Cardinals could not be charmed

After Colts left and before Ravens arrived, Bidwill considered making nest in Baltimore

January 25, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers had to go through a Baltimore team to reach the Super Bowl. To become world champions, they'll have to beat a team that almost came to Baltimore.

Many have forgotten after 13 years of the Ravens, but in one of the strangest chapters in Baltimore football history, city and state leaders spent the fall of 1987 and the winter of 1988 wooing the St. Louis Cardinals.

It might seem odd to have yearned for one of the NFL's least successful franchises and one of its least respected owners, William V. Bidwill.

"But you have to look at in the context of the times," says Mark Hyman, a freelance writer who reported on the possible relocation for The Sun at the time. "The Colts had just left, and there was this kind of desperation. This was the first real chance Baltimore had at bringing football back."

Rumors of a Cardinals move had percolated for years. Upon being introduced to a Baltimore reporter in 1985, veteran running back Ottis Anderson asked, "Are we going to Baltimore now?"

Bidwill was tired of playing at Busch Stadium, which seated only about 55,000, and of sharing the park and the attention of the town with the more successful baseball Cardinals.

The football Cardinals, owned by the Bidwill family since 1932, had moved to St. Louis from Chicago in 1960 and had failed to win even one playoff game in 28 seasons there.

Despite the so-so records and poor drafts, Bidwill remained loyal to longtime front office employees. The franchise occasionally landed a good coach, such as Don Coryell or Gene Stallings, but those men chafed at their lack of input.

The franchise seemed amateurish in so many ways, remembers Bob Rose, the Cardinals' spokesman during Bidwill's search for a new city. A visitor to Busch Stadium could turn right and walk on plush, brilliantly red carpet to the office of the baseball Cardinals. But a left took the poor soul to the football offices, with their faded red carpet, stretched "thin as a dime."

Bidwill received much of the blame for the culture of ineptitude, and Baltimoreans later wondered whether he would be just as bad as Colts owner Bob Irsay. But Bidwill was never known as a crude or cruel man.

"With him, the issue was competence," Hyman says. "There was the sense that he ran his franchise like a mom-and-pop store, that winning and losing didn't matter much."

Bidwill, now 77, favored conservative coats and bow ties and wore large, square glasses with plastic rims. He shared confidences with few and left longtime players feeling they had never learned a thing about him.

"I've known him 22 years, and I don't know him now any better than I did 22 years ago," longtime quarterback Jim Hart told a Sun reporter.

Despite Bidwill's poor record and lack of charisma, plenty of cities showed interest when he said the Cardinals weren't long for St. Louis.

Franchises rarely move now, but the practice seemed more common in 1987. The Raiders had ditched Oakland in 1982, and the Colts had abandoned Baltimore in 1984. Phoenix; Jacksonville, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Columbus, Ohio, all seemed happy to receive the Cardinals.

But with the wounds still fresh from Irsay's departure to Indianapolis, Baltimore began as a more reluctant suitor.

"We have been the victim of a raider, and it would be hypocritical for us to reverse roles," said Herbert Belgrad, who had been appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to run the Maryland Stadium Authority and to bring football back.

With league expansion an uncertain prospect, however, the city couldn't ignore the opportunity. Belgrad wouldn't engage in a bidding war for the Cardinals, but if Bidwill was definitely going to leave St. Louis, he and Schaefer wanted Baltimore on the list of possible destinations.

"I know it sounds like we're talking out both sides of our mouth," Belgrad told reporters, "but we're not."

Baltimore's involvement prompted mixed reactions from fans.

"The prospect of the Cardinals lateraling themselves off to Baltimore hasn't exactly been greeted with dancing in the streets," wrote John Steadman, the dean of Baltimore sports columnists.

But as the saga carried on, many warmed to the idea.

"I'd prefer an expansion team so we could start over again and build on the enthusiasm and excitement that comes when you're developing something of your own," former Colts superfan Hurst Loudenslager told Steadman. "But I'm over 70 and I want to see pro football, so maybe we should consider an established team."

A local screen-printing shop, Serigraphics, pitched the idea of Baltimore Cardinals T-shirts to the Hutzler's department store chain. Thousands hit the shelves before a cease-and-desist letter from the NFL halted production.

"Oh, my gosh, they were selling as soon as we delivered them," Serigraphics president Eric Fondersmith remembers. "People were pulling them out of the boxes. You couldn't even get them on shelves."

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