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A New League And A New Team, Part 1

AFL Series #1 on the New York Jets

Football Officials Announce League Merger at Press Conference

Since we all know the 2020 New York Jet season is pretty much over from a competitive standpoint, there is little point in belaboring the opinion that Adam Gase is a horrible coach with few redeeming values. There will be time ahead to examine viable candidates for replacement of this coaching staff. In the meantime I would like to entertain you from time to time with a series of articles dedicated to the history of the Jets.

I am not talking about tales of scoring bonanzas or incredible plays. I’m talking about the stuff that went on off the field or behind the scenes. I realize we have a number of fans who started watching the Jets back in the 80’s, 90’s or 2000s. Many don’t know about all the stuff that went on in the early days of the Titans or how the AFL was formed. The Jets might not be winners on the field but there is an encyclopedia (if you don’t know what that is ask an older person) of things you will find hard to believe.

I recently sat down with a friend of mine. We are almost the same age (within months). We are both native New Yorkers who began our fandom for the Jets when we were both in early grade school. My friend Bobby D (I have to give him a shoutout) and I were discussing the time when the Titans came into being and what transpired in the next few years. What happened then could have only transpired the way it did in New York. So if you have some time, sit down, grab a cup of coffee and I will regale you with how and why the Jets were born.

First you need to know the teams, owners and people involved and their histories.

The Original AFL (The American Football League)

The AFL was born in the mind of Lamar Hunt, a wealthy Texan who had family that once cornered the silver market in America, then went broke doing so. He got together with a wealthy Michigan industrialist, Ralph Wilson, to form a football league to rival the NFL. The idea wasn’t to force their way into the NFL. They wanted an alternative that might be more successful than the old rugged NFL. They viewed the NFL as a stodgy, boring, three yards and a cloud of dust league. They wanted to open the game up, give it a spark with the passing game and more innovative play calling.

Even the ball was changed in the AFL. The football used in the NFL is called the “Duke”. The name was given to honor Giants owner Wellington Mara, whose nickname was the Duke of Wellington. The NFL ball was rounder and fatter, whereas the AFL ball was designed to be sleeker, more oblong, to be able to throw it much further, straighter with more accuracy.

The AFL would be made up of 8 teams, 4 teams in two separate divisions.

The owners were self dubbed “The Foolish Club” for trying to compete with the NFL.

The First AFL Commissioner

Lamar Hunt wanted a man to lead the fledgling league. He wanted a man of honor, a hero that gave the league some respectability. He got his man by naming Joe Foss as the first Commissioner of the new league.

The name Joe Foss does not mean anything today but back in 1960 it meant a lot. People back in the 50’s and 60’s honored their veterans with a zealous reverence. The AFL was formed only 15 years after the end of WWII and Joe Foss was a war hero. He was a former Marine who was a flying ace during the war.

Foss grew up on a farm and as a high school junior took over the farm when his father was killed by lightning. He attended three colleges and enrolled in the military in 1940. He began training as a fighter pilot and soon saw action in the theater of combat. Foss shot down 27 enemy aircraft while being shot down 4 times himself. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor, became a legislator, then the Governor of his home state of South Dakota. Hunt had his Commissioner.

The Teams of the AFL

1) The Dallas Texans owned by Lamar Hunt. First head coach: Hank Stram.

This is not today’s Dallas Cowboys. The NFL was not going to let the new league just have their own way, so the NFL created an expansion team in Dallas called the Cowboys the same year the AFL was to begin. The Texans won the AFL championship in 1962, then moved to Kansas City. They changed their name to the Chiefs and are the current defending Super Bowl Champions.

2) The Boston Patriots owned by Billy Sullivan. First head coach: Lou Saban.

Sullivan first tried to get an NFL franchise in 1959 but the NFL refused to grant him a team because three previous football teams in New England had either folded or moved. Sullivan was a Navy vet who was a sports writer and a publicity director for Notre Dame and Boston College. His father was a well known Boston Globe correspondent. Never a wealthy man, Sullivan saw his initial investment of $25,000 grow as the league did. Poor investments later in the 1980s put Sullivan near bankruptcy, which forced the sale of the team to Victor Kiam.

3) The Buffalo Bills owned by Ralph Wilson. First head coach: Buster Ramsey.

A Navy vet and University of Virginia graduate, Wilson took over his father’s insurance business after the war. He grew the business, investing in manufacturing and mining. He became a minority owner of the Detroit Lions until he was enticed to have his own team in the AFL. He wanted to start a franchise in Seattle or Miami but was rebuffed by those cities. Wilson then put his franchise in Buffalo, New York. The old All-American Football Conference (AAFC) that was around in the 1940s had a Buffalo franchise called the Bisons. Wilson chose the name the Buffalo Bills to connect with old Bisons fans.

