With Pro Football History About to Be Made, Our Wise Old Egg Takes a Look at Other Great Leaps Forward
Of the seminal events in the history of professional football, many have occurred here in New York City, and the latest, yet to come but a delightful prospect, is the building of the West Side stadium that will be the future home of the New York Jets
As this great leap forward for pro football in New York is being planned, this website takes a look back at the history of such bold ventures – and how they shook up the establishment.
Immediately after World War II, that establishment was the National Football League, a tightly knit old boys' club that enjoyed what for a monopoly is the next thing to paradise: it was the one and only, unchallenged major league of pro football.
But in 1946 the fans of football in America the victorious, an expanding country of unbounded vision, wanted more. Why should pro football be a tightly controlled cabal of ten teams, no others need apply? Why no team in San Diego , Denver , the whole great state of Texas – why only one team in the greatest city in the world, New York ?
A man named Paul Brown took the first landmark step. Brown, the highly successful pre-World War II coach at Miami of Ohio, had coached the Great Lakes Naval Air Station service team during World War II, and this team, its members selected as he was able to do from the best college boys in the Navy, generally slaughtered the opposition.
Paul Brown took key players from that team and signed them up to play for a bold new pro football team which he called, with acceptable pride, the Cleveland Browns, members of the new All-American Conference. Other members of that brave young league were the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts, Buffalo Bills, New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The National Football League, as monopolies from time immemorial have endeavored to do, did everything in its power to stamp this league out of existence.
When I, fresh out of the Army, went to the Giants' midtown office to buy tickets, I was told, “$3.60 to sit in the end zone.” In 1946 $3.60 was a lot of money, and I said, “No, thanks,” and went over to the New York Yankees office: $2 to sit on the 50-yard-line in the lower stand. I took it, and we went out to see the star halfback Spec Sanders, the mighty mite, the scampering Buddy Young (Editor's note: Young was one of the first Black players to play professional football since the unofficial ban that ran in the NFL from 1934-1945, playing for the football Yankees, unlike their baseball namesakes, who were one of the last major league baseball teams to integrate) from Illinois, and the rest of the New York Yankees.
We also went to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers, starring Glenn Dobbs, a fabulous quarterback from the University of Tulsa who could not only complete 30-yard bullet passes but also confound the opposition by dropping into tailback and booting a huge quick kick over their asses to nail them deep in their own territory.
We saw the 49ers, featuring two Stanford All-Americans, Frankie Albert, a sleight-of-hand wizard at quarterback (“Who the hell's got the ball?"), and the blasting fullback Norm Standlee. The 49ers were a class act from the start, as they've been through their history.
But dominating the AAC were the Browns. Reflecting their creator's military background, they played militaristic football. When they were in the huddle, they weren't a bunch of guys leaning over casually to listen. They were formed up as meticulously as West Point cadets on parade, the linemen, the ends, the backs, each in his place, and when they came out of the huddle it was with a shout of “Hey!” everybody clap hands, and then it was step, step, chanting all together “One! Two!” down into your offensive stance, then the rhythmic call of the signals and man, you knew you were not going to stop this machine.
Calling those signals was a kid called Otto Graham, just another nice quarterback when he was at Northwestern, but Paul Brown had seen something there as masters of coaching will, and Graham became the orchestrator of destruction of every team they faced, handing off to the first black All-League fullback, Marion Motley, and halfback Special Delivery Jones and throwing to two dynamite wide receivers by the great names of Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli.
But the rest of the league couldn't match that standard, and after four years in which the NFL sank so low as to put a totally impotent team called the Bulldogs in New York (they won one game and lost 10), just so there would always be an NFL game in town to compete with the Yankees, on Sundays when the Giants were on the road, in 1950 the AAC collapsed. The NFL, showing true hypocritical form, promptly grabbed teams it had been ridiculing, the Browns, the 49ers and the Colts.
To start off the next season, the NFL, in its beneficence, granted the AAC the opportunity to play its best team, the Philadelphia Eagles. (You can just hear the chuckling of the old NFLers: “They wanna play in our league? Well, let 'em play our champion.”)
Before the game was five minutes old, Dante Lavelli was loping into the Eagles' end zone with a football Otto Graham had thrown him, and Lou (The Toe) Groza was following it up by splitting the uprights with the extra point. Cleveland 7, Philadelphia 0.
I think it wound up Cleveland 35, Philadelphia 0 (that individual game's score not in my record books) but that may be rosy recollection – it may be that the NFL champs got a couple of consolation scores to make it 35-14. (Editor's note: Final score was Cleveland 35, Philadelphia 10)
The Browns of course won their division, going 11 and 2, including a playoff game to break a tie with the Giants, Marion Motley led the league in rushing, Lou Groza led in field goals, and in the championship game, played on Christmas Eve, they beat the Los Angeles Rams, on a field goal by The Toe, 30-28.
Now there came a long hiatus of years in which the NFL was the only game in town, but finally in 1960 a group of wealthy men the key individual in which was Lamar Hunt, a zillionaire Texas oil man, set out to prove that in America competition is the name of the game.
They organized the American Football League, with the Boston Patriots, the Buffalo Bills, the Denver Broncos, Dallas Texans, New York Titans, Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers. (The following year the Chargers brought pro football to San Diego.)
The Dallas Texans were Lamar Hunt's team.
The NFL now went to work to damage these new upstarts. They set up a franchise in Dallas, the Dallas Cowboys, as they had done in their campaign to hurt the AAC with the New York Bulldogs, not to sell tickets, not to entertain, but with the sole purpose of driving this league out of business.
