Big Red Legends: Jim Bakken

The record has stood the test of time. And it might just stand for the rest of time.

When Jim Bakken retired from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1979, after 17 seasons in the NFL, he was the franchise’s all-time scoring leader with 1,380 points.

Forty-four years later, that hasn’t changed. Bakken still holds that record—and he may never let go of it. Of the 49 players below him on the team scoring list, most are retired or playing for another team. The only exceptions are 37-year-old kicker Matt Prater (42nd with 137 points) and quarterback Kyler Murray (tied for 47th with 120 points).

“I guess I didn’t really think about that,” Bakken says when asked if he ever imagined his record would last this long. Actually, he takes more pride in a single-game NFL record he set.

On September 24, 1967, a windy day at Pitt Stadium in Pittsburgh, Bakken kicked seven field goals (18, 24, 33, 29, 24, 32 and 23 yards) in a 28-14 victory over the Steelers. (He attempted two more field goals into the wind that missed their mark.)

Three players—the Vikings’ Rich Karlis (1989), the Cowboys’ Chris Boniol (1996), and the Cowboys’ Billy Cundiff (2003)—tied the mark before Tennessee’s Rob Bironas broke it with eight field goals in a 38-36 win over Houston on Oct. 21, 2007.

“That record stood for 40 years before it was broken, so I was kind of proud of that,” says Bakken, now 81, who still lives in his hometown of Madison, Wis., with Hope, his wife of 59 years. They have two daughters: Kris, who lives in St. Louis, and Ellen, who lives in Cleveland.

Looking back on his career, Bakken has much to be proud of. In addition to the seven-field goal game and the Cardinals scoring record, Bakken:

  • Was voted placekicker on the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade Team and was runner-up to Garo Yepremian (nine points to Bakken’s eight points) on the 1970s All-Decade Team.
  • Was selected to four Pro Bowl teams and two All-Pro teams.
  • Led the NFL in field goals in 1965 (25) and 1967 (27), and led the league in field goal percentage in ’65 (.677) and ’67 (.692).
  • Was voted Cardinals MVP in 1976, when his field goals accounted for the winning margin in six of the team’s 10 victories.
  • Led the Cardinals in scoring (117 points) in ’67.
  • Was perfect on extra-point attempts in 1963 (44 for 44), 1965 (33 for 33), 1968 (40 for 40) and 1973 (31 for 31).

For his career, Bakken converted 282 of 447 field goal attempts and 534 of 553 extra-point tries.

It was unfortunate—but right in line of how the Cardinals often conducted business—that such a lustrous career ended in such an unpleasant manner.

In the spring of 1979, Bakken was playing in an out-of-town charity golf tournament when he learned that his name had appeared on the NFL waiver wire. When he returned to St. Louis, he drove to the Cardinals’ offices downtown where general manager Joe Sullivan confirmed that the placekicker had been released.

More vexing was that Bud Wilkinson, the former legendary coach from the University of Oklahoma who had taken over as Cardinals head coach in 1978, hadn’t bothered to contact Bakken. So, Bakken arranged to meet Wilkinson for breakfast one morning at the Chase-Park Plaza Hotel.

“You know, Coach, you admire people that compete for a position,” Bakken said. “I know as a coach, you liked that in Oklahoma. And I’m a little disappointed I couldn’t compete for the job I held for 17 years.

“I don’t think anyone knows this, but it’s a fact,” Bakken says, recalling Wilkinson’s response. “He said, ‘Well, Jim, we knew that if you came back, you would make the team because you’re so close with all the other players. You would find some way to make the team, but we wanted to go in a different direction.”

What happened after that has been well chronicled. The Cardinals tried 10 different place-kickers over the next nine seasons (see Bob Underwood’s BidRedZone.com post from Oct. 29, 2019), including Steve Little, who had been a first-round draft pick in 1978; Neil O’Donoghue, a free-agent acquisition in 1980; and John Lee, a second-round pick in 1986. Although O’Donoghue lasted five seasons, the team’s kicking situation was mostly a mess in the decade following Bakken’s release.

The Oakland Raiders reached out to Bakken after he was cut from the Cardinals, but Bakken’s two daughters were in 10th and eighth grade at the time and he didn’t want to uproot them to move to the west coast.

“It was kind of sad the way it happened,” Bakken says of his release, “but it’s just business. It’s just something that happened.”

Jim Bakken kicking the game tying field goal against the Giants in 1964.

Among the things Bakken cherishes most about his Cardinals career was playing with safety Larry Wilson, tight end Jackie Smith, cornerback Roger Wehrli and offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf, all of whom were selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Regrets? Bakken mentioned three: (1) the loss to injury of quarterback Charley Johnson in 1966; (2) the Cardinals trading wide receiver Bobby Moore to Buffalo after the 1973 season; and (3) the departure of Don Coryell following the 1977 season.

