Dallas is the Epicenter of NFL History
The location of this year’s Super Bowl, Arlington, Texas just west of Dallas, provides an eye opening look at the history of the National Football League. Dallas was at the center of the transformation of the NFL from a rag tag, mom and pop operation into a multibillion dollar business. This is the story of three teams from Dallas and the fortunes or misfortunes and of missed business opportunities that somehow turned into the richest sports league in the United States. Long before Tex Schramm conceived the term “America’s Team, when talking about his Dallas Cowboys, Dallas was the home to the original and real “America’s Team.” This Dallas team had two future Hall of Famers on its roster, Gino Marchetti and Artie Donovan, but little else except for a sense of humor.
Today there is pageantry in Dallas or more specifically Arlington (and at old Cowboys Stadium in Irving) on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys along with the Detroit Lions always host the Turkey Day game. Oddly enough, in 1952, the Dallas Texans “hosted” a Thanksgiving Day game. The game was played in at the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio.
The 1952 Dallas Texans rose from the ashes of the New York Yankees, who folded after three years of struggling as both the New York Bulldogs and Yankees in both the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium. Dallas was a big high school and college football hotbed and should have been a good pro city. At least 10 of the NFL owners felt that way as they green lighted the move to Dallas. Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney said no. He didn’t like the idea of black or Negro players being subjected to segregation in Dallas and cast a no vote. He was overruled.
NFL football did not take off. The Cotton Bowl was nearly empty. The Texans averaged nearly 15,000 people per game in their first three home contests and the owners gave up after the fourth game. The NFL took over and the Texans became Hershey, Pennsylvania’s team and then Akron, Ohio’s team.
The 1950 Colts were 1-11, when that team folded, Donovan’s contract was assigned to the Yankees in 1951, a team which finished at 1-9-2. In the Texan’s 1952 training camp, Donovan got inkling as to what he was about to encounter with the Texans when the owners hired Willie Garcia as their equipment manager in Kerrville, Texas. If a ball was passed or kicked into the high grass, the Texans sent Willie to get it because he had only one leg. The players figured Willie stood a 1 in 2 chance to get a rattlesnake bite.
By Thanksgiving, the NFL moved the Texans daily operations to Hershey. The 0-9 Texans would meet the 4-5 Chicago Bears as the second half of a high school-pro doubleheader in Akron. The Texans were the home team.
“In the morning they had a high school football game and they must have had about 20,000 people in the stands. When we went to warm up, there must have been about 3,000 people in the stands,” Donovan recalled in his familiar thick Bronx accent.
“Now (Coach) Jimmy Phelan was one of the greatest men I ever met in my life, but football had passed him by years before. In his speech before the game, he told us, ‘we are going to dispense with the customary introductions and meet ’em individually
“We went out and about eight guys climbed over the fence and started shaking people’s hands. Then we played and we beat them.”
How the Texans ended up in Hershey/Akron is easy to explain according to the man known as Fatso. “The team was supposed to have folded after the game that was supposed to rescue us against the Rams. We played them in the Cotton Bowl and they expected about 50,000 people and lo and behold, it hadn’t rained in Texas for about a year and that day it stormed. About 10,000 people showed up and the team folded. We then went to Hershey. From Hershey, we went to play games in Akron, Philadelphia and Detroit. I’ll tell ya what, it was a great experience.”
The Texans never came close to winning another game–losing to the Eagles and Lions. Phelan was fired and only 13 Texans moved to Baltimore after Carroll Rosenbloom purchased the team and Baltimore purchased enough tickets after a ticket selling campaign. That ended the NFL experience in Dallas but by 1956, NFL owners were thinking of expanding with Dallas back in the picture.
Legendary Cowboys Coach Tom Landry never gave much thought to being an NFL lifer. He actually started his career with the New York Yankees of the AAFC in 1949 and moved to the NFL in 1950 when the New York Giants took him when the AAFC New York Yankees folded. Landry and four others joined the New York Giants. Landry would stay there and coach the defense through 1959.
Landry actually was planning to get out of football because it was not a professional that paid much money and planned to go into private business around the Dallas area at the end of the decade.