4) The Los Angeles Chargers owned by Barron Hilton. First head coach: Sid Gillman.

Barron Hilton was the second son and successor of the founder of the Hilton Hotels Corporation. He hired a who’s who in front office personnel and coaches. Hilton’s GM was former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy. Head coach Sid Gillman was the architect of the vertical passing offense. Hilton’s offensive assistant was Al Davis, and his defensive line coach was Chuck Noll. The QB was future congressman Jack Kemp. The Chargers played in the inaugural AFL championship game, but lack of interest forced the Chargers to move to San Diego in 1961.

5) The Denver Broncos owned by Bob Howsam. First head coach: Frank Filchock.

Bob Howsam was a navy pilot during WWII. His father in law was a three term US senator and a two term Governor of Colorado. Howsam was a baseball man who led the AAA Denver Bears of the western league from 1947 until 1961. He enlarged his baseball stadium to try to draw MLB to his market, but the new franchises were awarded to New York (Mets) and Houston (Colt .45s, later changed to Astros). Howsam took on much debt to make the renovations so he joined the AFL to fill his now vacant seats. He sold his teams (both the Denver Bears and Denver Broncos) in 1961. He later had success in baseball with numerous teams, including being a key architect of the “Big Red Machine” in Cincinnati.

6) The Houston Oilers owned by Kenneth “Bud” Adams. First head coach: Lou Rymkus.

Bud Adams was a member of the Cherokee Nation who served in the Navy. He made his money in oil and natural gas as the founder of Adams Resources & Energy Co. He and Lamar Hunt tried to buy the struggling Chicago Cardinals NFL franchise with hopes of moving them to Texas, but their efforts were denied by the NFL hierarchy. Adams was one of the people who helped a struggling New York Jets franchise stay out of bankruptcy, loaning the Jets a substantial amount of money.

7) The Oakland Raiders Owner Chet Soda. First head coach: Eddie Erdelatz

The Raiders were created in a whirlwind of expediency on January 30 1960 after the intended Minnesota team had been been lured to the NFL and the first draft of the AFL had already taken place back in November of 1959.

The choice of Oakland was a surprise, as the area had not asked for a team. The San Francisco 49ers were already well established in the area and the University of California at Berkeley had refused to allow them to play at their stadium. The Raiders were forced to play their first few games in Kezar stadium, which seated almost 60,000 people. The Raiders drew less than 10,000 a game.

Barron Hilton (Chargers owner) wanted a team on the west coast while the other AFL owners wanted a team in Atlanta. Hilton wanted a California rival for his team. The closest team to his would otherwise be Denver, over 1,000 miles away. Votes were cast and the new team seemed destined for Atlanta, but a stadium problem stopped the move. In 1960 much of the deep south was still segregated. The AFL realized that the only location for the Atlanta franchise to play was Grant Field, which was a segregated facility. The AFL owners were vehemently opposed to segregation. In fact they wanted all the African American athletes they could possibly bring into the league. The league reversed its opposition to Oakland and granted a team to Chet Soda.

The name of the Oakland franchise was put up to a contest, with the winning entry earning a free trip to the Bahamas. Since Chet Soda was often heard saying to people “Hello Senor” the winning entry was the Oakland Senors. Many media members and others in the ownership group were appalled at the name “Senors.” After sending the woman with the winning entry to the Bahamas they changed the name of the team to the Oakland Raiders.

The drafted players in the AFL were not always signed by the AFL. The NFL would try to keep the best players. The players drafted by the intended Minnesota franchise in many cases had already been signed by other teams before the Oakland Raiders were even created. For that reason the AFL had an expansion draft that first year, even before the first game was played. Teams could hold back 11 players. The others were available for selection by the Raiders. The Raiders were allowed to select up to 24 players in this draft. It still left them with little talent on paper.

The Raiders did manage to select offensive guard Wayne Hawkins from the Denver franchise, who played 10 years with the team. He was a 5 time AFL all-star, an AFL champion in 1967 and a member of the All-Time Raider team. They also somehow kept Jim Otto, who played for 15 seasons at center, never missing a game due to injury. He is a NFL Hall of Fame member who was a member of the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time team, a 1st team AFL player in every year of the AFL and a member of the All-Time AFL team.

8) The New York Titans Owner Harry Wismer. First head coach: Sammy Baugh.

The Titans franchise was selected in an effort to bring the largest US market into the fledgling AFL.

At the time William Shea, a prominent attorney at the firm Shea & Gould, was trying to form a third baseball league (the Continental League) to bring baseball back to New York. He was asked to do so by NYC mayor Robert Wagner after the Dodgers and Giants left for the west coast back in 1957. Shea had tried earlier (at the Mayor’s request) to bring the Reds, Phillies and Pirates to New York, but was rebuffed in all of his attempts.

