EPISODE 129: ABA Basketball's Origin Story – With Founder Dennis Murphy

The American Basketball Association was not founder Dennis Murphy’s original intent. 

Thwarted in his attempt to get the fast-growing city of Anaheim, CA (he was mayor of nearby Buena Park) into the fledgling American Football League during the mid-1960s, Murphy quickly pivoted his attention to basketball – reasoning that with only 12 teams in the staid, yet long-established National Basketball Association, there surely must have been room for more.

“What the hell,” Murphy told author Terry Pluto in his seminal 1990 oral history Loose Balls.  “The AFL had worked, hadn't it?  Maybe we could force a merger with the NBA."

By the end of the ABA’s ninth season in 1976, Murphy’s unwitting prescience had become reality – and along with it, a validating blueprint for how to modernize professional sports in North America.

The legendarily inveterate sports entrepreneur (Murph: The Sports Entrepreneur Man and His Leagues) joins the podcast to discuss how the iconically idiosyncratic ABA got started, as well as hints of how other future pursuits – like the World Hockey Association, World Team Tennis, the World Football League, and Roller Hockey International – would similarly come to be. 

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EPISODE #124: The CFL’s Baltimore Stallions – With Ron Snyder

Sportswriter Ron Synder (The Baltimore Stallions: The Brief, Brilliant History of the CFL Champion Franchise) joins to delve into the story of the mostly-forgotten team that revitalized Baltimore’s pro football history and viability.

When the National Football League’s Baltimore Colts secretively absconded to Indianapolis in the wee hours of March 29, 1984, three decades of pro football history left with them.  Subsequent dalliances with the USFL’s nominally “Baltimore” Stars in 1985, and ill-fated attempts to rejoin the NFL (1987’s wooing of the St. Louis Cardinals & 1993’s proposed expansion “Bombers”) only deepened local pigskin fans’ despair.

In the wake of the expansion disappointment, entrepreneur and ex-Washington Redskins assistant Jim Speros saw an opportunity to bring the newly expanding Canadian Football League to Charm City as a viable replacement in 1994.  Capitalizing on the city's love for its cherished NFL franchise, Speros tapped directly into Colts nostalgia by adopting the original team’s colors, marching band, cheerleaders, fan clubs, and even Memorial Stadium – christening the new club the "Baltimore CFL Colts."

None too pleased, the NFL obtained a legal injunction against the use of "Colts," literally hours before the team was to play its first game.  Speros had to scrap tons of merchandise and a sizable advertising campaign – while hastily converting the franchise's official name to the "Baltimore Football Club" (dubbed the "Baltimore CFL's" by many in the media).  Enthusiastic locals referred to the team as the “Colts" anyway – which team officials tacitly (and happily) encouraged. 

Unfazed, the team (later renamed “Stallions” for 1995) quickly became the toast of the town, establishing itself as the most successful American team in the CFL's otherwise ill-fated southern expansion effort – reaching the league championship Grey Cup final in 1994, and winning it the following season.

Just days after claiming the CFL title, however, the city and the Maryland Stadium Authority announced an agreement with NFL owner Art Modell to move his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore for the 1996 season.  Virtually overnight, the Stallions were forgotten, as fans and the media immediately obsessed on the market’s imminent return to football’s biggest stage. 

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EPISODE #119: The Alliance of American Football Saga Continues – With Michael Rothstein

We veer back this week into the still-unfolding mess that is (or was) the Alliance of American Football with ESPN.com “NFL Nation” reporter Michael Rothstein – who, along with ESPN Senior Writer Seth Wickersham – has been chronicling the demise of the once-promising league (Inside the Short, Unhappy Life of the Alliance of American Football), dating back to its curious pre-season earlier this winter.

With Carolina Hurricanes owner and last-minute financial savior Tom Dundon recently suing the now-bankrupt league for the return of his complete $70 million investment, the story of the Alliance is getting uglier by the week – with little end to the drama in sight. 

Despite helping nearly 60 of its players (and counting) sign NFL contracts, the AAF is increasingly likely to be remembered for its shaky finances and off-field managerial intrigue than for its surprisingly high quality of on-field play.

Rothstein recounts some of the more interesting stories and tidbits gleaned from his months of covering the formative weeks, initial games and now, chaotic dissolution, of a league that seemingly had everything going for it – until it suddenly (and with hindsight) didn’t – including:

  • Covering the AAF pre-season – despite being denied access to actual practices;

  • The mysterious coaching “debut” of Michael Vick;

  • The deceptive triumph of the Orlando Apollos’ home (and league co-) opener – replete with pre-game tailgating;

  • Initial suspicions the league wasn’t off to as solid a start as early appearances suggested; AND

  • An initial assessment of the villains and victims of the Alliance’s ongoing quietus.

