Aside from the change to its modern name in 1922, the biggest change in the NFL's history to this point in our story was created out of a foundering attempt to buy a baseball or a football franchise. A quiet, genteel progeny of a Texas-sized family fortune listened to a man named Branch Rickey - the same Branch Rickey who invented baseball’s farm system, became president of and managed the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, and who would in 1967 be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rickey was trying to put together a third baseball associations to compete with the National and American Leagues, and his concept was the Continental Baseball League. He wanted backers, men who could buy franchises but who had been shut out of the first two leagues.
In Rickey’s mind, baseball was the American sport, and he was an innovator and an icon during its Golden Age. The only problem was, football was growing with increasing rapidity, and it was taking away much of the entertainment dollars that America had previously been funneling into baseball. Lamar Hunt, the son of a Texas oilman who had made a billion-dollar fortune (in 1948, Fortune Magazine declared Hunt’s father, Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, the richest man in the world), was listening to Rickey speak. The younger Hunt later noted that he considered Rickey to be anything but a shill - he was obviously a man of conviction, and Hunt liked him. But on an airplane flight between Miami and Dallas, not long after listening to Rickey explain exactly how the new league was going to work, Hunt asked the flight attendant (you could call them stewardesses in that era) for three pieces of paper and a pen. In a neat, orderly hand, he filled the sheets with the outline of exactly how he was going to build a new league - but not a baseball league. Hunt was outlining the new American Football League.
Hunt had been trying to buy a football franchise as well as pursuing his baseball interests, but as George Halas later said, the league was very much of a private, "old boys" sort of network, and the owners wanted to keep it that way. To further that end, they used the excuse of the problems that existed with the Chicago Cardinals to block any attempt at expanding their league. The Cardinals were owned by Charles Bidwill, who passed away in 1947, leaving the team to his widow, Violet Bidwill. But Violet remarried a businessman by the name of Walter Wolfner, and neither Wolfner nor Violet knew anything about owning or running a team. Incidentally, the Cardinals were not named for the familiar bird which has since graced their helmets, but rather for their uniforms, which had been purchased used (just as the Broncos would later do decades hence). The uniforms were a distinctly faded red; but when queried, Bidwill had declared, “They’re not faded red! They’re Cardinal red,” and the franchise was named.
Under Wolfner's direction, the Cardinals had fallen on hard times. Wolfner talked about selling, and spoke to a wide variety of well-funded people about buying or moving the franchise, but never seemed to quite make up his mind. Lamar Hunt had even spoken to Bert Bell, football’s commissioner at the time, and Bell just shook his head. Said Hunt, “They don’t really want to expand. That’s how they feel, and I can’t do anything about that.”
Bell had always like the idea of expanding football further, but owners like George Preston Marshall of the Redskins, Tim Mara of the Giants, and Halas of the Bears (who generally dominated the Cardinals in Chicago), shot down every proposal. In February of 1959, Hunt met in Miami with Wolfner for a final time, and although Wolfner name-dropped quite a few people of substantial means who wanted to buy into a syndicate to purchase the Cardinals, or to buy them outright, Hunt left without any indication that his desire to buy would be accomplished. It was the last straw for his attempts to work within the framework of the NFL, but Wolfner’s bragging had given Hunt a long list of names of men who wanted to get in on a football franchise.
Hunt called the first name on the list, Bud Adams, a millionaire out of Houston, Texas, and asked him if he’d be interested in a franchise if the new league was started. Hunt had started his first piece of paper on the plane with the words, “ORIGINAL SIX; FIRST YEAR’S OPERATIONS." Hunt wondered if Adams would like to be one of the six. By the time that plane had landed in Dallas, Hunt had even sketched out potential weekends that the new league’s season would start and end. In response to Hunt's proposal, Adams said, “Hell, yes”, in his flamboyant way. The American Football League had its first two owners, and franchises in Dallas and Houston. .
Hunt was a very mild, unassuming sort of gentleman; he was said to look more like an accountant than the heir of a massive fortune. He was slender, had a small head and never touted his background. But he was as methodical as he looked, and he contacted Ole Haugsrud in Minnesota, another jilted suitor of the NFL who had an ownership group and Hunt asked him if he wanted in. Ole quickly agreed. At that point, Hunt decided that to really capture an audience, the league should have teams in New York and Los Angeles.
However, he also felt the need to make one last effort to feel out the NFL about its future before moving forward. In early June of 1959, he met with Bert Bell for a luncheon that included Bell’s oldest son, Bert Jr., and Joe ‘Jiggs’ Donahue of the Eagles. Hunt inquired one last time, and Bell reaffirmed that the NFL wasn’t going to expand until they solved their ‘Chicago Problem’, and even then it was unclear. Bell was confused as to why they even had to go over the same old ground, and asked Hunt about it. Hunt just noted his continued interest in a franchise, and Bell told him, ”As far as I’m concerned, I don’t ever think that they’ll vote to expand.” Hunt felt that he’d done everything that he could.
