Friday, February 8, 2019
The Yankees and Spring Training
Harvey Frommer Sports
It’s that time of year where hope springs eternal for fans of baseball teams and for Yankee fans there is a long and special history of magical and amazing moments. Just a sampling follows:
1905-1906: After spending two springs in Atlanta, manager Clark Griffith moved his team to Alabama in 1905-1906. That first year the Highlanders stayed in Montgomery at the Highland Oval. Players march to and from the team hotel, which was located two miles away, to the playing field, In 1906, the team camp was at the Birmingham Training Grounds f
1907-1912: The Yankees in Georgia during this time played in Atlanta, Macon, Athens and then Atlanta again.
1913: Seeking sanctuary from the cold and rain that had been present during previous spring trainings, the Yankees moved their camp outside of the country for the first and only time. On March 3, most of the team and support staff sailed to Hamilton, Bermuda. A converted cricket field was used as the practice facility.
1914: Houston, Texas is the Yankees spring training site.
1915-1918: Under manager Bill Donovan, the Yankees returned to Georgia that included a three-year stay in Macon, the team’s longest stay at one location to that point in time.
1919-1920: The Yankees became part of growing trend relocating its spring training to Florida in 1919. All three New York teams were there, the Giants in Gainesville, the Yankees and Dodgers in Jacksonville. “The clubs expect to benefit by the arrangement, for it will give each club the advantage of playing against major league opposition from the very start of the training season,” noted the New York Times.
1920: Newly acquired Babe Ruth was part of the 1920 spring training environment. At an exhibition game he went into the bleachers to mix it up with a taunting fan. When the fan showed off his knife, Ruth backed off and went back to the safety of the playing field. Had Ruth not held his temper, the whole course of Yankee history may have been different.
1921-1924: Louisiana was the spring training location for the Yankees. In 1921, they trained in Shreveport. From 1922 to 1924, the club trained in New Orleans. T
1925-1942: St. Petersburg, Florida and the New York Yankees had a longstanding and highly successful relationship.
1943-1945: World War II precluded teams traveling very far from home for spring training. In 1943, the Yankees made use of a high school in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The final two years of the war saw them training in the 112th Field Artillery Armory and playing exhibition games at Bader Field in Atlantic City.
1946-1950: The Yankee returned to St. Petersburg, Florida when WWII was over. In 1947, they moved into a new stadium, Al Lang Field. It was joint home for the Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals.
1951: Spring training was in Arizona, the first and only time for the Yankees. The one-year trade-off of training sites was a courtesy by the New York Giants to Yankees’ co-owner and vice president Del Webb, who hailed from Phoenix.
1952-1961: It was back to St. Petersburg in 1952 for the Yankees. As the fifties moved on New York was dissatisfied with what was perceived as favoritism toward the Cardinals with whom they shared the spring training site with. There was a Yankee disappointment with spring training proceeds that went to the city. The spring of 1961 was the last for the Yankees in St. Petersburg. Yankee co-owner Dan Topping said: “In St. Petersburg, we practice on one field and play on another. In Fort Lauderdale, we would have the town to ourselves”.
1962-1995: The Yankees brand new $600,000 Ft. Lauderdale Stadium is ready for spring training. The ballpark broke new ground with seating for 8,000, air-conditioned clubhouses, on-site offices.
1996-Present: The Yankees moved to George Steinbrenner’s adopted home town, Tampa, Florida. Legends Field, a state-of-the-art $30 million facility with identical dimensions to Yankee Stadium, received rave reviews. Seating capacity was 10,200 and expanded to 11,026 in 2007. It was re-named George M. Steinbrenner Field in 2008.
Terrific selected tidbits
JERRY COLEMAN: Spring training of 1948 I was trying to make the Yankees. I was the last man cut. I played for the Newark Bears in the International League and came up to the Yankees at the end of the season.
In spring training 1951, former Yankee outfield star Tommy Henrich was assigned to mentor the young and talented prospect. After a while the former star Yankee outfielder said: “There isn't any more that I can teach him."
