Friday, June 21, 2019

Two Flags For the Cardinals?

Pennants have not recently flown over the city of St. Louis. This year the baseball Cardinals brought one home, and the football Cardinals may bring another from the scramble of the NFL Eastern Division

By Edwin Shrake 

In St. Louis last week a bunch of guys with sledgehammers were knocking down an old burlesque house to clear ground for a new stadium, which means that by the spring of 1966 night baseball and Sunday afternoon football will have replaced sex in at least one area of the leafy and pleasant town on the banks of the Mississippi River. For the citizens of St. Louis, who sat 18 years in the gloom of Busch Stadium waiting for their baseball Cardinals to win another World Series, the new stadium is a merit badge for patience. A further reward may be granted to St. Louis fans before the first graffito is scratched into the concrete of the new stadium. The football Cardinals leaped off to a flourishing 3-0-1 record in the NFL's Eastern Division. Although they lost three of their next four games to the powerful Baltimore Colts, the rising Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants, who seem to have come back from wherever they had been, they are by no means out of contention. The Cardinals are two games behind the Cleveland Browns, .071 percentage points ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles and one game ahead of Dallas. Cleveland still must play Detroit and Green Bay, two strong Western teams, on successive Sundays. The Cardinals have one more shot at the Browns and, fortunately, are through banging helmets against the West.

But if the Cardinals are to be successful, they will have to provide their quarterback, Charley Johnson, much better protection than he got last Sunday against the Giants. The New York pass rush reached Johnson 11 times for 96 yards in losses, and under pressure he threw three straight interceptions and three times overthrew receivers who were open deep for certain touchdowns. Giant Quarterback Y. A. Tittle, who had been written off as finished by observers of little faith, finally began to throw the way he used to. With the help of tough running by rookie Backs Steve Thurlow and Ernie Wheelwright, Tittle bombed the Cardinals 34-17. Facing the somewhat erratic Steelers this week, the Cardinals will have to win if they intend to keep St. Louis hoping for another pennant to fly beside the one the baseball team brought home.

The football Cardinals and the baseball Cardinals are the same in name and playing site only. The baseball team is owned by August Busch, the Budweiser baron, who is a quick man at handing out rejection slips. The football team is owned 90% by Charles and Billy Bidwill, who also own a piece of Sportsman's Park racetrack in Chicago and a couple of dog tracks in Florida, and 10% by Joseph Griesedieck of the Falstaff Brewing Corp. The relationship between the football and baseball organizations is not always one of warmth and camaraderie, especially when Billy Bidwill reflects on the playing conditions at Busch Stadium, where Gussie Busch is the landlord. "We've had three colors of grass on the field this year—light brown, medium brown and dark brown," Billy Bidwill said last week. "The only water that ever gets on it is the sweat that falls off our players."

The Bidwill brothers had a serious romance with Atlanta during the spring and summer, but they decided to keep their franchise in St. Louis. "There was no legal or financial reason why we didn't go to Atlanta. They offered us a better deal than we will have here," said Billy Bidwill. "But we're going to stick it out and wait for the new stadium. It will have a nice, simple, easy-to-remember name. They're calling it the Civic Center Busch Memorial Stadium, and they'll probably put a statue of Stan Musial out front. Nearly anything will be an improvement over the park we have to play in now. Busch Stadium is a terrible handicap to us."

Football fans who are not lucky enough to get one of the 16,000 seats between the goal lines can agree with that. But at a time when baseball owners are changing affections faster than college sweethearts, the fans applaud the Bidwills' decision to let the Milwaukee Braves have Atlanta and to remain in a town where they have been loved not always wildly but well.

Because the World Series occupied Busch Stadium until October 15, the football Cardinals had to play their first five games on the road. For the home opener the 8,000 seats in the temporary East stands had not yet been erected, and season ticket holders in that section had to watch the game on closed-circuit television in an auditorium at Washington University. But the Cardinals made them happy by providing a weird and winning climax—they scored two touchdowns in the last 24 seconds to beat the Washington Redskins 38-24—and the band at half time strutted over and paid tribute to St. Louis patience by playing a number directly to the empty, dismantled East stands.
Adversity never has bothered the Cardinals. They are used to it. In 1962 they lost more than a dozen players because of injuries. Last year Running Back Prentice Gautt was hurt in the opening game and did not play again, although the Cardinals finished 9-5 for their best record since 1948. This season Linebackers Larry Stallings, Bill Koman and Marion Rushing, Running Back Joe Childress and Corner Back Jimmy Hill have been injured, Running Back Bill Triplett is ill with a tubercular infection and Split End Sonny Randle—the Cards' most dangerous deep threat—is out of action completely because of a shoulder separation suffered two weeks ago in the game against Dallas.

