The Buddha-shaped boss of the Chicago Cardinals professional football club raised his voice far above its usual mumble, banged a heavy fist on his desk and announced his opinion of the owner of the rival Chicago Bears. George Halas, said Walter Wolfner, is an asterisk, a semicolon, an exclamation mark and an ampersand. The wallpaper began to peel in Wolfner's office, as it always does when he talks about Halas. "I refuse to mention that man's name ever again!" Wolfner went on, then mentioned "that man's name" again and again. It was a stirring, definitive display of dislike.
Nine blocks to the north, in the back room of the George Halas Co. ("Sporting Goods, Wholesale, Retail"), the object of Walter Wolfner's disaffection said simply: "Wolfner? He's a real lovable specimen, isn't he?"
The discerning reader will observe the feathery touch of irony in the Halas remark. And students of human behavior will sense immediately that some terrible battle has taken place between these two old war horses, and that Wolfner has lost and Halas has won. And the reader will be right. The Cardinals, 8,000 pounds of powerful young manhood, are moving to St. Louis, leaving a clear field in Chicago for Halas and the Bears.
For 10 years Walter Wolfner has twisted and squirmed and kicked and wrestled to avoid being forced out of Chicago. In that period Wolfner and his wife, Violet, majority owner of the Cardinals, have lost something like $1 million on their team. But no matter. They had won the more important battle. They had not given in to Halas. Money was little or no object; the Cardinals were kind of a hobby with the millionaire Wolfners.
But not even millionaires want to throw away money forever. As Wolfner said in a calmer moment last week: "It just got so that we weren't having any fun here any more." Twice the Wolfners had offered Halas big money to move out of town (once, according to Wolfner, it was $500,000; another time it was $1 million). Halas turned them down.
The fact that Wolfner has every chance to strike pay dirt in the new location seems of little or no importance to him. A football-starved city is already trying to gobble up season tickets. Joe Griesedieck, president of the Falstaff Brewing Co. and a crackerjack TV sports entrepreneur on his own, shelled out $250,000 for a 10% interest in the Cardinals (leaving Mrs. Wolfner with 84.6%), promised a $50,000 bonus if the Cards made the move and guaranteed the sale of 25,000 season tickets. Gussie Busch, Griesedieck's beer rival in St. Louis who nevertheless is mindful of his civic responsibilities, is renting his baseball park to the football Cardinals for an undisclosed sum which insiders label ridiculously low. And in three years a new river-front stadium seating 55,000 will be ready.
Back in Chicago Halas will have things all to himself, which is what he has been fighting for all along. No longer will he be barred from televising the Bears' out-of-town games into Chicago because the Cardinals are playing in town that day. The measure of what it is worth to Halas to have the Cardinals leave is the fact that he is putting up almost all of a $500,000 "moving expense" payment from the league to the Cardinals. The league, for its part, has been eager to get the Cardinals into another city because in recent years the poor gates at Comiskey Park have cost every visiting team money. Visitors have had to content themselves with the routine $20,000 guarantee instead of 40% of a fat gate. This year the guarantee will be $30,000.
So everybody should be happy now—the Cardinals, the Bears, the National Football League and the fans. As befits a winner, Halas isn't saying much. He sits behind his desk on honky-tonky W. Madison Street in Chicago and wears a look of inscrutability. "Let Wolfner do the talking," he says, and Wolfner obliges.
There has been bad blood between the clans ever since 1947. Before then, when Chicago Sportsman-Gambler Charlie Bidwill and his wife Violet owned the Cardinals, all was sweetness and light. Bidwill and Halas were close friends; more than once Cardinal Owner Bidwill lent money to Bear Owner Halas to meet a payroll, a fact which Halas has graciously acknowledged. Bidwill's interest was based not only on friendship; he owned a bloc of Bears stock. When he died in 1947, the Bears stock went to his widow, who shortly after sold it back to Halas. Mrs. Bidwill later told Halas that she would let him keep $50,000 he owed her, in return for third-string Quarterback Bobby Layne. As Mrs. Bidwill, now Mrs. Wolfner, tells the story, Halas refused the trade, sent Layne instead to the New York Bulldogs for $50,000 cash and inserted in the contract a clause which barred Layne from ever playing for the Cardinals. That started the feud. When Coffee Broker Walter Wolfner married the Widow Bidwill on Sept. 28, 1949, he inherited the feud, and on him it looked natural.
An abrasive, pugnacious man, Wolfner seems to like a fight, has picked them with the Chicago press, with his coaches, with league officials and now with the dead. He accuses the late Bert Bell of setting up the annual league schedule to hurt the Cardinals and help the Bears, of deliberately assigning anti-Cardinal officials to Cardinal games, and of helping Halas in a campaign to run the Cardinals out of town. To hear Wolfner tell it, the Cardinals' lamentable financial record is the fault of George Halas and Bert Bell. Others say it is the fault of Walter Wolfner. Says a one-time Cardinal star: "Making him managing director of the team just because he married the owner is like you should send me to manage the New York Philharmonic."