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EPISODE #116: A Thinking Man’s Guide to Defunct Leagues – With Stephen Provost

This week, we offer a refresher course in the history of forgotten pro sports leagues with veteran newspaper editor, current long-form author and fellow defunct sports enthusiast Stephen Provost – whose recent book A Whole Different League is an essential primer for anyone seeking an entrée into the genre.

Provost serves up a smorgasbord of highlights gleaned from his personal memories of and research into the various nooks and crannies of what “used-to-be” in professional team sports, including:

  • The curiosity of 9,000 Los Angeles Aztecs NASL soccer fans in a cavernous 100,000-seat Rose Bowl;

  • The oft-forgotten Continental Football League of the late 1960s, operating in the shadows of the mighty NFL and colorful AFL;

  • The enigmatic one-season wonder of the 1961-62 National Bowling League;

  • Jackie Robinson’s almost pro football career;

  • Federal League all-star Benny Kauff and the major league baseball career-ending auto theft he didn’t commit; AND

  • The legend of the World Football League’s Jim “King” Corcoran – the “poor man’s Joe Namath.”

PLUS: we revisit the story of women’s pro basketball pioneer (and “Good Seats” episode #28 guest) “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin (Kazmer), the subject of Provost’s new biography, The Legend of Molly Bolin: Women's Pro Basketball Trailblazer.

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EPISODE #114: New York's Polo Grounds - With Stew Thornley

We cap off the long Memorial Day holiday weekend with a look back at one of the New York metropolitan area’s most memorable sports stadiums of yore – the Polo Grounds – with author and Minnesota Twins official scorer Stew Thornley (The Polo Grounds: Essays and Memories of New York City's Historic Ballpark, 1880-1963).

The “Polo Grounds” was actually the name of multiple structures across upper Manhattan during its history.  As its name suggests, the original venue (1876-1889) was built for, well, polo.  Located between Fifth and Sixth (Lenox) Avenues just north of Central Park, it was converted to a baseball stadium in 1880, soon becoming home to the city’s first major league pro teams – the Metropolitans of the American Association and the Gothams (later, Giants) of the National League.

Pushed out by a re-gridding of the borough in 1889, the Giants relocated northward to what became the second incarnation of the park in the Coogan’s Hollow section of Washington Heights in 1890.  Coincidentally, it was also the year that most of the team’s best players bolted to the upstart Players’ League – also called the Giants, playing in their own new (and larger) stadium (called Brotherhood Park) right next door. 

When the PL folded at the end of the season, the recombined NL Giants moved over to Brotherhood Park, rechristening it the “Polo Grounds.”  This third version – later renovated after a fire in 1911 (technically becoming the stadium’s fourth version) – became the structure most remembered by long-time baseball fans, especially for its distinctive “bathtub” shape, very short distances to the left and right field walls, and unusually deep center field.

While synonymous with the history of baseball’s Giants (including Bobby Thompson’s 1951 historic playoff “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Willie Mays’ dramatic over-the-shoulder catch during the team’s 1954 World Series run), the Polo Grounds was also home to the New York Yankees from 1913-1922 – and the first two seasons of the NL expansion New York Mets from 1962-63, while waiting for the new Shea Stadium in Queens to be completed.

The Polo Grounds was also the center of New York’s burgeoning professional football scene – notably the National Football League’s New York Giants from 1925-55 – but also the NFL’s oft-forgotten Brickley Giants (1922) and Bulldogs (1949).  

In later years, it also became the temporary home of the fledgling American Football League’s New York Titans from 1960-62, and the renamed “Jets” in 1963 – including the last-ever sporting event to be played there – a late-season (and typical) loss to the Buffalo Bills on December 14, 1963, in front of only 6,526 diehards.

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EPISODE #113: The Alliance of American Football – With Conor Orr

Just weeks after its sudden collapse, we take our first look at the brief life of the Alliance of American Football with Sports Illustrated football writer and MMQB NFL podcast host Conor Orr (The Curious Rise and Spectacular Crash of the Alliance of American Football; More Strange Tales from the Collapse of the AAF).

