Kurt Warner and the Curse of the Cardinals (Part 2)

The Cardinals are the oldest NFL franchise, as the club’s origins can be traced back to 1898 and the Morgan Athletic Club of Chicago. The franchise nickname came about when founder Chris O’Brien bought used jerseys for his team from the University of Chicago. The jerseys, a maroon color when new, were faded to what O’Brien called “Cardinal red”. In 1906, the club disbanded; it would re-form in 1913. It would briefly suspend operations due to World War I (and the great flu epidemic of 1918), but by 1919 it was back and in 1920, O’Brien paid the $100 entrance fee to join what would eventually become the National Football League. Initially, the team was known as the Racine Cardinals, after the street where the club was based, Racine Avenue (the club had also been known as the Normals, for Normal Park in Chicago). However, a franchise in Racine, Wisconsin, joined the NFL as well, so the team became the Chicago Cardinals. The Cardinals and the Chicago Bears are the NFL’s two “original” franchises (the Green Bay Packers joined the league in 1921).

In 1921, O’Brien signed the great John “Paddy” Driscoll to the team for $300 per game, three times what he paid to enter the league. Driscoll was a do-everything sort of player (who also coached the team). The club played its home games at Comiskey Park throughout its time in Chicago, except for a brief three-year period in the mid-1920s.

In 1925, the Cardinals were fighting for the NFL championship. At that time, there was no playoff; the team with the best record in the regular season was acknowledged as the champion. The Cardinals were 9-1-1 when they played the Pottsville Maroons on December 6. The Maroons were 8-2 and the game would almost certainly decide the champion. Pottsville upset the Cardinals at Comiskey, 21-7.

The Cardinals had completed their regularly scheduled games, but in those days schedules were, shall we say, flexible, and the team quickly scheduled two extra games. The Cardinals weren’t as much interested in winning the league just for its own sake as they were getting a guaranteed game against Red Grange and the Chicago Bears (which would have been an option for them based on existing contracts and would have been a financial bonanza). O’Brien had trouble finding teams that had not already disbanded for the season, but he managed to get a game with the Hammond Pros, which fielded a decent team, losing to the Cardinals 13-0.

It would be the game against the Milwaukee Badgers that would cause the Cardinals no end of grief. Milwaukee didn’t have nearly enough players available to field a team, so one of the Cardinal players, Art Folz, recruited some kids from a local Chicago high school to join the Badgers for the game, telling them it was a ‘practice game’ and wouldn’t affect their amateur status. The Cardinals won 59-0 in a game so farcical that O’Brien decided not to charge admission. According to a local newspaper, “Touch football would have seemed rough compared to the exhibition staged.”

NFL president Joe Carr would force the Badgers out of the league and also fined the Cardinals $1000, putting O’Brien on probation for a year. He ordered the game stricken from league records, and Folz was banned for life from the league.

Meanwhile, Pottsville had taken advantage of consecutive wins over the Frankford Yellowjackets and Cardinals to lay claim to the NFL title, setting up a big-money game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia with a team of Notre Dame All-Stars. This was a game originally set up by the Frankford owner, who at the time had anticipated his own squad playing in the game. In an effort to stop Pottsville from playing in the game, he asserted that territorial rights gave his club and only his club the right to play at Shibe. Pottsville played the game anyway (winning 9-7), noting that the territorial rights were not in writing. It didn’t matter. Carr suspended Pottsville, voiding its title. However, O’Brien apparently agreed not to claim the championship for his own club, based on its own irregularities, and in return for this the Cardinals did not have to pay the $1000 fine handed down by Carr. Basically, there was no 1925 NFL champion. If there had been, it realistically would have had to have been Pottsville, which won fair and square on the field.

O’Brien would sell the team in 1929 to a doctor named David Jones. In 1932, Jones sold the team to Charles Bidwill Sr., for $50,000, and the franchise has been in the Bidwill family ever since.

Charles Bidwill was, according to author Dan Moldea, “a bootlegger, gambler, racetrack owner, and associate of the Capone mob.” Nice. Of course, lots of NFL owners back then had connections to gambling, including Tim Mara, Art Rooney Sr., and Bert Bell (who was also an NFL commissioner). The Rooney family still does (as do the Bidwills). Bidwill had been a minority owner of the Bears before buying the Cardinals. He owned the team for 15 years, until his death in 1947, and the team was, for almost all of those years, terrible, with records of 2-6-2, 1-9-1, 5-6, 6-4-2, 3-8-1, 5-5-1, 2-9, 1-10, 2-7-2, 3-7-1, 3-8, 0-10, 0-10, 1-9, and 6-5.

