"A WORD ON THE ST. LOUIS FOOTBALL CARDINALS"
HELMET HUT NEWS/REFLECTIONS October 2012:
A Word On The ST. Louis Football Cardinals
By Dr. Ken
If there was one thing that surprised me about the St. Louis metropolitan area when I moved there in the late 1970’s, it was almost everything related to the St. Louis Cardinals of the National Football League. I had grown up in the New York City area so was obviously used to big city living. However, our home for many years and what I have always considered to be my home town, was one of Long Island’s more desolate areas. Ours was a beach community that served primarily as a “second home” enclave for those of means who lived within the confines of the five boroughs, or counties of New York City. Still officially designated as a hamlet, the 1200 full time residents who now reside in Point Lookout would no doubt be surprised that even at the start of the 1970’s, the full time occupancy of what had been primarily summer bungalows was approximately 400 hardy souls. My brother and I have discussed the fact that a serious blip on the New York Stock Exchange ticker could send one-third of the town’s multi-million dollar expanses that now take the place of the cramped two-bedroom homes lacking heat or hot water that we lived in, directly into fire sale mode. If one looked up the word “gentrification” in the dictionary, a photo of Point Lookout would well serve the definition as the 1980’s brought a face lift and change to a small town that had been home to hard working, blue collar people who looked to Our Lady Of The Miraculous Medal Church for worship, sports, weekend activities, and community services where there otherwise were none. Living as one of the few full time, year-round residents of Point Lookout where it was necessary to hitchhike or jog the few miles into the larger city of Long Beach in order to attend public school or a movie, allowed one to experience small town living while also being exposed to the bustling existence of life in the most dynamic and busiest city in the nation. This duality provided me with confidence when I was a young adult, that I could go any place, and quickly figure out how to best get along with the locals. St. Louis was a glaring exception because I just didn’t “get” the city.
As a football fan, I hoped that my sojourn to “The Gateway City” would provide an opportunity to enjoy an infrequent Cardinals game. In New York, as a number of my previous HELMET NEWS/REFLECTIONS columns noted, one could always attend a Titans game in the early days of the American Football League. Even into the 1970’s, Jets tickets would be available on game day though the team would quickly follow the path of the New York Giants who as early as the Huff-Robustelli Conference Championship years, already had a decades-long waiting list for season tickets. I knew that St. Louis would showcase much better high school football than the New York Metropolitan area, and the in-town Washington University Bears had enjoyed the coaching leadership of Weeb Ewbank and Dave Puddington, and remained an entertaining regional attraction. Assuming that the popularity of the city’s professional football team was similar to that of the Giants and Jets, I did not plan on getting into any of the Cardinals home games. I was in for a major surprise.
The St. Louis Cardinals explosive offense of the mid-to-late 1970’s was led by their superb offensive line. The iconic logo on both sides of the white helmet became associated with wide open, dependable offensive output, a far cry from the 1960’s when a solid defensive unit regularly outshone a maligned offense
The first shock came when exploring the “downtown” St. Louis area on my first Saturday in town. There were and are parts of New York City where the crowds on the sidewalk and in the stores or restaurants at 2 AM are more or less what they are during the height of any business day. There were and are sections of New York City where you do not walk if you are Caucasian or you do not enter if you are African-American. There were and are sections of the City you don’t go into if you are Hispanic. There were and are sections of New York City that are populated by Hispanics only, yet one would not voluntarily congregate there if they were from a specific Latin American country. I know that this same statement could be made about any large city in the nation, and it applies to all ethnic and racial groups. At noon time on a Saturday in August of 1977, the downtown streets of St. Louis, Missouri seemed to be uninhabited to the extent that no racial or ethnic group would be discriminated against. Literally no one was walking any of the streets. None of the businesses were open for the day and it was close to impossible to find a restaurant or luncheonette serving a meal. I had been in or through almost every major city in the United States as a long haul tractor trailer driver and had never seen a downtown area in the middle of a Saturday that seemed so devoid of human movement. The streets that surrounded Busch Stadium seemed dangerous and run down, yet just as empty as the rest of downtown. If ever a tableau existed for a George Romero movie setting, downtown St. Louis could have served well with little production company preparation.
When the football season began, the Cardinals hosted the Chicago Bears for their first home game of the season on September 25, and it surprised me that they did not sell out the stadium. Perhaps, I thought, the downtown and stadium area was “off limits” for reasons I just didn’t know about. I took a chance on October 9 and showed up at the ticket window for the tilt against the Dallas Cowboys. Any Cowboys visit to New York would have been a sellout, even if the stadium wasn’t already sold out for twenty-five years down the road. The Jets vs. Cowboys would have had scalpers doing the fandango around the perimeter of Shea Stadium but in St. Louis, the Cardinals hosting “America’s Team,” despite an announced attendance of near capacity 50,129 had many pockets of empty, unsold seats. I was rather amazed that I could buy a ticket at the stadium window on game day that placed me comfortably at the thirty yard line while paying face value. Unfortunately, it was this rather ho-hum support of the local team, despite a number of solid seasons under head coach Don Coryell, which eventually led the Bidwell family to move their franchise to Arizona for the 1988 season.
This situation was tragic. The Cardinals of the mid-1970’s were a solid, respectable team and often quite good. They boasted one of the best offensive lines in professional football with tackle Dan Dierdorf already recognized as a future Hall of Famer after seven NFL seasons. Conrad Dobler was known for what the media described as his dirty play, and the offense had exceptional explosive potential. I had a soft spot for the Cardinals for exactly the opposite reason. As my interest in professional football grew from the late 1950’s and into the mid-sixties, I was often attracted to the underdogs and the Cardinals were one of the teams that usually displayed potential, but could never seem to quite live up to it. I was also attracted to the simplicity of their uniforms; plain white helmets prior to their arrival in St. Louis, and then the adornment of the immediately recognizable Cardinal on both sides of the shell after the opening game of the 1960 season. Throughout our expanded neighborhood of Point Lookout, Lido Beach, and Long Beach, just as it was within the boundaries of New York City, tackle football was popular and played on the concrete or blacktopped streets, parks, or backyards in those areas that actually had yards where often, more than one thousand individuals would reside within a two block area. In our neighborhood, the Richard Landsman backyard was “the place” for tackle football and as young uniform-crazy football fanatics, much time was spent decorating our helmets to mimic the teams we most admired. In previous HELMET HUT columns I chronicled our fascination with Pete Dawkins and The Black Knights of Army, utilizing available spray paint and electrical tape to produce our own version of West Point helmets. My brother came up with a facsimile of Auburn’s blue and orange striping on his white shell but I cannot recall one of our many participants ever expressing a desire to wear “a Cardinals helmet.” Any “all white helmet” would make our group think “Forty Niners!” not Cardinals. Yet the red jerseys with white numerals while “simple” to some uniform fans, seemed very much “to the point” and quite attractive with its absence of striping. “Understated” seemed like an appropriate description.