Inspired by his work producing the 2017 documentary This Was the XFL for ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series, director Charlie Ebersol concluded that the renegade league co-created by his father (NBC Sports producer Dick) and World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) impresario Vince McMahon in 2001 had actually been a viable concept, but poorly executed – especially the subpar quality of on-field play. 

After reportedly being rebuffed by McMahon to potentially revive the old XFL brand, Ebersol instead dove into planning for his nascent AAF – with the prime focus on solid football product; the “Alliance” formally announced its launch on March 20, 2018, and by June had more than 100 players under contract.

What followed was months of methodical and seemingly well-conceived efforts to: construct a solid football operations infrastructure under veteran NFL executive Bill Polian (including top coaches like Steve Spurrier, Rick Neuheisel and Dennis Erickson); solicit investment from (supposedly) stable deep-pocketed investors (such as player-turned-entrepreneur-turned-NFL-owner Reggie Fowler); develop business-enhancing media, data and wagering technology to augment on-field play; and even devise evolved rules to speed up games and improve player safety.

The AAF made its debut with two simultaneous Saturday evening games in San Antonio and Orlando on February 11, 2019 in front of a surprisingly large CBS national primetime TV audience – but the league’s operational wheels started coming off almost immediately.  Chief among the issues: a Week One cash call that investor Fowler couldn’t cover, and a hastily-arranged $250MM majority equity investment from NHL Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon – who quickly concluded that operational finances were dangerously unstable, and likely unsustainable.

After weeks of maneuvering, Dundon pulled the plug on further funding his pledge (rumored as only $70MM of the promised amount), announcing the suspension of the league’s operations on April 2nd – just two weeks shy of completing the regular season.  15 days later, the AAF filed for Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy.

SI’s Orr walks host Tim Hanlon through the league’s chronology, the facts as we know them today, and what’s likely to come in the months ahead as the story of the AAF continues to play out.

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EPISODE #111: Pro Football’s “League That Didn’t Exist” – With Gary Webster

WKKY-FM radio personality and sports author Gary Webster (The League That Didn’t Exist) helps us return to the curious story of the All-America Football Conference – the well-funded upstart that competed directly with the NFL in the late 1940s for supremacy of the still-fledgling sport of US pro football.

After being rebuffed by the NFL to expand, influential Chicago Tribune sports editor (and baseball and college football All-Star Games’ creator) Arch Ward recruited a who’s who of wealthy businessmen to help form a rival second league that he hoped would ultimately play the senior circuit in an annual championship game similar to the World Series. 

Post-war peace produced a surplus of talent, and the AAFC attracted many of the nation’s best players to its eight inaugural teams in 1946 – including more than three dozen College All-Star Game participants, two Heisman Trophy winners and over 100 players with NFL experience. 

With commercial air travel increasingly viable, the enterprising AAFC placed franchises in burgeoning markets outside of the NFL’s traditional Northeast and Midwest footprint (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami); it also chose larger stadiums in established NFL markets (Chicago, New York, Cleveland) to compete head on.

Despite the NFL’s publicly dismissive tone, the AAFC quickly established itself as a formidable threat – drawing huge crowds and generating significant national publicity.  The quality of play was high (15 AAFC alumni were eventually inducted into pro football’s Hall of Fame), and innovations such as a 14-game double round-robin schedule, zone defenses, and racial integration quickly proved popular and ultimately, long-lasting. 

By 1949, however, nearly every team in both leagues was losing money, as increased competition for players drove salaries higher, while average attendances declined.  By season’s end, the NFL agreed to absorb three AAFC franchises (Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore) for 1950; the combined and briefly renamed “National–American Football League” was set – and the AAFC was no more.

Webster joins host Tim Hanlon to recount some of the more notable events during the AAFC’s brief, but impactful history – as well as the befuddling refusal of the modern-day NFL to recognize the statistics and lasting contributions of the All-America Football Conference, despite the continued existence of two of its original franchises (the Browns and the 49ers) today.

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EPISODE #110: Cleveland’s Historic League Park – With Ken Krsolovic

Author Ken Krsolovic (League Park: Historic Home of Cleveland Baseball, 1891-1946) joins the podcast to go deep into the history and legacy of Cleveland’s first major league sports stadium.

Originally built for the National League’s Cleveland Spiders, team owner Frank Robison strategically built the wood-constructed League Park at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Dunham (now East 66th) Street in the city’s Hough neighborhood, where the streetcar line he owned conveniently stopped.  It debuted on 5/1/1891 with a Spiders 12-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, with the legendary Cy Young throwing the first pitch.  Despite being competitive during the decade (including a Temple Cup in 1895), the Spiders drew poorly, leading Robison to ship his best players to his new fledgling St. Louis Browns franchise in 1899 – and the Spiders to on-field (20-134) and off-field (6,088 fans for the season) collapse.

