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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The Polo Grounds: Essays and Memories of New York City’s Historic Ballpark, 1880-1963 - buy here

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

EPISODE #88: The 1968-69 AFL New York Jets – With Bob Lederer

On January 12, 1969, the American Football League champion New York Jets stunned the sports world when they beat their heavily favored NFL title-winning counterparts the Baltimore Colts to win the third annual “AFL–NFL World Championship Game” – today remembered as version III of the “Super Bowl.”

The key to the Jets’ ultimate success, of course, was superstar quarterback Joe Namath – whose talent, confidence and charm had already made him an instant celebrity when he first arrived on the Gotham sports scene in 1965.  But the rise of the former (and by the end of its third season in 1962, insolvent) New York Titans to the top of the pro football heap was far from a solo effort.

Author Bob Lederer (Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the decade-long saga of the Jets’ remarkable evolution from a mediocre team in a dilapidated stadium in an oft-derided "Mickey Mouse" league, to a franchise that literally saved the AFL from itself and vaulted a newly merged NFL into the modern era of pro football.

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Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football - buy here

EPISODE #86: The Battle for Dallas: The AFL Texans vs. The NFL Cowboys – With John Eisenberg

By the end of the 1958 NFL season – one punctuated by an iconic, nationally televised “Greatest Game Ever Played” championship – interest in professional football had risen to unprecedented levels across the country, capturing enough attention to seriously challenge baseball for America’s chief sporting interest.  Nowhere was the ground more fertile than in the state of Texas, where college and even high school football had held sway for generations – but the pro game (last attempted with a relocated 1952 NFL franchise called the Texans that ended in mid-season abandonment) had still yet to firmly root.

But in the spring of 1960, after an unlikely series of events, two young oil tycoons each became convinced of the opportunity to start their own pro franchises in Dallas’ legendary Cotton Bowl: a reincarnated club called the “Texans” – part of a new upstart circuit called the American Football League; and a hastily arranged response from the established (and newly threatened) NFL called the “Cowboys.”  Virtually overnight, a bitter professional football feud was born – with Dallas sports fans caught in the crossfire.

Texans owner (and AFL league founder) Lamar Hunt and Cowboys head Clint Murchison wasted no time drawing battle lines for the hearts and minds of Dallas’ (and the state’s) pigskin faithful; their teams took each other to court, fought over players, undermined each other’s promotions, and rooted like hell for the other guys to fail.  

Hunt’s Texans focused on the fans – building squads heavy on local legends and using clever promotions to draw attention to both his new team, and the new league.  Murchison’s Cowboys concentrated their efforts on the game – hoping to quickly match the competitiveness of the NFL’s established teams with a young cerebral coaching talent named Tom Landry, and a draft strategy that eyed the long term.

John Eisenberg (Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the three-year battle for pro football supremacy in Dallas – from which both teams eventually (and ironically) emerged victorious in their separate pursuits of success.

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

            

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EPISODE #82: AFL & NFL Football All-Star Ron McDole

In a nearly 20-year playing career across the 1960s American Football League and 1970s NFL, defensive end Ron McDole (The Dancing Bear: My Eighteen Years in the Trenches of the AFL and NFL) experienced pro football’s modern-day coming-of-age from inside his old-school, two-bar helmet.  From 1961-1978, McDole played in over 250 professional games, including championship runs with the AFL Buffalo Bills (1964, 1965) and a Super Bowl appearance with the NFL Washington Redskins in 1972.

A cagey and deceptively agile athlete, McDole wreaked havoc on football’s best offenses as part of a Bills defensive line (including left tackle Jim Dunaway, right tackle Tom Sestak, and right end Tom Day) that held opponents without a rushing touchdown for 17 straight games across 1964-65. His twelve career interceptions remain a pro record for defensive linemen.

Traded by the Bills in 1970, he was given new life in Washington as one of the most famous members of George Allen s game-smart veterans known as the “Over the Hill Gang.”  Through it all, McDole was known and loved by teammates and foes alike for his knowledge and skill on the field and his ability to have fun off it.

In this revealing conversation with host Tim Hanlon, McDole describes: the unique camaraderie of playing in small-market Buffalo and in the upstart AFL; the reality of needing off-season jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet; the continual magnanimity of Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson; AND (at 45:00) the price he and many of his fellow players are now paying health-wise for playing the game they loved - with very little acknowledgement or support from the NFL.

