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A New League And A New Team Part 4

AFL Series #4

Baugh to Coach Titans

As we left our hero Titans owner Harry Wismer he was in financial difficulty, but that problem was not unique to Harry. Every team had a tough time drawing fans to their new league as money was tight for most working Americans. Harry Wismer was not a fool, but he was operating a franchise that had an expected cost of $986,000 a year. He had the TV revenue plus promotions, but the entire enterprise was running on a razor’s edge.

Players throughout the 1960 season were injured but not replaced on the roster in order to avoid paying the extra players. everal players played both ways to make up for the missing bodies.

Sadly the most horrific tragedy to happen to the Titans/Jets franchise occurred that first year. In the 5th game of the inaugural season against the Houston Oilers Titans’ offensive guard Howard Glenn had complained about not feeling well. In the locker room at the game’s conclusion, he slumped over and was rushed to the hospital where he was declared dead 40 minutes later. The cause of death was listed as a broken neck. He was the first player to die playing professional football in the USA.

The Titans had started their season with 3 home games in 1960 to get a jump on the need for football in the Big Apple. That meant they were on the road for the last three games of the season. Wisner estimated that he spent over $150,000 on that trip because the team remained on the West Coast instead of traveling back to New York.The first game was against Denver, then on to Oakland and finally Los Angeles. This meant added hotel and food bills.

Most NFL teams had accounting books in the red at that time, but some like the Giants and Bears had companies buy blocks of tickets which helped their bottom line.

I remember myself as a child in the 60’s going to Yankee Stadium (home of the Yankees and Giants football team) and sitting in box seats. My father was a fireman and a butcher who made a meager living but did the best he could. There were no luxury boxes for the rich and famous back then. The wealthy, the powerful, and the most distinguished sat on the field level right next to the field. My dad could not afford or was even able to buy those tickets, but he was given box seat tickets on occasion by clients at his butcher shop.

The term “box seats” refers to seats on the field level that were “boxed off” by iron pipes. So you would have 4 or 8 seats in a box and, there would be a inscribed plaque that named the owner of the box. These were season ticket holders for the entire box of seats and were always big companies like IBM or AT&T. They would write them off as business expenses then use them to develop clients. Occasionally those tickets would flow to a working man like my father when no one else wanted them. For a Yankee game that meant the last place team was in town for a 3 game series. Usually we sat in the upper deck for a game, but box seats were a chance to see the players up close. As a child that was gold.

The new AFL league had 3 owners who could survive a financial pitfalls of a new league, and 5 others who could not. The three owners who could, Bud Adams, Lamar Hunt and Barron Hilton not only used their fortunes to start a league. They used them to keep it going when rational thought said not to. The Titans had received over $40,000 in 1962 from the league to stay afloat, and the Raiders had received $400.000 personally from Ralph Wilson to keep them in business. “He knew if the Raiders went down, the league went down,” said Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Trivia Question:

Do you know why the Los Angeles Chargers were called the Chargers?

Answer later in the article... Look for it...

The impetus that initiated the thought of forming the AFL

The entire reason the AFL happened was that the struggling Chicago Cardinals franchise refused to move from the Windy City. The Cardinals were a decent franchise but always played second fiddle to the Bears (I have no idea how that feels). In the mid 1950’s Lamar Hunt wanted buy them and to move them to Dallas, but they vehemently refused. I guess in retrospect that was a foolish move as the Cardinals eventually moved to St Louis in 1960.

Those of us who lived through the early part of the 20th century will tell you the entire world was different back then, not just the NFL. Hard work, self reliance, pride in accomplishment and quality of work were paramount virtues to most people at the time. Through the 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s most working people were poor. Status was achieved by how well you did your job or the quality of the service you provided. Money was not the overriding factor in celebrity. Many wealthy people inherited their money. They did little to earn it so they were considered just lucky not revered.

If you were a cobbler (a person who makes or works on shoes), and you made a high quality product you were considered a valued member of the community. People would come far and wide to have you make a pair of shoes for them. Many of these people would develop huge businesses in the future, but at the time of the AFL the capital wasn’t available to expand a business like today.

