Bill Bidwill, who owned the football Cardinals when the club played in St. Louis, died Wednesday at age 88. He was proud of his National Football League team and its St. Louis heritage, but the feeling wasn’t always mutual.
When the Cardinals lost, which was often, fans booed the owner, players accused him of being a cheapskate, and even the mayor wanted him to get out of town.
Mr. Bidwill eventually did just that, taking the club in 1988 to Phoenix, where the team’s losing ways continued for nine years. Eventually the fans got friendlier and the team got better. Bidwill got the new stadium he always wanted in 2006, and in 2009, the Cardinals finally made it to the Super Bowl.
The move to Arizona enriched the Bidwill family, but St. Louis was left without a football club for seven years until it wooed the Rams from Los Angeles in 1995.
Mr. Bidwill’s journey from St. Louis to sunny Arizona began after he warned that his team couldn’t continue to compete in the old Busch Stadium here, playing second fiddle to the Cardinals baseball team and its corporate owners, Anheuser-Busch Cos.
Busch Stadium was too small, Mr. Bidwill said. It wasn’t built for football and lacked the luxury “sky” box seating that enriched other team owners, bringing in cash to pay higher salaries and attract star players.
Mr. Bidwill asked for a new football stadium.
Civic leaders responded by suggesting that he pay $2 million for luxury boxes and other improvements at Busch Stadium. He refused.
Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. and St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary stepped in, promising a new, larger stadium in the metropolitan area within three years.
Clandestine negotiations took place at what Mr. Bidwill later referred to as a “safe house” — which turned out to be the Central West End home of a prominent restaurant owner.
Then the mayor and the county executive started feuding. McNary wanted to build a “Riverport Dome” stadium in Maryland Heights.
Schoemehl, upset about the prospect of losing the city’s football team, countered with an offer to build a downtown stadium. McNary labeled that an “act of war.”
None of that mattered because the domed stadium plan collapsed from lack of financing. The stadium never materialized.
The mayor then devised a scheme to buy the New England Patriots and sell them to Mr. Bidwill in exchange for the football Cardinals. Schoemehl claimed to have bought a $10 option to buy the Patriots from a group that held the option to buy.
But Mr. Bidwill wasn’t interested in selling or trading the Cardinals.
The mayor reacted by mounting a campaign against Mr. Bidwill, effectively inviting him to leave town and calling the team’s relationship to St. Louis “a bad marriage.”
Mr. Bidwill took the bait and began checking out other cities. Meanwhile, Schoemehl was using what he later called an “intelligence source” in Phoenix to get wind of efforts to woo the Cardinals.
Schoemehl then changed tactics, pledging to block any move of the Cardinals. He asked political and civic leaders to lobby the National Football League against any move.
In the end, three years of squabbling over whether to build a new stadium, where to build it and how to pay for it came to nothing.
Mr. Bidwill moved his team to Phoenix, where he traded his signature bow ties for bolo ties.
He said it was “truly unfortunate that the bitter campaign against the county domed stadium” had wrecked any chance to keep the team here. Other contributing factors included his own reputation and the team’s sorry record.
“Mr. Bidwill wasn’t a popular figure in St. Louis, so there was some belief that St. Louis would be better off without him,” said Bob Wallace, who was a top lawyer for Mr. Bidwill.
Thomas J. Guilfoil, general counsel for the Cardinals and Mr. Bidwill’s close friend, blamed the failed negotiations on civic leaders.
“If you ask me to score it,” Guilfoil said, “I would say that we made some mistakes. But basically it was the downtown business group. They just had an enormous reluctance to do anything for Bill.”
In the end, St. Louis did build a new football stadium — but not for Bill Bidwill. The city built it on speculation that a new team eventually would move to St. Louis.
Mr. Bidwill grew up in Chicago. His father bought the team in 1932, then known as the Chicago Cardinals. It was the oldest football franchise in the United States, dating to 1898.
Billy, as he was called, worked his way up the organization as a ball boy, a water boy, a ticket hustler, a program ad salesman and a scout.
He majored in medieval history at Georgetown University.
The Cardinals moved from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960. Mr. Bidwill and his older brother, Stormy, inherited the team in 1962 after their mother died. But she had remarried to a man from St. Louis who thought he should get the team.
The widower sued Bill and Stormy, claiming that their parents adoption of them was illegal. That was painful news to the brothers, who had never been told they were adopted.
In 1972, Stormy offered to either sell out to Bill or buy him out. To his surprise, Bill agreed to buy. Stormy stayed in Chicago to tend the family’s other business, Sportsman’s Park race track.
Mr. Bidwill developed a reputation for being cheap in paying his players. He even made them pay for lost jockstraps and socks.
Friends said he could be short on social graces but was unfailingly generous and kind in private.
He paid all the bills for a retired employee after she became blind. He made major donations, anonymously, to Catholic institutions in honor of his wife’s devout Catholicism. He was generous to schools attended by needy children, recalled former Post-Dispatch columnist Joe Pollack, who worked for him for 10 years.
Mr. Bidwill’s reaction when critics called him cheap was to act like it was a joke. It didn’t occur to him how badly the allegation hurt him with the public, Guilfoil recalled.
Mr. Bidwill loved jokes, secrecy and intrigue. He sent other teams photos of a Playboy Bunny announcing that she was his new scout. At news conferences, he wore a tie whose design spelled out a two-word expletive aimed at the media. (The design was too intricate to see in news photos, Pollack said.)
Each Thanksgiving, he posted a bulletin board notice inviting his players to pick up a free holiday turkey at an address on South Broadway. There, they found a second notice saying it was all a joke. (One linebacker fell for the joke two years in a row.)
Guilfoil said Mr. Bidwill desperately wanted a winning team. Fans, Guilfoil said, had it all wrong in accusing the Cardinals’ owner of being too cheap to hire good players.
The truth, Guilfoil said in an interview in 2010, was that the Cardinals payroll was higher than that of any other team at the time except for the Dallas Cowboys.
Mr. Bidwill and his wife, Nancy, had five children.
Cardinals president Michael Bidwill issued a statement about his father’s death: “Above all else, we will remember him as a man devoted to the three central pillars of his life — his immense faith, his love for his family and his life-long passion for the Cardinals and the sport of football.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.