1948: The Last Hurrah of the Chicago Cardinals

Cardinals’ fans are familiar with the long, sad story concerning the current championship dry spell for the club that has now stretched into its 76th year. That will be 76 years this fall without an NFL title, the longest such streak in the National Football League, as well as in all professional sports!

On this episode of “When Football Was Football” here on the Sports History Network, we’ll travel back to 1948 when the Cardinals franchise achieved its most successful regular season. And, what a season it was!

Yes, it was only 75 seasons ago when the Cardinals fielded what was, in my opinion, the greatest team in franchise history. In 1948, the Cards welcomed back pretty much the entire roster from the 1947 title run. The team appeared to have no weaknesses because even with crucial injuries, another capable player stepped up to keep things rolling.

Week after week, the Cardinals knocked over opponents with a ridiculously potent offense, and it seemed like nothing could stop a second straight march to the NFL crown. Nothing, it seemed, except mother nature!

Finest Regular Season In Cardinals' History

1948 was not only a special year for the Cardinals, but also, as mentioned, the finest regular season in team history! It was a schedule marked by an unbelievable tragedy, some incredible scoring feats, and an unfriendly blizzard that ultimately derailed the Cardinals’ NFL championship hopes.

But overall, the team has never been able to duplicate the positive results of this glorious football campaign when the Cardinals finished with a superlative 11-1 record, and avenged the only loss with a satisfying conquest of the Chicago Bears on the last day of the regular season with the divisional championship hanging in the balance.

It was a long, challenging, and at times, frustrating season for the Cardinals. Since the club was the defending champion of the National Football League, it had the distinct honor of participating in the annual College All-Star game which traditionally kicked-off the football season every year.

Held in monstrous Soldier Field on Chicago’s lake front, the pros would begin training camp early in order to face-off against a team of recently graduated collegians who were voted on to the All-Star roster by a nation-wide vote of football fans.

The game was started by the Chicago Tribune newspaper in 1934 as a method for raising funding for local charities. It was an immediate sensation from the initial contest in 1934 when the Chicago Bears battled the All-Stars to a scoreless tie before nearly 80,000 spectators.

But that first game failed to finally determine if the professionals or the collegians were the better football players, a significant argument that was in play among gridiron fans in the early years of the NFL.

Part of the excitement of that initial contest was the opportunity to finally witness whether one side or another was superior. Over the years, the pros began to dominate the All-Stars until the last game in the series was staged in 1976.

Ed Sprinkle of the Bears (left) gives Charley Trippi of the Cardinals a “facial” during the Cardinals 24-21 win on December 12, 1948. Photo courtesy of Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Ed Sprinkle of the Bears (left) gives Charley Trippi of the Cardinals a “facial” during the Cardinals 24-21 win on December 12, 1948. Photo courtesy of Green Bay Press-Gazette.

101,220 Watch Cardinals Blast College All-Stars

Yet in 1948, there was still some lingering debate as to which side was better. After all, the All-Stars had spanked the Rams in 1946 and then the Chicago Bears in 1947 by identical 16-0 scores. Would the eager collegians be able to upend the pros again in 1948, this time facing off with the mighty Chicago Cardinals across the line?

As it was, the 1948 season began way early for the Cardinals with the All-Star game commencing on August 20, 1948. A huge crowd of 101,220 turned out for the battle, which was the largest crowd to ever see the Cards in action.

Coach Jimmy Conzelman and his professional cohorts left no doubt which version of football was stronger as the Cards blasted the All-Stars 28-0. Aside from the massive crowd attending the game in-person, another 500,000 watched the game on the local WGN-TV, a rather new venture in the sporting world!

Armed with talent, experience, and determination, the Cardinals then romped through three more easy wins in the pre-season before entertaining the Eagles in the regular season opener on September 24, 1948. Much like the 1947 NFL championship tilt in which the Cardinals scored early and out-lasted the Eagles 28-21, the hosts jumped out to a 14-0 advantage only for Philadelphia to match the score in the third period.

Kutner Was Lonesome as a Hermit!

The Cards secured their first win of the season late in the game in what was described as a trick play by the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Charley Trippi raced wide on one of his usual sweeps, drew in the defenders, then stopped in his tracks and fired a cross-country heave. Mal Kutner, as lonesome as a hermit, grabbed it with a 30-yard start on defender Pat McHugh and raced for the big touchdown.” The unusual pass allowed the Cardinals to finally prevail 21-14.

But the victory celebration was brief. Following the game, Cardinals’ tackle Stan Mauldin collapsed and passed away in the locker room. Teammate Vince Banonis said: “He came out of the showers and was drying himself, walking around and telling the fellows they played a great game. Then he sat down and collapsed.” Fullback Pat Harder, who would become the league’s MVP in 1948, said in quiet admiration: “Stan was the best tackle in the National League.”

