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 #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 #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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EPISODE #87: New York’s Shea Stadium’s Curious 1975 – With Brett Topel

It was, unwittingly, the center of the New York professional sports universe in 1975.

The official home of both Major League Baseball’s Mets and AFL-then-NFL football’s Jets since 1964, Shea Stadium was always a busy venue.  But when the football Giants and baseball Yankees found themselves displaced by extensive renovations to their shared Bronx home of Yankee Stadium, Shea instantly became Mecca for Gotham sports fans – hosting all four teams over the course of their respective 1975 seasons. 

The Giants, of course, had already started their wayward journey away from the Bronx in 1973, when plans were announced for a brand new, state-of-the art facility in the Meadowlands of East Rutherford, New Jersey to open in time for Big Blue’s 1976 season.  After two miserable seasons at New Haven, Connecticut’s Yale Bowl (winning only one of 12 games there), the Giants were wooed by New York mayor Abe Beame to play one last season back inside the city limits before absconding for good across the Hudson.

The Yankees, meanwhile, set up temporary shop at Shea beginning in the spring of 1974 – the first of two seasons the Bronx Bombers would play “home” games there while awaiting their new digs, also to open in 1976. 

Thus, for one crazy 1975 season, all four New York teams – the Mets, Jets, Yankees, and Giants – called Shea Stadium home.  Four teams, 175 games, 3,738,546 fans, and one stadium – the only time in professional sports history that two baseball teams and two football teams shared the same facility in the same year.

Brett Topel (When Shea Was Home: The Story of the 1975 Mets, Yankees, Giants, and Jets) joins the pod to discuss the highlights – but mostly lowlights – of one of the oddest years in New York City sports history.

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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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EPISODE #85: Houston’s Iconic Astrodome – With Bob Trumpbour

When it debuted to the public on April 9, 1965 (with an exhibition Major League Baseball game featuring the newly-renamed Houston Astros and Mickey Mantle’s New York Yankees), the Astrodome – audaciously dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by its builders – immediately captured the attention of the sports, entertainment and architectural worlds.  

It was a Texas-sized vision of the future – a seemingly unimaginable feat of engineering, replete with breakthrough innovations such as premium luxury suites, theater-style seating, and the world’s first-ever animated stadium scoreboard.  At the time, it was the biggest-ever indoor space ever made by man – an immense cylinder nearly half-a-mile around and with a flying-saucer-like roofline – that evoked a modern space age that the city of Houston and a reach-the-Moon-obsessed nation envisioned for itself.

Amidst the ambition, not all was perfect: baseball outfielders were initially unable to see fly balls through the stadium’s clear Plexiglas roof panels, and attempts to grow natural grass for its playing surface failed repeatedly (ultimately leading to the development of artificial “AstroTurf”).    

Yet, unquestionably, the arrival of the Astrodome changed the way people viewed sporting events and – putting casual fans at the center of the experience, that would soon become the expected standard for all facets of live communal entertainment.

Penn State University professor Rob Trumpbour (The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the life, impact and ongoing legacy of the Astrodome’s signature role in transforming Houston as a city – and some of the memorable (and not so memorable) pro franchises that called it home during its 43-year run, including the AFL/NFL football Oilers, the NASL soccer Stars and Hurricane, and challenger-league football’s Texans (WFL) and Gamblers (USFL). 

Plus, the backstory of Major League Baseball’s 1962 expansion Houston Colt .45’s – the original catalyst behind the dome’s conception and construction.

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EPISODE #84: The 1960s-Era NFL Baltimore Colts – With Jack Gilden

The third incarnation of the Baltimore Colts – the second as an official member of the NFL – produced some of the most memorable and dominant teams to ever play the pro game. 

Winners of impressive back-to-back NFL titles over the New York Giants in both 1958 (the December 28th Yankee Stadium sudden-death overtime final regarded as the mythic “Greatest Game Ever Played”) and 1959, the Colts and head coach Weeb Ewbank surprisingly stumbled into mid-table mediocrity in the early years of the 1960s – enough to convince mercurial owner Carroll Rosenblum to make a stunning change at the end of the team’s (7-7) 1962 season – one that would quickly shake up the squad and the expectations behind it.

