At the time, the City of St. Louis had a population of about 750,000, while the surrounding County of St. Louis had another 700,000. It was a big city, and it didn't have an NFL team, nor was the AFL trying to get in.

What these facts obscured was the fact that the City had already lost about 100,000 people in the 1950s, but the suburbs had almost doubled in size. It was still a big market, but a new stadium would be needed to replace the North Side's Sportsman's Park, which seated only 31,000 people, although the addition of temporary bleachers in right field raised capacity to about 40,000. The new Busch Stadium, downtown, was big enough and accessible enough. So if the team had to move, St. Louis seemed like a good place to go.
Sportsman's Park, set up for football
2. The Chicago Bears. The Monsters of the Midway dominated the NFL from 1940 to 1946. But the Cardinals won the title in 1947 and reached the title game again in 1948. After that, through 1959, only once did either team reach the title game, the Bears in 1956, and they got slaughtered by the New York Giants.

But the Bears' early Forties success meant that they were the more popular team in the Chicago media market, and would stay that way. The Bears did a better job of promoting their players, as Halas played well with the media, both local and national. And the other NFL team owners liked Halas, and treated Mrs. Bidwill (later, Mrs. Wolfner) as if she was a woman who knew nothing about football. Which may have been accurate, but it certainly wasn't fair.
George Halas. If any man can be called "Mr. NFL," it is he.

Her sons William and Charles knew they couldn't compete with Papa Bear and his team. Sure enough, the Bears won the title in 1963, and with such legends as Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus, remained popular even when they weren't winning. At least in St. Louis, the Cardinals didn't have to compete with anyone else for the local media.

1. It Worked. At first. In their 1st season in St. Louis, they went 6-5-1. By 1963, they were 9-5. In 1964, they went 9-3-2, finishing 2nd to the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Eastern Division. They managed and 8-5-1 season in 1966, a 9-4-1 season in 1968, and another 8-5-1 season in 1970. After 3 down seasons, they went 10-4 to win the NFC Eastern Division in 1974, 11-3 to win the Division in 1975, and 10-4 (but failed to win the Division) in 1976.
Yes, things would go south again, as they only made the Playoffs once more, in the strike-shortened season of 1982. And it took them until 1998 to make the Playoffs again in Arizona, and until 2008 to make them again, reaching Super Bowl XLIII. And, after moving there in 1995, except for a blip from 1999 to 2004, the Rams didn't succeed in St. Louis, either, and moved back to Los Angeles after the 2015 season.

But from 1960 to 1976, it sure looked like St. Louis was a football town. Why the Cardinals finally failed in St. Louis is a discussion for another time.

VERDICT: Not Guilty. Staying in Chicago would have done the NFL's Cardinals no good.

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