Casey Stengel that first spring switched Mantle to the outfield and said: "I never saw a player who had greater promise. That young fellow has me terribly confused. He should have a year in Triple A Ball but with his combination of speed and power he should win the triple batting crown every year. In fact, he should do anything he wants to do.”
Later, Casey who had seen it all, added: "They're been a lot of fast men but none as big and strong as Mantle. He's gonna be around a long time, if he can stay well, that fella of mine."
BILL SKOWRON: Casey would leave us alone to get in shape in spring training. But when those last 10 days of spring training came around you knew you had to be better ready to play.
In spring training 1927, Babe Ruth bet pitcher Wilcy Moore $l00 that he would not get more than three hits all season. A notoriously weak hitter, Moore somehow managed six hits in 75 at bats. Ruth paid off his debt and Moore purchased two mules for his farm naming them "Babe" and "Ruth."
Sunday, January 27, 2019
How It All Began: Super Bowl I
January. 15, 1967
One hundred yards long and 53 yards, two-thirds inches wide, the field’s grass the night before the game was given a $3,000 green spray job. It was well worth the price.
For this most novel of football games, celebrities in the privileged seats included: famed movie and TV stars Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Chuck Connors, Danny Thomas, CBS TV anchor Walter Cronkite, comedian and serious sports fan Bob Hope, late night TV host Johnny Carson.
Ten astronauts were among the VIP guests invited to the game. Five were given seating behind the Green Bay bench. The other five had seats in back of the Kansas City bench.
All tickets and programs for the event read:
World Championship Game AFL vs. NFL
Sunday January 15, 1967
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Kickoff One O’Clock PM
Game programs sold for a dollar and contained an article titled:
“A Day That Can Never Happen Again."
On this bright and clear day, a carnival like atmosphere was on parade outside the venerable edifice. Lots of hawkers sold to a crowd that in the main was pretty well dressed for the occasion. Many men wore suits with ties or came in sport jackets and slacks. Lots of women were bedecked in their Sunday best. All manner of hats were worn. There were even Kansas City zealots who sported caps and hats with feathers stuck in them – an acknowledgment of the team nickname -Chiefs.
TV Guide that week carried just a listing of the game to be played. There was no cover coverage. There was no big article. Television pre-game festivities were simple. CBS showcased the Harlem Globetrotters playing basketball on an aircraft carrier. NBC carried a football year-in-review show that was broadcast over Armed Forces TV in Vietnam at one in the morning. Beer, snacks and rifles were at the ready as troops settled in to enjoy the game.
SHARON HUNT: There was a sense that we were part of something new and history-making. We were seated just about halfway up probably on about the 30 or 40 yard, not real high or low in the stadium. It was a simpler time.
The name Super Bowl was freely used. It was something that a toy a child was playing with could have inspired the name. But the “AFL-NFL Championship Game” was just too cumbersome.
The multi-syllabled official title was a mouthful. It was too long for newspaper headlines. “Super Bowl” was catchy, clever concise.
Those first two years, everything that was printed -- the tickets, the programs – featured the words AFL-NFL World Championship Game. By the third year “Super Bowl” would be the final and official name.
Less than a month before at the Coliseum a regular-season game between the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams attracted 72,418 fans. Initially, the omnipresent and enthusiastic Pete Rozelle was convinced that for this championship game of championship games there would be a
It was reported that the NFL commissioner was taken aback when a stadium that drew 102,368 for a Ram-San Francisco 49er regular-season game in 1957 and in excess of 92,000 for three 1959 World Series games was only two-thirds full in a stadium that seated around 93,000 for football.
MICKEY HERSKOWITZ: The game drew over 60,000 but was considered a real box office bust. But even in today's new stadiums 63,000 is considered respectable. We had only about a month of marketing to attract that.
LEN DAWSON: They thought all they had to do was open up the Coliseum and people would come rushing in.
“The people in Los Angeles didn’t attend because they didn’t see it as a big game,” explained cameraman Steve Sabol, who would go on to head NFL Films. “Super Bowl I was considered a sideshow, an afterthought. I had ten tickets and I couldn’t give them away.”
