March 13, 2014

1960: NFL Approves Move of Cards from Chicago to St. Louis

On the evening of March 13, 1960 the NFL approved the transfer of the Chicago Cardinals franchise to St. Louis. The owners agreed to the move upon two conditions. First, a satisfactory lease agreement had to be worked out with Busch Stadium, which was owned by the major league baseball Cardinals, as well as arrangements for television coverage (as anticipated, these were not problematic conditions. A new stadium, which would come to be Busch Memorial Stadium, was in the planning stages and was finally available in 1966).

The team’s managing director, Walter Wolfner, strongly denied that a move was imminent right up to the day of the vote. He indicated afterward that the league had unexpectedly agreed to meet certain conditions that made the franchise shift possible.

The NFL agreed to pay the team $500,000 to help defray the costs of the relocation, which included paying off the lease for use of Soldier Field. The Bears were especially willing to assist with the cost in anticipation of increased revenue due to the freeing up of the Chicago territory.

While sentimentalists were sorry to see the move of the league’s oldest franchise, which had such long ties to the Windy City, the club had long played second fiddle to the more successful Bears.

The Cardinals had Chicago roots dating back to 1898, when they began life as an amateur community team called the Morgan Athletic Club. From there they became the Racine Normals, due to their venue being Normal Field on Racine Avenue, and then the Racine Cardinals after obtaining a supply of faded maroon jerseys from the University of Chicago. The team disbanded and reorganized on two occasions and joined the fledgling NFL (then the American Professional Football Association) in 1920, quickly becoming known as the Chicago Cardinals.

While the Cardinals had sporadic success, winning NFL titles in 1925 and ’47, for the most part they quickly fell behind the rival Bears, who won far more regularly. The club was bought by Charles W. Bidwill in 1933, and by the late 40s he had begun to assemble a winning squad that featured the “Million-Dollar Backfield” of QB Paul Christman, FB Pat Harder, and halfbacks Charley Trippi and Elmer Angsman. But he died before the championship-winning season in 1947 and his widow, Violet, married businessman Walter Wolfner two years later, who became managing director in 1951.

Organizationally, the Cards floundered in the 1950s, putting together just one winning season. Attendance was poor and not helped by the move from Comiskey Park to Soldier Field in 1959, also playing two games in Bloomington, Minnesota, a potential NFL market (the Vikings arrived on the scene in 1961). The Wolfners turned down suitors willing to buy the franchise (two of whom, Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, went on to found the American Football League), but they were losing money. With a study showing that St. Louis was a viable candidate to field a NFL team, the decision was made to relocate. Additionally, a St. Louis brewer named Joe Griesedieck bought a ten percent interest in the club.

The team’s fortunes immediately improved on the field. After having finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 2-10 record in 1959, the Cardinals were 6-5-1 in their first St. Louis season. They were the NFL’s top rushing team, with star HB John David Crow leading the way with 1071 yards and second-year split end Sonny Randle led the league with 15 receiving touchdowns among his 62 catches. The defense was greatly improved and included DE Leo Sugar, DT Frank Fuller, plus an established star safety in Jerry Norton, who was also an excellent punter, and Larry Wilson, a rookie who would go on to a Hall of Fame career, in the other spot.

Violet Wolfner died in 1962 and a legal battle ensued between her sons from her marriage to Charles Bidwill, Charles W. Jr. (aka Stormy) and Bill, and the pugnacious Wolfner who contested the will leaving the bulk of her estate – including the majority ownership in the Cardinals – to the brothers. The nasty legal battle was finally settled out of court. Stormy ran the team until selling his interest to Bill in 1972.

Meanwhile, on the field there was difficulty at quarterback, and the acquisition of 31-year-old Sam Etcheverry, a legendary player in Canada, failed to resolve the issue when it was found that his arm was worn out. However, in 1962 a promising young quarterback from New Mexico State named Charley Johnson took over and, in 1963 and ’64, the Cards exhibited a productive offense and contended in the Eastern Conference. Randle, in combination with flanker Bobby Joe Conrad, continued to excel and the offensive backfield was deep enough to withstand injuries. Wally Lemm had been grabbed away from the AFL’s Houston Oilers in ’62 to become the head coach, with encouraging results.

However, the Cardinals failed to break through to the postseason. The team would not do so until 1974, under offensive-minded Head Coach Don Coryell, but he left after five years and two non-winning postseason appearances, frustrated by the team’s continued organizational failings under Bill Bidwill.

Ultimately, the relocation to St. Louis that began with such promise of success soured badly. Bidwill chose to be his own general manager, too often with unfortunate results. Along with some notable highly-drafted busts such as QB Steve Pisarkiewicz, WR Clyde Duncan, and kicker Steve Little, there were plenty of talented players along the way. In addition to those named previously, notable among them on offense were quarterbacks Jim Hart and Neil Lomax, running backs Terry Metcalf and Ottis Anderson, wide receivers Mel Gray, Pat Tilley, Roy Green, and J.T. Smith, linemen Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler, Bob DeMarco, and Tom Banks and, on defense, linebackers Dale Meinert, Larry Stallings, and E.J. Junior and backs Pat Fischer and Roger Wehrli. Jim Bakken was a standout placekicker for many years and Vai Sikahema a notable kick returner. But the team underachieved far too often, and attendance fell until the franchise shifted again, this time moving to Phoenix in 1988. The overall record over the course of 28 years in the Gateway City was 187-202-13 and 0-3 in the postseason.