But this may be remembered as one of the years John David Crow (see cover) stayed on his feet and—perhaps—rallied the Cards to victory. In seven seasons Crow, more than any other single player, has become identified in the public mind with the St. Louis team. An All-America at Texas A&M and winner of the Heisman Trophy and Walter Camp Award, Crow was the No. 1 draft choice of the then Chicago Cardinals in 1957. In his first game he tore loose on an 83-yard touchdown run. That same season Crow also caught a 91-yard touchdown pass. But then injuries forced him out of several games, setting a pattern of bad luck that has plagued him throughout his pro career.

In 1961 Crow broke a leg. In 1963 a knee operation limited him to nine carries. Perhaps because of injuries, Crow has never again been the blasting runner he was in 1960 when he rushed for 1,071 yards and a 5.9 average. But he scored 17 touchdowns in 1962 for a Cardinal record, and it must be more than coincidence that with Crow reasonably healthy this year the Cardinals did get off to their best start since the franchise was shifted to St. Louis before the 1960 season.

Crow has not been pleased by his own performance this year. Recovering from his knee operation, he put himself through an arduous training program at his home in Pine Bluff, Ark., where he is in the construction business, and reported to camp at a trim 214 pounds. "We have a flock of good running backs," Crow said last week, "and I was determined to get my starting job back. I was trying to concentrate on my blocking. I think I've had a fair year at blocking and have helped the club. But something has been wrong with my running. I've never been real fast and at 29 don't expect to get faster. But the trouble this year is my balance. The first guy who hits me, I go down."

In preparation for the Giants, Crow spent much of last week viewing old movies of himself. "I'm trying to figure out if I'm doing anything different," he said. "It could be that I haven't been using the guards right. I have to follow the guards wherever I go and make my cuts off their blocks. Traps, wheel blocks [in which the center blocks over on the tackle and a guard pulls to block the middle linebacker], sweeps, everything the guards do dictates what I do, and I haven't been doing it the way I know I'm capable of doing it.

"I want to be part of this club," Crow said. "If we win this year, we're going to win for a long time. We're moving into an era of championships. We won't be one-shotters like Philadelphia or Chicago because we have a lot of youth. We have poise and confidence. Those are the marks of the great teams. With the great teams, like Green Bay was, you see them come onto the field and you can feel their poise and confidence. You can't imagine them losing a game. Well, this Cardinal team is going to be like that."

If Crow is right, much of the responsibility for the Cardinals' new status will rest on the slender shoulders of Quarterback Charley Johnson, a young Texan with cold, gray, unblinking eyes. Johnson studies defenses with those gunfighter's eyes as if daring them to make their move. But when the defenses do make sudden, unexpected moves—as the Cowboys did two weeks ago while beating the Cardinals 31-13—Johnson's eyes often go right on staring without knowing exactly what they are seeing. He does not yet have the experience to find alternate receivers quickly under a thundering rush such as the Giants presented him. A quarterback like Johnny Unitas of Baltimore can create a play where there is none. Johnson, in only his fourth season as a pro, has to stay with the plan.

But Cardinal Coach Wally Lemm keeps his offense fairly static. Lemm, like Vince Lombardi of Green Bay, installs his offense in training camp and sticks with it. He believes the Cardinals have the personnel to make it work. The offense relies on execution rather than on deception or surprise. And at operating such an offense, Johnson is a capable mechanic with a good arm.

At New Mexico State, Johnson called the plays for a backfield of Bob Gaiters, Pervis Atkins and Bob Jackson, all of whom had more glittering reputations than Johnson but none of whom made it as a pro of Johnson's class. When Johnson arrived at his first training camp the Cardinals looked at his thin, slight frame and waited to be convinced. The fact that he was working toward a doctorate in chemical engineering—which he expects to receive in another year at Washington University with a thesis on extruder dynamics—sounded suspiciously unathletic. "But we have confidence in him," Crow said. "You can see the poise in Johnson this year. He sets up strong."

However, Johnson now has one less receiver that he was counting on, and it is a very important deletion from the Cardinal offense. Split End Sonny Randle, who underwent surgery last week, was Johnson's favorite target on the deep pass. Randle had gained an average of 20.7 yards on each of his 25 catches this year and had scored five touchdowns. He was the man who got the compliment of double coverage.

With Randle out, a particularly heavy load has fallen on Tight End Jackie Smith and Flanker Bobby Joe Conrad. At Texas A&M, Conrad played in the shadow of Crow. But Conrad—who was once called "the best touch football player in America" by his college coach, Bear Bryant—has blossomed as a professional since he became a spread receiver. Last year, with the defenses nervously conscious of Randle, Conrad led the NFL with 73 catches. He is a quiet, grinning country boy who owns a feed store near his home town, Clifton, Texas (pop. 2,230). "I run a few old mama cows on a little piece of land down there, too," Conrad said last week. "It's only 250 acres. In some parts of the country I guess they'd call that a ranch. But down home it's only a little farm, not worth talkin' about."

