The recent passing of Bill Bidwill gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the essential St. Louis question — does the fault lie in our stars or in ourselves?
I have always been generous with us and blamed our problems on the stars. We were founded near the confluence of two great rivers at a time when rivers were the major means of transportation into and out of the vast wilderness. When the importance of rivers declined, our influence waned. President Dwight Eisenhower did us in with the interstate highway system.
We were not destined to have, or rather to keep, an NFL team.
Also, air conditioning didn’t help us. We were a big city when Los Angeles and Phoenix were cow towns. Without air conditioning, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We would still have the football Cardinals.
The football version of the St. Louis Cardinals moved here from Chicago — where they had been the Chicago Cardinals — prior to the 1960 season. As far as I can tell from the newspaper archives, the relocation of the team was not considered major news. There was a front-page story about the team’s decision to move here, but the story was brief, very unlike the breathless coverage — “Finally Football!” — that marked our successful heist of the Rams 34 years later.
Maybe it wasn’t a heist. After all, the owner, Georgia Frontiere, was a St. Louis native. Violet Irwin was her name when she attended Soldan High School. So let’s be generous yet again and say there is nothing underhanded about a hometown girl bringing the team she had inherited back home with her.
What a homecoming it was. As I recall, the region’s leading citizens had a party for Frontiere at the Ritz Carlton. Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., the first black mayor in St. Louis, approached her to introduce himself. She saw him coming and as he neared her, she held out her glass. “I’ll have a gin and tonic,” she said.
I am not repeating this story to criticize Frontiere. We are products of our time, and the St. Louis of Frontiere’s time was light on inclusion.
By the way, everything that happened with the Rams was predetermined. The fault was in our lease.
But the Bidwill saga is different. The fault there, I am afraid, was in ourselves.
I got here in 1980 and was a bit surprised at the general lack of respect toward the guy. Yes, he seemed socially awkward, but socially awkward rich people are usually considered eccentric rather than socially awkward.
Not long after I arrived, Bidwill got a DWI in Ladue. I was shocked. Younger readers should know that life was different then. People drank more. Bidwill had been drinking at Busch’s Grove, and the Ladue police were not in the habit of citing people who were driving to their Ladue homes after drinking at Busch’s Grove.
Instead, they would make sure the person got home safely. It was community policing for rich people.
But Bidwill got a ticket. What’s more, one of the officers called this newspaper. I am always and completely in favor of people tipping off the newspaper, but even I thought that this was odd.
At that point, it was clear to me that we were pushing the guy out of town.
He returned our feelings. Yes, he did. One of my pals was assigned to interview Bidwill, and a photographer went along to take photos. Later, as the photographs were being developed, somebody noticed that the stylized tie Bidwill was wearing had a semi-hidden message. “F... You,” it said. It was clear as day once you realized what you were looking at.
This was during the unsuccessful efforts to build a new stadium for the team. County Executive Gene McNary wanted the new stadium in the county, and Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl wanted it in the city.
When nothing was built, Bidwill moved his team to Phoenix. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” we shouted.
Years later, he voted against allowing the Rams to relocate to St. Louis. He knew how to hold a grudge.
Is there any lesson we can learn from this?
I think there is. Be nice to people. It sounds obvious and even corny, but had we been nicer to Bidwill, maybe he’d have been nicer to us, and then the whole attitude about a new stadium would have been different. Our leaders would have found a way to make it happen.
We’d still have a football team. We’d probably have a moment of silence at Sunday’s game at Bidwill Stadium. “We just lost a good man,” we’d say to each other. “A good man, albeit a little eccentric.”