Princeton is one of the most beautiful towns in Starved Rock Country, with an array of tourist attractions and friendly people. For one evening nine decades ago, it even had professional football.
Though it may seem hard to imagine today, Princeton was the site of an NFL exhibition game on Sunday evening, Sept. 24, 1933, when the Chicago Cardinals came to town to play the semi-pro Princeton Tigers. The game is long forgotten today – but the Cardinals probably wanted to erase the experience from memory as quickly as possible.
Unlike the NFL of today, the league was a primitive affair in its infant days, with low salaries, sporadic attendance, and no television. Most road trips were by train, and players routinely had day jobs.
“Pro football was definitely low-profile,” said Chris Willis, head of the research library at NFL Films. “Fans paid more attention to boxing, golf, college football, baseball, even tennis.”
The Cardinals and Bears are the two remaining charter members from the birth of the NFL in 1920. Green Bay joined the following season. The Cardinals, who were usually second fiddle to the Bears in town, moved to St. Louis in 1960 and to Arizona in 1988.
Joe Ziemba, author of the acclaimed 1999 work “When Football was Football: The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL,” notes the Cardinals entered the 1933 season with high expectations, despite a 2-6-2 mark the previous year.
“They welcomed both a new coach and a new owner, Charles Bidwill, whose family still owns the Arizona Cardinals,” said Ziemba. “For the first time, an owner of the Cardinals had ample financial support. There was nearly a complete turnover from the 1932 roster, and there was intent to install a new high-powered passing offense.”
The 1933 Cardinals scheduled four pre-season games, rather than the usual one or two. The tilt at Princeton’s Alexander Park was the final tune-up, and the Cardinals came in undefeated, including a 65-0 rout of the semipro Aurora Ideals.
Roy Sye of Arlington Heights, a twelve-year member of the Pro Football Researchers Association, has compiled a database of some 50,000 games on all levels. He notes that many towns like Princeton had semi-pro teams in that era.
“There was a lot of football going on,” remarked Sye. “Usually, teams would have to wait until the local baseball season was over, and even then, they’d only get one or two practices a week, since most players had jobs.”
During those years, NFL teams would routinely take on these local challengers. “In those early days, it was not unusual for NFL teams to play non-league opponents, sometimes in smaller towns,” commented Willis. “They would get in shape for the season, and see rookies and new players perform. Another reason was to make money. Scheduling games could simply mean a pay day.”
The Princeton game was only three days before the Cardinals’ league opener in Pittsburgh, which would be unheard of today. In the early decades of the NFL, however, it was business as usual.
“Playing games that close together was tough on players, but they fought through it,” said Willis. “They didn’t know any better. It was just an extra game for the teams to make money.”
In Princeton, there was plenty of hype. The weekly Bureau County Republican ran a full-page ad promoting the game, immodestly urging fans to “see the Tigers, the leading semi-pro team of Illinois, battle the famous Chicago Cardinals.” The paper added the “average weight of the Cardinal line [was] 203 pounds, backfield 185 pounds,” a far cry from today.
Despite the Cardinals’ recent lack of success, the Republican declared the visitors “are known from coast to coast and carry twelve All-American players on their squad.” Still, the locals were not backing down. The Tigers had beaten Aurora 58-6 in their previous game, which the Republican reported “makes the Tigers look on paper almost as good as the Cardinals.”
They nearly made good on that boast, as the Cardinals were sluggish from the opening kickoff and only managed one touchdown in the first quarter for a 6-0 lead.
On the opening play of the second quarter, the Tigers were pinned at the 1-yard line and tried a free kick, a favorite in old play books, but Princeton was downed in the end zone for a safety. The game then became, in the words of the Republican, a “punting duel” as the 8-0 lead stood up going into halftime.
Chicago continued to struggle in the third quarter, managing only a single touchdown to lead 14-0. The extra point, “an attempted drop kick” that is rare in the NFL today, was missed. Another score in the final quarter was followed by a missed extra point for the final margin in a 20-0 Chicago win.
Not surprisingly, the statistics for both teams were mediocre. Chicago managed only 184 total yards, compared to 126 for the Tigers. The Cardinals were only 5-of-12 passing, while Princeton was even worse, going 6-for-22. Chicago held a meager 13-11 edge in first downs.
Ziemba points to several factors for the Cardinals’ lackadaisical effort. “With the league opener three days away, the Cardinals were likely not focused on Princeton, and the coaches may have not kept the starters in the game very long,” he remarked. “Also, the incentive to play in a game that was meaningless in the standings may have diminished the efforts by Cardinals’ players.”
The team’s finances fared little better. The Republican reported the game cost the Tigers “nearly a thousand dollars,” including $700 to bring the Cardinals to Princeton. Local backers had “decided to secure one of the two Chicago teams for a Princeton day and finally settled on the Cardinals.”
Perhaps the Cardinals had wished otherwise. The Republican somberly noted that “the gate receipts were not quite sufficient to pay all the expenses, and a small deficit was made up by taking money from the fund that was raised by public subscription.” Research by Sye found the Cardinals made $500 for the game.
The Chicago press largely ignored the game, as the Chicago Tribune devoted only a single paragraph consisting of two sentences to the Princeton contest.
The Republican, on the other hand, trumpeted the home team’s formidable showing. Blaring the headline “Cardinals In Unimpressive Win Over Tigers,” the Republican bragged how the home team “held them to three touchdowns and a safety. Had the Tigers backs and ends been able to hold (their) bullet-like passes, the game might have resulted in a Tiger victory.”
The Republican added the Cardinals “will have to play a better brand of football in the big circuit or they will taste defeat frequently.”
The words proved prophetic. Chicago lost its league opener against Pittsburgh three days later, and struggled to a 1-9-1 mark despite a punishing defense that gave up only 101 points on the season.
Meanwhile, the Republican reported that the “fast-stepping” Tigers “came out of the Cardinal game in good condition,” losing only “their backfield ace, who has been confined to home on account of a wrenched knee.” It was a small price to pay for the day the NFL came to Princeton.
• Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or email@example.com.