After a year of minor league play, League Park became the home of the Cleveland Bluebirds (aka Blues) of the new “major” American League in 1901 – the team that would ultimately evolve (1902: Broncos; 1903-14: Naps) into today’s Cleveland Indians.  The park was rebuilt in 1910 as a then-state-of-the-art concrete-and-steel stadium, debuting on 4/21/1910 (a 5-0 Naps loss to the Detroit Tigers before 18,832) – a game also started by Cy Young.

Though the Indians were League Park’s primary team, they were not the only tenants over the stadium’s later decades.  In 1914-15, the Naps/Indians shared the stadium with the minor league Cleveland Bearcats/Spiders (actually, the temporarily relocated minor league Toledo Mud Hens) to discourage the upstart Federal League from placing a franchise in Cleveland.  The Negro American League’s Cleveland Buckeyes held court at the park during much of the 1940s – including a Negro World Series title in 1945. 

And the fledgling sport of professional football also called League Park home during the NFL’s formative 1920s in the forms of the Cleveland Tigers (1920-22), Indians (1923), Bulldogs (1924-27) – and most famously with the Cleveland Rams of the late 1930s/early 1940s.

Like the Rams, the baseball Indians began moonlighting games and eventually full seasons with the larger, more modern (and lighted) Municipal Stadium during the WWII and post-war eras – ultimately sealing the venerable League Park’s fate by 1946. 

After years of neglect and urbanization, a modern restoration of League Park and its original ticket house was completed in 2014, where fans can now play on the original field where Cleveland’s pro players once roamed.

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EPISODE #105: The World Football League’s Detroit Wheels – With Mark Speck

In a league uniquely rich in comic misadventures and financial disasters, perhaps no one franchise from the World Football League’s inaugural 1974 season stood out more for its own brand of woeful ineptitude than the Detroit Wheels.

Saddled from inception by an unwieldy ownership group of 33 different founding investors – including Motown Records superstar Marvin Gaye and Little Caesar’s Pizza founder (and budding Detroit pro sports patron) Mike Illitch – the Wheels’ front office featured neither cohesive management nor adequate funding to cover even the most basic of operating expenses, let alone a realistic budget from which to field a competitive team.

Unwilling to spend more than $10,000 per player, management unwittingly took the club out of contention for most of the NFL and CFL veterans flocking to other WFL franchises, while securing only three signings from its 33 picks in the league's college draft.  In pre-season desperation, the Wheels even advertised an open tryout that drew over 600 hopefuls, yet produced none good enough to make the roster.  As training camp progressed at Eastern Michigan University, one owner even suggested that the team move the players into tents in a nearby public park to help cut costs.

Worse still, the Wheels couldn’t secure a lease at either Detroit’s downtown Tiger Stadium or Ann Arbor’s (University of) Michigan Stadium – having to settle instead for Eastern Michigan’s Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, 35 miles and full hour’s drive outside of the city.   Unsurprisingly, the team averaged just 11,264 fans across five-ever home games, save for a relocated sixth match played in even further-distant London, Ontario, Canada before an assemblage of barely 5,000.

Not that there was much to cheer for anyway.  The Wheels lost their first ten games of the season, winning only once (a 15-14 away squeaker at the then-league-leading Florida Blazers in Orlando on September 11, 1974), before dropping their next three to fall to a WFL-worst 1-13 record.  By October 10th, creditors and the league had had enough, and the Wheels folded into oblivion – six games short of completing their first and only season.

WFL researcher Mark Speck (Nothing but a Brand-New Set of Flat Tires: The Sad, Sorry Saga of the 1974 Detroit Wheels of the World Football League) returns to the show to fill in the rest of the details!

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Nothing But a Brand-New Set of Flat Tires: The Sad, Sorry Saga of the Detroit Wheels of the World Football League - buy here

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Numerous photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's World Football League website - visit here

EPISODE #102: The World Football League’s Florida Blazers – With Mark Speck

World Football League researcher extraordinaire Mark Speck (And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams, and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers) returns to the podcast to discuss the incredible story of Orlando’s first professional sports franchise – and the crazy challenger football league that hastened both its creation and demise.

