The Other League
The short-lived American Football League, merged into the NFL after Super Bowl IV, invented the modern media spectacle that is pro football. And three Jews invented the show that was the AFL.
Mix grew up in Boyle Heights, in Los Angeles, rooting for Gillman’s Rams. “The high school I went to, there might’ve been two Jews there—my brother and I,” Mix recalls. “And there were all these misconceptions and stereotypes about Jews. It was good to see somebody who went against that stereotype.” (Mix was also the top draft choice of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts. According to Mix, after he countered their initial offer with a higher one, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom refused. A few years later, Mix heard that Rosenbloom, a Jew, had remarked: “You know, if I’d known Mix was Jewish, I’d have signed him.”)
Gillman’s Chargers won the Western Division in five of the AFL’s first six seasons, but only in 1963 did his team win the championship, in a game that showcased Gillman’s offensive genius to the fullest. Gillman’s game plan used motion, well-timed runs, and unpredictable play-calling to turn the opposing Boston Patriots’ blitz-happy defense against itself. The strategy was titled “Feast or Famine”: If it failed, the Patriots’ linebackers would be feeding off the Chargers’ backfield. But instead, the Patriots starved. They’d expected passes, and, jiu-jitsu-like, Gillman took those expectations and ran like hell on them. Lincoln, the star running back, gained an astounding 206 yards on the ground. The Chargers routed the Patriots, 51-10. The Chargers’ rings read “World Champions,” but Gillman wanted confirmation of that honorific, and, as recounted in MacCambridge’s America’s Game, decided to ask then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle for the right to play the NFL champ that year, the Chicago Bears.
“PETE—EVEN POPE JOHN RECOGNIZED THE OTHER LEAGUE,” Gillman telegraphed Rozelle.
“SID,” responded Rozelle, “YES BUT IT TOOK HIM TWO THOUSAND YEARS.”
It was 1962. David A. “Sonny” Werblin, an MCA talent agent who managed Jackie Gleason, Benny Goodman, and Johnny Carson, was throwing Joe Foss, a former fighter pilot and the AFL’s first commissioner, a birthday party at New York’s 21 Club. Harry Wismer, the unliked, egotistical charter owner of the AFL’s New York Titans, was there; Wismer ran the floundering franchise out of his apartment and mostly into the ground. As Foss recounts in Going Long, as the evening progressed and the drinks flowed, Wismer called Werblin a kike, and Foss had to prevent the two men from coming to blows. Werblin, whose football experience mainly consisted of playing center at his Brooklyn high school, launched his parting shot: “Someday, I’m going to own your team!” “Someday” turned out to be “in a few months.”
In addition to being the country’s financial, entertainment, and media capital, in the early 1960s, New York City was arguably its pro football one, too. The New York (football) Giants faced little competition for fans from college teams (still doesn’t, in fact); the team’s owners, the Mara family, was sturdy and well-respected (still is, in fact); and they played their home games at Yankee Stadium, the fortress of the most glamorous team in the world (this is no longer true, because in the ’70s Werblin maneuvered to move the team to New Jersey). They were also perennial contenders. In other words, the AFL needed a New York franchise, and it needed that franchise to succeed. Just look at the name: Titans are bigger than giants. But if the Chargers were the class of the early AFL, the Titans were flunking. Sustained for a time by sweetheart loans from other AFL owners, eventually Foss sold the team out from under Wismer only months before Wismer filed for Chapter 11. The buyer? A five-man group led by Werblin.
Werblin quickly made a number of changes, and they were in exactly the loud, brash tone of the rest of the new league. Out went Sammy Baugh, the legendary quarterback but mediocre head coach; in came Weeb Ewbank, who had had great success coaching the Colts. Out went those lousy uniforms; Werblin was born on St. Patrick’s Day, so his team’s new colors would be green and white. Out went the team’s home stadium, the crumbling Polo Grounds; in came Shea Stadium, home of the brand-new Mets. You know what rhymes with Mets? The team’s new name: The Jets.
But this was only the beginning of Werblin’s contributions to the league. Next, he negotiated a new television contract with NBC for the league—Werblin’s leverage concerning Carson no doubt helped—which put the eight (soon to be 10) AFL franchises on financial footing much closer to those of the 14 NFL franchises. “At that particular point, the AFL was engaged in a fairly acrimonious situation with the NFL,” Bob Moore, the Chiefs’ official historian, says. “For Werblin to come in and negotiate the contract with NBC was one of the key pieces of the AFL’s existence.”
Werblin’s most consequential move may seem on its face a personnel decision, but it was in fact a TV talent agent’s masterstroke. Going into the 1965 draft, the University of Alabama’s quarterback, Joe Namath, was not the top college prospect—that was John Huarte, Notre Dame’s QB. On top of that, Namath was known to have bum knees and therefore the potential for a short career (which is exactly what happened). However, what no one had like that Alabama QB was charisma. That’s what Werblin saw, and that’s what he knew he needed most. “I believe in the star system,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1965. “It’s the only thing that sells tickets. It’s what you put on the stage or playing field that draws people.” Werblin was determined to sign Namath, if only for the draw.
Continue reading: Al Davis and the merger
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