CHUCK LANE: That day to start there was almost like a maritime level atmosphere that was almost kind of misty. And then the sun came out and it turned out to be a beautiful day. The Coliseum is a large, cavernous, historical building and there was a considerable contingent from Green Bay present. We traveled well; that’s kind of been a historical fact for the Packers.
FORREST GREGG: The Coliseum, never gave it a thought. We could have played the game on the moon. It would have not made any difference.
FRANK GIFFORD: I had played my college football in the Coliseum so I was not awed by it. It was then and still is a pretty awesome place.
DALE STRAM: I recall my first sight of the Coliseum because I could compare it to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas which I thought was big. My reaction to the Coliseum was like, “Whoa, it’s really big.”
BOYD DOWLER: We played in the Coliseum every year because we played the Rams out there every year, so it wasn’t like our first visit to the Coliseum. Oh yeah, it was a special game. And we’d never seen those guys, we’d never lined up against those guys. The only thing was we had won the championship the year before, so we played against some of their young guys in the College All-Star Game. But that was different.
BILL CURRY: We arrive at the Coliseum. We get to the locker room, again, business as usual. Somebody had to get tape, another guy had to go meet with the trainer “for special reasons,” meaning there was going to be an injection.
I had my ankle injected, because that’s what you did in the NFL. I had injured it in the game against Dallas two weeks prior.
CHRIS BURFORD: Compared to most of the places we’d played in like the old War Memorial in Buffalo, the Coliseum was okay. I remember playing back in the day in Buffalo when we used to have to go to this little tiny locker room up these metal stairs that was right off the concourse, if you could call it that, where the hot dog stands were. And you’d have to dress in a little locker with a little tiny cage about one feet by three feet, put your stuff in it, walk down the stairs, go through the crowd by the hot dog stands, walk down through the stadium on, I guess, the third base side of the old baseball park there, and then go out on the field.
But we could have played in a school yard. It did not matter to me. The Coliseum was a nice place to play because they had nice locker rooms. The Coliseum was quite a bit different then. The Coliseum wasn’t that old then. It wasn’t any bigger as far as seating capacity than Stanford’s stadium when I played there, about 90,000 also.
CURTIS MCCLINTOCK: For the American Football League, for our team and for all who supported us, that game was the first flight to the moon, momentous. That Coliseum stadium and any stadium for a player, it was how good is the grass and how good is the field. It was all about a bench that was not too close to the stands but close enough to the field so that we could observe it and not be close to fans and all the loud noise. That was the Coliseum to us.
The Green Bay Packers received the press box side, the shady side of the field. The Kansas City Chiefs, not too happy with it, were assigned the sunny side, the non-press box side.
JERRY KRAMER: Stepping onto the field at the Coliseum, the place seemed half empty. The game was of less importance. I don`t think the public was ready for it. Our feeling was we`d beaten Dallas in the NFL championship on a last-second touchdown and that was our season. There were many more in attendance for the Dallas game. That was the big one. The Super Bowl was just another game.
BOYD DOWLER: There had been no preseason games between the leagues. This was the first exposure. We went down for pregame warm-ups, and were looking at the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Good Lord,” Max McGee said. “Big impressive looking bunch of guys!”
And I said, “Tell me about it!”
What he proceeded to tell me was about the events of the night before, and the fact that he hadn’t gotten too much sleep. He said he had missed curfew and had gotten in early in the morning. He said Bart saw him come in because Bart was always down real early in the morning. I never had a thought of what was to happen later.
“Are you okay?” I asked Max.
And he just said to me, “Don’t go down today.”
DALE STRAM: Each player had a stall in the Coliseum locker room. I went over to some of the stalls and spoke to players. I will never forget how wide receiver Frank Pitts was so concerned about playing against the Packers. He kept saying:
"This is going to be a tough game."
"This is going to be a tough game."
"This is going to be a tough game."