Major League baseball was not amused by Shea attempting to bring in another league to compete with the American & National leagues. They brought in Shea to see if he would be interested in an expansion franchise beginning in 1962. The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s were formed shortly after that meeting. The city built a stadium for the Mets and named it after Shea for all his efforts.

Lamar Hunt met with William Shea to see if he was interested in becoming a member of the new AFL. Shea, who had just landed his deal for the Mets, was not interested. He suggested Harry Wismer to Adams as a possible candidate. Wismer was a former sportscaster who had been a minority owner of the team from Washington as well as the Detroit Lions.

9) The Minnesota ? Owners Bill Boyer, H. P. Skoglund and Max Winter.

The Minnesota team was set to begin as an original AFL franchise. In January 1960 the team reversed course to become the 14th NFL team starting in 1961. The owners were also made to add Ole Haugsrud to the group as per agreement with the NFL. Haugsrud had sold back to the NFL his Duluth Eskimos back in 1920s and the league guaranteed him a 10% ownership of any team that was brought into Minnesota. They derived the team’s name from Ole Haugsrud’s old high school, the Central High School Vikings.

This move, along with the decision to add the Dallas Cowboys, was a direct attempt to thwart the creation and viability of the AFL by the NFL. The NFL had been successful at destroying any competition against them in the past and were not going to let the AFL become a threat to their monopoly.

Both Hunt and Adams (the two wealthiest AFL owners) were offered NFL franchises of their own early in the process, which both AFL owners turned down. They were not interested in becoming another cog in the NFL. They wanted to build a new league with more excitement and less rules on ownership than the NFL. They also believed highly in more league diversity with African American players becoming key members of their teams, an idea that was slow to evolve in the old NFL.

If Adams and Hunt had bolted for the NFL the Jets might never have existed. The NFL was planning on expanding anyway, so adding the Minnesota and Dallas franchises was already on the table. By declining the NFL offers, Adams and Hunt allowed the Jets, Chargers, Raiders, Bills, Broncos and Patriots to become viable entities. So the Jets owe a great deal of thanks to Adams and Hunt (who also later bailed the Jets out of a bankrupt situation) for their existence.

Harry Wismer

Harry Wismer was a big sports star in high school who played baseball, basketball and football. Harry went on to play college football first at the University of Florida, then at Michigan State, where he suffered a major knee injury that ended his career. His coach at Michigan State got Wismer a job as an announcer for the games. Soon he was announcing for the Detroit Lions and was named sportscaster of the year three times in the 1940s by Sporting News magazine.

Television was invented back in 1927, but it didn’t become a household item to the masses until after WWII. Even then it took years for average families to own a TV, which at the time was full of tubes and a huge heavy glass screen. Sports were not shown on TV for the most part, especially college games. Games were taped and then highlights were shown at movie theaters a week or so later.

Sports back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s were almost exclusively broadcast on radio. People would have a radio in the garage as they worked or people would gather around the radio in the living room to listen to a game. This made the announcers celebrities and gave them creative avenues to entertain their audience. Football being such a violent sport made the perfect genre for Wisner to become a star. He had a powerful voice and he would scream into the microphone, which only heightened the excitement.

Wismer was a storyteller as much as a sportscaster, and he never let the facts get in the way of a good story. He would be in the middle of a game then yell out “Hey there is senator Irving Ives, how are you doing senator?” The senator was not really there; it was a way to inject some excitement to the event while making Wismer seem like he rubbed elbows with the leaders of the world.

Wismer was the voice of the NFL team from Washington D.C. His first game announcing was the 1940 championship game where Washington lost 73-0 to the Chicago Bears. Much later Wismer actually owned 25% of the team at one time, but he feuded often with majority owner George Preston Marshall. Wisner realized he would never own the team from Washington outright in the future. Marshall later tried to sabotage the career of Wismer after all the animosity.

Wismer wanted to own a football franchise, so when Lamar Hunt came calling Harry Wismer was interested. Other people also wanted to get involved, but Hunt was a devout Christian which meant he would not accept some prospective owners who dealt in gambling or horse racing. This excluded a lot of potential owners, as there was a lot of money to be made in the horse racing industry.

Wismer was a willing owner, but he was not a rich man like Hunt or Adams. Harry’s money was made one paycheck at a time which he invested in stocks. Over time he had a very nice net worth but he neglected to follow safe investing protocols by not diversifying his assets. He also had a love of bowling and his portfolio was heavily invested in Brunswick Bowling stock. Unfortunately, Brunswick Bowling was about to roll a gutter ball.

Coming up next:

How the Titans got their name

Harry’s coach introduction (a doozy)

Harry’s office (or non-office)

A new owner, a new name

and lots more

Thanks for reading the boring stuff, the best is yet to come.