Charley Trippi Was the NFL’s First “Bonus Baby”

Charley Trippi was the last piece of the Chicago Cardinals famed “Dream Backfield.”  As an All-American out of Georgia, the pursuit for future Pro Football Hall of Famer Charley Trippi was on, not just by football teams. 

This ultimately made Trippi the NFL’s first “Bonus Baby,” covered in this week’s episode of When Football Was Football.

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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 Advent of the "Bonus Baby"

Back in 1947, major league baseball established criteria for players it termed as “Bonus Babies.” Basically, if a club signed an untested rookie for a certain salary, that team was required to keep that player on its roster for two full seasons.

This rule helped to balance the competitive level of the league since it would discourage the wealthier clubs from signing the best amateur players and then placing them in minor league outposts for seasoning. It also helped eradicate bidding wars between clubs seeking the same player.

If the team was unlikely to keep the player on its roster for a couple of seasons, then it would be unwise to invest large sums of money on that individual.

Earlier in 1947, the first “Bonus Baby” in the National Football League was signed by the Chicago Cardinals, and the activity, and secrecy, behind that signing, might make for an intriguing suspense novel. On this episode, we’ll take a peek at “The Pursuit of Charley Trippi,” a wonderful halfback from the University of Georgia, who was in the sights of talent scouts from the NFL, the competing All-America Football Conference, as well as major league baseball.

It took a bit of special effort by Cardinals’ owner Charles Bidwill to not only rein in the gifted Trippi but to also generously offer him enough money to christen Charley as the NFL’s first “Bonus Baby!”

Charley Trippi College Career

Our story today begins on January 1st of 1947 when Trippi led undefeated Georgia to a 20-10 win over North Carolina in the Sugar Bowl. Trippi thus completed a phenomenal collegiate football career for the Bulldogs. A native of Pittston,

Pennsylvania, he had dreamed of playing at Fordham University, but Coach Jim Crowley decided that he was too little (at 160 pounds) to play at this level. Trippi eventually found his way to Georgia in 1941 and within a year had gained twenty pounds and a spot in the Bulldogs’ backfield. At Georgia in 1942, Trippi teamed with All-American back Frankie Sinkwich as the two of them paced the team to a victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl and a number two national ranking.

By the time the 1943 season rolled around, Trippi was in the service and found himself with the Third Air Force football team and even made the All-Service team in 1944. Because of relaxed rules for participation in the annual College All-Star game he also played in that annual event five times in 1943, 1944, 1945, 1947, and then 1948 with the Cardinals.

Following the war, he resumed his collegiate career at Georgia, playing left halfback for Coach Wally Butts. Trippi was virtually a one-man team in 1946 as Georgia cruised through the regular season undefeated and then knocked off North Carolina 20-10 in the Sugar Bowl. Trippi was the leading scorer in the SEC, won the Maxwell Award, and was runner-up for the Heisman trophy.

Coach Butts was duly impressed: “Trippi was the finest boy and the greatest athlete I have had the privilege of coaching. He also was the finest defensive player I’ve seen and was always a team player. Everything Trippi did was with one thought in mind, to win. He never did anything with the thought of promoting Trippi.”

And we should mention that Trippi was also an outstanding baseball player, with several major league teams eyeing his services after he hit .475 for the Georgia baseball team in 1946. So, it seems, Charley Trippi could name his price after his final football game in January of 1947, and there were plenty of suitors waving tons of dollars at him from both professional football and professional baseball interests.

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    Setting Up A Bidding War

    Charles Bidwill of the Cardinals had nudged his foot into the Trippi universe back in 1945. The Cardinals had selected Trippi with their first choice in the 1945 draft (when his original college class would have graduated).

    In fact, Trippi mentioned Bidwill as a “friend” on numerous occasions during the feeding frenzy over Trippi’s services. In the AAFC, the New York Yankees had snared the rights to Trippi as well for that league.

    His value was not only significant as a gifted football player, but his marquee-type notoriety was sorely needed by both leagues. And then there was major league baseball as the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, and the New York Yankees publicly indicated their goal of signing Trippi.

    Back in Chicago, Bidwill was anxious for the 1947 season to start. With prized veterans and talented rookies on hand, Bidwill anticipated that his club would be in the thick of things for the NFL title. He had nurtured the club along during the very lean war years, but was now positioned, and willing, to spend some funds to acquire Trippi, whom he considered to be the hottest property coming from the collegiate ranks.

    With just about everyone returning from the promising 1946 squad, just a few more pieces were needed to complete the championship roster. Never reneging on his promise to provide Coach Jimmy Conzelman with the horses needed to win it all, Bidwill decided to personally mine for one of the greatest jewels in NFL history to complete his dream team. As part of the strategy, Bidwill latched on to Trippi the moment the 1947 Sugar Bowl had concluded.

