Cardinals could not be charmed

The Baltimore Sun

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."

In addition to practicing a little capitalism, Fondersmith hoped to send a civic message. "I knew Bidwill was this questionable character, but it seemed better than nothing," he says. "I wanted to show that the city was hungry to support a team if we got one."

Bidwill made several trips to Baltimore. He saw models of the proposed downtown stadium, toured the old Colts training facility in Owings Mills and took a helicopter flight over Camden Yards. Belgrad said the state would consider building the dome Bidwill wanted, and he recruited investment titan Raymond A. "Chip" Mason to convey the business community's thirst for football.

But it would have been easier to read a sphinx's intentions than those of Bidwill.

"I really don't have anything to say," he began during a November powwow with Baltimore reporters.

"The Inner Harbor certainly is a very nice place," he added in a relatively lusty moment.

Fans and reporters parsed such statements for hints Bidwill might be leaning toward Baltimore. If they couldn't find any in his actual words, they looked for clues in his biography. He had attended Georgetown Prep and Georgetown University, so he knew the Baltimore-Washington area. And as a product of blue-collar Chicago, Bidwill would surely feel more comfortable here than in the Sun Belt, right?

"We thought, 'He isn't going to go anywhere that he's not comfortable and he'd be comfortable in Baltimore,' " Rose recalls.

Hyman staked out Bidwill's office in St. Louis for weeks.

"He would entertain my questions in the sense that he'd stand there while I asked them," Hyman says. "But his answer was usually just to throw up his hands like a referee signaling a touchdown."

First, Phoenix looked like the favorite. Then, Arizona officials thought they were out of it. Two weeks later, they were back in as a supposed co-favorite with Baltimore. A few weeks later, Jacksonville's mayor claimed that, in fact, his city shared the pole position with Arizona.

Schaefer fanned the flames of anticipation and uncertainty, phoning WBAL radio the day after Christmas to say: "It's right in the balance right now. Right now, a decision is going to be made in the next couple of days."

Early in January, Bidwill paid a last visit to Baltimore after dropping his youngest son off at Georgetown Prep. "You will hear from me by the end of the week," Belgrad remembers Bidwill telling him. "And you will like what you hear."

Belgrad and his legal counsel, Gene Feinblatt, considered breaking out a bottle of champagne.

What Bidwill didn't tell them was he would be in Phoenix the next day. When he finally got back to Belgrad, his tone had shifted considerably.

On his appointed deadline day of Jan. 15, Bidwill met with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle for two hours. He had chosen Arizona, he said, for its growth potential. "I can't say the Baltimore effort was lacking," Bidwill commented in typically opaque fashion.

The Cardinals said yesterday that Bidwill was not available to be interviewed.

Belgrad says Bidwill seriously considered Baltimore as an alternative but always preferred Phoenix.

"A great disappointment ... a sad ending," Schaefer said upon hearing the news.

But was it?

In 21 seasons in Arizona, the Cardinals have posted exactly two winning records, both 9-7. Only now, with Bidwill's son, Michael, gradually taking over day-to-day operations, have they reached the NFL's biggest stage.

Baltimore grew more comfortable with the idea of welcoming an existing franchise, and eight years later, the Cleveland Browns showed up to become the Ravens. In 13 seasons, they've made the playoffs five times and won the Super Bowl.

"It just goes to show," Belgrad says, "that if you wait for a good thing, you're rewarded."


Steelers (14-4)

vs. Cardinals (12-7)

Next Sunday, 6:30 p.m., Tampa, Fla.

TV: Chs. 11, 4 Line: Steelers by 7

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