One man's quest to keep the Chicago Cardinals alive

Joe Ziemba still loves talking about a Chicago team that left town 62 years ago.

One man's quest to keep the Chicago Cardinals alive

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It's been 62 years since the Chicago Cardinals played their last game here, a 31-7 loss to the Bears at Soldier Field on Nov. 29, 1959.

In the years since, the franchise spent 28 years in St. Louis and another 33 in the Phoenix area. They've been gone from Chicago longer than they were here and traces of their time in the city are hard to come by.

Well, unless you're one of the 11,613 people who follow Joe Ziemba's excellent Chicago Cardinals Facebook page.

Started in 2014, the group is an unending scroll of pictures and facts dedicated to the ghosts of Chicago's "other" NFL team.

Recent posts have included the 100th anniversary of the Cardinals' first win in the NFL and the time the team had to play its first NFL home game at St. Rita High School. While fans of every other Chicago team have plenty of outlets to choose from, the Cardinals page is — as far as I can tell — the only place on the Internet of its kind.

A labor of love

Joe Ziemba has been a friend of Midway Minute for awhile and I enjoy following the page so I reached out to him to find out what spurs him to continue researching and writing about a long-forgotten NFL team.

"I love history," explained Joe, who is retired and lives in suburban Frankfort. "Everything from Civil War battles to Tombstone, Arizona will get me interested. Plus, the early history of pro football is so incredible."

Ziemba wasn't a Cardinals superfan growing up. He went to only one game when he was young, a sparsely-attended game at Soldier Field just before they moved to St. Louis for the 1960 season.

But his interest in the team grew because of a personal link.

Ziemba  was raised on the South Side, the son of Joe Ziemba — the head football coach at Morgan Park Military Academy. The elder Ziemba was an end during his playing days and played briefly for the Cardinals in the early '40s before getting hurt and leaving for a higher-paying job ... coaching high school football.

It wasn't until after the elder Ziemba died in 1973 that Joe Ziemba found some of his father's papers from his days as a professional football player.  Among them were a recruitment letter from George Halas, correspondence from the Detroit Lions and  a contract from the Cardinals that paid him $110 a game — if he provided his own shoes and shoulder pads.

The discovery of his father's papers planted a seed in Ziemba's mind and he started seeking out more about the team.  The Cardinals won two NFL championships — 1925 and 1947 — and are recognized as the NFL's oldest team. Their origins can be traced back to a team started near the stockyards in 1899 and incorporated in 1917 as the "Racine Cardinals Social and Athletic Club."

(The team was originally known in the NFL as the 'Racine Cardinals," a nod to the street the team's founder lived on. Many, though, have mistakenly written over the years that the team originated in Wisconsin.)

The research finally led Ziemba to write a 1999 book entitled "When Football Was Football: The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL."

Now out of print, the book still provides the backbone for many of Ziemba's Facebook posts, though many are heavily sprinkled with new facts and insights he's gleaned in the 20 years since the book's publication. Ziemba is a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association and gave a panel about Cardinals at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio last summer.

What kind of person follows Ziemba's work?

Depends. When Ziemba wrote the book, a lot of Cardinals alumni were still alive. So were some of the team's biggest fans who never gave up their devotion to the South Side's football team.

But numbers from both groups are dwindling and Ziemba says it's now a mixture of relatives of those players and fans as well as current Arizona Cardinals fans and people interested in NFL and Chicago history. He often gives talks at libraries and retirement homes around the area and has met some interesting people along the way.

"Last year, I had a guy who was at the Cardinals-Bears game on Pearl Harbor day," Ziemba told me. "The passion that he spoke about the Cardinals and the hate of the Bears was really amazing coming from this gentleman in his 90s.

"Another guy said ‘My dad loved the Cardinals and he could never like or forgive Halas, so I grew up a Green Bay fan.”

Ziemba is a fan of the Cardinals, but also says he's "not allowed to watch Bears games in the same room as human beings" because his passion is so strong. In addition to his Cardinals book, he published one on the football history of Morgan Park Military Academy and has plans for another on the history of the Cardinals-Bears rivalry.

At the end of the day, writing about the Cardinals allows him to combine two of his biggest loves, football and history.

"The biggest thrill is finding something I didn’t know about or getting comments back from people who are learning things for the first time," Ziemba said. "For me, it’s also keeping the team alive and knowing my dad was there for a little bit of it.

"It helps me that way as well."

You can follow the Chicago Cardinals Facebook page and also check out Joe on Twitter at @CardsChicago.

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