(That second 0-10 season actually came as part of a ‘combo’ team, as the Steelers and Cardinals played as one team that year due to travel restrictions brought about by World War II. It was called Card-Pitt — or, more sarcastically, “Car-Pet”.)

Just before he died, though, Bidwill had signed collegiate star Charley Trippi for $100,000. Led by Trippi, the Cardinals would go 9-3 during the 1947 regular season and then beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 28-21, at Comiskey Park to win the NFL championship. That game is the only home postseason contest in Cardinals history. The Cardinals would lose to the Eagles the following season in a title-game rematch. The franchise has not managed to reach even a conference championship final since. Following those great years, however, the Cardinals would soon resume their losing ways, all under Charles Bidwill’s widow, Violet, having losing records in nine of ten seasons before eventually relocating.

Violet Bidwill Wolfner (she had remarried) moved the Cardinals to St. Louis in time for the 1960 season. Even though there was already a baseball team in St. Louis called the Cardinals, the NFL Cardinals elected to retain the franchise nickname, thus leading to the team being known as the “Football Cardinals” around town. (That’s also how receptionists for the NFL club answered the telephone.) After the 1961 season, Mrs. Wolfner died, and the club was left to Charles “Stormy” Bidwill Jr. and William “Bill” Bidwill. I have not been able to get confirmation, but apparently her will was contested by her second husband. During the fight over the family fortune, the Bidwill brothers found out for the first time that they had been adopted.

The Cardinals actually were competitive for a few years in the 1960s, just missing out of the playoffs on a couple of occasions. During this time, however, the two brothers could not agree on how to divide authority. Stormy Bidwill elected to take control of the family’s gambling interests, and ceded control of the Cardinals to his brother Bill. Some observers have suggested that the wrong brother wound up with the Cardinals.

The Cardinals have been almost uniformly bad ever since Bill Bidwill ascended to the top, other than a period in the mid-1970s when Don Coryell coached the team. Even then, the Cardinals were unable to win a playoff game in two postseason appearances. In 1982 the Cardinals made a 16-team playoff “tournament” following a players’ strike that reduced the regular season to nine games, but lost in the first round. In 1984 the Cardinals had one of the all-time great offenses, featuring Neil Lomax, Ottis Anderson, Roy Green, and Stump Mitchell, but somehow managed to miss the playoffs, going 9-7 and losing the last game of the season to the Redskins when a last-second field goal attempt went awry. The Cardinals would finally make the playoffs again in 1998, actually winning a game at Dallas, before losing to Minnesota. Since then the Cardinals have not had a winning season. In fact, that 1998 season (in which the Cardinals were 9-7) is the only winning season the franchise has had since 1984.

Oh yes, about the curse: remember all the controversy and goings-on in 1925? Well, soon after Charles Bidwill Sr. bought the club, the Cardinals began claiming that NFL title for that year as their own (although the official NFL record book would state the Cardinals had been “proclaimed” the ’25 champs until the 1985 edition, when it began listing them as official champions). Pottsville and its supporters have fought for their claim to the crown for decades, but the NFL owners have twice by vote refused to acknowledge the merits of their claim, first in 1963 and again in 2003. This was due to the influence of Bill Bidwill, who has zealously guarded the title designation for his club, basically because other than 1947, it’s all the Cardinals have – and, say those who believe in the curse, it’s all the Cardinals will ever have. It’s not like the Cardinals have come close since winning the ’47 title, either, with only five playoff appearances in the last 60 years, and that one solitary playoff victory.

Myself, I doubt the Cardinals are cursed. I think it’s more a case of the Bidwills being cheap (as opposed to thrifty) and not really caring much about winning, not as long as the cash cow known as the NFL keeps pumping out milk.

That’s the franchise for which Kurt Warner plays. It’s a tough burden. The Cardinals’ entire history is rotten, but one winning season in the last 23 years? It’s not impossible to lead the Cardinals to the playoffs – after all, Jake Plummer did it – but it’s not quite the same thing as stepping behind center for the Cowboys, either. Not by a long shot.

I think having success with the Cardinals could push Kurt Warner’s Hall of Fame candidacy over the top, even with his relatively short run of greatness, because it would be an almost unique chip to have. He would be a Super Bowl MVP and a two-time league MVP with a great story (from the Arena Football League to the National Football League, from stockboy to Super Bowl champ) AND he would have topped it off by leading the hapless Cardinals to glory.

Since it’s the Cardinals, though, good chance it never happens…

A good portion of the information about the 1925 NFL season comes from David Fleming’s book about the Pottsville Maroons, Breaker Boys.

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