    Trippi now found himself in the right place at the right time: smack dab in the middle of a bidding war for his services between Bidwill and the New York Yankees of the All-America Football Conference. Bidwill had little love for the new league, especially when the Chicago Rockets franchise landed in Soldier Field, giving the city three professional football teams in what was becoming a very crowded market.

    Bidwill also flinched when Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward (and founder of the new circuit) hinted that the Cardinals should seek another location and leave the Bears and the Rockets to battle it out in Chicago for fan support. The Rockets also stung Bidwill when the team lured a couple of his players, Bob Morrow and Lloyd Cheatham, away from the Cardinals when the bidding wars first started in January of 1946.

    Both leagues were zealously pursuing the incoming draftees, going as far as to not publicize their draft choices in order to minimize the working knowledge of the other side.

    Who Will Win Trippi's Services?

    Following the 1947 Sugar Bowl, both the Yankees and the Cardinals presented substantial offers to Trippi, and the efforts of both teams to land this valuable athlete were highly publicized. Of course, there was speculation in the media over whether Trippi would accept one of the lucrative offers to play pro football.

    Or, perhaps he would swing towards baseball and take advantage of the new rules which would require a well-compensated rookie to remain on the big-league roster for two seasons. On Tuesday, January 14, things began to heat up as baseball’s Boston Red Sox revealed that Trippi would likely be that team’s property if he decided to give up professional football.

    On that same day, Trippi visited New York and toured Yankee Stadium after learning that the New York football Yankees and the New York Yankees of baseball fame had agreed to partner in a sizeable cooperative effort to sign Trippi. 

    By Thursday, January 16, the New York Daily News posted the latest update in its headline which read: “Trippi, Yanks Near Agreement” and stating: “The most wanted athlete of the hour, All-America Charley Trippi of Georgia, is expected to sign a lucrative Yankee football-baseball contract sometime this morning.”

    Even Trippi seemed to agree by stating: “I don’t think we will have much trouble reaching an agreement. The Yankees offered me the best offer I have received and I simply want to talk things over with Wally Butts and several others.”

    But Charles Bidwill was not done yet. Ironically, he joined Trippi on his trip to New York and was well appraised of all contract offers from his New York competition. It was reported that the football Yankees offered Trippi a four-year, $60,000 contract while the baseball Yankees pitched in with a two-year deal with an unspecified salary, with the two contracts thought to be worth over a combined $100,000—an extraordinary amount in 1947.

    Although the combined Yankees’ offer was said to be higher, Trippi eventually agreed to terms with the Cardinals, as reported by the Associated Press: “Charley Trippi slipped past the clutching arms of the New York Yankees’ football team today, stiff-armed the Yankees’ baseball secondary, and wound up with the Chicago Cardinals for what is known in the gridiron parlance as pay dirt.”

    The four-year deal was in the $100,000 range and was probably the result of Bidwill’s personal effort to persuade Trippi to join the Cards. After all, he had performed some legal work in the past for the young player and had been receptive to Trippi’s request that he also be allowed to pursue his professional baseball career. Trippi called it “the highest offer ever given a player in pro football.” 

    Later, Trippi told the Associated Press that “The Yankees treated me very fairly. I had to turn the Yankee offer down because the Cardinal offer was better for me in the long run.” 

    Behind the scenes, a different story unfolded. Out of the public eye, Bidwill literally followed Trippi around the country in his effort to sign the talented player. Cardinals’ president Ray Benningsen recalled that for Bidwill “It was his greatest victory. Yet, I knew every move in advance. During the time when he was carrying on his cross-country dickering with Trippi, I’d hear from him five or six times a day. He’d call from New York, or Florida, or New Orleans.”

    Because of this tenacity, Trippi agreed to become a member of the Cardinals BEFORE his well-publicized trip to New York. As Trippi recalled: “Mr. Bidwill asked me in good faith to go to New York and see what the Yanks had to offer.” Coach Conzelman added: “Bidwill had already bagged Trippi while Dan Topping (the New York owner) was putting on his hunting jacket and practicing bird calls.”

    To which Trippi added: “I had to find out, of course, what the All-America Conference had to offer. But basically, my heart was set on playing for Mr. Bidwill.” 

    It was great news for the Cardinals who won the 1947 NFL title and Trippi enjoyed a Hall of Fame career through the 1955 season. When he left the game in December of 1955, his 6, 053 yards of total yards was the best in NFL history up to that point.

    As for baseball, Trippi did manage to play one season for the Atlanta Crackers in the minor leagues, hitting a robust .334 average in 1947, but then decided to concentrate his efforts on pro football. The sad part of our story is that the determined Charles Bidwill never saw Trippi in a Cardinals’ uniform. Bidwill passed away before the 1947 season, but not before adding Trippi as the final piece that would reward the Cardinals with their last NFL championship in 1947.

    Thank you for listening today and please join us next time as we explore an extraordinary NFL championship game where the Chicago Bears nearly ran out of footballs!

    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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