The Florida Blazers actually originated in late 1973 as the Washington Ambassadors, one of the originally-envisioned charter WFL teams to begin play the next summer.  From the outset, franchise owner/oceanographic engineer Joseph Wheeler had difficulties raising financing and securing a lease for DC’s RFK Stadium – and by March, had moved the team to nearby Norfolk, VA – with no better luck.    

Hastened by a nervous WFL Commissioner Gary Davidson, Wheeler sold the club in May of 1974 – a mere two months before the start of the season – to an Orlando, FL syndicate led by former New England Patriots player and executive Rommie Loudd, which had just lost (to Tampa Bay) a bid to get an NFL expansion team. 

Quickly setting up shop in a small and rickety Tangerine Bowl, the newly rechristened Blazers finally got their act together (at least on the field) with a surprising array of veteran (ex-Jets Bob Davis and Larry Grantham) and rookie (eventual league co-MVP Tommy Reamon) talent assembled by NFL star coach Jack Pardee – who rose to the league’s elite and ultimately to the World Bowl championship game. 

Incredibly, off the field, the franchise was a financial disaster – riddled with poor attendance, non-existent marketing, inadequate financing, unpaid bills (and players) – and an owner who ultimately would up in jail for tax embezzlement and narcotics trafficking.

And we’re only scratching the surface!

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And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers - buy here

Numerous photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's World Football League website - visit here

EPISODE #101: New York Yankees Broadcaster John Sterling

Legendary New York Yankees baseball play-by-play man John Sterling joins host Tim Hanlon for a cavalcade of career memories from his 50+ year journey in sports broadcasting – including a treasure trove of stops along the way with previously incarnated or otherwise defunct teams (and leagues).

Now celebrating his 30th consecutive season with the Bronx Bombers, Sterling’s unique vocal stylings have become synonymous with some of the Yankees’ most signature moments during that time – including the team’s dominant run of American League and World Series championships across the late 1990s and much of the 2000s. 

The path to becoming one of baseball’s marquee team broadcasters was far from direct, however, and we (naturally) obsess over some of Sterling’s more memorable “forgotten” gigs along the way, including:

  • Falling into radio play-by-play with the NBA Baltimore Bullets as a late fill-in for Jim Karvellas;

  • Becoming the almost-voice of the ABA Washington Caps (until a hasty move to Virginia to become the Squires);

  • Hustling to secure radio rights to the upstart WHA New York Raiders for Gotham’s talk powerhouse WMCA - and the irony of later calling games for the NHL Islanders;

  • The highs of the ABA New York, and lows of the NBA New Jersey Nets;

  • “Phoning it in” for the World Football League’s short-lived New York Stars; AND

  • The ahead-of-its-time Enterprise Sports Radio Network.

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Classic John Sterling audio clips courtesy of Eric Paddon; follow him on YouTube here

EPISODE #100: WHA Hockey’s New England Whalers – With Former Owner Howard Baldwin

We celebrate our 100th(!) episode with one of the founding owners of the pioneering World Hockey Association – and the man ultimately responsible for the absorption of four its teams into the NHL in the “don’t-call-it-a-merger” of 1979. 

Hollywood film producer and original New England Whalers founder/owner Howard Baldwin (Slim and None: My Wild Ride from the WHA to the NHL and All the Way to Hollywood) joins host Tim Hanlon for a rollicking ride through the modest beginnings, death-defying life, and lasting aftermath of pro hockey’s paradigm-transforming challenger league – as well as the tortuous journey of the only US-based franchise to survive the consolidation.

Come for Baldwin’s hard-to-believe stories of the Whalers and the WHA, like:

  • Winning the Avco Cup championship in the team’s (and league’s) very first (1972-73) season, despite being fourth in line for Boston Garden home dates behind the Bruins, Celtics and even the AHL Braves;

  • The courtship-turned-love-affair between the Whalers and the city of Hartford that led to the club’s relocation to the WHA’s (and ultimately NHL’s) smallest TV market in 1974; AND

  • Doubling as league president with the sole purpose of effecting a merger with NHL.

But also stay for tales of Baldwin’s incredible WHA after-life, including:

  • Riding into the 1980s with the NHL’s “Hartford” Whalers;

  • The curious interconnection between the Minnesota North Stars and the San Jose Sharks;

  • Winning the 1992 Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but losing the franchise to bankruptcy six years later; AND

  • Segueing into life as an Academy Award-winning Hollywood film producer.

