clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Cardinals Are nation’s oldest pro football team

New, comments

Several name changes have dotted this iconic franchise

You may not know this, but the Arizona Cardinals are the oldest, continuous team in pro football history. This franchise has called Chicago, St. Louis and Phoenix home, and once considered a move to Dallas and Atlanta.

Four Franchise Name Changes

They began to play in 1898 as the “Morgan Athletic Club” located on the south side of Chicago; which was a neighborhood gym where boxing was the utmost activity. A local painting contractor named Chris O’Brien started the team from members of the club. Back then, teams would form and play other neighborhoods or nearby towns/cities and called it professional football because they charged a gate and divided up the proceeds after all the expenses were covered.

1900 Morgan Athletic Club

That meant there might be several teams in a large city such as Chicago alone and sometimes would play only a handful of games and then disband when interest waned or players simply quit. Scheduling games against local and regional teams cut down on travel expenses. Most teams were comprised of factory workers, policemen, shop owners, dock workers, mechanics, coal miners, former college athletes and men from all walks of life.

And schedules were just thrown together in any matter. Teams would also cancel at any time and it was not uncommon to play double-headers in order to save on the travel expense. Stadiums were actually small fields with minimal bleachers and usually were difficult to keep out patrons who didn’t pay. The officials wore all white clothes and wide-brimmed hats and were one part of the expense report.

Later, the Morgan Athletic Club began playing all of its games at Normal Park on the corner of Racine Avenue and 61st in Chicago. With the move to a new playing field, O’Brien renamed the team the “Racine Normals.” There were several teams in Chicago and the new team name identified what part of Chicago they were from.

In 1901, the University of Chicago bought their football squad new uniforms to which O’Brien purchased their old threads. The University’s colors were maroon and white, but the old uniforms had a faded burgundy hue at this point. When O’Brien saw the colors, he exclaimed that they weren’t maroon, but cardinal red. From this point, his team was known as the “Racine Cardinals.”

1902 Racine Cardinals

Today, the franchise’s logo is the Cardinal bird, but the team’s origin was named after the color and not the fowl. The University of Chicago was called the Maroons, so for a team to be christened a pigment such as Cardinal Red wasn’t anything abnormal.

For years, the Cardinals played in a very loose association called the “Chicago Football League” formed of several local clubs such as the Chicago Tigers as well as some outside teams like Hammond, Indiana, Rockford, Decatur and Racine, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At this same time, there was the Ohio League and the New York State League; all three were precursors of forming a legitimate, stable pro football entity – the NFL.

The Cardinals were champions of the Chicago League in 1917 but suspended operations briefly in 1918 during World War I. A newly organized professional football league was announced to be formed in 1919 but waited another season before becoming an actual playing league. They called it the “American Professional Football Conference” at first and then renamed it the “American Professional Football Association.” So, in 1920 this new pro football league fielded 14 clubs. Two years later this organization would be renamed the “National Football League.” Among that charter group were the Racine Cardinals, Chicago Tigers, and Decatur Staleys.

The following year the Staleys relocated to Chicago and called Wrigley Field home. They became the “Chicago Staleys” and then in 1922 were renamed again as the “Chicago Bears.” The Tigers disbanded after a single season.

In 1922, a club from Racine, Wisconsin joined the NFL. In order to avoid confusion, O’Brien again renamed his franchise, this time the “Chicago Cardinals” to differentiate his team from the newly-formed club from Racine called the “Racine Legion.”

Champions of the World

The franchise’s first championship came in 1925, but not without controversy.

Back in those days schedules were constructed by each team. Each franchise could play as many games on a schedule as they chose, and could also add or delete games as they saw fit. This could be done before, during or after their season was completed. Oftentimes, clubs would add games towards the end of the year in order to gain another gate in an attempt to break even for the season. The same could be said about a team that would cancel a contest merely because they didn’t have travel funds. At the time, the league champion was the team with the greatest win percentage as playoffs were not installed until 1932.

The Cardinals finished the 1925 season with a 9-2-1 record (.818) while the Pottsville (Pennsylvania) Maroons had a 10-2-0 record (.833). Ties were not counted in the percentage column. This placed the Maroons ahead of the Cardinals for the league championship. Plus, the Maroons had beaten the Cardinals 21-7 in the regular season. Chicago then scheduled two extra games against inferior teams who were current NFL clubs but both had disbanded during the season after playing a handful of games. The Cardinals then defeated the Milwaukee Badgers 58-0 and the Hammond Pros 13-0 to move in front of Pottsville with a .846 win percentage.

