Skip to main content

Vagabond Cardinals get rare moment of triumph

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Born in an Irish neighborhood in Chicago 111 years ago, the Cardinals have spread football mediocrity or worse from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River to the Sonoran Desert.

While their opponent in next weekend's Super Bowl took root in Pittsburgh and, as the Steelers, acquired that city's gritty, blue-collar persona, the Cardinals wandered from north to south in search of a home.

They played in Chicago's Comiskey Park, owned by the White Sox; then in St. Louis at old Busch Stadium, property of baseball's Cardinals; and on to Sun Devil Stadium, on the campus of Arizona State University.

Big Red memories senior writer Steve Wyche grew up in St. Louis following the football Cardinals, and recalls what it was like before the team packed up and moved to the desert. More ...

The Cardinals never had a true home of their own until 2006, when they moved into a fancy new stadium in suburban Glendale.

That state-of-the-art structure is credited by team president Michael Bidwill for creating the revenue that allowed the team to modernize its antiquated business practices and produce a winner for the first time in 10 years and only the second since 1984.

Before this season's improbable run past Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia, the Cardinals had two playoff victories in their entire history -- in the 1947 NFL Championship Game against Philadelphia and in a 1998 wild-card upset of the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cardinals have been owned by the Bidwill family since 1932, but their lineage dates to 1898, when a group of men going by the name of the Morgan Athletic Club began playing football on Chicago's South Side.

Three years later, team owner Chris O'Brien, a local painting contractor, bought some faded jerseys from the University of Chicago and, as the story goes, declared, "That's not maroon, it's Cardinal red." Thus was born the nickname that would for decades be emblematic of professional football futility.

At first, they were the Racine Cardinals, named for the street where the playing field was located. The team disbanded in 1906 and was reorganized by O'Brien seven years later.

In 1920, 11 teams organized in what would eventually become the National Football League. Two of them played in Chicago, the Bears and the Cardinals.

Charles Bidwill Sr. saved George Halas' Bears from creditors with a $5,000 investment in 1931, then purchased the Cardinals in 1932 for $50,000.

Playing in south Chicago while Halas' Bears played in the north, the Cardinals did not have a winning season from 1935-46. In 1944, with few available players because of World War II, the Cardinals merged with the Steelers for a season and went 0-12.

The Cardinals' greatest success until now came in the aftermath of the war, when the 1947 team went 9-3 under coach Jimmy Conzelman and beat the Eagles for the NFL title. Bidwill didn't live to see the triumph. He died of pneumonia in April of that year. The following season, the Cardinals were 11-1, but lost to Philadelphia for the crown.

Bidwill's widow Violet inherited the team and she and her second husband, Walter Wolfner, were in charge in the troubled days that led to the move to St. Louis in 1960. The team was losing money after 37 seasons at Comiskey and wanted to play its games at Northwestern. But Halas had an agreement from years earlier that the Cardinals would never play north of Madison Street.

So in 1960, the move from a mostly indifferent Chicago was made.

There were some good years in St. Louis, particularly under coach Don Coryell, an offensive mastermind. The team won the NFC East in 1974 and 1975. But Coryell left after 1977, and the hard times began.

With Jim Hanifan as coach and a young Neil Lomax at quarterback, the Cardinals went 9-7 in 1984. It would be their last winning season for 24 years.

Meanwhile, Bill Bidwill -- a water boy as a teenager for that '47 championship team -- had assumed ownership and he wasn't happy playing in a baseball stadium. He couldn't reach an agreement with the city and began to explore options to move the team.

Bidwill looked at Memphis, Jacksonville, Baltimore and -- most of all -- Phoenix.

Phoenix had nearly landed the Eagles in the mid-1980s, before the fans in Philadelphia raised such a ruckus that the team stayed put.

Stung by the way that proposed move blew up publicly, Phoenix officials made sure any negotiations with Bidwill were done quietly. The league approved the move to Arizona on March 15, 1988.

"I feel a little ambivalent," Bidwill said at the time. "I've enjoyed 28 years in St. Louis, but it's time now to become part of a new city."

Cardinals fans in St. Louis were left angry and betrayed.

"It's horrible," Beatrice Carbaugh, a 57-year-old seamstress, said then. "We've backed them up all these years, including years when the team was really terrible. We sat out in the snow and everything, and then he goes to Arizona where it's hot.

"It's like pulling a big, beautiful old tree out by its roots. All you have left is a hole."

In Arizona, the Cardinals were cheered by enthusiastic crowds as the team got off to a 7-4 start.

"As you would expect," said Ron Wolfley, the Cardinals' radio analyst who played on that team. "The National Football League came to a small town, and it was kind of a small town back then. It wasn't anything like it is right now. ... Every player became like an instant Hollywood star. It was just unbelievable."

But the team had barely arrived in town before it began to alienate fans. Bidwill set first-season ticket prices at an average of $38, the highest in the league at the time. Although he lowered it a bit to $36 the next year, it still was tops in the NFL.

"And there was a period of less enthusiasm," said Terry Goddard, Arizona's attorney general who was Phoenix mayor at the time.

At first, they were the Phoenix Cardinals, then in 1994 they became the Arizona Cardinals. Whatever the name, they lost and lost some more, and what Bidwill thought was a promise for a new stadium never was fulfilled.

Because of the searing early September heat in Phoenix, the Cardinals opened their season at home only once in the 18 years they played at Sun Devil Stadium. That was in 2001, and only because their scheduled opener at Washington was postponed because of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Often they played their first two or three on the road, and when they did come home, crowds dwindled as fans chose not to watch bad football while baking on the stadium's metal bleachers.

A brief period of light came in 1998 when, with Jake Plummer at quarterback and a tough young safety named Pat Tillman, the team won its last three regular-season games to earn a wild-card berth. They stunned the Cowboys in Dallas before losing at Minnesota.

Bidwill, notorious for his old-fashioned contract beliefs and penny-pinching ways, let some of his best players -- offensive tackle Lomas Brown, fullback Larry Centers and linebacker Jamir Miller -- get away from that team. Then the Cardinals had a losing record every season until 2007, when first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt's club went 8-8.

The franchise's biggest victory came in 2000, when voters approved a measure that included money to build the new stadium, a campaign spearheaded by Bidwill's son, Michael.

Of all its moves, the team's most significant may have been from the eastern suburbs of Phoenix to the western suburbs.

After all, three years later, the Cardinals, of all teams, are in the Super Bowl.

Bill Bidwill, now 77, smiled broadly as he hoisted the Halas Trophy for the NFC championship last Sunday. It was a rare moment of triumph for a man whose many charitable deeds are done without fanfare, but whose ownership has long been vilified by many NFL fans in Arizona.

"He's not a very flashy personality," Goddard said, "and I think that, except for his position, he'd be happy to be in the background."

Bidwill said he always thought his team would get to the Super Bowl, "I just didn't know when."

That love-hate relationship Arizona had for Bidwill and the Cardinals is all-love now, and in a city that's one of the hardest hit by the economy's tailspin, it's a welcome diversion.

"It gives a community that has been having a hard time a huge, huge lift," Goddard said. "Boy, we couldn't get it at a better time."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.