There was a time when the Canadian Football League was a serious threat to the NFL
FRIDAY, 30 JULY 2010 08:42
BY EVAN WEINER
The New York Giants and Jets are opening up training camp in the next few days and all eyes will be on SUNY Cortland for Jets fans and SUNY Albany for Giants fans as the teams prepare for the 2010 season. But once upon a time, the National Football League and the Giants were considered a real alternative to the Canadian Football League.
The CFL paid better salaries.
In 1953, the NFL would set an attendance record and by 1954 most of the NFL teams had local TV contracts. No matter, the NFL was a step above semi-pro football and another league had set its sights on a war with the NFL.
The Canadian Football League.
The CFL signed the 1952 Heisman Trophy Winner Billy Vessels, along with Eddie LeBaron and Gene Brito. In 1955, LeBaron, Brito, Norb Heckler, Alex Webster and Tom Dublinski left the CFL for NFL teams after representatives from the two competing leagues failed to work out a no raiding treaty.
The CFL gave up on competing with the NFL by 1956, but Frank Tripucka who was the Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback said people should not have dismissed the CFL as just another league somewhere north of the United States border. Tripucka was with the Dallas Texans franchise that played in Akron and practiced in Hershey, Pa.
"A lot of people think, even in those days, that the National Football League was the almighty league but it really wasn't," said Tripucka.
The National Football League in those days was haphazard.
"I'd come home here (to New Jersey, after the CFL season had ended) and I'd watch the Giants play at the Polo Grounds and you could walk up to the ticket window and buy yourself a ticket to anywhere in the place that you wanted. I am talking about 1952, 53, 55. The time the Giants turned it around was the time they moved from the Polo Grounds to the Yankee Stadium in 1956.
"They had the playoff game for the National Football championship against that Baltimore which was that Dallas franchise. I was their property, but I decided, I came home and I was going to call it quits.
"I was totally disenchanted with football, so I came back here to Bloomfield, New Jersey to call it quits and I get a call from Saskatchewan and the fellow says what would it take you to come up here and play? I'm making a big $12,000 at that time, so I hurrily say $25,000 and he says you got it. That was the year they opened up the Canadian League to eight Americans, prior to that they only had three Americans on each team.
"The instructions they had given us was that if you were coming to Canada, don't tell anybody. Because they were going to put an injunction against you, so what most of the players did was say they were going to retire and then they went to Canada and started practicing.
"By that time the Canadian courts wouldn't send you back so you could play the season. If the National Football League wanted to sue you, they would sue you after the season was finished. Most of them didn't bother you, so that's how we got away with it."
Tripuka recited the names of Kenny Carpenter, Mac Speedie, Neill Armstrong, Bud Grant, Frankie Albert, John Henry Johnson who jumped from the NFL to the CFL.
"These were the all the type of people who went up there, so you can see the National Football League in those days wasn't that almighty so to speak. We all went up there and it was great because we played 14 games, you got up there in July and you were home in November. Whereas in the National Football League you were in January when you got home and you were making double the money.
Tripucka started with the Chicago Cardinals and ended up in Dallas in his brief NFL career, but he knew one thing about the National Football League. Bert Bell might have been the Commissioner but George Halas was running the league in the early 1950s.
"He was the founder and he pretty much ran that league," said Tripucka of Halas' influence thirty years after the NFL got its start in a Canton auto dealership. "Many a time we used to kid on the field on sideline that a referee would reach into his pocket and first look over on the sideline to George Halas. If Halas didn't give him any sign, he'd throw the flag. If Halas shook his head no, he wouldn't throw the flag."
When the CFL stopped competing, the owners had another problem. In 1956, an early form of the National Football League Players Association formed and started pushing for a minimum salary of $5,000 and pension benefits.
Canadians playing in the CFL were working a fulltime job and playing football. The Americans were commanding big salaries and Tripucka said in many ways, the CFL of the 1950s resembled the NFL in the 1920s.
"We didn't have too," he said, "The funny thing about is this is why the native Canadians liked the Americans because they felt this was going to raise their salaries up. Because these poor kids were playing for $50 just like our semi-pros down here.
"You talk to some of these old-timers from the National Football League, when the league first started they were getting $100 a game, $50 a game. Well it was the same thing up in Canada. Of course when they brought the Americans in and raised those salaries then the Canadian kids started to get more money.
Tom Landry actually started his career with the New York Yankees of the AAFC in 1949 and moved to the NFL in 1950 when the Yankees folded with the AAFC. Landry and four others joined the New York Giants. Landry would stay there until 1955, and then 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 going into private business around the Dallas area at the end of the decade.
"Well I think the 1950s was an interesting era," said Landry. "In that nobody made any money. I signed for $6,000 when I started and a $500 bonus. We didn't make any money but I think we had a good time playing the game.
"We weren't concerned about the other guy who made more money than we did. We weren't worried about those things. We just went out to play football. I think that's what the guys really feel good about the fifties."