The sudden loss of a beloved and well-respected teammate was a shocking and unforgiving blow to the defending NFL champs. Could any team possibly recover from such a horrible and unexpected occurrence?

The Cardinals would find out just a few days later when they welcomed the arch-rival Chicago Bears to Comiskey Park for an unusual Monday night squabble on October 4. A record throng of over 52,000 showed up for the battle which was dominated by the Bears 28-17. The Cardinals, understandably, came out flat and quickly fell behind 14-0, before surging ahead 17-14. However, a 95-yard kickoff return by the Bears’ Frank Minini erased that brief lead and the Bears rolled to the rather easy victory.

Now saddled with just a 1-1 record to start the campaign, and still beset by the unexpected loss of San Mauldin, the Cardinals were at an early season crossroads. Could they rebound from both tragedy and the decisive loss to the Bears to help salvage the season and return to the NFL championship game?

Moleskin Millenium Arrived With Earth-Shaking Crash!

Apparently, the Cardinals had no intentions of enshrining the 1948 season as a pity party. Instead, the club then marched off ten straight victories to complete the season, a winning streak that has yet to be duplicated in Cardinals’ history.

Following a 17-7 win over Green Bay on October 10, 1948, the Cards wrapped up the schedule with nine more wins where the team scored at least 24 points in each contest. Beginning that stretch was a four-game peak where the offense accumulated 195 points, starting off with an NFL record point explosion in a 63-29 romp over the New York Giants on October 17.

The combined point total of 98 established a new league record, while the Cards final tally of 63 points cracked the team record of 60 set vs. Rochester back in 1923. Pat Harder kicked all nine extra points to establish a new NFL mark for extra point conversions.

And it was all made possible by reserve quarterback Ray Mallouf, who tossed four TD passes in relief of the injured Paul Christman. The New York Daily News broadly painted a picture of the scoring splurge by reporting:

“That long-expected day of all offense and no defense—the moleskin millennium about which gridiron critics have been warning—arrived with an earth-shaking crash as the Cardinals and Giants sprayed the turf with 14 touchdowns, splashed the scoreboard with 98 points and wrote all sorts of screwy scoring records.”

Crowd Sat Electrified

A week later, the scoring rampage continued in a 49-27 romp over the Boston Yanks. In this remarkable offensive outing, the Cardinals erupted for 35 points in the third quarter alone, causing the Boston Globe to marvel that the Comiskey Park crowd “sat electrified by the amazing outbreak.”

More records fell during the game as the 35 points by the winners in the third stanza established a new NFL mark for points in one quarter, while the two-game total of 112 points by the Cardinals set a new team scoring mark for a pair of games.

Yet the best part of the Boston victory came when the Cardinals learned that the undefeated Bears finally lost a game as the Eagles prevailed 13-7 over the Bears. With the defeat by their Chicago rivals, the Cardinals swept into a first-place tie with their neighbors, both with 4-1 records. That deadlock for western division superiority would last until the very last day of the regular season.

On October 24th, the Cards toppled the Rams 27-22, then blasted the Lions 56-20 on November 7. The Cardinals fell behind 7-0 with just a minute gone in the game, and then unleashed an unforgiving scoring barrage led by three scoring tosses from Paul Christman.

Said the Detroit Free Press: “A hopelessly out-classed Detroit Lions team humbled the Chicago Cardinals for one minute and then paid the penalty by absorbing a 56-20 defeat.” 

Both the Bears and Cardinals moved to 7-1 after collecting wins on November 14. The Cards utilized five turnovers to upend the Steelers 24-7 while fullback/kicker Pat Harder booted three more extra points to extend his streak to 63 without a miss over two seasons. With additional wins over the Rams (27-24), the Lions (28-14) and the Packers (42-7), the Cards remained tied for the division lead with the Bears, both with 10-1 records.

The winner between the two rivals on December 12 would determine the western division champion as well as the conference representative in the NFL title game.

Men Swallowed Their Cigars

The ultimate battle of the season did not disappoint as The Journal Times described the emotions, as “One of those nerve-chilling football games where men swallowed their cigars and women chew up their handkerchiefs.” Before a record crowd of 51,283 at Wrigley Field, the Bears jumped out to a 14-3 halftime lead, and the Cardinals looked flat, and perhaps even timid, during the initial two quarters.

It was then that head coach and master motivator Jimmy Conzelman took over and delivered a halftime discourse that seemed to put the sparkle back in the Cardinals’ lackluster offense. Conzelman said: “I had to get the boys unwound. An odd situation, I must admit. But in that first half they were too steamed up. I told ‘em to relax and if they settled down in the second half the Bears might make some mistakes. That’s what happened.”

