1964: Why the Big Red Almost Moved to Atlanta

Twenty four years before the St. Louis Football Cardinals moved to Arizona, the Bidwill brothers almost relocated to Atlanta.

In April of 1964, Bill and Stormy Bidwill denied a Nashville Banner report of the Cards interest in moving to the Georgia capital.

“No. 1, I’d rather not comment. No. 2, neither I nor my brother ever has talked to the person who carried the story. No. 3, we’re not contemplating any change,” Cards vice president Bill Bidwill told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

However, a month later, Bidwill admitted that he had received a “fine proposal” from Atlanta to play in their new $18,000,000 stadium starting in 1965.

BIDWILL’S CONCERNS

The Bidwill brothers wanted to stay in St. Louis, but had a number of concerns. First, they weren’t happy with the length of the proposed 30 year lease in an unproven football market. They also weren’t happy with the rental agreement of 12% of the gate revenue and the 5% city tax on ticket sales.

Bill (L) and Stormy (R) Bidwill in a 1965 photo (courtesy Sports Illustrated)

The Bidwill’s were also disappointed in the attendance since the move from Chicago. Capacity at Busch Stadium (old Sportsman’s Park) was only 32,000 and many of the seats provided poor sight lines. The team installed temporary bleachers along the north east sideline which held about 8,000 fans. Some said those were the best seats in the house. In 1960, the Cards averaged 23,548 fans, but the team saw significant declines in 1961 (19,832), and 1962 (18,381). However, attendance improved in 1963 (23,636) after the Cards won 9 games and were in contention for an NFL title all way up to the end of the season.

“The truth is,” Bob Broeg wrote in his Post Dispatch column on May 29, 1964, “for all the lack of promotion, the undesirability of many Busch Stadium seats and the Cards unfortunate knack of playing their poorest before the home spectators, the Big Red haven’t drawn well here.”

The Bidwill’s also weren’t happy having to play on the road the first three or four weeks of the season until baseball season was over.

The Cardinals played the first three to four weeks of each season on the road until baseball was over.

One of the reasons the Cardinals relocated to St. Louis was the promise of a new 50,000 seat downtown stadium. Busch Stadium II was in the planning stages in 1960 and ground was broken in 1964. The plan was to have Busch II ready for the 1965 season, but in early 1964 it was clear that this target date would not be met. This delay frustrated the Bidwills.

“I was weary of blue prints and grand plans but only a shell of a stadium,” Stormy Bidwill told St. Louis Globe Democrat. “Atlanta said we could move in the next day. That’s how much difference there was. The city of Atlanta offered that and excellent lease terms besides. We had to think seriously of Atlanta.”

ATLANTA OFFER

The new Fulton County Stadium would hold 57,000 football fans and the city of Atlanta had already secretly secured the MLB Milwaukee Braves. It was rumored the AFL Denver Broncos had interest in moving there, but the city wanted an NFL franchise and set their site on the Cardinals.

On May 22, 1964, the Bidwills traveled to Atlanta to meet with the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority to discuss the city’s proposal.

“Atlanta has made us a fine offer,” Stormy Bidwill told the Post Dispatch.

“I think the contract would be beneficial to the stadium authority and the Cardinals,” Authority chairman Arthur Montgomery said. “We’re hopeful they will accept our offer.”

Atlanta Fulton County Stadium

It was reported that Atlanta offered a deal of only 7.5% of the gate receipts and a 15 year lease. Stormy Bidwill told the Post Dispatch that Atlanta had also offered the Cardinals a percentage of concessions generated at the stadium. In St. Louis, the baseball and football Cardinals had agreed to give up concessions to satisfy the terms of the Civic Center’s loan.

Over the next six weeks the Bidwills were peppered with questions about whether they intended to stay in St. Louis or move to Atlanta. Bill acknowledged in early June that they had hired a firm to conduct an analysis of St. Louis and Atlanta to determine the viability of professional football in both markets.

Joe Griesedieck, Falstaff Brewing Co. president and 10% owner of the Big Red, told the Post Dispatch that he believed that concern over St. Louis as a professional football city was as much of a problem for the Bidwills as the terms of the lease on new Busch Stadium.

“That’s what I would conclude after getting a fill-in on the Bidwill brothers’ Wednesday meeting (with Civic Center Redevelopment Corp.),” said Griesedieck. “I feel the boys are trying to make up their minds and I’ll do all I can to help them to decide to stay here.

Meanwhile, reports out of New York had the Cardinals as good as gone. Both Stormy and Bill angrily denied that any commitment had been made.

“We have made no decision,” Stormy told the St. Louis Globe Democrat. “We are not even negotiating with Atlanta. We are merely listening. We have not asked for league approval to move. We haven’t even asked for a league meeting and that is a necessary first step.”

