Saturday, January 22, 2011

Oldest Pro Football Series

I am currently enjoying Joe Ziemba's When Football was Football: The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL during my lunch breaks. I have yet to finish, but all the attention the much-anticipated Bears-Packers NFC Championship game is getting has highlighted one little piece of NFL history I learned from this book.

Chicago's and, arguably, the world's first professional team is the Cardinals, now rooted in Arizona. The Morgan Athletic Association played its first official game on October 15, 1899 in a win over the Shermans on Chicago's south side. The club eventually became known as the Chicago Cardinals franchise when the NFL organized in 1920. The Cardinals continued to play, oftentimes lousy, football as apart of the NFL in Chicago until the move to St. Louis in 1960.

While grocery shopping at Wal-Mart and Kroger today, I noticed an alarming number of people proudly sporting every piece of Bears or Packers clothing they have. The build up for this exciting bout is huge. Most of the cashiers at Kroger were wearing Bears jerseys and t-shirts. The TV section at Wal-Mart was broadcasting a December 2007 Bear-Pack game. The local Christian radio station was telling cheesehead jokes on their morning show. I even glanced at the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times only to discover the lions guarding the front doors of the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue donning Bears scarves and earmuffs. I did not even witness this much to do while teaching at a school on the Illinois-Indiana border during the Chicago-Indy Super Bowl. Now, don't get me wrong. I love all the attention the Bears are getting. However, much of the acclaim is touting the showdown as the biggest game in the oldest rivalry of pro football. Mr. Ziemba, the author of the Cardinals history book, has something to say about that assertion, though.

Many Bears fans know "Papa Bear" George Halas got his pro football start in 1920 as the player/coach of the Decatur Staleys and that the Staleys had become the Chicago Bears by 1922. Many Bears fans, inluding myself, also know the NFL's longest running rivalry is between Green Bay and our beloved. The history books say otherwise, though. The Chicago Cardinals, who were a legitimate annual contender for the title in the early '20's, first battled and defeated the Decatur Staleys by a score of 7-6 on November 28, 1920. Therefore, the series between the Bears and the Cardinals is the NFL's oldest because neither the Cards nor the Staleys played against the Packers until November of 1921. The Cards and Pack fought to a draw on the 20th, and the first staging of the "oldest rivalry" was on November 28, 1921 when the Chicago Staleys (Halas agreed to keep the Staley moniker for the '21 season and changed to the Bears in 1922) beat Green Bay 20-0.

Now, the argument becomes that of the definition of "rivalry." I would assert that the Cardinals do not have a rivalry with either the Bears or the Packers. The Cards moved farther from Chicago than Green Bay over fifty years ago, and they are not even in the same division anymore. Chicago has played Arizona only twice since 2003. How can that be termed a rivalry? To me, a rival is not just any team you may play against at some point in time. A rival must be a team you play regularly, a team within reasonable geographic distance, a team in your division, a team you have a long history with, and a team whose fans interact negatively with one another. Hence, the Bears and the Packers do have the NFL's oldest rivalry in my opinion even if the Cardinals played both teams first. Had Chicago retained their south side gridders, we may have an argument. So enjoy Sunday afternoon's game all the more now that you have a little extra background knowledge of the rivalry.

1 comment:

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