By 1958, pro football began to stabilize economically and two Texas businessmen, Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams applied for expansion franchises in Dallas and Houston respectively. NFL owners said no. Both had also tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals with the idea of moving them to Texas. Both bids were turned down.
The impetus for NFL expansion came from George Halas. In 1956, the Chicago Bears owner predicted that the league would expand from 12 to 16 teams sometime between 1960 and 1965. The next year, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell said the league would increase its number of teams in 1960 and by 1958, Bell had appointed Halas and Rooney to a committee to explore expansion. Dallas and Houston were identified as cities that could support and NFL team. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Buffalo and Miami were also in consideration.
The 1958 NFL Championship Game changed the NFL. On the field, the New York Giants were the glamour boys of Madison Avenue led by the handsome Frank Gifford. The Giants were the NFL champions in 1956 and finished the 1958 season in a tie with Cleveland on top of the NFL Eastern Conference. They beat the Browns 10-0 in a playoff game and faced the Baltimore Colts in the championship contest.
The Giants had Gifford, Charley Conerly, Kyle Rote and Sam Huff, highly recognizable names. The Colts history traced back to the New York Yankees brief fling in the NFL in 1951 and Dallas. Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti and Artie Donovan were fine players but the New York media had convinced the sporting public that simply the Giants were better. The Colts and Giants finished regulation tied at 17-17. The Colts tied it on a Steve Myra field goal with just seven seconds remaining. The Colts won it in overtime after Unitas lead the team downfield capped by Alan Ameche’s one-yard touchdown run with 8:15 gone in the overtime.
The on-field drama had viewers tied to their TV sets and convinced both TV executives and Lamar Hunt that football had arrived. Hunt wanted to put an NFL team in Houston as soon as the 1960 season.
The NFL hoped to use Rice University’s field until a new football field was built in Houston. But Rice University officials turned down the NFL’s overture. The league ended its flirtation with Houston at that point and Minneapolis stepped up its efforts to join the NFL at that point.
Hunt decided if he couldn’t join the NFL, he might as well compete with them and by 1959; the American Football League was organized with franchises in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Denver and New York. Eventually Boston and Buffalo would join the league, but Minneapolis owner Max Winter dropped out when the NFL awarded him an expansion franchise to the Twin-Cities in 1961 and eventually that franchise ended up in Oakland.
“The first organizational meeting of the AFL was in mid-August of 1959 in Chicago,” recalled Hunt. “I think there was an opportunity, the sport needed to grow. It had gone through a consolidation period and we had seen the 1958 great championship game between the Giants and Colts.
“There was great national interest in the game and there were a lot of cities frankly that were growing, not all of them had great stadium facilities. But it was beginning to happen. The public was beginning to perceive that this game had a national appeal.”
While Hunt thought the 1958 championship game was proof that the public had accepted pro football, Johnny Unitas didn’t realize that his performance along with his teammates and the Giants would change the course of pro football’s history.
No, it was just another ballgame, that’s all it was. You never think of those things going into them. It just happened to be the one that was a championship game that happened to be in overtime, the first overtime game ever and it happened to be the one that was watched by more people than any other sporting event in the world at that time,” he said.
Hunt’s first move after he decided to go ahead with the American Football League was to meet with Adams in Houston. Hunt felt a Dallas-Houston rivalry would be important for the new league. Hunt also noted that NFL attendance had grown from nearly two million in 1950 to more than three million in 1958. The NFL signed a TV deal with CBS in 1956 and further pushed pro football into a nation’s consciousness.
“The others came from really from names that were interested in getting the Chicago Cardinals to move to their city,” he explained. “Harry Wismer was not in that group. He was a stockholder, interestingly in two NFL teams, Detroit and Washington and I don’t know how that came about, but he came in a little later with the New York Titans.
“Ralph Wilson and Buffalo also came in October and his franchise became the seventh and then the Boston Patriots with Bill Sullivan became the eighth franchise and then we went through another consolidation and lost one team and then added the Oakland Raiders as the eighth team,” he remembered. [Editor’s Note: This was after the NFL had agreed to add Minneapolis as an expansion franchise, thus killing a proposed move there by the Chicago Cardinals.]
