The Worst Season in Cardinals’ History (Chicago not Arizona)

When an NFL team endures a six-week lapse in its schedule, it’s probably a sign that things might not be going well. In this week’s episode, we’ll tackle the very odd 1928 campaign of the Chicago Cardinals. In fact, we consider this season as the very worst in the 120-year history of the franchise.

It was not only an ugly season in terms of wins and losses, but the Cards virtually disappeared for several weeks for no apparent reason. There were rumors that the club disbanded mid-year, but then, after not taking the field for over 40 days, the team magically popped up to finish the season with three road games in a five-day period!

Very strange! And yet, being the Cardinals, they also provided us with some unusual, if not head-scratching, decisions that are still considered curious over 90 years later.

Read the whole story or listen to the podcast episode below.

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Table of Contents (Minimize to the Right --->)

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.

Oh the Oddities!

Among the oddities was the scheduling. Specifically, the Cards “rested” for about seven weeks and then bounced back to play games on two successive days! And, in a valiant effort to find some success on the very last day of the season, the team signed one of the biggest names in the history of football in an effort to salvage just one more victory.

Part of the strange happenings in 1928 could probably be blamed on the financial woes of owner Chris O’Brien. O’Brien had been with the team since its inception in 1899 as the Morgan Athletic Association and eventually became the team owner after a series of reincarnations over nearly 30 years. O’Brien had been hammered financially beginning in 1926 when the rival “Grange League” managed to maneuver Comiskey Park away from the Cardinals, forcing the team to use the much smaller Normal Park as its home base.

Attendance at home games had always been challenging for the Cardinals, who enjoyed their biggest Chicago crowds when playing at the Bears Wrigley Field home a few miles north. Another jolt occurred after the 1925 season when O’Brien was unable to generate enough funds and was forced to relinquish the services of his star backfield man, Paddy Driscoll, to the rival Bears. After claiming the 1925 NFL title, the Cardinals were mired in a losing rut over the next two years, finishing 3-7-1 in 1927.

1928 Season Begins

Still, the 1928 schedule kicked off successfully on September 16 with a 12-0 win over Hammond in an exhibition contest. Under new coach Fred Gillies, the Cardinals hoped to reverse the trend of the past two seasons, particularly on the offensive end where the team still sorely missed the offensive contributions of Paddy Driscoll, who could run, pass, and kick.

The first big test would be a home game against the Bears on September 23. The Chicago Daily Journal proclaimed that “Gillies, who is coaching the Cardinals this year, has one of the best aggregations working in harmony that ever donned one of Chris O’Brien’s uniforms.”

Despite these lofty expectations, the Cardinals appeared lifeless on offense and fell to the Bears 15-0 behind the running of halfbacks Driscoll and Joey Sternaman. A pair of blocked punts ruined the day for the Cardinals, who otherwise kept the Bears out of the end zone for most of the afternoon.

A crowd of just 5,000 witnessed the game, although the Daily Journal predicted that an estimated 50,000 would be on hand for the Thanksgiving Day rematch at Wrigley Field.

But first, the Cardinals needed to re-group with another exhibition on September 30, this time against the semi-pro Chicago Mills team. O’Brien used the contest as a “tryout” for several players with the final roster deadline date of just 18 players looming in a few days. Unfortunately, it showed. The struggling Cardinals dropped a 7-6 decision to the very minor league Mills club.

But there was hope–on October 7, the Cardinals utilized a stingy defense to edge the Dayton Triangles 7-0 at Normal Park to even their record at 1-1.

Unfortunately, the Dayton game would prove to not only be the last NFL win in 1928 for the Cardinals (and the last home game) but also the last time the team would score that season! Sadly, the only score in the Dayton game was generated when defensive back Swede Erickson intercepted a pass in the third quarter and returned it 40 yards for the touchdown. If you figure in the opening shutout loss to the Bears, the Cards offense did not score in league play all season!

Poor Offense - An Understatement

What followed was an embarrassing offensive stumble through the remainder of the year beginning with an ugly 20-0 defeat at Green Bay on October 14. The Cards then dropped off the radar from that day until November 24 when the team embarked on an east coast doubleheader, dropping games at Frankford 19-0 on November 24 and then losing the very next day to the New York Yankees, also by 19-0.

