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.


The 5’9”, 170 pound “bantam rooster” defensive back Pat Fischer spent the first seven seasons of his seventeen year pro career with the Cardinals. A key member of their often effective defense, Pat and his teammates believed he was unfairly singled out as a cause for the Cardinals’ late season slump in 1967, adding to the team’s dissension. The understated jersey and helmet of the Cardinals became a personal favorite of the author    



 In my first years of being swallowed up by pro football, where memorizing the height, weight, college, and yearly statistics of every player in the league was standard prior to the opening day kickoffs, I looked at those Cardinals teams and even as a neophyte, thought, “They could be okay.” By season’s end, I almost always thought, “They should have been much better.” They rarely were as the 3 – 9, 2 – 9 – 1, and 2 – 10 records of the 1957 through ’59 seasons indicate. When it appeared that they would in fact break through with their 6 – 5 – 1 and 7 – 7 records of ’60 and 1961, they back slid to a sixth place divisional finish, beating out only the hapless Eagles with their three victories, in ’62. The 1960’s were kinder to the Cardinals but a few eight and nine win seasons would be followed by sub-.500 years despite the presence of good personnel. The 1967 season in particular was seen as one of the organization’s poorest of all time, despite a won-lost record just below the .500 mark.


Like other NFL teams, the Cardinals were hurt by the growth of the American Football League. Salaries skyrocketed, players were envious of rookies entering the league with salaries that exceeded the hard earned pay of experienced veterans, and there was a growing level of discontent. While the growing ill will towards management was league wide, it was perhaps more obvious on the Cardinals. Losing Joe Namath, their first round draft choice of 1965 to the New York Jets, caused many fans to believe that Cardinals management was cheap and uncaring. When star running back John David Crow’s request to be traded was fulfilled prior to the ’65 season, and subsequent injuries downed key backfield performers including quarterback Charley Johnson, the Cardinals were fortunate to have squeaked through with five wins. Bringing in an underrated Charley Winner as head coach in 1966 was met by a surprising negative reaction by many locals. Winner should have been a popular head coaching choice as a former star running back at Washington University under Ewbank, the husband of Weeb’s daughter Nancy, and a former World War II prisoner of war. He had a solid resume, having served as an assistant for Weeb, Lou Saban, and Don Shula. A less than productive draft, lots of injuries, and the resistance of some players to Winner’s compulsive attention to detail still yielded an improved, winning 8 – 5 – 1 record. Another injury to quarterback Johnson’s shoulder derailed the offense, and falling off from their 7 – 1 – 1 start made ’66 a failure in the eyes of most fans. Viewing 1967’s 6 – 7 – 1 mark, one might wonder why this was considered to be such a disastrous season but the reasons went deeper than the won-lost record. 


Defensive tackle Sam Silas, honed his skills at Union (Bartow, FL) Academy and Southern Illinois University. An outstanding performer for the Cardinals from 1963 through ’67, he was a Pro Bowl performer in ’65 yet was traded to the Giants after the tumultuous 1967 season. Viewed as a leader in the quest to end the racial problems that plagued the team, some felt he was moved to New York as punishment for his outspoken stance. To many, he remains a respected advocate that altered attitudes within the NFL   


Dissension and disruption began early for the 1967 season. Key performers Johnson and linebacker Larry Stallings were activated by their military units. Though they both were assigned to duty in the Washington D.C. area, there was no way to know if or when they might be able to actually participate in a game. Week to week, Stallings managed to train, study film, and practice against imaginary opponents on his own during any free moment from his military duties. He somehow played in every game. Johnson could not and while that gave Jim Hart an opportunity to develop, the offense was in disarray, hindered further by the trade of long time receiver Sonny Randle, to the Forty Niners. Before the season was over, a group of African-American players brought a list of concerns and grievances to Winner and it eventually was leaked to the public that the list included a demand that one assistant coach be fired for racist attitudes. Just as the season ended, two assistants resigned with early 1950’s era Cardinals’ receiver Fran Polsfoot joining former Cards’ coach Wally Lemm on the Oilers staff, and Rick Forzano leaving and later moving up to the head coaching position with the Detroit Lions. With speculation that one or both of these coaches were “racist,” fans across the country were buzzing until it was revealed that defensive line coach Chuck Drulis was the actual focus of the players’ complaints. The Cardinals situation that perhaps peaked during the ’67 season, became very public knowledge as the centerpiece for Sports Illustrated magazine’s expose about racism in sports. The July 29, 1968 Jack Olsen article entitled “The Anguish Of A Team Divided” revealed to the world the depth of the Cardinals’ racial divide and the article was later expanded into a full chapter in the book that followed later in 1968. As word spread that the Cardinals’ racial problems were perhaps significantly worse and more openly displayed relative to other NFL and AFL teams, raging speculation became the media norm as one player or another was chosen as the protagonists of the discord. 


Adding to the tension in the locker room that no doubt led to underachievement on the field was the chasm between veterans and many of the newcomers who were at a higher salary scale. While this was obviously a league wide trend and eventual problem, the Cardinals “haves” and “have-nots” were more bitterly divided and more outspoken about it than other NFL and AFL teams. Team tensions were ratcheted up by a number of other events. Sonny Randle had been clear that 1967 would be his final year with the team and that he intended to remain in the St. Louis area and continue with his locally based business interests. His trade incensed a number of teammates who believed that management and perhaps the coaching staff had acted in a spiteful manner.


Popular Sonny Randle was traded prior to the ’67 season, further distancing many veterans from the coaching staff and front office


The coaches were perceived to have designated a few selected players as scapegoats for the team’s failings, further widening the gap between players and staff. Add a growing resentment from key defensive players towards the offense, due to the belief that a disproportionate burden was placed upon the defensive unit due to offensive inconsistency and at times, ineptness, and the Cardinals became a team divided. Few realized that the mediocre but respectable 6 – 7 – 1 record hid problems that were in many ways, destroying the fabric of the team.