“You ought to write books for small children on how to play football. Your readers would be too young to know that you can’t coach and too dumb to know you can’t write.”
Jimmy liked to tell that story on himself at banquets. His self-deprecation also served him well with his players. Not that he didn’t know his X’s and O’s.
“Everybody thinks of Jimmy as a comedian, and so do I,” Christman said. “But I also know Jim as an imaginative offensive coach and a man who could do two great things for a ballclub - keep the morale on a high plane and key a team for a particular game better than anyone I know.”
Which brings us to the ‘47 title game. The Cardinals endured a couple of major jolts that year. The first came in April, when Bidwill died suddenly at 51 and left the club to his widow, Violet. Vi wasn’t as disposed to lavish money on the team the way Charley was.
Then, six games into the season, the Cards’ rookie punter, Jeff Burkett, died in a plane crash. He’d had to have his appendix removed while in Los Angeles for a game and decided to fly back to Chicago instead of taking the train. The DC-6 he was on went down in Utah, claiming 52 lives.
Heartbreak paid another call on the Cardinals all too soon. After the season opener the next year, tackle Stan Mauldin died in the locker room of a heart attack as his teammates looked on in shock and sorrow. Any of these deaths could have derailed the Cards, but they were a tough bunch - and Conzelman handled things just right.
“Most of us had been in the service and had seen guys die,” Doolan said. “We’d been hardened that way by life, more or less. So we picked ourselves right back up. And that was on account of Jimmy, to tell you the truth, the way he consoled everybody. He talked with such tenderness about it.”
The ‘47 championship game against the Eagles at Comiskey Park was a frigid affair. Conzelman, exploiting his home-field advantage to the fullest, is suspected of leaving the tarp off the field so it would freeze - figuring the slippery footing would undermine Philadelphia’s power approach. The Cardinals, shod in sneakers, scored touchdowns of 44, 70, 75 and 70 yards and won 28-21.
The following year the two clubs met again for the title, but this time a blanket of snow undid the Cards, who lost 7-0 because of a late fumble. Conditions were so poor that the game was almost postponed for a week, but “it was the week before Christmas,” said Mal Kutner, the team’s leading receiver, “and most of us had kids and everything. We’d already checked out of our [in-season] quarters in Chicago because most of us were going home after the game. We would have had to go back to Chicago, find a place to stay for a week and then come back again. So we voted, ‘To hell with it. Let’s get it over with.’ But I think that’s the worst weather I’ve ever seen a game played in.”
Thus ended the Cardinals’ dreams of a dynasty. Even before the game, there were signs the organization was teetering. A fellow named Walter Wolfner, a businessman from St. Louis, had begun courting Vi Bidwill and became involved in the management of the team. (They married in 1949.) Wolfner, very bottom-line conscious, couldn’t even get along with the easygoing Conzelman.
They had a big blowup toward the end of the season. Depending on whom you talk to, Jimmy had to be restrained from throwing Wolfner (a) off a train going 70 mph or (b) out a hotel window. (Seems Walter tried to save money on a road trip by making the players wait several hours to check into their rooms after arriving in the morning.)
Conzelman left the club after the season and went into advertising. Despite numerous offers, he never returned to the sideline. Soon enough, the Cardinals were back to being the Cardinals. In the 1950 opener, their quarterback, Jim Hardy, threw eight interceptions and committed 10 turnovers. Both are still records. The next year the Cards finished last in their conference. Two years after that they managed a single victory.
And now here they are, facing the Eagles again in their biggest game in 60 years. This much appears certain: They’ll have to win it on their own. Leaving the field uncovered in the Arizona desert likely won’t help them much.