When Football and Basketball Were Just Games
By Evan Weiner
January 14, 2011
(New York, N. Y.) -- As the National Football League playoffs roll on and the "drama" continues to unfold surround the will the Denver Nuggets trade Carmelo Anthony to the New Jersey Nets so he can sign a huge multi-million dollar before the opportunity dissipates should the National Basketball Association owners change working conditions in the next collective bargaining agreement, it should be remembered that at one time that being a "big league" athlete was job a seasonal job.
Back in the 1940s, 20-somethings played ball for fun, a little money or used it as time filler until a real job opened up.
Sports began to change in the 1950s when municipalities started building stadiums for baseball (and football) teams and television began sprinkling money into the leagues because sports programming filled up television schedules. Today major league sports in the United States cannot live without government support (stadium or arena funding, the waiving of TV antitrust issues for sports leagues, cable TV rules and corporate tax breaks on big ticket items such as luxury boxes and club seats at stadiums and arenas), cable TV and corporations buying tickets.
Today, the National Football League is a multi-billion dollar business; the National Basketball Association is a multi-billion dollar global entity with ties to Europe and China. Back in the 1940s, baseball in the United States was "the" sport but boxing and horse racing also had rabid followers. There was little interest in the pro basketball leagues at the time and the NFL was barely a notch above semi-pro status.
There is only one athlete who was been a member of a pro basketball championship squad and a pro football championship team in the same calendar year. Neither league is in existence today although the two leagues' DNA can be found both in the National Basketball Association and the National Football League.
As you continue reading and trying to figure out the answer, here is a little clue for you all. It happened after World War II and the player in question went to college (Northwestern) on a basketball scholarship and needed to be talked into playing football. Yet the player is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
A little background is needed.
The defunct basketball circuit was the National Basketball League. The NBL was the only pro basketball league at the time and had franchises in small Midwest cities and those teams usually were company teams with the players working for a piston manufacturer or tire companies in some cases. The Rochester Seagram’s were a semi-pro independent team which was sponsored by a distillery. After World War II ended in August 1945, the NBL invited Les Harrison to bring his team into the pro league.
Harrison brought athletes to Rochester. His collection included baseball players Del Rice and Chuck Connors and an eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer, Otto Graham who led the Cleveland Browns to championships in both the All American Football Conference and the National Football League. Baseball players flocked to basketball in the off season for a chance to make a few extra bucks and the emphasis here is on the words "a few." Graham is the answer to the trivia question. He is the only athlete to win “major league” championships in basketball with the 1945-46 Royals and the 1946 Cleveland Browns of the All American Football Conference in the same calendar year.
The NBL was not a fulltime enterprise. The All American Football Conference was organized by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward with teams in New York, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles and started play in 1946.
Graham ended up with the Browns and quarterbacked Paul Brown's championship squad in 1946 and in 1947 and in 1948 and in 1949. Graham became a football superstar and one of football’s highest paid performers, something that was not going to happen in Rochester playing basketball.
"We won the championship in all four years there (AAFC)," said Graham. "We played in the championship game six straight years (1950-55) in the NFL and won three of the six there. I went to college on a basketball scholarship. I didn't even play football I played intramural football," he said. ”I played with the Royals the season before the All American Football Conference had started. My teammates were Del Rice, Chuck Connors, the Rifleman of TV fame, Bob Davies, Red Boltzmann, Fuzzy Levine and we won the championship.
"I think I'm the only guy to have played on a championship basketball team and football team in the same year (1946). I played in Fort Wayne, Indiana and in fact they did dominate professional basketball at that time. We knocked them off. It was fun. But basketball took up too much time and I couldn't play football and basketball both, so I stuck with football.
"The NBL was the best league in the world. The Browns hadn't started yet and the Browns and the All American Football Conference didn't start until the fall of 1946. So I had nothing to do at that time, so after I started football, it overlapped with basketball and I didn't go back."
Graham was the quarterback on the dominant team of the AAFC. Rochester wasn’t too shabby either. The team won two NBL “pennants” but lost to George Milan in the NBL championships twice. Rochester joined the NBA in 1948 and won an NBA title in 1951.