In the tunnel, Kansas City receiver Chris Burford told Jerry Mays to get a look at Buck Buchanan, all six foot seven and 290 pounds of him. The Kansas City defensive tackle’s face was streaked with tears.
CHRIS BURFORD: I told Jerry: "I'd hate to play across from him at the start of this game. He is charged."
“Waiting in the tunnel to be introduced, guys were throwing up and wetting their pants,” said Kansas City linebacker, E.J. Holub.
CURT MERZ: We went in as a huge underdog. Pregame, I thought I was going to go over and see some guys I knew on the Packers and say, “Nice to see you again.”
To me that was the gentlemanly thing to do.
They were so tight they wouldn’t even talk! I didn’t know what was going on until I found out later all this stuff about the owners and everybody being just petrified that we just might have a chance to beat them.
BART STARR: There were a lot of loud Packer fans there. I know they were very proud to be fans and be there for that team, and so we were extremely proud to see and hear that too. You’d be surprised at how many fans from an area back up in the Upper Midwest in a small community were at that ballgame. And then I’m sure there were a lot of Packer fans from other parts of the country.
All things considered there were two things about the crowd that were surprising. Its smallness was a surprise compared to the high hopes held for it in the NFL office and especially by Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The other surprise was the large number of fans at the Coliseum who contrary to what was expected seemed to be geared up to root for the underdog Chiefs.
DAVE ROBINSON: Vince Lombardi and I happened to walk out on the field at the same time before the game, and Vince told me, “My, my, my look how far football has come.”
The field was all decorated with green, green grass. The big crown in the middle, the vivid colors in the end zones. Vince was really moved. He said jokingly: “I remember when football was played in cow pastures!”
BART STARR: There was very deep, embedded excitement coming out with my teammates onto the field. We were very, very anxious to begin. It wasn’t just another game. More importantly, nothing like it had ever been done before. There was a sense for some of us that we were part of a historical event.
LEN DAWSON: I felt special incentive to perform in that first Super Bowl. A cast-off from the NFL, I had almost become a Packer because they needed a quarterback while I was with the Browns. Paul Brown was thinking about sending me there, but he turned around and sent another quarterback who would do some punting as well.
But for me to go against the Packers and all the top players who were there, that were my vintage, out of my time, a lot of the players I played against in college. That was something to get up for.
The groundbreaking nature of the game would feature several unique public address announcements:
“AFTER A TOUCHDOWN THE TEAMS WILL KICK, RUN OR PASS FOR ONE EXTRA POINT. THE AFL TWO POINT OPTION IS NOT IN EFFECT.”
“REMEMBER THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE BALL WILL BE IN USE WHEN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE IS ON OFFENSE. THE AMERICAN LEAGUE WHEN THE AFL TEAM IS ON OFFENSE.”
“4,000 PIGEONS HAVE BEEN RELEASED HERE IN THE LOS ANGELES COLISEUM”
All kinds of unique features attracted themselves to the culture of that first game.
The pitting of representatives from two leagues for the first time who had never played against each other for the world championship was ground-breaking.
The disappointment in the empty seats at the Coliseum, the smallest crowd to ever attend a Super Bowl, the only Super Bowl that failed to sell out, was of note.
The “newness,” of it all made for a lack of tradition for the event.
The playing of a championship on a neutral site lacked a history. A neutral site made many fans neutral to the game.
DOUG KELLY: Two Midwestern teams, and LA is very into itself in terms of what they deem to be cool. The first time around, it wasn’t cool! It was two relatively unknown teams playing in a huge facility, the Coliseum, and I think people looked at it somewhat askance.
The American Football League wanted its officials to wear the uniforms they wore in their league games. Very colorful with red-orange stripes, black collars on shirts and black cuffs, the logo of the AFL prominent on the front of their shirts, caps, sleeves, the whole package was pretty easy to see. However, the sometimes surly and always assertive Mark Duncan, head of NFL officials, was downright dismissive. His opinion was that AFL uniforms made the wearers resemble candy stripers in a hospital.