Bert Bell died of a heart attack suffered at Franklin Field in Philadelphia during a Steelers-Eagles game on October 11, 1959. NFL Treasurer Austin Gunsel was named president in the office of the Commissioner on October 14.
It was under Bell’s tenure that the Bidwill family’s Chicago Cardinals began their quest to move. The NFL had concluded the Cardinals and Bears could not share the then second biggest market in the country. The two had reached an agreement in the 1930s whereby the Bears would play all of their games north of Madison Street and the Cardinals would stay on the south side.
The Cardinals wanted out of Comiskey Park and looked to move north of Madison Street to play their games. In 1959, the Cardinals played four of their home games at Soldier Field and two in Minneapolis. The only time the Cardinals drew a large crowd for a home game in the 1950s was against the Bears.
Bud Adams met with the Cardinals ownership in an attempt to buy the team and move them to Houston. Adams even staged a pre-season game between the Bears and Steelers to convince NFL officials that moving to Houston would be profitable. The NFL had nebulous expansion plans and was forced to deal with Cardinals Chicago problem.
The same day that Hunt was elected AFL President, January 26, 1960, Alvin Ray “Pete” Rozelle was elected as the NFL Commissioner as a compromise candidate on the thirty-third ballot.
Two days later, on January 28, 1960, the National Football League awarded a franchise to Clint Murchinson to operate the Texas Rangers franchise in Dallas. The Rangers would become the Dallas Cowboys and go head to head with Hunt, the AFL and the Dallas Texans. Minneapolis was also granted a franchise contingent on selling 25,000 season tickets for the 1961 season.
Even though NFL owners were trying to throw Hunt a roadblock in his efforts to establish both the AFL and his Dallas franchise, the owners did not go out of their way to make the team very competitive.
“We didn’t have much, we didn’t have a draft that was the most difficult thing,” Landry recalled in talking about his first year in Dallas as the Head Coach. “It was over with by the time they gave us a franchise. Once they said they were going to stock our team, then they said you have your pick of three of the worst nine players on these (the 12 existing NFL) teams.
We started with 36 players of that caliber. They were fine guys but they were the older guys, guys who were young who they didn’t think they would make it. That’s where we really scouted our scouting system that brought in so many free agents.
“Like Cornell Green and Drew Pearson. That came from necessity more than anything else.”
The Dallas Cowboys actually started life as the Dallas or Texas Rangers a couple of months earlier as Clint Murchinson pushed to get accepted into the NFL. Murchinson had wanted to buy into the Washington Redskins and would owe that team until a Dallas franchise was established. But George Preston Marshall wasn’t about ready to sell the Redskins.
The Rangers opened shop and hired a Wisconsin photographer named Gil Brandt as scout, Landry as coach and Tex Schramm as President. Schramm though was hedging his bet and staying with CBS until the Dallas franchise was accepted into the NFL.
“I started in November of 1959 and my job was to go out and sign players,” said Brandt talking about how he recruited athletes for a team that did not exist. “We didn’t have a franchise. The players would say what’s the name of your team, we don’t have one. But if you are not drafted or signed by anyone else and if we don’t get a franchise, then you can go wherever you may.”
The first player Brandt signed was Jake Crouthamel, who was the last player released from the Dallas Cowboys’ first training camp. He then joined the AFL’s Boston Patriots in their inaugural season, before leaving pro football to enter the Navy in 1961.
“It wasn’t hard in those days,” said Brandt in describing how he was able to sell athletes on the only on paper Dallas Rangers. “The hardest thing was duplicating the contracts and putting a team’s name in there when we didn’t know what the team’s name was going to be.
“The draft was 30 rounds and took place the Monday after the Army-Navy Game. So immediately upon the end of the draft, I was a committee of one that went out to sign 35 or 40 free agents for a non-existent team.
We got some good players, Don Perkins was a player who came out of that group and went on to be a very, very fine player. He’s in our (Dallas) Ring of Honor. One of the real good running backs of all time.”
What if there was no Lamar Hunt, no Bud Adams? No Ralph Wilson, Bill Sullivan, Barron Hilton (the grandfather of Paris Hilton and a member of “the lucky sperm club according to Donald Trump) or the rest of what the media dubbed “The Foolish Club?”
