Nov 25, 2019
Author and unwitting pro football historian Joe Ziemba (When Football Was Football: The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL) help us set the record straight on the often-misunderstood history of the first incarnation of pro football’s oldest continuous club – now know as the Arizona Cardinals.
Arguably the least successful franchise in National Football League history, the Chicago version of the Cardinals originated years before the start of the NFL (née American Professional Football Association) as the Morgan Athletic Club – a dominant entry in Chicago’s fledgling amateur football leagues owned by house painter/plumber/visionary Chris O’Brien.
In 1920, O’Brien’s club ponied up $100 to become a charter member of the APFA, quickly developing a pointed rivalry with a fellow founding franchise called the Decatur Staleys – soon to become the cross-town Chicago Bears two years later.
Despite technically winning its first NFL championship in 1925 (controversially declared by Commissioner Joe Carr after the season-dominating Pottsville [PA] Maroons played an unauthorized post-season game against collegiate powerhouse Notre Dame), and eventual new ownership (Bears VP Charley Bidwill bought the Depression-challenged club in 1932) – the Cardinals played consistently losing football through the end of World War II, and often in the shadow of the more popular and successful Bears to the north.
Aside from some short-lived success in 1947 (winning its second [or first?] league championship under coach James Conzelman and a vaunted “Million Dollar Backfield” of stars Paul Christman, Pat Harder, Elmer Angsman, and Charley Trippi), and in 1948 (losing a close final to Philadelphia is a driving snowstorm) – the Chicago Cardinals were regular laughingstocks of the NFL. The Bidwill family’s tightfisted finances yielded reliably uncompetitive teams – known more for comically slapstick play and regularly sparse crowds than quality football.
After rebuffing an offer to sell the team by entrepreneurial pro football aspirant Lamar Hunt, the Bidwills deserted the Windy City in favor of St. Louis after the 1959 season.