A compromise was reached. Wilson Sporting Goods designed “neutral” uniforms for the game. They had the familiar NFL look of black and white stripes, sleeves all black with the official’s uniform number. Hats were white with a black bill. That uniform would last until Super Bowl III when uniforms sported by officials were NFL standard fare.
Another minor controversy was centered on which league’s football would be used in the game. A compromise settled that. Green Bay would use the NFL Wilson "Duke" ball. Kansas City would stay with its AFL sanctioned Spalding J5-V. Little difference in the footballs existed aside from the AFL ball being a little more pointed than the NFL ball. A quarter of an inch longer and thinner than the Wilson model, some said the AFL ball was a bit easier to throw.
On offense the football would be changed by the game referee Norm Schachter, the NFL’s top official. Sometimes the wrong ball would wind up in the hands of an irritated center or player who complained and insisted on having the “correct” football.
A Curt Gowdy malapropism underscored the excitement in the TV booth:” And here come the captains, out fornb the toin coss.”
HANK STRAM: Our defensive captains Jerry Mays and John Gilliam met the Green Bay captains Bob Skoronski and Willie Davis in the center of the field to reenact the coin toss which had been made earlier in the dressing room.
Three officials from the NFL and three from the AFL would see duty that January Day. There were six alternates as backups. That 1967 crew of a dozen officials - six officials and six alternates is still a Super Bowl record.
When asked why there were so many alternates for the game, the quick-witted Schachter replied: “Who knows? Maybe they thought we would all get struck by lightning or something. I just didn't want them all to walk on the field at the same time. It might have scared somebody."
The Brooklyn-born Schacter began refereeing local football games in 1941 in California. He was a Marine Captain in WWII. In 1954, he began working for the NFL as an official. He was paid a hundred dollars a game. Seven games were guaranteed.
Norm Schachter tossed the coin. Willie Davis, captain of the Packers, called “Heads!” Green Bay always made its call “Heads.” Coach Vince Lombardi believed that the eagle side of the silver dollar weighed more. Heads it was.
The captain of the Chiefs, Jerry Mays, asked Schachter to give him the coin as a souvenir. No way, Schachter shook his head. “No way. You lost the toss.”
Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, came up with the idea of utilizing a remote control system for the L.A. Coliseum scoreboard clock for the first Super Bowl. That system had been successfully tested out by his Cowboys during the just concluded football season.
A primitive remote was attached to the huge wrought-iron hands of the Coliseum clock. During the week before the game, test after test was conducted. The remote and the clock worked to perfection. The time for the opening kickoff arrived. An official on the field of play activated the system. Then incredibly, one of the giant hands on the clock disengaged. Like a scene out of a horror movie, it fell more than fifty feet like a gigantic dagger into the stands below. It could have been a tragedy. Miraculously, however, that section of the Coliseum was empty. No one was hurt.
“The goddamn clock’s” ancient hand given such a testing and re-testing workout, had just worn out and fallen off.
The actual kickoff time was 1:16 P.M. Pacific time, a little later than scheduled because of the “clock” issue. An NFL films member gave a sound cue:
“Super Bowl, reel one.” It was a name that was catchy, seemed official and historical.
About Harvey Frommer
Friday, January 25, 2019
MARIANO RIVERA: ALMOST PERFECT!
"Without question we're talking about the best reliever in the history of baseball. This guy has become branded with the Yankee logo. People are going to remember this man for so long for what he's done." Brian Cashman
Mariano Rivera quite deservedly is the first to become a unanimous choice slotted to be inducted into the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame.
Talk about coming out of nowhere, out of humble beginnings.
Out of Panama City, Panama, Mariano Rivera was a skinny kid who used a milk carton for a glove, tree limbs and broom sticks for bats, fishing nets that were balled up and wrapped in electrical tape for balls.
Never in his wildest imagination did he dream he would play 19 years for the New York Yankees and become the greatest relief pitcher, the all-time gold standard for relief pitchers.
He spoke no English. He was a teenage shortstop who was a converted pitcher who couldn’t hit much. He didn’t even begin pitching until he was 19. Taking a flyer, the Yankees signed him for $3,000.
