Remembering Violet Bidwill Wolfner: First Female NFL Owner

Violet Bidwill-Wolfner

Violet Bidwill became the first woman to own an NFL franchise after her husband passed away in April 1947. Charles Bidwill had purchased the Chicago Cardinals in 1933 and would eventually acquire horse and dog tracks in Chicago and Florida, all of which Ms. Bidwill inherited at the time of Charley’s death.

Violet Bidwill was born Violet Fults in Red Bud, IL (40 miles southeast of St. Louis) on January 10, 1900. Her father died when she was just four years old and her mother worked as a waitress. Violet met Chicago sportsman Charley Bidwill in the 1920s and were soon married. Charles “Stormy” Bidwill Jr. was born in 1928 and younger brother William (Bill) Bidwill was born three years later. The boys would later learn, after Violet’s death, that they had been adopted.

Violet was a tall, beautiful, soft-eyed woman, who former Cardinals head coach Jim Conzelman and others described as so shy that she was uncomfortable except in the presence of her family and close friends. Youngest son Bill would acquire this same trait.

PURCHASE OF THE CARDINALS

In 1932, Chicago Cardinals owner Dr. David Jones and his wife were dinner guests on the Bidwill’s yacht, the Red-Mar. Conversation eventually led to Dr. Jones bemoaning the sorry state of his pro football team.

Out of nowhere, Mrs. Bidwill asked Jones, “Why don’t you sell the Cardinals to Charley?”

Jones responded that he would sell anything he owned for the right price.

Over the next few months Bidwill and Jones would negotiate the sale of the team. In 1933, Bidwill officially purchased the Chicago Cardinals for $50,000 ($1 Million dollars today).

That simple question from Violet Bidwill would help change the course of history of the Cardinal organization and the cities of Chicago, St. Louis, and Phoenix.

CHARLEY BIDWILL’S DEATH

Charley Bidwill was a big spender and spared no expense when signing players and head coaches. However, that did not lead to success on the field. The Cardinals had only two winning seasons from 1933-1946.

In 1947, Bidwill signed Georgia star Charley Trippi to a record $100,000 contract. It was the last piece of the Cardinals “Million Dollar Backfield” which consisted of Trippi, Pat Harder, Marshall Goldberg, Elmer Angsman, and former Mizzou QB Paul Christman.

The Cardinals would win their only undisputed NFL Championship later in 1947 when they beat the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21. Charley Bidwill did not live to see his “Million Dollar Backfield” win the title. He died suddenly of pneumonia shortly after signing Trippi.

“It’s just too bad Charley couldn’t have seen this,” Violet Bidwill sobbed after the game.

VIOLET BIDWILL TAKES OVER TEAM

After Charley’s death, Violet was left to raise their two sons. Stormy was 18 and attending Georgetown University. Bill was 16 and still in high school.

And, with the help of team president Ray Bennigsen and head coach Jim Conzelman, Ms. Bidwill also took over operation of the Chicago Cardinals.

“Things worked out well,” Ray said. “I ran the business end of it, Jimmy ran the team on the field and we both appreciated Vi’s (Violet) counsel. I’ll tell you one thing. She knew her football and she was a shrewd business woman, and I mean that kindly.”

That situation worked very well for a couple of years, but things changed when Violet married St. Louis businessman Walter Wolfner in 1949. Wolfner, an abrasive, combative man, was named managing director of the Cardinals. Soon after, both Bennigsen and Conzelman left the organization.

It has been said that Violet Bidwill Wolfner’s greatest mistake was giving her new husband too much control of the team.

Over the next eleven years in Chicago, the Cardinals lost money and were a losing team on the field. They went through seven head coaches and almost twenty quarterbacks. It soon became apparent that Wolfner didn’t know what he was doing, and the players knew it.

Said one former Cardinal, “Making him managing director of the team just because he married the owner is like sending me to manage the New York Philharmonic.”

Walter Wolfner (L), head coach Joe Kuharich (C), and Violet Bidwill Wolfner at Lake Forest, IL training camp in 1952.

As the Cardinals continued to struggle, Violet was determined to keep the team in Chicago. She turned down an offer to buy the team from a group of Chicago businessmen and also turned down a generous offer from Lamar Hunt who wanted to relocate the team to Texas.

“They tried to run Charley out of town ten years ago and they couldn’t do it,” Bidwill claimed. “Now they’re trying to do the same thing and the answer is still no!”

Many say that Mrs. Wolfner’s rejection led Hunt to form the American Football League (AFL). It was yet another decision by Violet Bidwill Wolfner that helped changed the course of pro football history.

FEUD WITH GEORGE HALAS

It was well known that the late Charles Bidwill and Chicago Bears owner George Halas enjoyed a long friendship. Bidwill loaned Halas money on more than one occasion just so the Bears could make payroll.

After Charley’s death, the relationship between the Cardinals and Bears soured. Violet had inherited $50,000 worth of Bears stock and she offered it to Halas in exchange for rookie third string quarterback Bobby Layne.

Halas not only refused the deal, but he traded the future hall of famer to the New York Bulldogs for $50,000 and two draft choices. He also demanded a clause in the contract that Layne could never be sold or traded to the Cardinals. Halas took the $50,000 from the trade and paid off Violet Bidwill.

Any loyalty that Halas had to Charley Bidwill apparently ended the day the Cardinals owner died and the relationship between the two teams worsened after Walter Wolfner came on board.

SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS WOMAN

Although Mrs. Bidwill-Wolfner preferred to stay in the background and exert less influence as owner of the Cardinals, she was known as a great business woman.

A long time associate of Mrs. Bidwill-Wolfner once told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that property and holdings she inherited from Charley Bidwill in 1947 actually had increased under her direction.

“She wouldn’t say much,” recalled Charley Shea, longtime treasurer of the Cardinals, “but when you sat down to discuss a business matter or complicated tax angle with her, that’s when you realized how much she knew.”

It was rumored that Mrs. Bidwill-Wolfner was the second richest lady in Chicago and that profits from her printing company and horse and dog tracks helped keep the Cardinals afloat throughout the 1950s.

Violet Bidwill worked as treasurer at Sportsman’s Park racetrack in Chicago. She inherited the track after husband Charley passed away in 1947.

SHOOTOUT

In 1951, four men broke into the Wolfner suburban Chicago home where gunfire was exchanged. Walter Wolfner was eventually overpowered and forced into the basement with Violet and held at gunpoint. The Wolfner’s house keeper had managed to escape and called police.

One robber was killed and the other three apprehended by police. Detectives found $20,000 worth of jewelry and clothing the robbers had been gathering when interrupted by police. It would later be discovered that Violet Bidwill Wolfner had well over $100,000 dollars worth of clothing and shoes in her possession.

The robbers claimed they were hired by someone to claim a $20,000 debt from Walter Wolfner, which he denied. However, a year earlier an investigation revealed that one of Mrs. Bidwill-Wolfner’s race tracks had loaned money to an organized crime figure. Further, two other tracks had gangsters running the parking concessions. It was never proven that Mrs. Bidwill-Wolfner was aware of these activities and it was never determined if the robbery had anything to do with the mob.

Mrs. Violet Bidwill Wolfner sitting in police car following shooting of one robber and capture of three others at their suburban Chicago home.

MOVE TO ST. LOUIS

By the late 1950s, it was apparent that Chicago wasn’t big enough for two NFL teams. Both the Cardinals and Bears were willing to pay the other $500,000 to leave. The Wolfner’s argued that they were in Chicago first and shouldn’t have to leave. The Bears argued that they were the better team and had better attendance.

Finally, on March 14, 1960, the Wolfner’s had had enough. They took Halas’ $500,000 offer and requested to relocate to St. Louis. New NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the league owners unanimously approved the move.

The primary reason for the move was because of television revenue. Television was becoming a major revenue stream for NFL teams, but neither the Cardinals or Bears could benefit because their road games could not be televised when the other team was playing at home.

“It wasn’t necessarily a move to anywhere but a move out of Chicago because of television problems,” said Bill Bidwill.

DEATH OF MRS. WOLFNER

On January 28, 1962, just two years after the Cardinals moved from Chicago, Violet Bidwill-Wolfner unexpectedly died from an allergic reaction to penicillin in a Miami Beach doctor’s office. She had just turned 62 years old.

Mrs. Bidwill-Wolfner left the majority of her $3,000,000 estate, including her 90% stake in the Cardinals, to her sons Stormy and Bill. Walter Wolfner was left with five oil wells in Oklahoma which produced about $400 per month.

According to Walter Wolfner’s son, the Bidwill boys relieved Wolfner of his duties the day after the funeral.

A month later, Wolfner would sue the Bidwill’s right to the estate claiming they were illegally adopted, a fact that shocked the brothers. A judge eventually ruled in favor of the Bidwill brothers, only leaving Wolfner the revenue of the oil wells.

AUCTION

While her first husband was alive, Violet Bidwill-Wolfner was known as a sportswoman. She regularly played golf and scored in the low 80s. Later in life she spent much of her time playing bridge and gin rummy. “She was one of the best bridge players in Chicago,” a friend told the Chicago Tribune. She was also an avid football fan and understood the game.

What many people didn’t know was that she had an uncontrollable interest in fashion. Upon her death, it was discovered that the entire third floor of their suburban Chicago mansion was being used as a closet for more than 1000 dresses, 500 coats and jackets, 1500 pair of shoes, and almost 1000 purses. Many of the items were unused and still had the tags on them.

Violet’s clothing and other personal affects auctioned in 1963. (Courtesy Chicago Tribune)

In 1963, more than 1000 people jammed into the Prudential Building auditorium in Chicago for an opportunity to bid on Mrs. Wolfner’s personal effects. The items fetched more than $40,000.

THE BIDWILL BROTHERS

Violet’s sons would run the St. Louis Football Cardinals together until 1972 when Stormy sold his share of the team to Bill for $6,000,000. After being unable to obtain a new stadium in St. Louis, Bill moved the Cardinals to Arizona in 1988, where he waited another 18 years before moving into the new University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Bill passed away earlier this year and his son Michael now runs the team. Stormy is 91 years old and currently living in the Chicago area.

At the time of her death, Violet Bidwill Wolfner was survived by her husband Walter Wolfner, sons Stormy and Bill Bidwill, her mother, Mrs. Charles Spicker of Belleville, IL, a brother, Earl Fults of Chicago, and a sister, Mrs. Imelda Pierce also from Chicago.

Violet Bidwill at a charitable event in 1947 (courtesy Chicago Tribune)
Violet Bidwill-Wolfner works at her desk in the 1950s.
Violet with Stormy and Bill Bidwill in the 1950s. (Courtesy azcenteral.com)

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