December 28, 1947: Coach, Was You Worried?

Something didn’t look right…

It was the morning of December 28, 1947, 75 years ago today, and both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Cardinals were preparing for their eagerly awaited NFL title game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

Despite the presence of 18 tons of hay being used to cover the field in the week before the game, the turf had quickly become frozen overnight once the hay was removed the day before.

After surveying the scene prior to the game, Cardinals coach Jimmy Conzelman ordered his players to wear gym shoes, to hopefully secure better traction on the field. Would that work on the frozen tundra more commonly known as the south side of Chicago?

Welcome to our final bonus episode of “When Football Was Football” celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Cardinals last NFL championship. We thank the Sports History Network for allowing us to grab some of the network’s valuable “extra” air space the last couple of weeks in order to provide these special updates as they occurred 75 years ago to the day.

Part of this program is borrowed from one of our previous episodes on the Sports History Network with some additional information sprinkled in as needed.

Field Cleats To Razor Sharpness

So, what did not look right prior to kickoff? Simply put, it was the shoes. More specifically it was the shoes being customized by the Eagles before the game in hopes of grabbing more footing on the field during the upcoming game.

While the Cardinals took the field in their new gym shoes, the Eagles opted for modified football shoes, which were actually sharply honed cleats attached to regular football boots. The Green Bay Gazette reported: “They had filed the cleats on their shoes to razor sharpness.” 

The Cardinals apparently learned of the illegal work on the Eagles’ shoes from a clubhouse boy who had peeked in the Philadelphia locker room before the game. No mention of the shoes was made until the game started when the Cardinals pointed out the handiwork, and the Eagles were assessed a pair of early penalties by referee Tom Dowd for” illegal equipment.” 

Philadelphia coach Greasy Neale was still livid about the rulings after the game: “It won’t show in the final score, but at the start of the game we were penalized five yards for illegal equipment when we could have made a first down, and that cost us plenty.”

Comiskey Was Like A Skating Rink

Former Eagles end Jack Ferrante recalled the situation years later in the 1979 NFC Championship Game Program:

“Comiskey was like a skating rink. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, but we had taken the weather into account as we got ready in the pre-game. We had on regular football shoes, but the cleats were filed to pretty sharp points. That gave us the traction we needed. I thought they’d work better than the tennis shoes the Cards were wearing.

Everything was great until early in the game when one of their guys got cut by one of our filed cleats and raised hell with the officials. They made us change into basketball shoes right on the spot…We just couldn’t get any traction. You’d think we were wearing leather-soled shoes on a hockey rink the way we were slipping and sliding.”

Players Staggered Around Like 22 Drunk Men

With both teams now in gym shoes, the footing was treacherous early in the game and the players slipped all over the field. “During this period, they staggered around like 22 drunken men in a dark alley,” explained Art Daley in the Green Bay Gazette. 

With the great shoe controversy behind them, the two teams settled down to measure one another. As Cards’ coach Conzelman had hoped, the Eagles lined up in their unusual eight-man defensive line (five linemen and three linebackers), one that Bears’ coach George Halas did not admire fondly in his comments:

“Eight-man line? Bah! All ya gotta do is pinch a back through there and he’s practically alone—in the clear.”  

Conzelman had prepared his team for this unique defense, but they were also wary of rugged halfback Steve Van Buren and accurate passer Tommy Thompson of the Eagles. The New York Times outlined the offensive hopes of the Cardinals: “The Chicago Cardinals hope to get going with the ‘fastest with the mostest’ in a counter-offensive against the running of Philadelphia’s champion ball carrier Steve Van Buren.

But coach Jimmy Conzelman’s real galloping threats are Elmer Angsman, the ex-Notre Dame blaster, and Boris Dimancheff, former Purdue scatback, who have been an unheralded nightmare to Cardinal opponents while the so-called “Dream Backfield” of Charley Trippi, Marshall Goldberg, Paul Christman, and Pat Harder basked in the limelight.”

We Did Our Homework

Elmer Angsman actually led the team in rushing that season with 412 yards in 110 attempts and became one of the stars of the championship game. Behind the blocking of Chet Bulger and Vince Banonis, the Cards scored early in the first quarter when Trippi broke through for a 44-yard scoring run. Banonis later said, “We did our homework on the eight-man line. The blockers attacked at the point where the play was going to take place.”