After the two teams exchanged touchdowns, the Bears still held on to a 21-10 lead early in the fourth period. Just one quarter left to determine the Western Division champion…and the Bears were clearly in the driver’s seat as the final minutes slipped away.

QB Paul Christman was injured (with a dislocated thumb) early in the contest and once again, Ray Mallouf was brought in to steer the Cardinals’ offense. Coach Conzelman continued to insert capable players where needed because of injuries, but could Mallouf bring the Cards back in the waning minutes of the season? Could the defending champs even make it back to the NFL title game?

Down by 11, and starting at his own 15, Mallouf directed a revived Cards’ offense through a series of effective runs and some nifty passes. His 15-yard toss to Mal Kutner provided the Cardinals with a first down on their own 45, followed shortly thereafter by a 22-yard completion to end Billy Dewell.

With the ball now on the Bears’ 25, Mallouf threw once again to Dewell, but an interference call on the Bears’ Johnny Lujack set the Card sup on the ten. A four-yard scoring run by Charley Trippi and the ensuing kick by Pat Harder narrowed the Bears’ advantage to 21-17.

Game Was Near As Perfection As Possible In Football

While there was still plenty of time, could the Cardinals prevent the Bears from not only responding with another score while also keeping them from chewing up precious minutes on the clock?

With the Cardinals’ defense holding the Bears on the first two downs following the kick off, quarterback Lujack attempted a cross-field toss on third down that was intercepted by the Cardinals’ Vince Banonis and brought back 22 yards to the Bears 19-yard line. After a pass from Mallouf to Trippi moved the Cardinals to the 12, Elmer Angsman picked up the remaining yardage for the winning score. With Harder’s kick, his 53rd consecutive extra point in 1948, the Cardinals moved ahead for the 24-21 victory and the Western Division championship!

As the Associated Press reported: “The game was as near perfection as possible in football: vicious line play, crisp blocking, and heady signal calling. It was so close that the huge audience seldom was off its feet.” Apparently, the motivational tactics used at halftime by Coach Conzelman were successful!

The big win qualified the Cardinals for a December 19th date with the Eastern Division champion Eagles in Philadelphia. Although the Cardinals (11-1) had defeated the Eagles (9-2-1) in both the pre-season and the regular season, the Eagles were also anxious to avenge the 28-21 defeat the team suffered at the hands of the Cardinals in the 1947 title game.

But would Philadelphia be able to stop the NFL’s top offense that averaged an impressive 32.9 points per game? The Cardinals also topped the league in total yards and rushing yards in 1948.

Players Shovel Off Field

But then the unpredictable, and the impossible, occurred. During the night before the title tilt, it began to snow heavily in Philadelphia resulting in several inches of snow covering the field before the kickoff. In my book, Bears vs. Cardinals: The NFL’s Oldest Rivalry, (Amazon affiliate link) I took the liberty of describing the pre-game scenario:

“Neither team was certain that the game would be played, or even if it should have been played. But one of the more splendid sights, and one that will never be duplicated, was that both teams helped clear the field of snow before the NFL title game.”

With players helping to both shovel off the field and assisting with the removal of the tarp, the game was underway as the heavy snow continued to fall. Not surprisingly, the two best offenses in the National Football League could not generate any consistent momentum during the battle.

It wasn’t until the fourth quarter when the only score of the game occurred. The Eagles recovered a Cardinals’ fumble on the visitors’ 17-yard line and moments later, Steve Van Buren broke through the Cards’ defense from the five-yard line to provide Philadelphia with the only points it would need in the 7-0 victory.

Coach Conzelman was both generous and honest in his post-game comments, saying: “We knew a break would win the game. The Eagles got it and capitalized. They outplayed us and the better team on the field won.”

Should the game have been played? That debate has raged for decades, especially from Cardinals fans who watched as their team, which had averaged 33 points per game during the regular season, was held scoreless. Yet, both teams faced the same circumstances and the same challenges in the 1948 title tilt.

The Eagles would continue to dominate the NFL, winning another title in 1949. The Cardinals, however, have not managed an NFL championship since 1947, with the closest effort being a loss to the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009.

Despite failing to win the league title in 1948, that Cardinals team will be remembered as having achieved the best regular season record in the long history of the NFL’s oldest team, winning the Western Division, grabbing ten victories in a row, and winning 15 games overall.

They just couldn’t win the big one…and it was the club’s best chance to succeed in those final years in Chicago before the organization moved in 1960.

Thank you for listening to “When Football Was Football” here on the Sports History Network and please join us next time as we “interview” (so to speak) quarterback Joey Sternaman of the Chicago Bears, who at 5-6 and 135 pounds was perhaps the toughest man, pound for pound, to ever play in the National Football League!


Author and Host - Joe Ziemba

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.

Joe Ziemba

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