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Wahoo, Joe Willie, and the Swingin', Swaggerin' World of Gang Green
By Jeff Freier
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Jeff Freier
All rights reserved.
Hustlin' Harry, Slingin' Sammy, and the Birth of the Titans
Let's start at the beginning. Before the Jets (or Titans) were even a gleam in anybody's eye, there was Lamar Hunt, the George Washington of the AFL. "In January of '59 ... the thought just occurred to me. ... Why wouldn't it be possible to form a second league? ... It was like the lightbulb coming on over your head," Hunt said. And from that revelation sprung the AFL. And from the AFL sprung the New York Titans.
Gotham's virgin team crawled out of the primordial ooze an outcast, an underdog, a vagabond. Its first home was the Polo Grounds, which technically was in Manhattan, but the Titans were not Park Avenue or the Upper East Side — they were the outer boroughs, the hustling street corners, the palookaville section of the City. They were a Ralph Kramden get-rich scheme, with a dash of Ricky Ricardo's Tropicana Club style and panache thrown in but with Lucy always right around the corner, sporting a mustache and disguise, trying to finagle her way into the show bringing an amateur-hour aspect to the proceedings. While the Titans' fraternal twin, the New York Mets, replaced the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York (baseball) Giants in a century-old league, thus having a built-in fan base, the infant AFLers were a brand-new concept. They were a crapshoot, only one poker game away from ceasing to exist.
When Lamar Hunt said, "Let there be an American Football League," Harry Wismer declared, "Deal me in." Wismer was a man of many feuds and cooked-up concoctions, and he never met an exaggeration he didn't like. He was a name-dropper of the highest order. He was a drinker. He was mercurial. He was unconventional. He was idiosyncratic. But he was also enthusiastic, a people person, and a visionary. If there were a brisk, CliffsNotes, 1940s-newsreel version of The Harry Wismer Story, it would go something like this:
Born in 1913 in Port Huron, Michigan, Wismer was a top-flight high school athlete. He played football at both the University of Florida and Michigan State University. But a knee injury foiled his dreams of gridiron stardom. Moving into the broadcast booth, he became the voice of Michigan State football and moonlighted as the public address announcer for the NFL's Detroit Lions. He continued his career behind the microphone as a freelancer, working collegiate games before moving up to the pro ranks with the Washington Redskins. He became synonymous with the D.C. fighting 11 and even purchased 25 percent of the team. After a bitter feud that resulted in litigation with Redskins founder George Preston Marshall (partly over Marshall's refusal to sign African-American players), Wismer moved on again.
Wismer was one of the first to imagine football games shown on television at night when he broadcast edited reruns of Notre Dame contests on Sunday evenings. He was also in the broadcast booth when the NFL briefly scheduled a Saturday night game each week to be aired over the old DuMont TV network in the 1950s. Wismer bought the New York Titans in 1959 and sold them in 1963. By the mid-'60s, he was broke, depressed, an alcoholic, and in failing health. In 1967, while drunk, he fell down a flight of stairs in a New York City restaurant and died the next day. So the Harry Wismer Story was not necessarily a happy one.
Getting back to 1960, one thing Wismer did have was a fertile imagination. And out of that imagination came an idea that was so brilliant, presumptuous, and forward-looking that it lives on to this day. And it has made many men rich beyond their wildest dreams. Even though he owned the New York franchise of the neophyte AFL, which one would think would be the most prosperous and have the most money-making potential out of the eight AFL teams, he hatched the idea of television revenue sharing. Each team would split the profits from the rights to broadcast their games. A league needed each team to be strong and profitable, not just one or two powerhouses.
"The whole difference in this league is the sale of television, and your old buddy here sold it. The American Football League is the league of the future," Wismer proudly declared. That concept has been the lynchpin of success for the NFL going on 50 years now. Today's team owners can thank Wismer for his vision and forethought.
Next on Wismer's to-do list was to hire a coach. And for that he reached back to his Redskins days and enlisted one of the greatest quarterbacks in pro football history, Slingin' Sammy Baugh, who had spent his entire 16-year career with the 'Skins.
Baugh was born and raised in Texas and played baseball and football for Sweetwater High School. Baseball was his first love. In fact, he picked up his nickname while playing third base for Texas Christian University's Horned Frogs. He was also a two-time All-American quarterback while attending college. Baugh signed with baseball's St. Louis Cardinals, but dissatisfied with playing in the low minor leagues he decided to devote his full attention to football and the Redskins. An immediate success, he led Washington to the 1937 NFL Championship in his rookie season. He won a second title in 1942.