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EPISODE #80: The AAFC, AFL & the NFL’s Formative 1950s – With Economist David Surdam

After barely surviving World War II, the National Football League of the late 1940s was not only on tenuous financial footing, but also facing an existential threat from an ambitious new challenger with deep-pocketed owners ready take advantage of America’s growing interest in professional football, a newfound surplus of playing talent, and a tantalizing return to economic prosperity. 

While the All-America Football Conference lasted for only four seasons (1946-49), its mere presence jolted the historically conservative and inwardly-focused NFL into an era of dramatic transformation and strategic maturation that laid the groundwork for a meteoric rise in popularity for the sport and secured its position against the raft of competitive challenges to its supremacy in the decades that followed.

University of Northern Iowa Professor of Economics and David W. Wilson Business Ethics Fellow David Surdam (Run to Glory and Profits: The Economic Rise of the NFL During the 1950s) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the economic and regulatory developments that the league underwent during the Fifties – which enabled the NFL to not only withstand direct competition from upstarts like the AAFC and, in the 1960s, the even more-formidable American Football League – but also solidify its place as the dominant and most economically successful professional sport in North America.

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Run to Glory and Profits: The Economic Rise of the NFL During the 1950s - buy here

EPISODE #23: The AFL’s New York Titans with Author Bill Ryczek

Before the modern-day New York Jets of today’s NFL – before Joe Namath, before the infamous “Heidi Game,” before the guaranteed Super Bowl III victory – there were the New York Titans.  A charter member of the upstart American Football League in 1960, the underfunded Titans played for three seasons to meager crowds in Upper Manhattan’s decrepit Polo Grounds, flirting with bankruptcy and collapse from virtually day one.  Author/historian Bill Ryczek (Crash of the Titans: The Early Years of the New York Jets and the AFL) joins Tim Hanlon to discuss the Jets’ ignominious beginnings as the Titans, including notable performances by:

  • Owner Harry Wismer, the volatile sportscaster with a talent for hustling, a penchant for drinking, and a habit of bouncing paychecks;
  • Head coach Sammy Baugh, the prescient hall-of-fame player who refused to show up for a press conference announcing his signing until he was paid his full salary in advance – and in cash;
  • Successor (and first-time) head coach Clyde "Bulldog" Turner, who inherited a dispirited squad weary of uncertain finances, inadequate publicity, and front office instability;
  • AFL commissioner Joe Foss, the constant Wismer foe, whose tolerance was tested until ultimately pushed to seize control of the franchise; AND
  • William Shea, the New York attorney whose dream for a Continental League baseball franchise in a newly-constructed Flushing Stadium materialized too late to save Wismer’s foundering Titans, but eventually catalyzed the re-born Jets.

This week’s episode is sponsored by Audible and Podfly!

Crash of the Titans: The Team that Became the New York Jets - buy paperback edition here

Crash of the Titans: The Team that Became the New York Jets - buy hardcover edition here

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EPISODE #12: Author Jim Sulecki & the NFL’s Cleveland Rams

Author and Cleveland native Jim Sulecki (The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon) joins Tim Hanlon to discuss his Pro Football Researchers Association award-winning book about the oft-forgotten first decade of one of the National Football League’s most enduring franchises.   Sulecki describes the Cleveland Rams’ inauspicious first season in the shaky second incarnation of the American Football League in 1936; its struggles to remain competitive against entrenched NFL powerhouses like the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and Washington Redskins in the WWII-distracted years that followed; the team’s surprising 1945 championship season (including one of the coldest NFL finals ever played); and owner Dan Reeves’ not-so-unexpected move to the sunnier climes of Los Angeles just one month after winning the NFL title.  This week’s episode is sponsored by our friends at Audible.com!

The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon - buy book here

EPISODE #03: Author Michael MacCambridge on Lamar Hunt & the American football league

Sports author/historian Michael MacCambridge (America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation; Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports) joins Tim Hanlon to discuss the legacy of Lamar Hunt – the most unlikely of sports executive pioneers – and the outsized role he played in modernizing 1960s pro football into the enduring American sports juggernaut it is today.  MacCambridge recounts how a strong rebuff from the stodgy 1950s NFL establishment galvanized Hunt’s determination to disrupt the football status quo, how the AFL’s “Foolish Club” of owners persevered through staggering financial losses, how Kansas City mayor Harold Roe “Chief” Bartle wooed Hunt and his flailing Dallas Texans franchise to the City of Fountains, and the karmic irony of the AFL Chiefs’ victory over Max Winter’s NFL Minnesota Vikings in the final AFL-NFL Super Bowl (IV) in 1970.

Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sportsbuy book here

America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nationbuy book here

ESPN College Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Gamebuy book here

Chuck Noll: His Life's Work - buy book here