Money was tight. To get a loan to start a business or even buy a car was an arduous process. Years of tax returns plus an abundance of collateral was needed before any bank would even think of giving you money. People like Lamar Hunt, Barron Hilton and Bud Adams had diverse businesses that generated an immense amount of money. They didn’t need a bank to support them. In fact their capital would support many local banks; they loaned money to banks. They were not part of the banking busines. They just made money from them. This is where the adage “it takes money to make money” comes from.

Lamar Hunt wanted a Dallas franchise, but he was also a visionary who had the ability to think outside the box. “I thought to myself, I’ve had all these conversations with these people, and they’re not going to do what I want them to do, they’re not going to move to Dallas,” Hunt said. “But in the course of conversations, they had asked if I knew Bud Adams in Houston. Then they asked if I knew Bob Howsam in Denver. ‘Do you know Max Winter in Minneapolis?’ And I did not, and anyway, over the course of those friendly conversations with them, they mentioned every one of these people and told me that each of them had gone the same path that I had, that they all wanted the Cardinals to move to their city. And so there it was—the light bulb came on—and I said, ‘Why not go see those people and put together a new league?” This was the impetus for the AFL and in turn the New York Titans/Jets.

The Jets were able to keep going in 1962 with the help of that $40,000 loan from the league. Harry himself had just remarried to Mary Zwillman and appointed her Chief Executive Officer of the Titans in hopes she would use some of her assets to aide the Titans. Mary Zwillman was the wealthy widow of a New Jersey mobster Abner Zwillman. Sadly for Harry the new Mrs. Wismer had listened to her children who were forcibly opposed to her lending their future inheritance to the Titans.

Answer to trivia question

The Los Angeles Chargers were so named by Barron Hilton (although he denied the rumor) because he was running the Hilton Hotel’s division of the credit card Carte Blanche. He named his team to bring exposure to his business. Back in the 50’-60’s only the rich had credit cards, and they were only accepted at mostly expensive shops, airports, airlines and fine hotels. The Chargers were named for an idea “Charge it.”

The Titans coach Sammy Baugh was back in Rotan, Texas, where he leased and ran a 20,000 acre cattle ranch. Sammy was coming back to the Titans as coach mainly to collect the large portion of his 1961 salary that he wasn’t paid. He wasn’t as excited to coach the team after he had a hard time getting the players to perform up to his standards. The players were distracted by the team’s financial struggles. Players didn’t really know if they would ever get paid.

So one fine day Sammy Baugh sat down to breakfast in Texas and read that the new head coach of the New York Titans was Clyde “Bulldog” Turner. Sammy had been fired and didn’t even know it.

As Sammy later said “Harry never called me, never wrote me a letter that I was fired. Oh Harry always had something going. See, he still owes me money but he hired Bulldog Turner. What Harry wanted me to do was not come out there. But I knew damn well that I wouldn’t get the rest of my money because he would say I didn’t report. So I called Bulldog; hell we knew each other for years and I said ‘Now Bulldog I’m not going to do anything to the club but I’ve got to be there to get paid. Harry could always say he didn’t fire me. It’s true he never wrote me or gave me any sort of goddamn notification. The son of a bitch would have to fire me. Bulldog said ‘just do anything out here you want to’ and Harry found me and got it settled.”

With Sammy gone the Titans began their third year in the Polo Grounds but had to compete with some new tenants, the New York Mets. The Polo Grounds were old, built in 1890. It was so antiquated it was nicknamed the bathtub. The Mets became the darlings of New York; the loveable losers. The more the Mets lost, the more the fans loved them. The Mets won only 40 games that first year, but the fans enjoyed the fiasco. The Titans were second class citizens in their own home. He Jets drew a mere 36,161 fans in 7 home dates.

The Titans didn’t do well while the crosstown Giants were on their way to another division crown drawing over ten times the attendance of the Titans. The Titans were forced to take a bus ride to New England for a game then ride the bus back the same day. The last two home games saw the Titans draw 4,011 fans for the Bills and 3,828 for the Oilers. By then the financial ruin of Harry Wismer was complete. The late season game against Denver almost didn’t occur. The players refused to go unless they were guaranteed to be paid. That is when Lamar Hunt took control of the team, and player salaries were personally guaranteed by Mr. Hunt himself.

The Titans flew to Denver, and in front of 15,776 fans they won 46-45, it was the last win of the team known as the Titans. The team would be changing everything, the blue and gold colors that Harry copied from Notre Dame, gone. Bulldog would be replaced as a coach. The team would be controlled by a new owner.

