In honor of Super Bowl week, in this episode of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll take you back to explore the last championship of the team now known as the Arizona Cardinals. Back in 1947, the team was still in Chicago and was taking advantage of a talented crop of returning veterans along with some promising rookies—including the great Charley Trippi—to push for the crown in the competitive western division of the NFL.
Since there was no Super Bowl, the championship game would pit the winners of the eastern and western circuits against each other in a battle to secure the overall NFL championship. However, for the Cardinals, the real prize would be the opportunity to conquer their heated rivals—the Chicago Bears—for the western crown. The winner of that game would then face the eastern champs on December 28.
Read the whole story or listen to the podcast episode below.
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Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago. Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.
The Last Cardinals' Championship Season
The Cardinals had started out strong in 1947, winning three exhibition games, and then grabbing victories in seven out of their first eight outings. A mid-season stumble meant that the season finale would be held on December 14 against the Bears with both teams holding an 8-3 record.
Obviously, the winner of this game would capture the western title and then move on to the NFL championship game. Playing at the Bears’ home den of Wrigley Field, the Cardinals used a trick passing play to start the game and outlasted the Bears 30-21 to finish 9-3 and advance to the championship game.
In the east, the Eagles and the Steelers both finished 8-4, requiring a one-game playoff with the Eagles winning that one 21-0 on December 21. Philadelphia would now travel to Chicago on December 28 for all the marbles.
Although the Eagles didn’t arrive in Chicago until the day before the game, predictions surrounding the contest had been surfacing in newspapers across the country. The football nation was in the process of discovering coach Jimmy Conzelman and his Chicago Cardinals. The New York Mirror established the Cardinals as an early twelve-point favorite in the title tilt and reporters debated over whether the Cards’ two-week layoff would be an advantage or a disadvantage.
Giants coach Steve Owens told the New York Daily News that the Cardinals might be ripe for a case of overconfidence. He said:
“The Cardinals hold two decisions over the Eagles this year, but they’re liable to act chesty and think the game is a cinch. I’m sure the Eagles will be up for the game.”
The Comiskey Park field was buried by eighteen tons of hay and canvas to protect it against the frigid Chicago weather the week before the championship game. Ticket sales were brisk, with fans having their choice ranging in price from $2.50 (bleachers) to $5.00 (box).
Cards Wore Gym Shoes
Due to the frozen field conditions, the Cardinals appeared for the game in their gym shoes while the Eagles opted for modified football shoes, which were actually sharply honed cleats attached to regular football boots. “They had filed the cleats on their shoes to razor sharpness,” reported the Green Bay Gazette.
The Cardinals apparently learned of the illegal work on the Eagles’ shoes from a clubhouse boy who had peeked in on the Philadelphia locker room before the game. No mention of the shoes was made until the game started when the Cardinals pointed out the handiwork, and the Eagles were assessed a pair of early penalties by referee Tom Dowd for ”illegal equipment.”
Philadelphia coach Greasy Neale was still livid about the rulings after the game: “It won’t show in the final score, but at the start of the game we were penalized five yards for illegal equipment when we could have made a first down, and that cost us plenty.”
Former Eagles end Jack Ferrante recalled the situation years later in the 1979 NFC Championship Game Program:
“Comiskey was like a skating rink. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, but we had taken the weather into account as we got ready in the pre-game. We had on regular football shoes, but the cleats were filed to pretty sharp points. That gave us the traction we needed. I thought they’d work better than the tennis shoes the Cards were wearing. Everything was great until early in the game when one of their guys got cut by one of our filed cleats and raised hell with the officials. They made us change into basketball shoes right on the spot…We just couldn’t get any traction. You’d think we were wearing leather-soled shoes on a hockey rink the way we were slipping and sliding.”
With both teams now in gym shoes, the footing was treacherous early in the game and the players slipped all over the field. “During this period, they staggered around like 22 drunken men in a dark alley,” explained Art Daley in the Green Bay Gazette.
Attacking the Eight-Man Line
With the great shoe controversy behind them, the two teams settled down to measure one another. As Cards’ coach Conzelman had hoped, the Eagles lined up in their unusual eight-man defensive line (five linemen and three linebackers), one that Bears’ coach George Halas did not admire fondly in his comments:
“Eight-man line? Bah! All ya gotta do is pinch a back through there and he’s practically alone—in the clear.”