There were many two-way players in Baugh's era, but Slingin' Sammy was a three-way threat: quarterback, defensive back, and punter. And he was one of the best ever at all three positions. His signature season came in 1943, when he led the NFL in passing, punting, and interceptions (caught, not thrown). He threw four touchdown passes and snared four picks in one game alone.
Baugh is credited with modernizing the quarterback position as the forefather of the forward pass. When he retired he held 13 different NFL records spanning three positions, was named to the All-NFL team seven times, and led the league in passing six times and punting five times. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the inaugural class of 1963. Baugh spent two years at the helm of the Titans. He coached the Oilers for one season in 1964 but left professional football for good after that short stint in Houston. He went on to live a long life, married to his high school sweetheart, and died at the age of 94. Unlike Wismer's, his was a happy story.
On the field, the Titans weren't great but they weren't awful. "We had a poor football team when we left training camp. Right now we've got a very ordinary team," Baugh said around opening day in 1960. But when queried if his measuring stick was the NFL or AFL, he went on to say, "By this league's standards, a pretty good team." Titans defensive tackle Sid Youngelman added, "In the NFL there are no weak spots. Here, while you don't relax, you are better able to pace yourself."
Let's face it, with eight teams filled with players who had never met each other, much less played together before, the quality of play in those early days suffered. The games resembled something out of Horse Feathers, minus Harpo and the horse. The Titans (and every other team) were strangers thrown together to construct a cohesive unit, to build chemistry with unfamiliar, disparate parts. And they had to do it in the decomposing Polo Grounds without knowing if they would actually get paid for their services from week to week. It wasn't as easy as it looked — especially in those blue-and-yellow Titan uniforms.
In their inaugural season of 1960, New York came in second place to the AFL Champion Oilers in the East Division with a 7–7 record. They led the league in scoring, averaging 27.3 points per game, reflecting Baugh's chuck-it-down-the-field-and-see-who-catches-it offensive philosophy. Unfortunately, they were last in defense, reflecting a complete lack of any philosophy. They repeated their performance in 1961, again finishing 7–7. And in Wismer's final season, the last with the franchise calling itself the Titans, the team dropped to 5–9.
Off the field was where the fun could be found, though. When Harry Wismer was around, fun was a constant companion. Well, maybe fun is not the right word. Antics, high jinks, capers, shenanigans, stunts, and larks may be better descriptors. And add infuriation, stinginess, pettiness, puffery, and drunkenness for good measure. We're talking about a man who would occasionally claim to have spotted celebrities and public figures in the crowd back in his radio announcing days, when those persons of renown were nowhere near the football stadium and might possibly not even have been in the same country. "I plug my friends. I say, 'Dean Acheson is here. President Eisenhower just walked in. There goes Dick Nixon.'" The truth never stopped Harry Wismer.
And when he bumped into an old acquaintance, he'd excitedly exclaim, "Congratulations!" "I always say congratulations," Wismer said. "It makes people feel good. 'Congratulations!' Congratulations can mean anything! It rings a note! It's wonderful! And it's a great opening line! 'Congratulations!' And they say, 'How do you know?' And I say, 'I keep pace.'" On top of that, he wasn't shy about spreading false rumors just for kicks. A favorite was, "So they shot Castro!" "You get a lot of emotional reaction from people," he said. And let's not forget the self-promoting hucksterism of Wismer. After soliciting team pictures from the Titans to promote an upcoming game, the Chargers received a dozen photos of ... Harry Wismer.
The Titans owner was a complex man. He could be grating, he could be charming, he could be profane, he could be miserly, and he could be exuberant — all on the same day. All in the same hour. A friend once said of him, "If you knew Harry for a month or two, you'd hate him. After a year, you'd begin to reverse yourself. If Harry would only let his accomplishments speak for themselves instead of letting himself speak for his accomplishments, he'd be much better off. There are so many compensating qualities to the man."
In his brief tenure in the AFL, Wismer grew to resent his fellow owners. He had, after all, acquired his money through years of working his way up in the sports world. He didn't inherit a fortune. He was a self-made man. His humble background was a constant source of motivation. His father managed a clothing store, and one of Wismer's four siblings died of diphtheria only weeks before the future Titans owner was born, with his mother also coming down with the disease.
"I think I was born to keep driving," Wismer said. "My mother often said that she was so determined to have me born that it helped her live, and I think some of the strength and determination might have crossed over." He went on to say, "I used to read extensively when I was a kid. Those Horatio Alger and Merriwell books. They used to send a chill up and down me! I'd read every book about this man's success, that man's success. I'd wipe the dishes for my mother and I'd say, 'Don't worry. Someday you won't have to worry about all those bills. I'll take care of everything.'"