Talk about coincidence. Rivera’s first pitching coach with the Gulf Coast League Yankees, was Hoyt Wilhelm, the first relief pitcher ever elected to the Hall of Fame and first official all-time saves leader.
At Single-A ball in Greensboro, North Carolina, Rivera pitched and no one thought he was going anywhere. He was not even protected by the Yanks in the '92 expansion draft. Rivera, however, knew what it was like to grind, to endure.
After five plus seasons in the minors, on May 23, 1995, the slim and serious 25-year-old made his Yankee debut as a starter against the California Angels. The quiet Panamanian wore jersey Number 42. It what was handed to him by a clubhouse attendant. The number had no special significance for the rookie. Never did he even have the thought that he would be last to wear that number in the majors, Jackie Robinson’s number retired by Major League Baseball.
It soon became evident that the smooth-throwing right-hander was better suited to working out of the bullpen. He proved that point in a setup role in 1996, going 8-3, setting a Yankee reliever record with 130 strikeouts.
John Wetteland left the Yankee and signed as a free agent with Texas after the 1996 season. Rivera was given the closer role. It was one of the of the smartest moves manager Joe Torre ever made.
"He's the best I've ever been around,” Torre said. “Not only the ability to pitch and perform under pressure, but the calm he puts over the clubhouse. He's very important for us because he's a special person."
“Mo” made terrorizing batters and shattering pitching marks part of his method of operations. Averaging 41 saves and a 1.86 ERA from 1997 through 1999, he was as dominant as any stopper had ever been. He was the 1997 and 1999 Fireman of the Year
In 1999, the Yankee scoreboard staff tried out different songs to use to introduce Rivera coming in from the bullpen at home games. Finally, Metallica’s
“Enter Sandman” was settled on. The image of Rivera jogging across the grass of the outfield in a straight line to the pitcher’s mound, the blaring of the opening cords of the song, is a Yankee ritual that will never be forgotten. It is now part of the legend and lore of the franchise. “Mo” becoming “Sandman.”
Mariano Rivera was arguably the nuts and bolts of Yankee success in the World Series from 1996-2000 and also 2009 – the seven pennants, the 11 AL East wins.
In 2001, Mariano Rivera became the best paid relief pitcher ever. He signed a $39.99 million, four-year contract. And George Steinbrenner donated $100,000 to Rivera's church in Panama as well.
"I think the good Lord is a Yankee,” Rivera said.
What hitters said about the modest Rivera was something else. Facing him, they knew what was coming – the cut fastball that moved as much as eight or nine inches ad shattered bats, the devastating pitch that made him more times than not, unhittable.
"He's the most mentally tough person I've ever played with," said Derek Jeter.
"He's as automatic as anybody ever has been,” said Mike Stanton
The stats for one-time kid from Panama who played with a cardboard glove are mind-boggling: He never allowed a run to be scored against him in nine All-Star game appearances. He was the first pitcher ever to make 1,000 appearances for one team. His 652 saves record with one team is a stat that probably will never be broken. He saved 23 postseason games in a row, and in 19 of those games he pitched more than one inning. A member of four World Championship teams, Rivera was on the mound as the Yankees closed out titles in 2000, 1999 and 1998. He is just the third reliever to be named World Series MVP (1999).
A religious and charitable quiet man, a competitor like no one else, Mariano Rivera had a plaque in August 2016 honoring him put up in the Stadium’s Monument Park. Deservedly, admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame is part of the future for the closer of all closers.
Wednesday, January 23, 2019
Remembering the First SuperBowl - Part 1Harvey Frommer
A lot of twists and turns, evolution and revolution, mistakes and major steps forward, colorful characters, dedicated idealists and guys with an eye on making a quick buck, - all of these and much more were part of the mix in the history of professional football before it would finally find solid footing and great success on the landscape of sports in the United States and become a global phenomenon.
It was not until August 20, 1920 at a meeting in Canton, Ohio at the Jordan and Hupmobile Auto Showroom of the owner of the Canton Bulldogs that a semblance of professional football as we know it came to be.
