In 1898, Chicago painting and building contractor Chris O’Brien established an amateur Chicago-based athletic club football team named the Morgan Athletic Club. O’Brien later moved them to Chicago’s Normal Park and renamed them the Racine Normals, since Normal Park was located on Racine Avenue in Chicago. In 1901, O’Brien bought used maroon uniforms from the University of Chicago, the colors of which had by then faded, leading O’Brien to exclaim, “That’s not maroon; it’s cardinal red!” It was then that the team changed its name to the Racine Cardinals.
The original Racine Cardinals team disbanded in 1906 mostly for lack of local competition. A professional team under the same name formed in 1913, claiming the previous team as part of their history. As was the case for most professional football teams in 1918, the team was forced to suspend operations for a second time due to World War I and the outbreak of the Spanish flu pandemic. They resumed operations later in the year (even with the suspension they were one of the few teams to play that year), and have since operated continuously.
At the time of the founding of the modern National Football League, the Cardinals were part of a thriving professional football circuit based in the Chicago area. Teams such as the Decatur Staleys, Hammond Pros, Chicago Tigers, and the Cardinals had formed an informal loop similar to, and generally on par with, the Ohio and New York circuits that had also emerged as top football centers prior to the league’s founding.