The majority of his seven comrades on the other hand, particularly Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs owner Hunt and fellow AFL founder and Oilers owner Bud Adams, made their money the old-fashioned way — through their fathers. In the eyes of the streetwise Wismer, who was still broadcasting Notre Dame games while running the Titans, they were little rich kids playing with their new toys. "I've gambled everything. I'm not getting a dime," he said of his investment in his team. "I don't have an H.L. Hunt, a Boots Adams, or a Conrad Hilton to back me up." Wismer even went so far as to hire a private investigator to have Hunt and Adams tailed when he discovered they were meeting with the NFL to ensure there were no back-room deals going on to undermine Wismer's stake in the league.
And Wismer's animosity toward AFL commissioner Joe Foss reached Hatfield vs. McCoy feud levels when the powers that be tried to force Wismer out of the league in 1962. Wismer used pranks, crank phone calls, and other assorted tomfoolery to stick it to his foe. And Foss was no lightweight or fool. He was a World War II flying ace and Medal of Honor winner, after all. He was an actual real-life American hero who brought legitimacy and dignity to the new league.
While Foss was traveling around on the road, engaged in his commissioner duties, Wismer would find out where he was staying and order room service for 10 to be delivered to Foss' room before the crack of dawn. Wismer would somehow cancel Foss' plane travel arrangements, with Foss not discovering the ruse until he was already at the airport. Wismer would even make crank phone calls to sportswriters, anonymously badmouthing the Titans and the AFL. Were those escapades childish? Petty? Unbecoming of an adult? Especially one in position of power? Yes, they were. But that was Harry Wismer.
After the Titans' first two seasons, Wismer soured on Baugh, which presented a problem. The coach had signed a three-year contract before the 1960 season, so he was still owed his $20,000 salary for 1962. Now if you owned a football team and wanted to fire your coach with one year left on his contract but didn't want to pay him, what would you do? Bite the bullet, fire him, and eat the money? Suffer through one more year of him on the sidelines? Try to work out a deal with another team, hoping to unload his contract and accept a pittance in return? That trio of scenarios makes perfect sense, of course. Now what about these outrageous ideas? All of the following are ridiculous and aren't based in reality at all, right? Well, here's a pop quiz — one of these brainstorms is the course of action that Wismer took with Baugh. See if you can guess which one the Titans owner chose:
1. Tell the coach that the team has folded, apologize, trick him into submitting his resignation ("Just a legal formality"), and wish him luck in his further endeavors while crossing your fingers he doesn't notice when the new season begins play.
2. Pretend like the team never existed in the first place while slyly getting him to sign a letter of resignation as you sell him insurance.
3. Demote the coach while moving training camp to an undisclosed location without divulging to him where it's being held in the hopes that he'll just never show up.
If you selected option number three, you're the grand winner. Baugh learned of his demotion to kicking coach and the hiring of new head coach Bulldog Turner in the newspaper. He unearthed the double-secret location of the Titans' training camp through his players (it helps to be a players' coach) and showed up on schedule. Knowing exactly what Wismer was up to, Baugh gladly accepted $20,000 to be a low-rung assistant. He stayed out of Turner's way as much as possible, while doing a minimal amount of coaching and hung around for the ride. Once Wismer realized Baugh wasn't going to storm off and quit, a compromise was reached. Baugh would get his money in monthly installments and stay on as something of a consultant to the team. Baugh received a portion of his money but went to his grave waiting for the rest.
In the Titans' debut season, the team drew 114,682 fans in seven home games. By 1962 that number had shriveled all the way down to 36,161 total attendees for the season. Before a game at the Polo Grounds against the Boston Patriots, the Titans ran onto the field for pregame warm-ups and noticed that the clanking of their cleats on the concrete ramp sounded slightly peculiar. When they looked up into the stands, they discovered why. There weren't enough fans to drown out a handful of chirping crickets. The players' cleats were echoing in a near-empty stadium. Linebacker Larry Grantham came up with an inspiring idea: "Instead of running through the goalposts for introductions, let's just go up and shake hands with everybody," Grantham said. "It would be faster. It won't take more than one or two minutes."
Excerpted from Jets Underground by Jeff Freier. Copyright © 2011 Jeff Freier. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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Table of Contents
1. Hustlin' Harry, Slingin' Sammy, and the Birth of the Titans,
2. Portrait of a Cowboy in a Strange Land,
3. Just Watch Heidi, Baby,
4. Chief Wahoo,
5. They Might (Not) Be Giants,
6. It's Good to Be Joe Namath,
7. The New York Sack Exchange,
8. Just Give Me the Damn Flashlight,
9. Monday Night Madness,
10. Richard Todd and the Battle of the Mud People,
11. I Ain't Got No Home,
12. The Wild, Wild West,
13. Bad Ideas,
14. Washington Scored Here,
15. A Fistful of Swagger,