Before the new league was publicly announced, Hunt sent a mutual friend, Davey O’Brien, who had been close to Bell back in his days with the Eagles, and it was O’Brien who told Bell that a new league was forming, sought his blessing and offered him the new job as commissioner. Bell later commented that he was smart enough not to want to start a war, and declined the position, but told O’Brien that Hunt could call him for advice anytime. He quickly showed that he was serious about that - he was frequently consulted, and was helpful to Hunt’s endeavor. It was Bell who told Hunt to expand his plans to include eight teams, so that they could have two divisions and pit them against each other.
Bell, personally, had no problem at all with Hunt’s project, feeling that it was good for football. In fact, it was Bell himself who announced the new league’s formation. He was summoned to speak to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, and while there he told them about the AFL, saying, “We are in favor of this new league.” Always a salesman for football, Bell also noted, “I will tell you that this is great and I have talked it over with every owner and not one of them has any objection to the new league. Not one of them!” Actually, he hadn’t spoken to any of the owners, but it was a brilliant ploy. It convinced the Subcommittee that football was expanding, and it put the NFL in the position of having publicly come out in favor of the league that none of the owners even knew about. Only a man with the kind of respect and affection that Bell had brought to his office could have pulled off such a stunt.
As you might expect, though, the NFL was less thrilled with the prospect than Bell’s commentary would have had people believe. They immediately met and decided to fight fire with fire. They put together franchises that would be in competition with the new league, with Dallas getting the first of them. About a month after Bell’s announcement, an AP reporter called Hunt to get his response to the NFL’s new announcement that they were expanding, and that two of the franchises were to be in Dallas and Houston, both linchpin franchises in the fledgling league. Hunt took a few minutes to write a press release and called the reporter back. The usually retiring Hunt then said, “Everybody has been knocking on their door for years, and they’ve turned everyone down...this doesn’t change our plans at all. We are moving forward, and we’ll be announcing our seventh and eighth franchises this fall.”
Unsurprisingly, Hunt also called Bell, who told him, “They want to expand. How can I stop them?” Bell did continue to support the new league. He once pointed out, “There are 250 kids with NFL talent who graduate each year. We average taking 5 of them per team, a total of 60 (the NFL consisted of twelve teams at the time). That leaves 190 unemployed in football.” Bell was right. There was no shortage of talent - but the specter of a new league competing for players and driving up salaries, as had happened with the AAFC earlier, weighted heavily on the NFL’s head.
At this point, Bell had been commissioner for 14 years, and he was 66 years old. He had already decided to retire from the job of commissioner, and had been conducting negotiations through his friend Jiggs Donahue to buy the Eagles, even going so far as to secure a $900,000 loan to do so. It was a warm, sunny Sunday on October 11, 1959, and Bell followed his usual habit of sitting in the stands with the fans, moving into the shade at halftime to escape the heat of the sun. He chatted with fans and old friends, and then, with two minutes left in the game, Bert Bell had a massive heart attack and died on the spot. Red Smith, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, said, “It was almost as if he got to choose the time and place.” Bell’s death was a blow to the NFL, and to fans around the country who had met and sat with him. But the new league had also lost one of its most ardent supporters.
The NFL then advanced an approach that fit their way of thinking - they continued to make plans to put teams into the nascent league’s two flagship cities, but at the same time, they constantly sent representatives to try and negotiate some form of truce. They offered Hunt and Adams the Dallas or the Houston franchises, trying to buy them by giving them what they’d previously asked for - and were casually turned down for - but Adams and Hunt held their ground. The NFL reps used the ploy of constantly suggesting that the league would fail, and Hunt would end up supporting it. The fact was that Hunt didn’t believe they would fail, and neither did Adams. It was also true that if the NFL was right, Hunt had the resources to fund the league until it became financially independent. But he didn’t mention that to the NFL's representatives, and he didn’t bite on the offers of the franchises that he had wanted in the first place. He’d committed to the new league, and he was a man of his word.
His new league - having added Boston as its eighth and final franchise - met in Minneapolis on the weekend of November 22 and 23 for the first-ever draft of the AFL. As the meeting was coming to order, one of the minor owners burst in and slammed a newspaper on the table. The NFL had been conducting back-channel negotiations with Haugsrud's Minnesota group, and the consortium had decided to take them up on their offer. It was a dreadful blow to the new league, but Hunt, in his usual unflappable manner, was undeterred. The draft began, and Houston took Billy Cannon, while Dallas took quarterback Don Meredith. The draft ran 33 rounds, but much of it amounted to a lottery. The teams didn’t all even have personnel departments, much less scouting. It’s a tribute to Hunt that the league held together in solidity. Minnesota would be replaced by Oakland - Barron Hilton, of the Hilton hotel chain, had a franchise in Los Angeles, and he’d been lobbying for a geographic rival. The Raiders became the eighth and final franchise, and the AFL was born.
The formation of the AFL was one of the most important events in the history of professional football. The 1960s became a decade of immense change, and the formation of the AFL was a big part of its saga. We’ll pick up the story with the 1960s for the next installment. I hope to see you then.