The Cowboys, hastily thrown together, were predictably a terrible team, but of course Texas people came out to see NFL games, Lamar Hunt knew they were there to stay as a thorn in his side, and he said to the rich NFL (than which he was richer): “Hey, you want Texas? OK, I'll take America's heartland, Kansas.” And he moved his team to Kansas City, called it the Kansas City Chiefs, and they went on to win Super Bowl IV, thumping the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7.
There is no record that the NFL ever thanked the AFL for forcing them to put that team in Dallas, destined to become, under Tom Landry, one of the legendary franchises.
Meanwhile in New York, the new AFL franchise was the Titans, and this was a problem. I was at that point the sports editor of Movietone News, the worldwide theatrical newsreel, and I had often worked on sports films with Harry Wismer, the principal owner – or at least the one who spoke for the silent others. As a spokesman, sportscaster Harry was everything you could have wanted. His delivery on football play-by-play was rapid-fire and knowledgeable, he was funny, and a great glad-hander. He would greet you, if he hadn't seen you in a while, by grabbing your hand and exclaiming: “You're doing a great job!” I mean he would say that to bell captains.
But if you thought he was just an empty suit with a jovial exterior you'd be wrong. I was once in a Movietone recording studio with him, having written his script, and as this was a new field for me I had timed it wrong. And I saw Harry adjust, trimming it as he was reading, and making it fit.
On another occasion we were covering a pro-celebrity golf tournament where Harry was the celebrity m.c. at the first tee. He quickly had the crowd chuckling with his comments, which peaked when he announced the next player coming up to address the ball with “John is long off the tee, a wizard on the green – and a great lover.”
The crowd roared with laughter. The members of these exclusive country clubs were Harry's kind of people – rich. And from their ranks certainly had to come the backing for his pro football venture.
But Harry was basically a salesman. He was great at selling ideas, but unfortunately not the man to implement them. The Titans had hired Sammy Baugh, the Redskins' Hall of Fame quarterback of the 1930s and '40s, as the coach, and Al Dorow from Michigan State as the quarterback, and you could sort of get the picture right there. An immortal of the game – whom I don't remember coaching anywhere else – on the sideline being photographed, and on the field, leading the team, Al Who?
We covered the first game the Titans played at the Polo Grounds back in 1960 and I met Harry on the field before the game.
“Look, Tom!” he cried, with deeply sincere enthusiasm,. “Look how New York has turned out to welcome the Titans!” I looked up, and there were perhaps 7,000 people in a stadium seating 55,000. The Houston Oilers were the opponents, and George Blanda, a supposedly washed-up old pass-slinger released by the Chicago Bears, threw a gang of long-gainers to send Harry's Titans down to a defeat which would be followed by others.
It was sad when the ebullient Harry's checks began to bounce and his stewardship of the club crashed. People laughed at him, but his rocket had soared to a lovely height before it fell to earth.
Curiously, the next significant leader of the club was also a salesman, but not of himself – of pure talent, as a shrewd judge thereof, Sonny Werblin. A highly unlikely choice to create a great pro football team, he was the king of the show business agents as the head of the talent agency MCA.
Sonny took over the distressed franchise when they moved from the Polo Grounds to Shea and changed their sobriquet from that worn-out image to one emblematic of the 20 th -21 st century, the Jets. He changed everything else, including the attitude. He walked into the locker room one day and found a clubhouse man stitching up a pair of shoulder pads. “What are you doing?” he said.
“These shoulder pads are falling apart – I'm sewing 'em up.”
“Throw them away. We're the New York Jets now. We'll buy you new ones.”
Sonny the talent agent was not interested in anything less than the best. The best offensive football player coming out of college that year was Joe Namath, the Alabama quarterback, possessor of not only a rifle arm and pinpoint accuracy, but an incredibly quick release.
It was a good time for college football stars, because between the two leagues, bidding against each other, you might even get an unbelievable sum, like $100,000!
Sonny Werblin, who might have said to the NFL, “Welcome to the big time,” oiffered Joe Namath $427,000, and he got him. Jets fans, and America, know the rest.
Super Bowl III: Jets 16, Colts 7.
Lance Alworth, the nonpareil wide receiver of the San Diego Chargers, who had sat in the stands watching with increasing satisfaction as the game progressed, said after the game, “The part I liked best was the second half, when the Jets line started punishing them.”
Sonny Werblin absolutely hated the idea of the triumphant AFL giving in to being absorbed by the NFL. “We have them on the run!” he protested. “We're outdrawing them” (with their more colorful play, the bump-and-run, the two-point conversion, etc.) -
And he said this before the Jets' Super Bowl victory, when the triumphant new league ill-advisedly agreed to a merger
Sonny is gone, and his like may not be seen again. That Meadowlands deal is a disgrace. And I say Meadowlands because I hate to say Giants' Stadium. We are the only team to play its “home” games in the enemy's ballpark. Would the Brooklyn Dodgers, if some miracle sent them back, play their home games in Yankee Stadium?
We were season ticket-holders at Shea, and at the last game there, I asked our usher, who took care of our section with the attitude that these were his people, and you better not mess with them, “Will we be seeing you in the Meadowlands next year?” and he said with some bitterness, “No, I won't be there. That's a non-union operation out there.”
And boy, can you ever see it out there. Ushers? What's that? You're strictly on your own. Management (I think it's called the New Jersey Sports Authority) is interested in one thing: keeping the operating cost down. Which is accomplished by hiring people who might otherwise be flipping hamburgers at Burger King to be “security.” They show up five minutes after some drunk has punched some poor soul bloody.
And have you ever stood in that line waiting for the bus after the game, in freezing temperatures, for an hour or more, with hundreds of people ahead of you and no bus in sight?
Dear Lord, give us the West Side stadium.
– Tom McMorrow, Sr.
(Our own Wise Old Egg)
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