We’re not sure why the Cardinals disappeared for that long stretch, but most likely it involved money. With the limited seating capacity at Normal Park, coupled with the mandatory guarantee required to be given to the visitors, there wasn’t much room for financial happiness. Chris O’Brien could at least break even on road trips, especially when he could pack in two games on a weekend, rather than stage a home game with limited resources and providing the visitors’ guarantee.

Whatever the case, O’Brien hoped to uncork one last surprise for the final game of the season against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day, November 29, which would be the Cardinals’ third game in five days. The Daily Journal, while predicting a turnout of 50,000 people reported that: “George Halas and Dutch Sternaman, the big moguls of the Bears, think their outfit can trim the south siders, but Chris O’Brien, the Cardinals mentor, has a hunch that his footballers will spring a surprise on one of the best professional elevens in the country.”

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    Just Make It Stop

    So, in this season that was full of surprises for the Cardinals—and mostly unfavorable ones—what could Chris O’Brien accomplish that would allow his team to become competitive with the mighty Chicago Bears? The Cards were mired near the bottom of the NFL with a 1-4 record and O’Brien was determined to bring in a big name to help bolster his squad for the Bears (5-3-1), and perhaps grab the city championship from the north siders.

    There was really nothing else to play for in the final game of the season for the Cards. So, to no one’s surprise, it was announced by the Chicago Herald-Examiner on the morning before the game that rugged fullback Herb Joesting of the Minneapolis Marines would likely be joining the Cardinals. However, later that day, the Chicago Tribune reported that Joesting had not agreed to terms with the Cards. 

    But the Bears created some of their own news when George Halas announced the suspension of fearsome center George Trafton for the game for “failure to keep in training” according to the Green Bay Gazette. Apparently, one recent evening, Bears’ center Trafton departed a local night club only to find a gentleman leaning on Trafton’s car. The offender ignored Trafton’s “polite” request to move away from the car, and then for some reason, challenged Trafton (later to box as a heavyweight) to duke it out.

    Bad move for the car leaner…after a couple of quick jabs from Trafton it was all over…except that the police arrived on the scene and all of a sudden, the late-night brawl made the headlines–and Halas was quick to suspend his talented lineman. With a glimmer of hope appearing for the Cardinals, O’Brien made a few calls and found a replacement for Joesting in the legendary Jim Thorpe who was now 41 years old and out of the league for a couple of years. The Chicago Tribune noted that “despite the handicap of age, O’Brien thinks Thorpe will be of value in stopping the Bears’ end runs. Thorpe still possesses the phenomenal kicking ability that was his a decade ago.”

    Unfortunately, the presence of Thorpe failed to derail the Bears, who walked away with a 34-0 victory, and Thorpe walked away into the sunset, never to play in the NFL again. Although no photos are available from the game, we do know that Thorpe played briefly, substituting at left end for Ed Allen and then being replaced himself by Don Yeisley.

    The media was not kind to the south siders as they completed their NFL schedule with a 1-5 record, and were outscored 107-7. The Tribune pulled no punches by stating: “About the only excuse for thankfulness the Cardinals could muster after the debacle was that the score was only 34-0. Watching the Bears score four times in the second period, the hapless Cards doubtless were surprised that the defeat was by no greater margin.

    The defeat, however, could not have been more convincing.” We might say that after that brief appearance, the great Jim Thorpe “retired” as a Cardinal! As a footnote to this remarkable day in Cardinals’ history, Ed Allen, a 5-8, 175 lb. end out of Creighton, enjoyed only a two-game career in the NFL. Despite that brief stay, he could always claim that his substitute on November 29, 1928, was indeed Jim Thorpe, considered by many as the greatest athlete of the 20th century.

    For the Cardinals, the dreadful season finally came to a close although Duke Slater and Swede Erickson hired out to play for the town of LaSalle, IL in a scoreless tie with Spring Valley on December 2. One of their teammates was the aforementioned George Trafton of the Bears. Meanwhile, the unrelenting financial battle for Chris O’Brien drew to a merciful close on July 19, 1928, when he sold his beloved team to Dr. David Jones. His late granddaughter, Carol Needham said: “He sold the team so that he could pay his players. It broke his heart to sell the Cardinals.” 

    Thank you for joining us for this episode of “When Football Was Football.” Next time, we’ll have some fun looking back at the first NFL grudge match in 1920 when the game between the Decatur Staleys and the Rock Island Independents disintegrated into a bottle-throwing exhibition from some angry Rock Island fans and the Staleys literally, according to George Halas, ran for their lives!

    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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