December 24, 1947: NFL Cinderella Finalists

They called them “Cinderellas”—a couple of previously woebegone National Football League teams that had never been to the big ball– more commonly known as the NFL Championship game. Since the NFL staged its first “playoff” in 1932—due to a tie in the standings—neither the Philadelphia Eagles nor the Chicago Cardinals had ventured into the annual battle for pro football’s top prize.

By 1933, the separation of league clubs by division led to the natural creation of a yearly skirmish for the overall NFL title.

On this episode of “When Football Was Football” we’ll head back to 75 years ago today on December 24, 1947 when both of these clubs were preparing for the big game scheduled for December 28 in Chicago.

The Eagles were required to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a one-game playoff to determine the Eastern Division frontrunner, while the Cardinals secured the top spot in the Western Division by sweeping past the Chicago Bears in the final outing of the regular season. The Cardinals, now 9-3 for the season, would entertain the Eagles (9-4 record) at Comiskey Park in the championship contest.

With neither team previously participating in the biggest game on the NFL schedule, there was excitement, and a bit of apprehension, on both sides.


Much At Stake For Cinderella Finalists

And, in those days, when most players still worked a second job during the season to make ends meet, the winner’s share of the championship proceeds would be significant, according to the Associated Press: “There is a lot at stake for both ‘Cinderella’ finalists.

Besides the $500 difference per man between the winners’ and losers’ share of the expected $150,000 gate, both clubs will be battling for either’s first league title since the East-West Divisions were formed in 1933.”

Naturally, media from each city praised their local club for peaking at the right time as well as for having superior offensive manpower to overcome the opposing defense. However, by December 24, the Associated Press had identified the Cardinals as an astronomical two-touchdown favorite over the Eagles. Cardinals’ coach Jimmy Conzelman, who was never one to believe the headlines, offered a realistic outlook on his upcoming opponent:

“They are a rough, tough club and now that they’ve ended their jinx of never quite reaching the title game, they’ll be tough to stop. No doubt about it, the Eagles are the class of the east, but I’m sure we’ll be up for this one.”

A Nightmare For Us!

Conzelman himself received a nice pat on the back when owner/coach George Halas of the rival Chicago Bears nominated Conzelman for the “Coach of the Year” honor by stating: “I know he was supposed to have a ‘dream’ backfield, but it almost turned into a nightmare for us!”

Halas was referring to the Cardinals talented backfield of quarterback Paul Christman, fullback Pat Harder, halfback Charley Trippi, and halfback Marshall Goldberg. This was believed to be the first NFL backfield that started four collegiate All-Americans. During the 1947 season, Goldberg switched over primarily to defense and Elmer Angsman replaced him in the Cards’ offensive alignment.

On the Philadelphia side, Coach Greasy Neale identified his two areas of concern for the upcoming game: “First, we have to stop those passes of Paul Christman to Mal Kutner and Billy Dewell. And second, we must halt the hard running Pat Harder. If we do that, and I say this sincerely and not hopefully, the Eagles will be the NFL champions.”

Neale was correct in his assertion that the Cardinals’ passing attack needed to be derailed. Prior to the championship game, Christman had completed 139-301 passes for 2,191 yards and seven touchdowns.

The chief beneficiaries of those tosses were Kutner and Dewell, who combined for 85 receptions covering 1,520 yards. But Neale also needed to be aware of the presence of halfback Elmer Angsman, who topped the Cardinals in rushing in 1947 with 412 yards in 110 carries, or 3.7 yards per attempt.

18 Tons Of Hay

By December 24, advance ticket sales for the battle had already exceeded $100,000, and Cardinals’ president Ray Benningsen quietly predicted that a crowd surpassing 40,000 might be on hand, providing the challenging December weather in Chicago might cooperate.

In order to protect the field at Comiskey Park, superintendent Leo Dillon reported that he expected the gridiron to be in good shape, despite any possible inclement weather, after his crew carefully covered the turf with a canvas and then 18 tons of hay.

O'Brien Waited 22 Years

As the big day approached, the Chicago Tribune recalled that it had been 22 years since the Cardinals were awarded with an NFL title. Specifically, it listed Chris O’Brien as one of the 1947 team’s biggest fans. O’Brien, of course, was one of the founders of the team back in 1899 when it was first known as the Morgan Athletic Association.

The Tribune reported: “When the Cardinals play Philadelphia on December 28 at Comiskey Park, the gangling, gray-haired gent pacing the lower deck aisles will be Chris O’Brien. 22 years ago, Chris was the owner, manager, and part-time coach of the last Cardinal eleven to win the professional title. The Cardinals have not won the title. That honor still may be denied, but 22 years is a mighty long time to wait for your team again to reach the top.”

The Eagles were scheduled to depart for Chicago by train on Friday, December 26 and both teams planned on spending Christmas Day on the practice field. Instead of celebrating the holiday at home, each player hoped that a very big present in the form of an NFL title might be under their tree on December 28!

Please join us on December 27 here on the Sports History Network as we take a look at the final preparations for the NFL championship game in 1947. We’ll include last-minute messages from the coaches, and we’ll take a peek at the travel arrangements of the Eagles. Thank you!

Bears vs. Cardinals: The NFL's Oldest Rivalry book cover
Photo Credit: McFarland Publishing of the Bears vs. Cardinals: The NFL's Oldest Rivalry book cover (authored by Joe Ziemba)

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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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