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Dan Daly: The Cardinals’ first flight
The ascension of the Arizona Cardinals to the NFC championship game has the pro football world gasping for air. For one thing, the Cardinals posted a modest 9-7 record during the regular season in the conference’s weakest division. For another, they’re the Cardinals.
In their first 40 years in the NFL, the Cards lost games and money with stupefying regularity. In the flush years since, they’ve been content merely to lose games. They’ve changed towns twice, hopscotching from Chicago to St. Louis to Phoenix (their stadium is now located in suburban Glendale), and changed coaches much more than twice - as Joe Bugel can tell you. But nothing has succeeded in changing their fortunes. At least, not for very long.
Every six decades or so, though, every franchise deserves a moment in the sun. And it just so happens that a little over 60 years ago, the Cardinals made their biggest postseason splash. They played in back-to-back NFL title games in 1947 and ‘48 and, hard as it is to believe, actually won the first one.
But then, these weren’t the bumbling Cardinals of Bill Bidwill. These were the dashing, crowd-pleasing Cardinals of Jimmy Conzelman, a coach who might be described as the John Madden of the ‘40s… only more erudite. These were the Cardinals of the “Dream Backfield” of Paul Christman, Charley Trippi, Pat Harder and Elmer Angsman - the middle two now ensconced in the Hall of Fame. How dreamy was the “Dream Backfield”? Well, in ‘48 the Cards dropped 63 points on the New York Giants, and then the next year they dropped 65 on the New York Bulldogs.
Back then, everybody wanted to see the Cardinals play. When the club went to Los Angeles in ‘47 to take on the Rams, 69,631 packed the Coliseum, a league record at the time. As Buster Ramsey, an All-Pro guard for the Cardinals, told me once: “Our whole team in the late ‘40s was made up of all-stars. If you had guys on a team now that we had on our ‘47 team, you couldn’t quit talking about ‘em.”
It was also, Ramsey readily admitted, “kind of a screwy outfit, to put it mildly.” It began with the owner, Charley Bidwill - Bill’s adoptive father - a millionaire who owned racetracks, dog tracks and a company that printed most of the parimutuel tickets in the country and who may even have had dealings with Al Capone.
“You’d walk into his office at the printing company,” said another Cardinals player from that period, Jack Doolan, “and there’d be two guys sitting there reading the newspaper. As you walked in they’d roll the paper down and look you over and then raise it up again. We sweared to God they were his triggermen. Charley said he could get any man he wanted knocked off for 50 bucks.”
Then there was the quarterback, Christman, possessor of a quirky sidearm delivery and oversized feet. As he walked to the line of scrimmage, he would remind his linemen, “Watch the pups!” - that is, don’t step on his toes. Which would have been fine, said end Bob Dove, another player from those teams, except that “it tipped the defense that one of the guards was going to pull.”
Trippi, meanwhile, the club’s top running back and most celebrated player, had unusually skinny legs. His teammates were always kidding him about them, bringing an air pump into the locker room and saying, “Here, Charley, let me blow those up for you.”
It was quite a collection of characters, all right. (Did I mention that the wife of 300-pound tackle Joe Coomer smoked cigars?) And presiding over the bunch was the biggest character of them all, Conzelman.
Jimmy’s gift of gab made him the darling of the press. Somebody would ask him about an upcoming game against the Bears, and he would reply: “Why, we know we’re outclassed. There’s no use trying to kid ourselves we belong on the same field. So we do the next-best thing. We just get together and when I give the word, we all hate [George] Halas to pieces for having such a wonderful team. And then we lower our heads and pray that Sunday never comes.”
Conzelman, a fine back in the NFL’s early years, had previously served as a player-coach for several clubs, including the 1928 champion Providence Steam Roller. He even briefly owned the Detroit franchise but returned it to the league before someone put a lien on his shoulder pads. A coaching job at his alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, followed, and then he tried pro football again in 1940 with the Cardinals.
All along, he honed his public speaking skills until he became the most sought-after toastmaster in the land. He also continued dabbling in his many other passions - the ukulele, honky-tonk piano, song writing, acting, journalism (print and radio), cigarettes and Coca-Colas.
“He’d REALLY inhale,” said Chet Bulger, a tackle on those Cardinals teams. “It was something else. He would leave cigarettes burning all over the place. … His wife never gave him any money, because he’d put that big paw in his pocket and the darn dollar bills would fall out. It was kind of a joke: You follow Jimmy around, you’d get rich.”
Conzelman’s first few Cardinals clubs were pretty awful. It was during this stretch, it seems, that a friend said to him: “Jimmy, you can’t coach, and you can’t write. Do you know what you ought to do?”
About the Author
Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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