“Probably the game would have taken a different course. Certainly the league would have expanded. I would hate to hazard a guess how many teams it might be. But the AFL jerked the game of pro football forward rapidly into an era where were all of a sudden instead of there being 12 teams, in one year’s time there were 21 teams. Before 1960, you had two West Coast cities in the NFL and the rest concentrated in the northeast. The AFL changed all of that. Suddenly you had pro football in cities that didn’t have it before, Dallas, Denver, Houston and Buffalo, “said Hunt.
“That was remarkable addition and of course signaled other expansion. There was a need for a second football league. The argument could be made you have to fill a need. But there was a need, a natural opening for it. The AFL was very fortuitous, it had perfect timing.”
In 1962, the AFL decided against expanding after listening to presentations by Kansas City, New Orleans and Atlanta. But Hunt, in a life and death struggle with the Cowboys who were also ailing, took a look at Kansas City’s proposal and decides to move from Texas to Missouri if the city guaranteed season ticket sales, expanded Municipal Stadium and constructed an office and practice facility for the team. Hunt moved the team on May 14.
Hunt named the team the Chiefs after Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, who fashioned the offer, who was nicknamed “Chief.” Hunt was at the forefront of playing city against city for a franchise learning lessons from Major League Baseball owners of the 1950s who played city against city like the Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley who pitted New York against Los Angeles.
Dallas’ last contribution to the business and politics of football was the National Football League-American Football League merger. It was Schramm who made the initial overture to Hunt. Schramm met Hunt at Love Field in Dallas at the Texas Ranger Statue and both men proceeded to a car in the parking lot and began to talk about their leagues and the health of the football industry in general in 1966.
“He was on his way from Kansas City to Houston and we went out into a car and talked,” said Schramm. “I had called him and asked him to meet with me. He was in Kansas City and was going to an AFL meeting in Houston and he said he would arrange his travel so he could meet me in Dallas. It was all pre-arranged.
“We certainly wanted to keep it confidential which we were pretty successful in doing. The ironic thing about it was that was the meeting that Lamar was going to where Al Davis was named Commissioner of the American Football League. So the negotiations had actually started at the same time he was named commissioner.”
The Schramm-Hunt talks weren’t the first discussions between the two leagues. However, Schramm and Hunt came up with a comprehensive plan. Baltimore’s Carroll Rosenbloom had talked with Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson earlier. In 1961, AFL Commissioner Joe Foss wired the NFL and proposed a World playoff game between the 1961 AFL and NFL champion.
Davis was about ready to declare all out war on the National Football League. Davis was replacing Joe Foss who was “too nice a guy.” Foss had a squeaky clean image and was a World War II hero. Initially he was there to give the AFL credibility. In the end, both leagues agreed to keep all of the teams in their 1966 playing sites despite a proposal to move the Jets to Los Angeles, the Rams to San Diego, the Chargers to New Orleans and the Raiders to Portland or Seattle. The American Football League also paid the New York Giants $10,000,000 and the San Francisco 49ers $8,000,000 for having a team invaded their territory. In the NFL money talks and either the Giants or 49ers team could have vetoed the merger, so votes were purchased.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Hunt. “It consolidated the sport. It assured the continuity of every team in both leagues. There were some teams that were pretty weak financially at that point. Some teams going out of business generally accompanied previous mergers in sports. We assured that every team would stay in business. We assured the addition of new teams in Cincinnati and New Orleans. It gave the public the Super Bowl. It also provided the teams and the league with a common draft, which provided for an equal dissemination of plating talent.”
Congress approved the NFL-AFL merger on October 21, 1966 when an anti-trust exemption was added as a rider to an anti-inflation tax bill. President Lyndon B. Johnson (of Texas) signed the bill into law, thus creating a newly expanded NFL. Arlington, Texas hosts the 45th Super Bowl on February 6th not far from of old Cotton Bowl, which hosted the three Dallas teams and Love Field where the Schramm proposed to Hunt which married the AFL and NFL and created the Super Bowl.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble ‘s xplana.com, kobo’s literati or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was edited for length by Greg Tyler, Editor of the Sport Digest.