The selection of Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Don Shula to become the new head coach of the Colts was eyebrow-raising for a number of reasons – age (at 33, the youngest-ever to be chosen for such a role in the NFL up until that time); relative inexperience (only two years as a college assistant at Virginia and Kentucky before his first pro stint in Detroit building the famous “Fearsome Foursome” defense); and karma – cut by the Colts as a player seven years earlier, Shula was now suddenly coach over former teammates who hadn’t previously accorded him much respect.

Chief among those players was quarterbacking legend-in-the-making Johnny Unitas – arguably the Colts’ most valuable franchise player, who was hugely responsible for the team’s titles in the late 50s, and through whom any future success depended. 

Author Jack Gilden (Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss how these two eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame titans battled each other and the rest of the NFL during the remainder of the 1960s, and lifted the Colts back to elite status in the league – while setting themselves both up for further individual greatness once they again parted ways.

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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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EPISODE #27: Jim Thorpe’s Oorang Indians with NFL Films’ Chris Willis

At the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, the National Football League was a mere footnote in the American sports scene, when matchups were played on dirt fields by vagabond athletes who would beat up or punch out their opponents for fifty bucks a game.  But one team during that era was different – the Oorang Indians.  Founded by an ambitious dog breeder, comprised only of Native American players, and coached by a national multi-sport superstar (and charter pro football Hall of Famer), the Indians barnstormed their way through the NFL in 1922-23 – becoming an instant hit in virtually every city they played.  NFL historian Chris Willis (Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL's Most Famous Traveling Team) joins Tim Hanlon to recount the story of this unique franchise and curious forgotten chapter of professional football history, including:

  • How a publicity-hungry dog kennel owner named Walter Lingo convinced the country’s greatest athlete Jim Thorpe to join him in hatching a pro football team in a league barely two years old;
  • How tiny La Rue, Ohio (population: 747) became (and remains) the smallest town ever to house not only an NFL franchise, but any professional team in any league in the United States;
  • How Lingo used the spectacle of the Olympic-famous Thorpe and his all Native-American squad to help advertise his kennel and sell his pure-bred Airedale Terriers;
  • Why halftime entertainment was more important to Lingo than winning or losing on the field; AND
  • Why players like Long Time Sleep, Joe Little Twig, Baptiste Thunder, and Xavier Downwind never saw NFL action again after the Indians folded in 1924.

Thanks to Podfly and Audible for their sponsorship of this week’s episode!

Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL's Most Famous Traveling Team - buy book here

EPISODE #15: MISL Memories with Michael Menchel

This week, Tim Hanlon buckles up for a wild ride through the tumultuous early years of the original Major Indoor Soccer League with sports PR veteran Michael Menchel, in our longest and most anecdote-filled episode yet!  Menchel takes us on a head-spinning audio journey across some of the most memorable (and forgettable) franchises in professional indoor soccer history – including stops in Long Island, NY (the Arrows trade for Pete Rose!), New Jersey (scoring champ Fred Grgurev’s unique approach to car maintenance!), Houston (the “Summit Soccer” borrows its name from the arena it plays in and its players from the NASL’s Hurricane!), Baltimore (the marketing genius of Tim Leiweke!), and Hartford (what the hell is a “Hellion”?).  Plus, Menchel:  hits the road with Frank Deford;  spends a year outdoors among the Caribou(s?) of Colorado;  has a bad day in Rochester, NY;  and “settles down” in St. Louis wondering when and where the NFL football Cardinals will move next.  Thanks to Audible for sponsoring this week’s episode!

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 #04: Author Matthew Algeo & the NFL’s 1943 "Steagles"

Author Matthew Algeo (Last Team Standing: How the Steelers and the Eagles – "The Steagles" – Saved Pro Football During World War II) joins Tim Hanlon all the way from Maputo, Mozambique to discuss the marriage of convenience that literally saved the National Football League from collapse in 1943. Algeo describes how a desperate Art Rooney scrambled to save his Pittsburgh Steelers franchise, depleted by wartime military call-ups; how a hastily assembled squad of ragtag draft rejects practiced football at night while maintaining defense jobs by day (including one player who worked on the eventual war-ending Manhattan Project); why the "Phil-Pitt Combine" wore Eagles colors and played more home games in Philadelphia than in Pittsburgh; and, in a PODCAST EXCLUSIVE, why the story of the Steagles just might soon be coming to a theater near you.

Last Team Standing: How the Steelers and the Eagles - "The Steagles" - Saved Pro Football During World War IIbuy 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.

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