A Foolish Club Member Gets the Ultimate Honor This Weekend
By Evan Weiner
August 5, 2009
6:00 PM EDT
(New York, N. Y.) -- Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio this weekend in a celebration of Wilson’s contribution to football and a tip of the hat to the American Football League. The AFL or AFL IV was an entity with a short history that featured a group of men who collectively changed football and in the process opened the door to many who were shut out of football, particularly athletes from black colleges and took social stands.
The AFL shut down the weekend following the assassination of U. S. President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The older National Football League did not. The league pulled an all-star game and a potential expansion franchise out of New Orleans in 1965 because of African-American players could not get cabs from the airport into the city nor could they eat at the same restaurants as their white teammates or stay in the same hotels despite passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Wilson and his fellow AFL owners read from a different playbook than the established NFL. Wilson’s team won the AFL championship in 1965 and 1966.
Wilson is an original member of the “Foolish Club” eight men with some means who challenged the football establishment, the National Football League although the NFL of 1959 when Texas native Lamar Hunt decided to form his new league was little more than a rag tag outfit. Hunt had previously applied for expansion franchises in Dallas, and had also tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals with the idea of moving them to Texas, but the NFL rejected both of his offers. After his attempts to create an NFL team failed, Hunt began to organize a rival league, the American Football League.
Wilson and Tennessee owner K. S. “Bud” Adams are the last two survivors of the “era of change” still active in football.
Hunt’s AFL was the fifth attempt by a group of owners to start a rival league; none were successful although the NFL did add the Cleveland Rams from the second AFL in 1937, that team moved to Los Angeles in 1946, and three teams from the All American Football Conference, the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers in 1950.
NFL owners, with the league somewhat stable by the mid-1950s with 12 franchises of varying financial backing from the good, New York, Los Angeles, the Chicago Bears to the weak, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and the Chicago Cardinals with everyone else in between, thought about expansion and were interested in adding franchises in Houston, Dallas, Miami, Minneapolis, and Buffalo. However, there had to be a unanimous vote of all NFL owners to expand and two of them opposed expansion.
In 1959, Hunt lined up six owners for the new AFL. A number of the AFL IV owners including Adams had repeatedly petitioned the NFL for expansion teams or tried to purchase existing teams like the Chicago Cardinals. A future AFL owner, Boston’s William H. Sullivan, among the first to conceive of putting luxury boxes into a stadium in 1958, failed to bring an NFL team to the Hub.
Had Sullivan landed an NFL franchise and built his proposed stadium, it would have also housed the Boston Red Sox as he and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey would have been partners which would have eliminated the need for Fenway Park.
The first meeting of AFL IV was held in Chicago on August 14, 1959, with Hunt representing his Dallas franchise; Bob Howsam, with a Denver franchise; Bud Adams, with a Houston franchise; Barron Hilton, with a Los Angeles franchise; Max Winter and Bill Boyer, with a Minneapolis franchise; and Harry Wismer, owner of the New York City franchise. Buffalo, owned by Ralph Wilson, became the seventh franchise in late October, and Boston, owned by William H. Sullivan, became the eighth team.
Buffalo last had an NFL team in 1929. A moderately successful AAFC team was not invited into the NFL following the 1949 season.
“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,” recalled Hunt. “There was great national interest in the game and there were a lot of cities frankly that were growing, and 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.”
In response to the threat of a rival league, some NFL owners tried to push forward a plan to expand by four teams, one of which would be in Dallas, but that plan was vetoed by one owner, George Marshall of the Redskins. Hunt talked with Chicago Bears owner George Halas about an expansion which would have included the six teams that he had lined up for his new league, but Halas informed him of the NFL wanted to limit expansion to four teams, and would not accept the offer.
The Minnesota owners, despite being members of the AFL, were also conducting negotiations with the NFL for an expansion franchise, and when that news leaked, the Metropolitan Stadium Commission of the Twin Cities withheld its approval of a stadium deal with AFL IV to see if it could get an NFL team instead. The AFL Minnesota owners pulled out. AFL IV assigned the franchise to Oakland.
In early 1960, the NFL changed its bylaws to require a 5/6th vote to approve league expansion, but retained its unanimous vote requirement for expanding into an existing team’s territory. A unanimous vote led to Clint Murchison being awarded a franchise to operate the Texas Rangers franchise in Dallas for the 1960 season, which later became the Dallas Cowboys. The Cardinals were also permitted to relocate to St. Louis for the 1960 season. Soon after, Minnesota was granted a franchise 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 NFL did not go out of its way to make the Rangers (Cowboys) a very competitive team.
AFL IV both competed with and improved the NFL, expanding the presence of professional football. “The AFL jerked the game of pro football forward rapidly into an era where all of a sudden instead of there being 12 teams, in one year's time there were 21 teams,” recalled Hunt. “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…. There was a need for a second football league…. There was a need, a natural opening for it. The AFL was very fortuitous, it had perfect timing.”
This was the first rival league where television income played a critical role it its survival. Before it began play in November 1959, AFL IV approved a cooperative television plan whereby the league office negotiated the television contract and equally divided proceeds among member clubs. In 1960, AFL IV signed a network contract with ABC for $2 million per year for the first five years, which amounted to $250,000 per team per year, approximately 15% less than received per team in the NFL.