At the meeting were seven men including the legendary Jim Thorpe who would become the organization’s first president. There were delegates from the Bulldogs, the Akron Pros, the Cleveland Indians and Dayton Triangles. They formed the new league - the American Professional Football Conference. One hundred dollars was the announced membership fee for that first season. It was reported that none of those original teams actually paid what was then considered a hefty fee.
The initial teams had a decidedly small town and Midwestern feel: Akron Professionals, Canton Bulldogs, Chicago Cardinals, Cleveland Tigers, Dayton Triangles, Decatur Staleys, Hammond Pros, Rochester (N.Y.) Jeffersons, Rock Island (Ill.) Independents, and Muncie Flyers.
Teams would come and go over the league’s first years. The idea of organized football was appealing, but there was a lot of challenge, work and money involved. Only four clubs survived that first season of 1920: Akron, Buffalo, Canton, and Decatur.
From the start African-Americans were playing pro football. In 1920, Fritz Pollard, standout halfback at Brown and an All-American, starred for the Akron Pros. He and Bobby Marshall were the NFL’s first black players. The next year Pollard became the league’s first black head coach. He also maintained his position as one of the best players in pro football.
Approximately 13 African-American players appeared on NFL rosters between 1920 and 1933. Paul Robeson, who would gain great fame as a great singer, actor, civil rights leader, was encouraged by Pollard to play for Akron in 1921. The following year Robeson had a stint with Milwaukee. Playing football enabled the powerful athlete to pay his way through Columbia University Law School.
In 1920, the Decatur Staleys had a net profit of $1,800. All 22 members of the team shared in the profits. “We practiced every afternoon, six days a week on a very well kept baseball field owned by the Staley Company.” (Frommer, 187).
The next year the Decatur franchise moved to Chicago after being sold to player-coach , who went on to become one of the most important figures in the first half century of pro football. Halas gave the Staleys a new name -- the .
On June 24, 1922, the American Professional Football Conference was re-named the National Football League. Doing that eliminated the organization’s unwieldy name and its evocation of a soccer league.
By the mid-1920s, the struggling and cumbersome NFL included 25 teams each experiencing varying degrees of success and hardship. On April 23, 1927, in a season where professional baseball was king and the New York Yankees of Murderers Row were the talk of the town, the NFL made some tough decisions. All weak and struggling franchises were dropped. The NFL shrunk from 22 franchises to 12. It also moved away from its Midwestern roots. The focus now would be placing teams in populous cities in the east to solidify the league, make it more financially solvent.
In 1932, the NFL recorded official statistics for the first time. That was a good thing. A bad thing was the behavior of racist George Preston Marshall who made his money in the commercial laundry business. Using some of that cash, he became owner of the Boston football team. Marshall convinced other NFL owners to institute a policy of total racial segregation. They didn’t have to heed the suggestions of a bigot, but they did. No blacks played in the NFL between 1933 and 1946.
Marshall moved his Boston Redskins to Washington in 1937. Born in segregated West Virginia, the Redskins owner opposed adding blacks to his team’s roster claiming that would alienate fans. "We'll start signing Negroes when the starts signing whites," he snapped.
By 1962, the Globetrotters still did not have whites, and the Redskins still had not fielded a black player for decades. Change, however, loomed. The in President John F. Kennedys’ cabinet, said he would evict the Redskins from publicly funded if a black player was not signed. Marshall gave in.
Ernie Davis, the black Syracuse running back and Heisman Trophy winner was picked Number One in the draft by the Washington Redskins. A week later Davis was traded to Cleveland for Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Jackson, plus John Nisby was signed and Ron Hatcher was drafted. The NFL (and the ‘Skins with four for a time) now had at least one African American player on each team. Sadly, Ernie Davis never played in the NFL. He died in 1963 of leukemia.