Johnson, whose playing time also was shortened by his two-year stint in the Army Reserves, led the Big Red to four fourth-quarter comebacks and a 7-1-1 record in ’66 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a 20-17 win over the Giants at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 6, 1966. The Cardinals then lost four of their final five games and finished 8-5-1 (fourth place in the Eastern Division).

“I think if we had won the division that year, there would have been a better perception about the Cardinals in the league,” Bakken says. “The Cardinals were kind of a stepchild to those people in New York. I don’t think we received the credit we deserved back in that era.”

The Cardinals drafted Moore (he later changed his name to Ahmad Rashad) out of Oregon in 1972. But after only two seasons, in which Moore caught 59 passes for 909 yards and six touchdowns, he was traded to Buffalo for backup quarterback Dennis Shaw. “The Cardinals didn’t make a lot of trades back then,” Bakken says, “but that was the worst one.”

Then there was the messy departure of Coryell. After going to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons (’74 and ’75) and finishing with double-digit victories in three straight years (1974-76), the Cardinals imploded late in the ’77 season and finished 7-7. For various reasons—some on the field, some off it—Coryell became fed up and departed for San Diego.

“The Cardinals had an absolute jewel of a coach and they let him leave town,” Bakken lamented. “He was just an excellent and fantastic coach for the players. He was thorough, he was fun, and his staff—Joe Gibbs, Jim Hanifan, Harry Gilmer and the others—was really terrific. If (owner Bill) Bidwill had made every effort to keep Coryell, the Cardinals would have won a lot more games and probably wouldn’t have eventually moved to Arizona.”

An All-State football, basketball and football player for Madison West High School, Bakken was recruited to the University of Wisconsin as a quarterback, but in his three seasons there he made more of a mark as a kicker and punter. He led the Big Ten in punting as a sophomore (1960) and a junior (1961), and he helped the Badgers get to the 1960 Rose Bowl.

Back then, his dream was to play baseball.

“Deep in my soul, I guess, baseball was my favorite sport,” Bakken says. “I look back and I think if I had put my mind to it, playing baseball for Wisconsin would have been a good thing for me going forward, maybe catching on with a minor league team and seeing if I could make a major league team. I always had this notion that I could hit the ball.”

A third baseman, Bakken did play baseball for Wisconsin as a sophomore. But in the spring of his junior year, Bakken was named a co-captain on the football team. He also was the only returning quarterback on the roster. Coach Milt Bruhn asked Bakken to participate in spring football, which effectively ended Bakken’s baseball career.

Jim Bakken played baseball and football at the University of Wisconsin

The Los Angeles Rams chose Bakken in the seventh round of the 1962 draft, but decided to keep incumbent kicker Danny Villanueva instead. Bakken was cut and signed by the Cardinals as a free agent. He took over the Big Red’s kicking duties full time in ’63.

About his nickname … Most people thought he was tagged “Bags” because of his clutch field goal kicking. But Bakken tells a different story.

As Cardinals rookies in 1962, Bakken and wide receiver Jack Elwell began teasing veteran wide receiver Sonny Randle because he was the team’s highest-paid player.

“We started to call him ‘Money Bags,’ ” Bakken says. “He would turn that around and say, ‘You rookies are the “Money Bags” now.’ ”

Elwell was with the Cardinals for only one season and Randle was traded to the 49ers in September 1967. That left Bakken with the “Bags” nickname.

“My story is the true one,” Bakken says. “The players heard that, and when Randle left, it was a nickname that stuck.”

Like most placekickers in the early 1960s, Bakken kicked straight on with the toe of his shoe. But soon the soccer style of kicking, first popularized by brothers Pete and Charlie Gogolak, became popular. Did Bakken ever try kicking soccer style?

“My kickoffs were getting shorter toward the end of my career,” Bakken says. “I remember one day when I went off to the side and started experimenting, coming at the ball from the side. On one of my attempts, I tried to swing through hard and I felt a tug in my groin. So, I said, ‘No, I better not do this. This isn’t going to work for me.’ ”

Instead, Bakken stuck with his straight-on style. As you can see, it suited him rather well.

Jim Bakken set an NFL record in 1967 when he kicked seven field goals against the Pittsburgh Steelers

4 thoughts on “Big Red Legends: Jim Bakken

  1. Terrific story and congratulations on getting the interview with Jim Bakken. I learned so much, not the least being he still resides in his hometown and he has been happily married for nearly 60 years. I didn’t know that baseball was his favorite sport, nor did I know he had a chance to play for the Raiders after the Cardinals callously cut him. The Bud Wilkinson story is a stunner. What a clueless and ill-suited NFL coach he was. Thanks for the insights into why Bakken never converted to the soccer style of kicking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim actually called me a few months ago. It was pretty cool seeing his name pop up on my cell phone! He was recovering from a medical procedure, but assured me he would be back out on the golf course this spring!

      Like

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