Weeks later, it was discovered that the Badgers had used high school players in order to field a team. When NFL President Joe Carr learned of this, he told some newspapermen that the Cards victory over Milwaukee would not be official, but this never happened. The win over the Badgers is still in the NFL record books today. O’Brien was fined $1,000, but the championship was still his although he announced that he did not know about the high school players and he did not claim the title.

Charles Bidwell

Until 1932. That’s when the Bidwell family bought the Cardinals and subsequently claimed the 1925 championship as belonging to the franchise. The Maroons and the entire town of Pottsville protested the fact that the Cardinals had stolen their championship, but the NFL recognized Chicago as being the champion based on the win percentage aspect.

In 1963, Maroons’ fans petitioned the NFL to recognize their former team as the rightful NFL champions but to no avail. In 2003, the issue was raised again. The governor of Pennsylvania offered a solution by a suggestion that the NFL declare joint ownership of the 1925 title between the Maroons and the Cardinals. A 30-2 vote squashed that idea and the Cardinals remained the champs. A book was later published on the entire ordeal entitled, Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship.

The 1947 Season

Because of World War II, in 1944, the Cardinals were down to seven players. The NFL then melded their roster with the Pittsburgh Steelers who also had a handful of players. Formed as “Card-Pitt”, after displaying a horrible assemblage of players and losing every game, newspaper writers labeled them the “Carpits.” The team would eventually finish 0-10-0.

Beginning in 1947, the franchise officially adopted the Cardinal bird as its logo. They also had all of their offensive players back from the war and formed the “Million Dollar Backfield” which featured FB Pat Harder, HB Charley Trippi, QB Paul Christman, and RB Elmer Angsman. After a 7-1 start, the Cardinals captured the Western Division title with a 9-3-0 record. This placed them in the NFL Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles who they had beaten earlier 45-21 in the regular season.

The Bears had won the NFL crown in 1946 so a Cards’ victory would keep the title in the City of Chicago. The Cardinals were 12-point favorites plus were going to play this one at home. A crowd of 30,759 was treated to an exception contest, eventually won by the Cardinals 28-21.

The Chicago Cardinals now were two-time NFL Champions, and this time nobody was disputing who the best team in the league was.

Move to St. Louis

The year 1960 proved to be a significant one in the annals of professional football. Another rival league, the American Football League (AFL) was set to play its maiden season. To counter, the NFL placed expansion clubs in Dallas and Minneapolis, although the latter did not begin until the following year.

St. Louis Cardinals logo

The Cardinals’ bird logo now appeared on their football helmets for the first time. And, the franchise moved from Chicago to become the “St. Louis Cardinals.”

During the late 1950s, many rich men had inquired to the NFL about an expansion club but were told the NFL was not going to expand and if they wanted a franchise they should see if one of the existing 12 teams were for sale. And for several years, the Cardinals were that courted franchise.

The owner of the team, Charles Bidwell, had passed away shortly after the 1947 championship season. His widow, Violet Bidwill, later married St. Louis businessman Walter Wolfner in 1949. From 1949-1957, the Cardinals were one of the worst clubs every year. Bidwill-Wolfner agreed to field numerous offers for her franchise which included four men who eventually would own charter clubs in the AFL; while at the same time petitioned the NFL to relocate the team to St. Louis where she and her husband lived. For several years, the Cardinals had played an annual preseason game in St. Louis which was called the “Glennon Hospital Benefit Game” that furthered a local medical facility.

Despite these situations, the NFL owners always voted “no” to any relocation. The ownership group was tight-knit and liked things the way they were. The city of St. Louis was just over 800,000 at the time and the league wasn’t sure they would support an NFL team.

The Bears were highly successful and had already played in 10 NFL Championship Games and captured seven titles. Because of this, they were very popular and the toast of the town. Because the Cardinals struggled on the field year-after-year, they were dead last in the league in attendance from 1953-1955 and 1957-1958 while the Bears averaged fourth best. Losing all those years was bad enough, but the team’s expenses continued to rise despite the gate’s decline. So, the very first female principal owner of an NFL team decided to sell the team instead.

Cardinals to Texas?

The Cardinals were close to being sold to Lamar Hunt, who would later invent the AFL and start the Dallas Texans (who later became the Kansas City Chiefs). The Wolfners would not sell the club outright to Hunt but later agreed to sell him 20% of the franchise. However, as stated in the agreement, they would not relocate the team to Dallas as Hunt wanted. So, he passed on the offer. Instead, Hunt contacted those other men who also had tried to purchase the Cardinals and inquired to them about starting a new league. Thus began the AFL’s future.