Despite becoming more and more popular in the 1950s, the NFL was a part time operation. Stan Jones was an offensive lineman with George Halas' Chicago Bears and would report to training camp in July and finish his season in December and look for another job. In fact, Halas wasn't even around in the off-season.
"We weren't a full time operation. A lot of people don't realize that. The football teams closed up after the last game of the year and packed everything away and George Halas wasn't a fulltime football man himself.
"He had a sporting goods business and all the other caches would go on their life's work," said Jones, a pro football Hall of Famer. "And everybody would get together next July and back to football. In the off-season, you couldn't find the Chicago Bears other than the ticket office which was in the Halas and May Sporting Goods Company. There wasn't anything at Wrigley Field because that was the Cub home ballpark. There wasn't any place where you could say this is where the Chicago Bears are."
Life at the Chicago Bears training camp in the 1950s wasn't too much different from the other 11 teams. None of the players were paid during the eight weeks of preparation. In fact, the players didn't even have their own equipment except for shoes.
"They used the old gym at St. Joseph's College and they got out all duffel bags out and dumped everything on the floor and you went down and found a pair of shoulder pads that fit. A pair of hip pads that fit. And if nobody else claimed them, they were yours," said Jones.
"Of course you had to bring your own shoes. What happened, a lot of guys would get cut and when they were about to leave, one of the older players would say I'll give you three dollars for your shoes. Then he would sell the shoes at $10 and make a hell of a profit. We had a bunch of older players who were trading shoes. They pick them up cheat from guys who got cut, they needed the money to go home and the guy coming in needed a new pair of shoes, the old guys gave them a deal."
But shoes weren't the only things available on the player's black market. Fans were a major commodity at the central Indiana school as there was no air conditioning.
"A guy would come in and she I'm dying in here," Jones continued. "I'd say, we will sell you a fan. You couldn't buy them at Montgomery Ward's because they would be sold out in a real hot summer.
So you'd have these fans. Guys would get cut and you'd say, hey I like your fan, I'll give you five dollars for it. The next guy coming in, you'd sell it for $10.
"You never got your first paycheck until after I made the team in September unless you got cut and then they would give you money to go home with. On the other hand, they took care of all your expenses and things like that. But if you wanted to go out and get a beer, it was on your own money."
While Jones was responsible for his shoes in Chicago, Steelers players didn't have that problem.
"I used to go to camp, actually since the time I was five years old, we did issue equipment. We didn't just throw it out for them," said Dan Rooney, the son of Steelers owner Art Rooney. "We used to get in some battles with them about different things. I will tell you a great aside, when the union, their first demand was a second pair of football shoes. As you know today when you go into the locker room they have 30. But there was the demand back in 1958.
"Jack Butler, who was a great player for us and had gone to the Pro Bowl and probably should be in the Hall of Fame, he wore the same shoes for three years because they were his luck shoes and he had taped them on. We said, hey you can't be doing that. We did give them one pair each year. We said use the new shoes. He thought they were good luck the shoes that he had. He wore them literarily out."
When the season ended in the 1950s, so did football as a main vocation. New York fans may have wildly cheered the New York Giants defensive lineman Andy Robustelli on six Sundays a season, but on the Monday after the final game, it was back to work in the civilian world. Robustelli was a great player for the Los Angeles Rams between 1951 and 1955, playing in the Pro Bowl twice. But Robustelli's fortune was to be made at his Connecticut businesses not on the playing field of the Los Angeles Coliseum and he requested a trade to the New York Giants because he simply couldn't afford to live in Los Angeles, spent eight weeks without being paid for training camp and then play a 12 week season 3,000 miles away. Without the trade, Robustelli would have retired.
"Each player the day that the season was over, you were free and you looked for a job. You wouldn't see each other until next year. I think, and with all respect to the modern ballplayer, I hope the modern ballplayer appreciates, not only the opportunity, but...football is a stepping stone it's not the end of life," said Robustelli who became a successful businessman in Connecticut once his Giant days were through.
It was a different time, a different life for players who literally played for nothing and had few, if any benefits. There were no great business minds in the NFL of those days, the names that are saluted now, Halas, Rooney, Tim Mara, Bert Bell were actually second rate thinkers that had no vision for their product. It seems absurd to think that Saskatchewan could outbid NFL teams for talent but in the 1950s, the Green Bay Packers held fund raisers throughout Wisconsin and literally passed the hat so the team could operate season to season and in some cities, owners could not even give away NFL tickets. Today there are multi-billion dollar TV contracts, stadiums that cost more than a billion dollars in East Rutherford, N.J., and Arlington, Tx., thanks to two bills passed by Congress in the 1960s and signed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson -- the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 and the 1966 AFL-NFL merger -- which made the league the cash cow it is today.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
LAST UPDATED ( FRIDAY, 30 JULY 2010 08:42 )