Graham on the other hand had four AAFC crowns and one NFL title by 1950. The Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers entered the NFL after a merger of sorts between the AAFC and NFL after the 1949 season. Graham and the Browns quickly showed the NFL how good they were.
"It (the AAFC) was a good league. The NFL people would say our worst team could beat your best team. Go get a football before you think about playing our teams.
"Paul Brown, who was very intelligent, he was a great coach not because he knew more football necessarily. But he brought organization to professional football. I was really very lucky to have played for Paul Brown. I was drafted by Detroit (in 1944) and if I had gone to Detroit to Detroit and Paul Brown had gotten Bobby Layne, I would have liked to see what would have happened when those two collided,” recalled Graham in the 1990s.
"We did dominate the (AAFC) league and so we joined the NFL and they were going to run all over us. Well, the very first game, (NFL Commissioner) Bert Bell scheduled us to play against the Eagles who had won the two previous years in the NFL in Philadelphia and we kicked the hell out of them, 35-10 and we proved we had a good football team.
"Bert Bell said it was the best organized football team he had ever seen. From that time on we were a dominant football team. We beat the Rams in the championship 30-28 on a field goal by Graze. We proved we belong."
NFL teams targeted the Browns. The Browns were 47-4-3 in the AAFC, but the league was considered second rate.
"Our feeling, quite frankly, we did so well that every team we played against we knew was going to give their utmost to beat us because we at that time were the top team. So we never had an easy schedule because even the worst team is going to play their best game against us. Paul Brown just prepared us to do our best. We were well prepared. No other team in history was as well prepared as us,” Graham said.
Graham said the entire the 1950 season was the highlight of his career. He on occasion gave some thought about playing both sports simultaneously and with the basketball and football season not having much of an overlap except in November and December; it could have been possible for Graham to do both. But travel was limited to buses and trains in both football and basketball and that was a deterrent.
"Rochester is now out in Sacramento after going to Cincinnati and Kansas City and Fort Wayne is in Detroit,” said Graham in the 1990s. “I remember one train trip. We played a ballgame in Rochester; we spent the night on a train, not a sleeper but sitting up all night long. I was so mad and we had to go to Oshkosh two nights later. That's the way it was in those days. Our owner (Lester Harrison) wanted to save money.
"It's tough to do both sports," he said of Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson, "but if I was paid they kind of money they got, I would be tempted."
Graham made $25,000 in his best season with Cleveland. He was the NFL’s highest paid player, NBA teams were going out of business at a rapid rate and the league was down to just eight teams while Graham was quarterbacking. The All American Football Conference is just a footnote in NFL history now. The NFL took AAFC three teams, the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. By 1949, Chicago could not support a third team after the Bears and Cardinals, the Los Angeles Dons were financially tapped out, the Brooklyn Dodgers had merged with the New York Yankees. Buffalo supported its Bills but was not an NFL city. Buffalo was left out of the NFL-AAFC merger.
“They were going out of business and we just felt that getting a west coast team was important and getting Cleveland was important. We also brought in Baltimore but they didn’t make it at that particularly. But the 49ers and Cleveland Browns and were very important at that particularly time to get a national scope,” said Pittsburgh Steelers owner and now American Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney. "That was a good move."
The other "good move" for putting money in the pockets of owners and players and front office staff was television. Television development, which was halted during World War II, resumed. That would be the important component to the skyrocketing popularity of sports in the 1950s. An interesting side note to Graham's teams. The Rochester Royals also called Cincinnati, Kansas City, Omaha and Sacramento home. The franchise could be on the move again. Graham's Browns ended up in Baltimore in 1996. The new Cleveland franchise in the NFL started in 1999. The 1946 Cleveland Browns replaced the Cleveland Rams in the city after Rams owner Daniel Reeves took his franchise to Los Angeles. The Cleveland Rams started life in the second American Football League in 1936 and joined the NFL in 1937. The franchise moved to Anaheim in 1980 and to St. Louis in 1995.
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 or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org