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January 16, 1988: Cardinals on the Move

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After 27 seasons in the Gateway to the West, the St. Louis Cardinals announced plans to move to Phoenix, becoming the first NFL franchise to play in three different cities. The Cardinals are the oldest franchise in the NFL, with roots dating back to 1898. However, they struggled in the shadow of the Bears in Chicago and moved to St. Louis in 1960. By 1987, after years of mediocrity, attendance dwindles, leaving owner Bill Bidwell no option but to relocate to a new market.

The roots of the Cardinals date back to 1898 when the Morgan Athletic Club began paying football players to compete on the South Side of Chicago, two decades before the NFL played their first game. The team later played their game at Normal Park on Racine Avenue, while there they took the name Racine Cardinals due to their red uniforms. The team disbanded in 1906 and reformed in 1913. After shutting down for a year due to the flu pandemic in 1918, the Cardinals were among a group of local teams invited to join the American Professional Football Association in 1920. The APFA would later become the National Football League.

In their first season in the APFA, the Cardinals 6-2-2, splitting a pair of games with the Decatur Staleys, who a year later moved to the Window City and became the Bears. Run by George Halas, the Bears became one of the top teams in the new league as they played at Wrigley Field. The Cardinals meanwhile moved into Comiskey Park, trying to win over Southside fans of the Chicago White Sox. In 1925, the Cardinals won a controversial championship. However, they began to lose the battle for Chicago, as the Bears signed Red Grange and embarked on a successful barnstorming tour that made them the most famous team in professional football.

Over the next 25 years, the Bears dominated the city of Chicago, as the Cardinals often were an afterthought, as they posted just two winning seasons over the next two decades. In 1932, the Cardinals were purchased by Charles Bidwell, a former Vice President of the Bears, who never aggressively fought for the city’s fanbase. In 1944, as the Bears were battling for championships, the Cardinals were scrapped for players, forcing a one-year merger with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The combined team, as called Card-Pitt might as well have been carpet as they went 0-10 for the second straight season.

Charles Bidwell died in 1947, turning the team over to his wife Violet, who became the first woman to own an NFL team. Violet’s Cardinals would go on to win the NFL Championship in 1947 with the “Million Dollar Backfield,” which included Paul Christman, Pat Harder, Marshall Goldberg, and Charley Trippi. The Cardinals returned to the NFL Championship but lost in a blizzard in Philadelphia. The Cardinals again faded over the next ten years. As television helped usher in more fans, the Cardinals increasingly were falling behind the Bears in popularity, leading to the decision to move to St. Louis in 1960.

There already was the baseball Cardinals in the city of St. Louis, when the NFL Cardinals arrived. Fans in St. Louis often referred to the team as “Big Red.” The Cardinals had played well in their first seasons in St. Louis but never won enough games to win their conference, often finishing second or third. In 1962, Bill Bidwell took over when his mother passed away, keeping the team in the same family. The Cardinals got a new stadium in 1965 with the opening of Busch Stadium. However, like all cookie-cutter multipurpose stadiums, the venue was not good for either baseball or football. In 1974, the Cardinals finally made the playoffs but lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round a year later they were beaten by the Los Angeles Rams. They would not make the playoffs again until 1982 when they were beaten in the first round by the Green Bay Packers. In none of their three appearances did the St. Louis Cardinals play a home playoff game.

With apathetic fans not supporting the team, Bill Bidwell decided to move to Phoenix, following a 7-8 record in 1987. The Cardinals chose Phoenix over Baltimore and Jacksonville with the promise of a new stadium awaiting them in the desert. However, due to the “Savings and Loan crisis,” plans for a new stadium were put on hold in Phoenix. In 1994, the Phoenix Cardinals became the Arizona Cardinals after a poll showed that fans preferred the name, as they were playing their games at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe at the time. The Cardinals finally got their own stadium in 2006, after Bill Bidwell began making rumblings of another move after years of lobbying for a new home.