Because of the AFL’s beginnings and the threat of a new league, the NFL owners were concerned that perhaps some of their franchises might leave their comfy confines and jump leagues. This happened in 1946 when the All-America Football Conference began as a new rival league and took away one franchise and almost nabbed a second. This time around, the NFL owners were concerned what may happen again.

Violet Bidwell-Wolfner

So, when Bidwell-Wolfner asked for another relocation to St. Louis, this time the answer was yes with two stipulations: 1) that they could get a stadium agreement with Busch Stadium, and 2) TV arrangements could be worked out. What also helped this relocation vote was the fact that there were rumors that the AFL had an interest in placing one of their charter franchises in St. Louis, so such a move now would certainly destroy those ambitions and give the elder league a foothold in that market.

The AFL would never have formed if the Cardinals had agreed to move the club to Dallas with Hunt as a minority owner. The Cardinals would later play another key role that would help drive the success of the AFL.

In 1965, the Cardinals took QB Joe Namath with the 12th pick in the first round of the college draft. Meanwhile, the AFL New York Jets selected Namath first overall in their league’s draft. The Cardinals were confident they could sign Namath and offered him the handsome sum of $200,000 for a three-year deal. The Jets came out and initially offered him $300,000 and eventually signed Namath to a three-year contract worth $427,000. At the time, this was the richest contract in pro football history and would open the checkbooks for future players in both leagues.

The Namath-led Jets were the first AFL club to defeat the NFL’s best In Super Bowl III and helped the younger coalition solidify its position as an equal league. It has been speculated that if the Cards had been able to sign Namath, perhaps the merger in 1970 might not have happened.

After the Cardinals had relocated to St. Louis, there was a minor effort to rename the club to avoid confusion since the city already had the baseball Cardinals. In the 28 years the club called St. Louis home, the team would win only two division titles, play in three playoff games (all losses) and finish a mere three seasons with 10 or more victories.

Off to the Desert

The fan base in St. Louis was tired of the same ole Cardinals and their losing ways. Attendance waned as the losses piled up each year. When Violet Bidwell-Wolfner passed away in 1962, the team became the property of her two sons, Charles, Jr. and Bill Bidwell. In 1964, the club looked at moving to Atlanta. Bill finally bought out his brother in 1972 and became sole owner. The fan base had grown very disenchanted with ownership and the decisions being made every year without any positive results. Plus, the Bidwell family didn't seem to provide much hope or love for a city dying to give it back.

Meanwhile, the City of Phoenix approached Bill Bidwell about the possibility of a relocation of the Cardinals. Phoenix officials had once thought they had the Baltimore Colts in the mid-1980s and were in serious contention for an AFL expansion franchise before the merger was announced. Civic leaders still had aspirations of attracting pro football to the desert. For years, Bidwell had wanted a new venue to replace aging Busch Stadium, which only housed 60,000 fans for football, but all efforts became dead ends.

Phoenix was offering a state-of-the-art stadium which would house 20,000 more paying patrons, tax incentives, plus $2.5 million in untapped annual revenue because of the new stadium’s luxury sky boxes.

At the owner’s meeting in 1988, they voted 26-0 (with two abstentions) in favor of the relocation and thus became the “Phoenix Cardinals.” They played their home games at the 70,491-seat Sun Devil Stadium in nearby Tempe, Arizona while their new digs were being built. In 1994, the franchise once again had a name change and became the “Arizona Cardinals” to more represent the fan base across the entire state.

In 2005, the Cardinals became the first NFL club to play a regular season game outside the confines of the United States border with a 31-14 defeat of the San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City in front of 103,467 new fans of the NFL game.

A Sterling new stadium

The Cardinals moved into the $455 million University of Phoenix stadium in 2006, located in Glendale, Arizona. The stadium can max out to 78,600 fans and has over 14,000 onsite parking spaces. This impressive venue has hosted two Super Bowls, one Pro Bowl, a NCAA final four plus a BCS National Championship Game, a Gold Cup, and is home to the Fiesta Bowl.

In 2008, the Cardinals won the NFC West division and then defeated the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and Eagles in playoff games to propel them into Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Leading in the final moments of the championship game, a late Steelers TD stole the Cards’ chance at their first Super Bowl victory and third franchise title.

The National Football League was fashioned in 1920. The Cardinals, however, were formed 25 years earlier.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association