The Cardinal defense can help make up for any offensive failure caused by the loss of Randle when the blitz is working well. The Cowboys designed their offense for their second Cardinal game on the theory that St. Louis would blitz most of the time. Dallas eventually forced the Cards into a more conservative defense. Against New York, the Cards tried a five-man line with two linebackers and managed to tackle a fast-throwing Tittle for a loss only once. This put a tremendous responsibility on the defensive backs, and the Cardinals have some good ones. Perhaps the best is 5-foot-9, 168-pound Corner Back Pat Fischer, the most consistent performer in a competent secondary. Fischer is adept at tracking such receivers as Jimmy Orr, Bobby Mitchell and Tommy McDonald, and he astonished the crowd at Cleveland this year by spearing the 228-pound Jim Brown head on, lifting him and hurling him backwards. "We didn't even try to throw into Fischer's area," said Dallas Cowboy Coach Tom Landry. "It's a real dogfight for a receiver to try to beat Fischer. We thought there were easier ways to play the Cardinals than to challenge him." The Cardinal veterans are as astonished by Fischer as the opposition is. "The veterans cut him from the squad two years ago," Crow said. "But Pat refused to give up and now he does a great job."

After six years in which nothing but an injury could, and often did, keep him out of the starting backfield, Crow has found new competition this season. The competition weighs 230 pounds and is named Willis Crenshaw. The Cards drafted Crenshaw as a future in 1962. "Going over our roster in the spring, we thought the best chance Crenshaw had to make the team was as a linebacker," Wally Lemm said. "Then we saw him as a running back in the two college all-star games this summer, and that's where we put him. He's a bull of a back."

Crenshaw, a St. Louis native who played at Kansas State, is the Cards' most exciting runner at this point—even in competition with Joe Childress, Prentice Gautt, Thunder Thornton, Bob Pare-more and John David Crow. He is all knees and elbows when he runs, and after a tackier gets past those flailing extremities there is an impressive amount of muscle to contend with. "Trying to get your arms around his thighs is like tackling anybody else around the waist," said Dallas Linebacker Chuck Howley. At a recent Junior Quarterback Club meeting in St. Louis, a young fan stood up and asked Crow why Crenshaw has not been allowed to play more. "He asked the wrong man that question," Crow said later. "I'm concerned about playing myself."

Crow is one of the veterans who can recall less pleasurable days, when the Cardinals were in Chicago and the crowds were small but antagonistic. "Some afternoons we would have 10,000 people in the stands, and 9,000 were there to boo us," said Dallas Linebacker Jerry Tubbs, a survivor of those campaigns. "We were the doormats for everybody to wipe their feet on," Crow said. "I'm not taking anything away from Pop Ivy [the previous coach] but when Lemm took over in 1962 he drilled confidence into us. He told us he wasn't going to make a lot of trades. He said we had the players to win the championship if we would believe in ourselves. He made us believe it. We're going to win."

If the Cardinals should make it this year, the NFL championship game would be played in Busch Stadium on December 27, less than three months after the baseball Cardinals won the World Series on that same brown grass. Two championships in one season would set off a celebration in St. Louis that would make Charles A. Lindbergh's 1927 parade down Lindell Boulevard seem like a rehearsal. But the team that wins in the NFL's Eastern Division will view the probable approach of the Baltimore Colts with considerably more alarm than the baseball Cardinals felt toward the New York Yankees.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Cardinals Visit Japan

Japanese Ticket Stub
As a person who loves his football, loves football nostalgia and history, and has also traveled to Japan, I stumbled upon an old newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune about the time in 1976 that the football Cardinals made their way to Tokyo in 1976 to play the Chargers in an exhibition game, the first professional American NFL football game ever played in the Far East.  Of course the Japanese do play football, but not like they do here in North America, and as the reprinted article down below explains, at the time the game occurred, many in the stands were unsure of what they were witnessing.

At the time the game was played, the only real stadium available was old Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo, home of the New York Yankees of Japan- The Yomiuri Giants. Presumably the game was played here, rather than at the Olympic stadium because it would likely attract more fans.  The Japanese did not disappoint in coming out to see the first NFL game played on Asian soil. 

As some one who has visited Japan on numerous occasions, I have always wondered why American football has never really caught on there like baseball and soccer has.  Of course that does not mean it is non-existent there. The sport is played at the semi-pro level with the X-League, as well as the collegiate level with the champions of each level meeting for the national championship in of course (drum roll please)- "The Rice Bowl."

In essence American football is a niche sport that has a decent following, but is not the national rage that baseball is.  For us "gaijin" in and out of Japan, we can follow all the action at the English and German website called "American Football in Japan" where the history of the game has been and is being recorded. Of course, once a Japanese national cracks the starting lineup of an NFL or even a CFL squad, presumably as a kicker, that will likely change and the NFL will one day return to the Land of the  As football is the ultimate team sport, and in Japan the group is much more valued than the individual, I suspect that when that happens.  I sure hope that happens, and it is a topic I will visit eventually at The Autumn Wind.

The Cardinals huddle near the end zone in the outfield
The now demolished Korakuen Stadium