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had this to say about the possible move.

“If Stormy and Billy wanted to move, I don’t think they would have any difficulty in getting approval,” Rozelle told the Globe Democrat. “On the other hand, I’m not certain, after having talked with them several times, that they want to move. This office is not pushing the move. But I think it is up to the city of St. Louis to stand up and let the Bidwills know that they really want a team in St. Louis.”

ST. LOUIS NEGOTIATIONS

Back in St. Louis, area business leaders were working behind the scenes to help sway the Bidwills decision to remain in the Gateway City.

Bankers James Hickok and Preston Estep, co-chairmen of Downtown in St. Louis, the organization which had planned the new stadium, met with the Bidwills and with officers of Civic Center Redevelopment Corporation. “We had to find out first, what the problem was,” said Hickok, “and then determine how to solve it.”

Old Sportsman’s Park (Busch Stadium I) circa 1962

During the meeting, a member of the Civic Center board of directors realized there was a problem that no one had addressed.

“I don’t recall all the details now, it’s so long ago,” Morton “Buster” May, chairman of the board of May Department Stores and football fanatic said in Bob Burnes book Big Red, Story of the Football Cardinals, “but I do remember thinking that here are two nice kids who didn’t have a friend in town. They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them. Oh, we’d met but I think all we talked about in those brief encounters was football… what was wrong with the team or what was right with it.”

Buster May decided to do something about it. He hosted several dinner parties at his home, inviting local business leaders, the Bidwills, and their wives. “I wanted them to become a part of the community and to let them know that this is what we all wanted. I hope it helped.”

“It helped, conservatively, about one million percent,” Stormy Bidwill said in 1975. “Buster put his finger on the one problem which I think hurt both Billy and me the most—that everybody in St. Louis looked upon us as outsiders. He made us feel welcome.”

Negotiations dragged on for another month with little progress. City leaders were ready to move on and go after an American Football League team, but that would not be easy, as the Kansas City Chiefs had already stated that they would oppose any AFL team in St. Louis. But talk of landing an AFL team would soon be forgotten.

DECISION MADE

After six months of negotiations, a deal was finally struck on July 26. The Bidwills announced they would be staying in St. Louis. The Cardinals would receive reduced rental terms and the equivalent of a percentage of concessions, both underwritten by St. Louis business leaders.

It was reported that May, Griesedieck and others pledged to make up the difference between the 12 percent rental terms and the seven and one-half percent the Bidwills eventually requested because of the city’s five percent tax on ticket sales. The St. Louis businessmen also guaranteed the equivalent of 10 percent of stadium concessions at all home games. The underwritten amount could run between $75,000 and $100,000 per year.

Stormy Bidwill said the brothers hoped the St. Louis stay would be lengthy.

“This is the most important decision in our lives because it’s for the duration of our lives,” he said. “We hope we have made the right decision and we hope the St. Louis football fans will bear with us.”

The brothers also released a statement thanking the fans of St. Louis.

“We are grateful to the St. Louis fans for the patience they have shown in the past few months. We feel that we have a great many solid, sincere fans and we hope that they look forward, as we do, to pro football in the magnificent, new riverfront stadium. We hope that this year, and for many years to come, we can give St. Louis fans the finest possible football team.”

St. Louis Mayor Raymond R. Tucker and local business leaders urged football fans to support the team that almost got away.

“With this decision made,” mayor Tucker said, “the community can focus on two things: Stimulating an outstanding ticket sales drive and watching fortunes of our St. Louis club on the field. I can stand ready to collaborate with any community organization on efforts to show the Bidwills that St. Louis will give their club the support needed to bring a championship to our city.”

Attendance did increase the following two seasons as the Cardinals came within a half game of playing for an NFL Championship in 1964. The Big Red averaged almost 28,000 fans per game in ’64 and over 30,500 fans per game in 1965 with four sell-outs. New Busch Stadium was finally completed for the start of the 1966 season and the Cards averaged over 45,000 fans per game.

In Atlanta, chairman of the city-county authority, Arthur L. Montgomery was disappointed but held no grudges.

“We’re naturally disappointed, but we hold no ill feeling toward the Bidwills. We feel that they dealt with us in good faith. It would have been a real stroke of luck to get the Cardinals. We still feel we will get a good team.”

Atlanta would ultimately get their NFL team in 1966 with the expansion Falcons who would upset the Cardinals on December 11 for their their first home victory in franchise history.

Meanwhile, Bill Bidwill bought out Stormy’s share of the Cardinals in 1972 and would move the team to Phoenix, AZ on March 15, 1988.

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