Conzelman had prepared his team for this unique defense, but they were also wary of rugged halfback Steve Van Buren and accurate passer Tommy Thompson. The New York Times outlined the offensive hopes of the Cardinals:
“The Chicago Cardinals hope to get going with the ‘fastest with the mostest’ in a counteroffensive against the running of Philadelphia’s champion ball carrier Steve Van Buren. But coach Jimmy Conzelman’s real galloping threats are Elmer Angsman, the ex-Notre Dame blaster, and Boris Dimancheff, former Purdue scatback, who have been an unheralded nightmare to Cardinal opponents while the so-called “Dream Backfield” of Charley Trippi, Marshall Goldberg, Paul Christman, and Pat Harder basked in the limelight.”
Angsman actually led the team in rushing that season with 412 yards in 110 attempts and became one of the stars of the championship game. Behind the blocking of Chet Bulger and Vince Banonis, the Cards scored early in the first quarter when Trippi broke through for a 44-yard scoring run. Banonis later said, ”We did our homework on the eight-man line. The blockers attacked at the point where the play was going to take place.”
Meanwhile, Conzelman usually put one back in motion to distract the three safeties, leaving few defensive assets if a runner, like Trippi, managed to break through the line. Trippi added: “We had a lot of success against the eight-man front. There were really no linebackers, so if you could elude the defensive backs, the defense was very vulnerable.” Midway through the second period, the Cardinals struck again when Angsman shot through the line and finished a 70-yard scoring dash, carrying defender Pat McHugh along for the final five yards.
Pat Harder added the extra point, leaving the hosts up 14-0 with 6:54 remaining in the half. The Eagles cut the margin to 14-7 at the half when Thompson connected with McHugh on a 55-yard scoring toss.
Angsman and Trippi Run Wild
In the third quarter, Trippi dazzled the crowd with a 75-yard punt return for a 21-7 advantage for the Cardinals. The Philadelphia Inquirer described Trippi’s heroics:
“He picked it up as it bounced around the Cards’ 25, and when he battered the first cordon of off-balanced tacklers, there were not many green jerseys in his path. He was hit three more times as he wheeled down the field, but nobody could smack him solidly.” Trippi’s zig-zag return was so impressive that Eagles coach Greasy Neale was said to have yelled to his players: “Get up and be ready. He’ll be coming back this way any second now!”
But the Eagles were not finished as Van Buren plunged over from the one late in the third quarter to narrow the margin to 21-14. In the fourth period, Angsman burst through the Eagles’ line for another 70-yard TD, completing the Cardinals’ scoring in what would be a 28-21 victory. The impressed Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Angsman “didn’t experience the indignity of an alien hand during his 70-yard scoring scamper.”
While Angsman may not have been touched, there was plenty of rough stuff going on in the trenches according to the Green Bay Gazette: “As the game wore on, the belligerents got rougher and rougher, including Eagles’ tackles Wisert and Kilroy who were having a big-time with their fists and elbows. Pat Harder and Lloyd Arms came out with bloody faces from deep cuts.”
Angsman ended up establishing a new rushing record for an NFL title game by picking up 159 yards in just ten carries. On the other side of the field, Thompson set a new title game completion mark by connecting on 27-44 passes for 297 yards.
“We did everything but beat them,” lamented losing coach Greasy Neale. For their efforts, each of the Cardinals received $1,132 for winning the 1947 NFL championship. Sadly, this would be the last title won by the Cardinals as the team has moved from Chicago to St. Louis, to Arizona. It is the longest championship drought in professional sports today.
But on December 28, 1947, the Cardinals ruled the football world and I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from that game. It came from Cardinals president Ray Benningsen who was asked to describe how he felt about his team winning the title. Benningsen replied: “I can tell you in two words. Wonderful!” Think about that one…
Thank you for joining us today on the Sports History Network, and we’ll be back next time with a look at the amazing career of the Cardinals’ first superstar: Paddy Driscoll.
The Original Million Dollar Backfield
Interested in more from host Joe Ziemba? You can see him on the other side of the mic as a guest on The Football History Dude podcast talking about the history of the Chicago Cardinals and his book When Football Was Football.
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