Why are there Packers fans in Chicago?
1/22/2013 9:02:00 AM
Are they non-conformists? Maybe. Wisconsin ex-pats? Absolutely. Or maybe they are living reminders of Chicago’s long-dead football rivalry.
The Cardinals were Chicago’s first football team. They can trace their origins to the Morgan Athletic Club, which was founded in 1898…22 years before George Halas was hired to run the Decatur Staleys.
The Cardinals played off and on during the first two decades of the 20th Century, disbanding for various reasons: lack of competition, World War I, the Influenza Oubreak of 1918, and the like. By 1921, Chicago was a two-team town in both baseball and football. Halas bought the Staleys outright in 1920 and moved the team to Chicago. The following year, he renamed his ballclub the Bears and moved to “new” Wrigley Field. The Cardinals moved to Comiskey Park in 1922. Both were members of the brand new National Football League.
The north side/south side divide ran just as deep on the football field. If you were a south sider, you rooted for the White Sox during the summer and the Cardinals during the fall and winter. If you lived north of Madison Street, you were a fan of the Cubs and the Bears.
It’s Chicago, that’s how things are done.
The Cardinals also happened to be the second football team in the second city. The Bears dominated the NFL in the early days. During the 20’s and 30’s, the Cardinals were about as bad as the White Sox. On the north side, Halas’ Bears were as much of a football powerhouse as the Cubs were in baseball. In 1948, the Cardinals won the NFL title. It would be their last NFL (later NFC title) until 2008.
By the late 50’s, the Cardinals wanted out of Comiskey Park. It was a marriage that was bad for both teams. The Cardinals were stuck in a facility that was approaching 50 years old. The White Sox, meantime, were forced to cater their style of play to a stadium that was modified for football. In the 20’s, the Comiskeys placed an upper deck in the outfield at their ballpark so more people could attend football games (the extra seats also meant extra money when Babe Ruth’s Yankees came to town).
The upper decks cut off airflow inside the ballpark, which meant home run balls had a tendency to die in Comiskey’s cavernous outfield. There’s a reason why the White Sox didn’t discover home runs until the 1970’s.
The Cardinals were owned by the Bidwill family. At first, the Bidwills kicked the tires on Dyche Stadium in Evanston. In the spring of 1958, Charles Bidwill, Jr. asked Northwestern University and the Evanston City Council for permission to play their games at Dyche Stadium in the fall. George Halas didn’t like that one bit. He produced a contract, signed in 1931 by Bidwill’s father that gave the Bears the exclusive right to football north of Madison Street. He wanted the younger Bidwill to adhere to his father’s agreement.
Evanston was dead.
Both teams could play at Soldier Field, which is what the Cardinals did. 1958 was their last season in Comiskey Park. They played at Soldier Field in 1959. The Cardinals had a five year contract with the Chicago Park District that could be voided in the event the team moved to another city.
George Halas wanted the Cardinals to move.
He didn’t speak of it openly. But behind the scenes, he pulled every lever he could to get his rival out of town. In 1959, Chicago was the only city with two NFL teams. Both Chicago teams were losing out on TV money. The NFL TV rules (the NFL and AFL were separate entities as the time) said that road games would only be televised if no NFL games were taking place in their home market. If the Bears were on the road, the Cardinals were in Chicago, and that meant no road TV coverage.
George Halas wanted the Chicago football TV money for himself. In order to do that, he had to find a way to convince the Cardinals to move.
All of a sudden, Halas became a huge fan of expansion. He thought expansion was the only way to keep his NFL competitive with the newly formed AFL. Privately, he knew expansion would mean more cities to move the Cardinals.
The Cardinals were a bad football team that did not do well at the gate. But it was an attractive takeover target, which caused the value of the franchise to increase almost exponentially. The Cardinals weren’t valuable in Chicago. But they were very valuable in another city.
At first, the Bidwills balked. They were first in Chicago after all. But the franchise fees, TV money, and the promise of having a city to themselves proved to be too much. They moved to St. Louis in 1960.
George Halas won.
But the Cardinals were the south side football team. People in Bridgeport and Beverly and Englewood and South Shore weren’t going to suddenly root for the north side Bears…especially after Halas pushed their team out of town.
Some followed the Cardinals to St. Louis. When the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl in 2009, the Tribune profiled the small pockets of south siders who followed their team for the last 50 years.
Others turned towards Wisconsin. Vince Lombardi was a second-year coach in 1960, and the Packers played half of their home games at Milwaukee County Stadium. Professional football was two hours away from the south side.
The jilted Cardinals fans passed their Packers fandom down to their kids, and they passed it on through the generations.
Packers fans in Chicago will no doubt be rooting for their team when they play the 49’ers in San Francisco. But I wonder if they would have a change of heart if the Cardinals moved from Phoenix to their ancestral stomping grounds of US Cellular Field.