The Titans wound up in bankruptcy court where a few men who loved horse racing took over the team. I guess Lamar Hunt could live with some people who were in the sport of kings if it meant he didn’t have to keep shelling out huge sums of money to keep the Titans afloat. The total sale price of the Titans was $1 million, but no real money changed hands as the new owners just assumed the debts of the Titan franchise. Considering the team is now worth in the neighborhood of $3.2 billion I guess it was a decent buy.

Sammy Baugh went on to coach other teams in the NFL. He was coaching the Houston Oilers when they came to town to play the team now called the Jets. As Sammy remembered “Harry calls me up and says “could I ride to the game on the team bus? and I said hell yes. He sat on our bench the whole first half then went to the press box. He came down a few minutes later and his nose was all bloodied, he had blood all over his shirt. Someone had beat him up. It was the last time I saw Harry, all bloodied.”

Harry tried to change his life after the Titans slipped from his control. He had stopped drinking and was making a new start of things. Sadly that did not last long as his dismay from his failure plus physical problems caught up to him. He began drinking again, this time more heavily. Harry Wismer died at age 54 in 1967. He never got to see his team win the Super Bowl. Harry had fallen down a flight of stairs leaving a Manhattan restaurant and fractured his skull.He died two days later.

Harry Wismer was a unique personality who happened to be the founder of the Titans/Jets franchise. He was an imperfect man (as we are are as people) who tried, helped and succeed in building something from nothing. This something was a team many of us hold as unrivaled fixtures of our lives; some of us for decades on end.

Most Jets fans have no idea Harry ever existed which is a shame. For without Harry Wismer the AFL probably folds to become a insignificant footnote in American sports history. Without Harry there is no AFL/NFL merger which means no greatest Super Bowl victory of all-time in Super Bowl III. Heck there would be no Super Bowl at all; just a pile of NFL championship games.

There would be no famous guarantee of victory by a brash young QB who was a 21 point underdog to the barbarous Colts who had a coach who would become the winningest coach of all time; but not on that day. There would be no victorious finger pointed to the heavens proclaiming the Jets were world beaters if only for a day.

We would have no fond memories of Curtis Martin, Wayne Chrebet, Don Maynard, Matt Snell, Nick Mangold, Kevin Mawe, Darrelle Revis, Joe Klecko, Kyle Clifton, George Sauer, Victor Green, Thomas Jones, Winston Hill, David Harris, Randy Rasmussen, John Abraham, Emerson Boozer, Gerry Philbin, Leon Washington, Marvin Powell, Laveranues Coles, Larry Grantham, Al Toon, Mickey Shuler, Shaun Ellis, Freeman McNeil, Mark Gastineau, Vinny Testaverde, D’ Brickashaw Ferguson, Chad Pennington, Marty Lyons, Keyshawn (throw me the damn ball) Johnson, Mo Lewis, Dennis Byrd, John Riggins, Pat Leahy, Aaron Glenn, Ken O’Brien, Wesley Walker, Richard Todd, Erik McMillian, Boomer Esiason, James Hasty, LT LaDainian Tomlinson, Jim Turner, Bruce Harper, Dave Herman, Antonio Cromartie, Jonathan Vilma, Santana Moss, Joe Fields, Brandon Marshall, Rob Moore, Bilal Powell, Eric Decker, Chris Ivory, Muhammad Wilkerson, Robby Anderson, Santonio Holmes, Sheldon Richardson, Marvin Jones, Braylon Edwards, Quincy Enunwa, Matt Forte, Calvin Pace, Jim Sweeney, Jeff Lageman, Ryan Fitzpatrick, John Schmitt, Jamal Adams, Al Atkinson, Dan Alexander, Abdul Salaam, Brandon Moore, Bryan Thomas, Terance Mathis, Josh McCown, Ralph Baker, Plaxico Burress, Calvin Pryor, Brett Favre, Browning Nagle, Jace Amaro, Tim Tebow or Bryce Petty just to name a few.

Thanks Harry....

The Team was bought by a group of 5 investors headed by Sonny Werblin. Also in the group was Leon Hess, Townsend B. Martin, Donald C. Lillis and Philip H. Iselin.

Bring on the Jets

Hello Joe, what about those knees

Why the name “Jets”

Who is Sonny Werblin?

And lots more next time...