Part of the success of the league in attaining coverage was due to New York Titans owner Harry Wismer, who was also a noted sportscaster of the time. Wismer got AFL IV game coverage on the Associated Press and United Press International wires and helped the league land a contract with ABC.
At the time, the NFL was under a court-ordered injunction, as a result of United States v. NFL that prevented it from signing a league-wide contract with a network. After operating under local contracts for the 1960 and 1961 seasons, the NFL pooled its television rights and sold them to CBS following the passing of an act by Congress that exempted league-wide television agreements in sports from antitrust laws for $4.65 million annually for the league.
Television revenues were large enough to keep the AFL going, and the AFL was generally considered a well-financed league. Despite having a good team, Los Angeles played before just 8,000 fans when it played in the Western Division championship at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Moreover, the AFL lacked a major league presence that might have helped it to succeed. Houston played on a dirt field in a high school stadium, and the Boston Patriots played in different stadiums on Friday nights so the team would not compete with New York Giants telecasts in New England on Sunday afternoons.
Exposure was the key that allowed this fourth American Football League to survive. Wismer was the conduit between the AFL owners and the media decision makers.
"It was pretty good but not equal," according to Hunt.
"We certainly had good inroads and the media, interestingly, really wanted the AFL to succeed, a lot of them did.
"That's not always true; I think sometimes in a new league like Major League Soccer, I think the media is very ho-hum about it because they have plenty to cover.
"Harry was very important, a battler and fighter and helped make things happen that would not have happened otherwise."
The Oakland Senors became the Raiders and played its games in San Francisco at Kezar Stadium, Oakland owners thought about relocating the franchise to Vancouver but found a place to play in Oakland in 1962. Wilson loaned Oakland money to get the franchise through tough times. Denver was a laughing stock, Boston was constantly looking for a stadium after Sullivan’s proposed football-baseball park failed to materialize and the New York Titans weren't drawing people to the Polo Grounds. Los Angeles has playing before thousands upon thousands of empty seats despite having a good football team.
Hilton moved the Chargers to San Diego in 1961, Oakland restructured its ownership and Denver was sold. In 1962, the AFL decided against expanding after listening to presentations by Kansas City, New Orleans and Atlanta. But Hunt took the Kansas City offer in 1963 and moved his franchise from Dallas to western Missouri.
The biggest off field business move for the AFL happened on March 28, 1963 however. That was the day a five-man syndicate led by David (Sonny) Werblin purchased the bankrupted New York Titans for $1 million.
Wilson was one of the few guys with a solid franchise in Buffalo. A city that was not yet in decline when he got the franchise in 1959.
It was around 1962 that Wilson started talking to Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom about the possibility of merging the leagues but nothing would come of that meeting and the owners started to pay bigger salaries to unproven rookies fresh out of college.
NBC was awarded exclusive network broadcasting rights for the 1963 AFL Championship Game for $926,000, and later signed a five-year, $36 million television contract with the AFL IV to begin with the 1965 season.
The NBC contract gave the AFL the financial wherewithal to sign players to larger contracts and new Commissioner Al Davis began signing NFL stars like John Brodie and Roman Gabriel to AFL contracts.
In 1966, as a result of the escalating competition between the leagues, Halas decided he had had enough with the war with the AFL, and pushed for a merger to end it. Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm and Hunt had already devised a comprehensive plan before Halas came to them with the merger proposal. Neither Gabriel nor Brodie ever played in the AFL but they became rich because of Davis’ planned raid of the NFL.
The United States Congress approved the NFL-AFL merger when an anti-trust exemption was added as a rider to an anti-inflation tax bill. In October, 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law, thus creating a newly expanded NFL.
Under the merger agreement, the two leagues combined to form an expanded league with 24 teams, to be increased to 26 in 1968 and to 28 by 1970 or soon thereafter. (Soon after would be in 1974 when the league gave Seattle and Tampa franchises not because the NFL was wanted to honor the 1966 merger agreement but league owners jumped into those two cities to keep the World Football League from establishing teams in that new league)
All existing franchises would be retained, and no franchises would be transferred outside their metropolitan areas. 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. While maintaining separate schedules through 1969, the leagues agreed to play an annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game beginning in January 1967, and to hold a combined draft, also beginning in 1967. Official regular-season play would start in 1970 when the two leagues would officially merge to form one league with two conferences. Pete Rozelle was named Commissioner of the expanded league.
“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 playing talent.”
Terms of the agreement included AFL payments to the NFL of $18 million (over 20 years), much of which went to the San Francisco 49ers ($8 million) and the New York Giants ($10 million), whose territories were being “invaded.” The AFL also agreed to pay the NFL the $7.5 million it received from the Cincinnati expansion fee.
Wilson has been in Buffalo for 50 years and the franchise will stay there until 2012. After the Bills lease runs out in Orchard Park at what will be a 40-year-old stadium is anybody’s guess. Wilson’s family will not be getting the team following his passing and Wilson opened the door to Toronto interests by “leasing: a home game in the Canada’s financial center. But that is a discussion for another time as an AFL original -- there are not many left from 1959 -- Wilson is getting his day in the Canton sun.
Wilson’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction is also a rare acknowledgement by the Pro Football Hall of Fame of the American Football League impact on what was little more than a mom and pop entity five decades ago, professional football.