Although the NFL draft started in 1939, no franchise selected an African-American player until 1949. Even during World War II, when the NFL was so shorthanded, no blacks needed to apply. They knew bigotry barred the door for them... Demand for able bodied men for the war effort depleted NFL rosters. Many non-prime -time players were brought in. Teams reduced rosters by five players to help survive. In 1943, The Steelers of Pittsburgh and the Eagles of Philadelphia became the Phil-Pitt Steeler-Eagles, called “Steagles” by fans. The Chicago Cardinals and Steelers merged in 1944 in 1945 as Card-Pitt, a team so mediocre, its own fans called it “Carpets.” Brooklyn and Boston franchises fused in 1945 becoming “Yanks.”
Jack Roosevelt Robinson in 1939 at UCLA led the nation in rushing, a dozen yards a carry. The NFL was segregated. Major League Baseball was segregated. So the man they called “Robby” played in the Negro Leagues. And then with the help of Branch Rickey in 1947, Robinson shattered baseball’s color line as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. There is no telling how good a player he would have been in the NFL, but all estimates are that he would have been very good.
The all white NFL Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946. Their plan was to play games in the Memorial Coliseum, a venue supported with public funds, one which could not be leased to a segregated team. Under pressure, the Rams signed former UCLA standouts running back Kenny Washington and receiver Woody Strode. Both had been teammates of Jackie Robinson at UCLA. It was reported that all hell broke loose at the signing among NFL owners. The signing was revolutionary. Washington and Strode were the first African-American players after 13 years of whites-only in the NFL.
The Chicago Bears were a whites only team their first 32 seasons. Although the New York Giants came into being in 1925, the first blacks they signed were in 1948. Pittsburgh’s Steelers featured only white players from 1934 until 1952.
On October 22, 1939 the first televised professional football game was transmitted in the New York City area. NBC broadcast a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Eagles at Ebbets Field. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there were 500 television sets in the Big Apple then and 13,050 fans attended the game. Nevertheless, that primitive beginning foreshadowed the future of promise.
Early technology was primitive. “Television was a child of radio.” Said Curt Gowdy. “We used on or two cameras, and we thought that was something.”
At the start television positively affected the game’s popularity. Then the new medium had a negative effect on game attendance. In 1950, the Rams televised all games – home and away. Attendance plummeted. The next year, lesson learned, the Rams televised just road games. Attendance boomed to over 234,000. Lesson learned. In 1953, the courts upheld the NFL’s right to black out home games.
Commissioner Bert Bell allowed only the broadcasting of road games explaining: “When you televise a road game, you are getting free advertising. When you televise a home game, you are competing with your own ticket sales. The home gate must be protected or the game will die. You can’t sell what you give away free.”
HOWARD COSELL: The blackout was the single most important thing. You don’t give your product away. Football used television properly.
A major turning point in the history of professional football took place at Yankee Stadium on December 28, 1958. In a game broadcast nationally by NBC, the New York Giants matched up against the Baltimore Colts. Against a backdrop of temperatures in the high 40s, Baltimore kicker Steve Myhra powered a 20 yard field goal to make the score 17-17 and send it into sudden death overtime. That had never taken place before in NFL championship game history. A touchdown by Baltimore’s Alan Ameche gave the Colts a 23-17 triumph.
The thrills and suspense of that competition and mesmerizing effect on the millions who watched it play out earned the contest the label: the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” One of the viewers of that game was Lamar Hunt whose father Haroldson Lafayette Hunt was the founder of Hunt Oil and one of then one of the wealthiest men in the world.
The young Hunt, heir to his father’s billions, had cast about for months jockeying back and forth and trying to make up his mind about whether to attempt to purchase a major league baseball franchise or a pro football team. By game’s end Lamar Hunt was sure.
One of the stars of the “Greatest Game Ever Played” was New York Giants running back, Frank Gifford. He remembers what it was like.
FRANK GIFFORD: After the game, the sport had it made. There were stories in the media. Advertisers became really interested in football, the networks cared. That game enabled the sport to self-generate itself nationally.
All of a sudden a line of businessman got into the act seeking to own a team of their own in the National Football League.
(to be continued*)
Much of the piece is excerpted from Harvey Frommer’s acclaimed When It Wass Just a Game.