Unlike Thanksgiving, football games on Christmas Day were few and far between in the early days of the Cardinals. So, before we celebrate the big holiday this year (no—not the Super Bowl!), we’ll slip back in time to discover when the Cards were actually busy on December 25th.
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.
Christmas Football In Early Days
When the NFL originated as the American Professional Football Association back in 1920, the season was shorter, and fewer games were played, thus leaving the football season completed well before the Christmas holidays. For example, in 1920, the last game of the season took place on December 19 when the Cards tied the Chicago Stayms 14-14, despite the Stayms adding George Halas and other refugees from the Decatur Staleys for that contest.
In 1926, the Kansas City Cowboys edged the Cards 7-2 in the final game on November 28. Without playoffs, nor a championship game, the NFL seasons usually ended during the first week of December. Of course, we now see regular-season games played on Christmas and the season stretches into the first week of February before the final champion is determined.
Cardinal Christmas Games
As we searched for examples of Cardinals’ games on Christmas, it quickly became apparent that there were very few for the NFL’s oldest team, even with a history that reaches back to 1899. But the examples we found were not only interesting, but quite entertaining with one example resulting in one of the wackiest football injuries ever encountered, and another providing the greatest gift that a Cardinals’ fan could ever imagine!
Our first stop will be on December 25, 1930, in the rugged Texas town of Ft. Worth. The Cardinals had just completed a long, long season with an overall 9-7-2 record and a 5-6-2 mark in league play. But the boys just couldn’t get enough football, so Coach Ernie Nevers scheduled one more game on Christmas Day against a group of recent collegians called the Southwest Conference All-Stars…players from schools like Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Christian, and Southern Methodist.
The Ft. Worth Record-Telegram marveled over the appearance by Nevers and the Cardinals and reminded its readers of Nevers’ All-American status at Stanford and the fact that Knute Rockne of Notre Dame had called Nevers the “greatest fullback in all gridiron history.” Daily reports detailed the arrivals in Ft. Worth of the Cardinal players with even more emphasis on Nevers. Originally scheduled to arrive by train from St. Louis, the local media breathlessly reported that Nevers purchased a car in St. Louis and would drive down to Ft. Worth after first stopping in Tulsa!
Meanwhile, practice continued throughout the week for the All-Stars. Since some of the All-Stars had been out of football for up to three years, the Cardinals allowed their opponents to add a pair of NFL players in Mule Wilson and Father Lumpkin to their roster.
Day Before the Game
On the day before the game, the Record-Telegram was invited to witness the Cardinals’ practice where Nevers certainly impressed the locals. The newspaper reported: “Nevers gave the crowd of fans an idea of his talent in the Cardinals’ final workout when he punted against a stiff wind for better than 60 yards consistently, occasionally dropping one more than 70 yards from the spot from which he was kicking.”
All of this coverage, of course, was intended to promote the game and attract the biggest crowd possible. In the end, that did not work out so well. Despite the publicity and the openness of Nevers and the Cardinals, the visitors easily swept aside the All-Stars 20-0 to finally cap their season. Only 1,200 showed up for the game even with the multitude of former local stars on the field. In fact, the Cardinals squad included two former Texas Christian standouts in Phil Handler and Jake Williams. Nevers praised the two teammates after the game by stating:
“Williams and Handler are outstanding in the league already and will be better next season. I do not say this because I’m in their home city, but because I know what they did for my club this year.” Handler would eventually become the head coach of the Cardinals in later years.
The Next Christmas Showdown
The next Christmas-time competition did not occur until four years later when the team was in the middle of an extensive seven-game west coast tour after the 1934 season in which the Cardinals finished with a robust 16-6 mark, including a 5-6 record in the NFL. The team stopped in San Francisco on December 23 for a battle with the California Giants.
But a strange thing happened right before the kick-off when the Giants suddenly decided not to play. In short, the Giants noticed that the estimated crowd of 7,000 in Kezar Stadium was far less than expected and demanded payment in advance from the promoters. In a scene reminiscent of a Three Stooges movie, the Giants did receive their salary but with a catch as described by the Oakland Tribune: “Butch Medanich, stormy petrel of the pro football circles, staggered into the office under the weight of the money he received from playing against the Chicago Cardinals.
Not that Butch received so much money, but he and his players were paid $27 each, mostly in dimes and nickels. The promoters had run out of paper money by the time the Giants were paid.” As for the Cardinals, the 24 members of the traveling party split $450. It was all in a day’s work for the Cardinals who shoved aside the Giants 21-0 behind Mike Mikulak’s two rushing touchdowns.
