The Arizona Cardinals are the oldest pro football team in America, and while they may not have dominated the gridiron over their long history, they have had a great influence in shaping the league as it exists today.
The team traces its roots back to 1898 and has operated continuously since 1918, two years before the establishment of the National Football League (NFL). Founded in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association (APFA), the league changed its name in 1922. Only the Cardinals and the Decatur Staleys (established in 1919 and now known as the Chicago Bears), remain from the league’s inaugural 14-team line-up.
The Chicago Cardinals played their home games at Normal Park in 1920 and 1921 before moving to the larger Comiskey Park. In 1926, they moved back to Normal Park for two seasons then headed back to Comiskey in 1929. From 1931 to 1938, they were roommates with the Bears at Wrigley Field. In 1939, it was back to the Southside and the cozy confines of Comiskey Park.
The Cards experienced moderate success in Chicago, winning the league title in 1925. At the time, the champion was crowned based on the best record as a playoff system wasn’t created until 1933. The Cardinals won the championship in 1947, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in the title game.
It was the crosstown Bears, though, who experienced great success both on the gridiron and at the box office. The Bears won the title in 1921 (as the Stayleys), 1932, 1940, 1943, and 1946. During that stretch, the Bears consistently fielded competitive teams and easily outdrew the Cardinals. Indeed, the Cardinals had to merge with the also-struggling Pittsburgh Steelers for the 1944 season due to a lack of players brought on by World War II. That squad, known as Card-Pitt, finished 0 and 10. They played three of their home games at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and two at Comiskey Park. Oddly, the game against the Bears was played in Pittsburgh.
After the war, things seemed to be moving in the right direction for the Cards as they built a team that would capture the 1947 title. However, the team still couldn’t get more fans into the stands than the Bears, a problem exacerbated by the arrival of a third team in the Windy City, the Rockets (later Hornets) of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). Playing four seasons at Soldier Field on the lakefront, the new team had better attendance than the Cards, though that only lasted a season. By 1950, the rival league was gone. The NFL absorbed three of that circuit’s teams, leaving the country with one pro football league.
The Cards muddled through the ‘50s as the second team in America’s Second City. The Bidwell family, who had owned the team since 1932, were looking for greener pastures and even sought outside investors. One interested party came in the form of Lamar Hunt, the son of a Texas oil tycoon. He wanted to buy the Cardinals and move them to Dallas. However, the Bidwells wanted to retain controlling interest in the team, and so the two sides couldn’t agree to a deal. Houston oilman Bud Adams met the same fate, as did Denver’s Bob Howsman, and as Max Winter from Minneapolis.
The Bidwells then looked into moving the team without any outside investors. Even though they had rejected on offer from Winter, the Cards played two games in Minneapolis in 1959 but failed to see any improvement in attendance over their games in Comiskey Park. They then eyed St. Louis. The NFL wanted a large sum of money to permit the transfer of the team, cash the Bidwells did not have.
Meanwhile, the rejected bidders who had tried to bring the Cardinals to Dallas, Houston, Denver, and Minneapolis, decided to form a separate league. The American Football League (AFL) was formed in the spring of 1959 and first didn’t seem to worry the NFL, who had dispatched their previous competitors, the AAFC, in 1949 after just four seasons.
By the spring of 1960, though, the threat looked pretty serious, and the NFL relented, letting the Bidwells move to St. Louis mainly to keep the AFL out of that market. The baseball Cardinals, who had been in town since the late 19th century, permitted the football team to share the nickname. Yet, St. Louis didn’t embrace the new football team despite a 6-5-1 record in 1960, the team’s first winning record since 1956.
They almost bolted for Atlanta, where a new stadium was under construction but stayed in St. Louis when a new stadium there was announced. Still, the Cardinals struggled. While they had several winning seasons, they narrowly missed the playoffs several times. It wasn’t until 1974 that they finally returned the postseason, where they lost in the first round. That story was repeated in 1975. Their only other playoff appearance was in the strike-shortened 1982 season in which almost every team made the postseason as part of a 16-team tournament.
Poor play on the field, and dwindling attendance in aging Busch Stadium, prompted the Bidwells to again look for a new home for the Cardinals in 1987. The leading candidate was Baltimore, who had lost the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984. Jacksonville was also considered, as was Memphis. It was Phoenix that won out with the news announced on March 15, 1988.
In the early 1990s, St. Louis was one of the cities bidding for two expansion teams to be awarded by the NFL in 1994. The proposed St. Louis Stallions would play in Busch Stadium while a new domed stadium was built. However, the city was passed over in favor of Charlotte, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida. The Stallions nickname was given by the NFL to the Canadian Football League’s Baltimore franchise, which tried calling itself the Colts, to settle a lawsuit.
The heartbreak was brief, though, as the NFL returned to St. Louis in 1995 when the Rams left Los Angeles for Missouri. However, in 2015, they returned to L.A. On the bright side, during their tenure in St. Louis, the team was much more successful on the field than the Cardinals during their run in the Midwest. The St. Louis Rams made the postseason five times, winning Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.
Since moving to the desert, the Cardinals have made the playoffs five times, making it to the Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.