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Browns vs Cardinals: How the Bidwell family became owners of the Cardinals franchise

Mostly played second fiddle to the Bears

Arizona Cardinals vs Philadelphia Eagles, 2009 NFC Championship
2009 NFC Playoffs: Arizona Cardinals owner William Bidwell victorious with George Halas Trophy after game vs Philadelphia Eagles
Set Number: X81691 TK1 R6 F85

As the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals prepare to face off, it is interesting to look back at the history of the opponents.

The Chicago Cardinals were in their second ownership group when founder Chris O’Brien sold the franchise for $12,000 to Dr. David Jones in 1929 who was a major stockholder in the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Jones held more Cubs stock than anybody except for Philip Wrigley. Under O’Brien, the Cardinals had captured the 1925 NFL title.

Under Jones, the team finished with two fourth-place finishes and two seventh-place finishes including going 2-6-2 in 1932.

Meanwhile, Charles Bidwell was a local lawyer and gained wealth through his practice as well as the owner of a racing stable, a printing company, manager of the Hawthorne Race Course, and President of the Chicago Stadium Operating Company which was the firm that managed the indoor Chicago Stadium. Through his law practice, he also served as assistant prosecutor for the City of Chicago.

Charles Bidwell

His nickname was “Blue Shirt Charley” because he often wore blue shirts and boots versus the traditional white shirts and customary leather shoes. He was also a season ticket holder for the Chicago Bears.

Bidwill had loaned money to Bears owner George Halas in the past who like every other NFL team would have financial issues each year even with a winning season. For example, the 1930 Bears went 9-4-1 including five consecutive wins to close out the year, and yet lost just over $10,000. Team owners would try anything to get more folks through the gates just to keep things going.

In the end, these owners had no choice but to reach out to family members, banks, and friends for loans in order to keep going until the next season’s gate receipts and program sales could finally place them in the black.

In the early 1930s, Bears minority owner Dutch Sternaman decided to sell his 50% portion of the club. He had invested in an apartment building and a gas station but was facing steep mortgage payments. Sternaman offered his shares to Halas for $38,000 which Halas accepted on the spot. Except, Halas did not have $38,000. An arrangement was made for Halas to make three installments over three years.

One of Halas’ first calls was to his mother who bought $5,000 in stock. Bidwill then wrote a $5,000 check for stock and arranged a bank loan for the other $5,000 which paid off the first installment. Shortly thereafter, Bidwill was installed as the Bears’ vice president.

In the summer of 1932, Bidwill and his wife Violet hosted an informal dinner party aboard his luxurious yacht “The Ren-Mar” and cruised along Lake Michigan. In attendance was Arch Ward, sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, with his wife Helen, plus Dr. Jones and his wife Elsa.

The topic eventually got around to pro football. Jones began to complain about the unfortunate state of the game in terms of annual financial losses as well as having to compete with the Bears which drew well at the gate and usually had winning teams.

At that point, Violet Bidwill jokingly asked Jones, “Why don’t you sell the team to Charley?” Jones’ answer was that he would sell anything he owned if the price was right. Bidwill then asked what that price was, to which Jones replied, “$50,000.”

Several nights later, Bidwill contacted Jones to inform him he would buy the Cardinals which began with a $2,000 deposit. Bidwill would much have preferred to purchase his favorite team, the Bears, but this was a way to keep his lifelong love of sports alive.

For the next year, Bidwill remained the Bears’ Vice President and even had season tickets which was a blatant conflict of interest that in those days did not matter. Bidwill made it known he remained a Chicago Bears fan. He was even seen at a Bears home game while his Cardinals were playing an away game.

Bidwill was a winner and knew that everything he was involved with began winners, too. His checkbook was free-wheeling. Halas was fond that Bidwill was now in the stable of NFL owners which brought financial stability into the ranks.

1947 logo

It would be several years before the Cardinals would replace the Bears in Bidwill’s heart. He owned the team for 14 seasons. In April of 1947, Bidwill passed away from pneumonia in a Chicago hospital at the age of 51. With that 1947 season, the Cardinals won the Western Division by one game and then defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 in the NFL Championship Game for the franchise’s second title.

Upon Bidwill’s death, the club was now owned by his wife Violet who became the first female owner of a professional football team. She attended owner’s meetings and performed league business just like the other owners much to the chagrin of her male counterparts. She and Charley Bidwill had two adopted sons: Charles, Jr. and Bill. She married Walter Wolfner in 1949 and moved the franchise to St. Louis in 1960 and operated the Cardinals until her death in 1962 at the age of 62.

Violet Bidwell

Violet’s adopted sons gained 80% ownership upon her death with Wolfner getting the balance. A lawsuit ensued as Wolfner’s contention was it should be the other way around. In 1971, the sons wholly owned the Cardinals.

Only the Bears and the New York Football Giants have operated as family-owned longer than the Bidwells. The franchise has won two NFL titles in 1925 and 1947. They are the oldest continuous pro football team still in existence.

The franchise made another move in 1988 and became the Phoenix Cardinals. Then in 1994, the name was changed to the Arizona Cardinals to represent the region rather than a single city.

Today, Michael Bidwell is the principal owner, Chairman and President. At one time he was a federal prosecutor in Phoenix. His grandfather was Blue Shirt Charley.