As the NFL continued to grow in the late 1930s, one of the league’s holiday traditions was the release of its attendance figures right around Christmas. Like opening a present under the tree for all to see, the NFL opened its books to either brag or explain, about the season’s fan interest. In those days, attendance was usually stronger than the previous year, and if not, there was a generous reason why not—usually the weather took the blame for any unsightly small crowds.
The 1935 season was no exception as the league boasted of an overall increase of 50,000 fans, but also quietly mentioned that three of its nine teams lost money—one of which was the Chicago Cardinals. While the combined attendance was announced at 586,000, the Cardinals’ portion of that mark was just 29,500 for five home dates.
That number was eclipsed in just one game between the Bears and the Giants in New York when 36,940 showed up. The Decatur Herald wrote: “It doesn’t take but a couple of bad days to play havoc with the old receipts…games are likely to be played in any kind of weather; it isn’t always possible to count on a big turnout no matter what the attraction may be.”
The Cincinnati Enquirer added: “The Cardinals easily would have made a profit had they not run into three rainstorms and a small blizzard in their home games.” Despite the earnest defense, news like this was never a pleasant Christmas present for Cardinals’ management.
The Best For Last
Now—here is the oddest story of the week. In fact, it was so odd, that it made the list of the ”Oddest Sports” list of 1943 which was announced on Christmas Day of that year. Now that’s odd! Back in October, big end Clint Wager, who stood 6-6, was sent out to practice his punting and quickly suffered a most unusual injury—especially since it was self-inflicted!
While working on his punts, Wager simply missed one, according to the press: “Clint Wager, Chicago Cardinal end, literally knocked himself out with a poorly aimed punt. After drawing back his leg for what he hoped would be a long, booming punt, Wager missed the ball and struck his head with his knee. Doctors say he suffered a minor concussion of the brain.” But don’t worry, Wager was back on the field quickly and even played pro basketball with the Oshkosh All-Stars that winter.
However, the little episode with his kicking knee found Wager as one of the over 70 nominees for the “Sports Oddity” of the year contest run by the Associated Press. Seventy-five writers nation-wide voted in the poll and Wager actually finished in third place. In Clint’s case, this was clearly an unwanted Christmas present!
Our final yuletide entry is a happy one and not just because the Cardinals were forced to practice on Christmas Day in 1947. The team was more than grateful to do so since the Cards were preparing to face-off with the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFL championship on December 28.
This would be a home game for the Cardinals at Comiskey Park and Coach Jimmy Conzelman was confident, but nervous, as he plotted out his plans to the Chicago Tribune on Christmas morning: “A game with the Philadelphia Eagles boils down to the proposition of shooting the works.
We certainly are going to and I’m sure that’s what the Eagles also have in mind,” said Conzelman, who added: “The Eagles have a good offensive and defensive forward wall. That eight-man line which Philadelphia employs may give us plenty of trouble. On the issue of shooting the works, we can’t hold back on anything this time. I know Coach Greasy Neale of the Eagles will come up with some stuff that hasn’t been displayed this season.” So—on Christmas morning, instead of enjoying the holiday with their families, the Cardinals went to work, according to the Tribune:
“Today may be Christmas, but it will be just another workday for the Cardinals. The Chicago coaches may cut the morning practice short a little just to prove that they have some semblance of the Christmas spirit. It will only be a momentary lapse by the board of strategy and the Cards will be back at work tomorrow.”
A small holiday party was held for the players, despite the circumstances as noted by the Tribune: “In other years, the Cardinals have held Christmas parties but there was a different spirit this time. Never before had such a session been held when the club was preparing for a battle for the National League title.”
On game day, the Cardinals and Eagles arrived to discover a freshly frozen field courtesy of a recent drop in temperature. Once again, Conzelman was a step ahead of the competition and outfitted his troops in tennis shoes in order to combat the slippery surface. Cardinals’ lineman Vince Banonis remembered the day vividly: “The field was hard as cement,” said Banonis. “Jimmy Conzelman had the foresight to make sneakers available and that really helped.
That gave us a lot of traction.” Still, the footing was difficult for both teams, even after the Eagles also changed into tennis shoes. The Green Bay Gazette described the scene with the players on the field as “They staggered around like 22 drunk men in a dark alley.”
Behind the running of backs Elmer Angsman and Charley Trippi, who each scored a pair of touchdowns, the Cardinals outlasted the Eagles 28-21 to grab the team’s first NFL title since 1925. It was a wonderful holiday present for the loyal and frigid fans who had supported the team through some extremely difficult years in the early 40s, including a record 29 game losing streak.
Unfortunately, that championship gift 73 years ago was the last one for the Cardinals, a streak that is now the longest in professional sports. But for one shining moment, the Cardinals—and their fans—enjoyed the best Christmas present imaginable…
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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