Big Red Flashback: Big Red Travel to Japan in 1976

Posted by Bob Underwood

The St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers became the first teams to play an NFL game outside of North America on August 16, 1976.

The game was called the Mainichi Star Bowl and was sponsored by the Mainichi Daily News, an English-language newspaper in Tokyo. However, a lettuce farmer from California, Frank Takahashi, was the sole promoter of the game. A self-described “football nut,” Takahashi foot the entire bill for the exhibition contest.

“If we have a sellout, I will break even,” Takahashi told Doug Grow of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in a 1976 interview.

Unfortunately, the game was not a sellout and Takahashi reportedly lost tens of thousands of dollars to bring the NFL to Japan.

Regarding the game, Jim Hart’s 60 yard touchdown pass to Ike Harris helped give the Cardinals a 20-10 victory. It was the Cards second victory of the preseason.

The Cards and Chargers played the first NFL game outside of North America in 1976.

The highlight of the trip appeared to be the plane ride from San Francisco to Tokyo. Within a couple of hours the plane was out of alcohol and a few of the the players had been “over-served.”

“I got a tap on the shoulder from our GM, Joe Sullivan, who asked me if I would go retrieve Tom Banks, our center, was wandering around the airplane upfront,” Big Red tackle Dan Dierdorf told Don Banks in an story published in 2016.

“That’s right,” Jackie Smith added. “Banks got into the sake on the way over there, and he got plenty drunk. And then when we go to the hotel, he had a tough time negotiating the process of getting on and off the elevator.”

Tom Banks recalled the early part of the flight to Tokyo in my interview with him in 2019.

“Well, they took us to the airport (in San Francisco) like three or four hours early,” Banks said, “and what are a bunch of guys going to do? We went straight to the bar! So, everybody’s drinking, telling stories, and having a good time. We get on the plane and everything deteriorated pretty quickly. And you know, it wasn’t a charter plane, I think there were some regular passengers on there. We had seats all the way in the back. It was a long trip and I had too much to drink. Had a good time!”

The return flight from Tokyo was much more subdued as players were ready to return home. Remarkably, the Cardinals beat the Chicago Bears just five days later at Soldier Field, 20-14. They would go 10-4 in 1976, but became the first ten-win NFC team to ever miss the playoffs.

Cardinals QB Jim Hart signs autographs for fans after the 20-10 exhibition victory.
Doug Grow summarizes the Big Red trip in an August 30, 1976 story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Backup QB Bill Donckers huddles up the offense in pre-game warmups.
Jim Bakken kicks one of his two field goals at Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo.
Pro Magazine program from August 16, 1976 exhibition game in Tokyo.
NFL Films video of the Cardinals trip to Japan in 1976

Mainichi Star Bowl played in Tokyo on August 16, 1976.

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