Meanwhile, Conzelman usually put one back in motion to distract the three safeties, leaving few defensive assets if a runner, like Trippi, managed to break through the line. Trippi added: “We had a lot of success against the eight-man front. There were really no linebackers, so if you could elude the defensive backs, the defense was very vulnerable.”

Midway through the second period, the Cardinals struck again when Angsman shot through the line and finished a 70-yard scoring dash, carrying defender Pat McHugh along for the final five yards. Pat Harder added the extra point, leaving the hosts up 14-0 with 6:54 remaining in the half. The Eagles cut the margin to 14-7 at the break when Thompson connected with Pat McHugh on a 55-yard scoring toss.

Pete Pihos of the Eagles (right) grabs a pass in front of Walt Rankin of the Cardinals during the Cards 28-21 win in the 1947 NFL title game.
Photo Credit Press and Sun-Bulletin of Pete Pihos of the Eagles (right) grabs a pass in front of Walt Rankin of the Cardinals during the Cards 28-21 win in the 1947 NFL title game.

He'll Be Coming Back This Way!

In the third quarter, Trippi dazzled the crowd with a 75-yard punt return for a 21-7 advantage for the Cardinals. The Philadelphia Inquirer described Trippi’s heroics: “He picked it up as it bounced around the Cards’ 25, and when he battered the first cordon of off-balanced tacklers, there were not many green jerseys in his path.

He was hit three more times as he wheeled down the field, but nobody could smack him solidly.” Trippi’s zig-zag return was so impressive that Eagles coach Greasy Neale was said to have yelled to his players: “Get up and be ready. He’ll be coming back this way any second now!” 

But the Eagles were not finished as Van Buren plunged over from the one late in the third quarter to narrow the margin to 21-14. In the fourth period, Angsman burst through the Eagles’ line for another 70-yard TD, completing the Cardinals’ scoring in what would be a 28-21 victory.

The impressed Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Angsman “didn’t experience the indignity of an alien hand during his 70-yard scoring scamper.” While Angsman may not have been touched, there was plenty of rough stuff going on in the trenches according to the Green Bay Gazette:

“As the game wore on, the belligerents got rougher and rougher, including Eagles’ tackles Wisert and Kilroy who were having a big time with their fists and elbows. Pat Harder and Lloyd Arms came out with bloody faces from deep cuts.”

Was You Worried, Coach?

Angsman ended up establishing a new rushing record for an NFL championship game by picking up 159 yards in just ten carries. On the other side of the field, Thompson set a new title game completion mark by connecting on 27-44 passes for 297 yards. “We did everything but beat them,” lamented losing coach Greasy Neale.

After the game, a burly lineman waddled up to Coach Conzelman and roared “Was you worried, coach?” The coach smiled and replied: “Yeah. I was worried.” Conzelman later explained that he was concerned about the two-week layoff after his club defeated the Bears to snare the Western Division championship: “But after a few knocks out there and that first touchdown of Charley Trippi’s, I guess everybody on the club felt right. We knew this was the money game and everybody helped in his own way.”

On the Philadelphia side, Coach Greasy Neale acknowledged the ability of the Cardinals: “The Cards were a great team out there today. Don’t take anything away from them. They hit when they had to, and you can’t say much more than that for any football club.”

About the only thing missing from the glee in the Cardinal’s locker room was the presence of the late owner Charles Bidwill, who had passed away earlier in the year after putting together the roster for the team that would achieve his dream of winning an NFL crown.

1947 Chicago Cardinals locker room after winning the NFL championship
Photo Courtesy of author of Chicago Cardinals celebrating in locker room after 1947 NFL Championship

I Can Tell You In Two Words

For their efforts, each of the Cardinals received $1,132 for winning the 1947 NFL championship, while the losing Eagles earned $755 each. Sadly, this would be the last title won by the Cardinals as the team has moved from Chicago to St. Louis, to Arizona. It is the longest championship drought in professional sports today.

But on December 28, 1947, the Cardinals ruled the football world and I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from that game. It came from Cardinals president Ray Benningsen who was asked to describe how he felt about his team winning the title. Benningsen replied: “I can tell you in two words. Wonderful!” Think about that one…

Thank you for joining us on the Sports History Network for our look back at the Cardinals’ last NFL championship, won 75 years ago today!

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)

Listen To All 1947 Championship Run Bonus Episodes

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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.

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