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EPISODE #98: The Original XFL – With Brett Forrest

As another NFL season closes, we shift gears toward the forthcoming Alliance of American Football – the first of two new leagues attempting to again extend the pro game into viable Spring season play – where the USFL, World League of American Football and NFL Europe have famously tried before. 

The other – both in 2001 and in a reincarnated form coming next year – was and is the XFL, which we finally sink our teeth into for the first time this week with Wall Street Journal national security reporter Brett Forrest (Long Bomb: How the XFL Became TV's Biggest Fiasco).

We drop this episode on the 18th anniversary of when the audacious joint venture between the Vince McMahon-helmed World Wresting Federation (now WWE) and the Dick Ebersol-captained NBC Sports opened play at a raucous Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas to see the hometown Outlaws battle the already-villainous New York/New Jersey Hitmen in front of a national primetime television audience.

Nearly two decades later, most who witnessed it (not to mention the tumultuous season that followed) still don’t know what to make of it.

Forrest digs into: the process of tackling his then-first-ever book assignment with Long Bomb (including the pre-season magazine article from which it came); some of the curious characters (the seemingly-legitimizing presence of Dick Butkus, the unwitting marketing genius of Rod “He Hate Me” Smart, the hungry group of eager players simply wanting one last shot at playing pro football) he encountered along the way; and the less-than-enthusiastic response of McMahon to the idea of a book about the league in the first place.

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EPISODE #97: Pro Football’s Dynastic Cleveland Browns – With Andy Piascik

Win or lose in next week’s Super Bowl LIII, the five-time NFL champion New England Patriots are already guaranteed a spot in the annals of pro football history as one of the sport’s most dominant teams – especially when viewed through the truncated lens of the last two decades.

That said, a legion of successful clubs over the league’s prior eight decades – such as the Green Bay Packers of 1929-44 (and much of the 1960s); the 1981-98 San Francisco 49ers; the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers; the 1990s Dallas Cowboys; and the early 1970s Miami Dolphins – can legitimately claim the right to be included in the discussion of football dynasties, when normalized across the competitive realities of their respective eras.

Author Andy Piascik (The Best Show in Football: The 1946–1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football's Greatest Dynasty) joins host Tim Hanlon this week to detail how one of those teams – the Cleveland Browns of the late 1940s upstart All-America Football Conference and then early 1950s NFL – might just possibly be the proverbial “greatest” of all time, all things being equal.

The Browns were the only champion the well-funded, big-league challenger AAFC ever had in its four-season post-WWII run, and quickly made their prowess known to the pro football establishment in 1950 when they soundly defeated the NFL’s defending champion Philadelphia Eagles in the newly merged league’s opening game – and then proceeded to steamroll their way to the title later that season, as well as consecutive title game appearances (winning the last two) through 1954.

In the decade spanning 1946-55, the Browns – headed by legendary coach Paul Brown, and joined by no fewer than nine future Pro Football Hall of Famers (Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Bill Willis, Frank Gatski, Len Ford, Doug Atkins and Mike McCormack) – amassed a better record (105-17-4) and won more championships (seven) than any team in pro football history.

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EPISODE #90: The National Football League’s Origin (and Survival) Story – With John Eisenberg

Episode #86 guest John Eisenberg (Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future) returns, this time to guide us through the fascinating formative years of the National Football League – and the five now-legendary figures responsible for nurturing its development through tumultuous times and an often-uncertain future into what is now America’s most popular sport.

In his new book The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire, Eisenberg highlights the individual dedication and collective conviction of Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney, Chicago’s George Halas, New York’s Tim Mara, Washington’s George Preston Marshall, and Philadelphia’s Bert Bell to risk everything in building and growing the game of professional football.

Originally formed (as the “American Professional Football Association”) at a time (1920) when the sport barely registered on the national scene (baseball, boxing, horse racing, and even the college version of the game all rated higher in fan appeal) – the circuit (renamed the National Football League two seasons later) injected structure and integrity into the sport, on the shared belief that a viable professional business was both possible and inevitable.

Fending off existential threats from a constant stream of challengers – including the better-funded All-American Football Conference (AAFC) of the late 1940s and American Football League (AFL) of the early 1960s – the five owners ultimately succeeded by repeatedly sacrificing short-term success of their respective teams for the longer-term good of the NFL as a whole.

The story of the NFL’s rise to the top of America’s pro sports landscape is one of not only historical significance but also of methodical – and sometimes, just plain lucky – business ingenuity.

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The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire - buy here

Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future - buy here