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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The League That Didn’t Exist: A History of the All-America Football Conference - buy here

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EPISODE #108: The “Almost Yankees” of 1981 – With David Herman

We’re stuck in the minors again this week – this time with Microsoft News senior managing editor and former newspaper sportswriter David Herman (Almost Yankees: The Summer of ’81 and the Greatest Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of) – as we discuss the memorable story and unique circumstances of the 1981 championship season of the International League’s Columbus Clippers, the then-flagship farm club of the New York Yankees.

Longtime baseball fans will remember 1981, of course, as the year Major League Baseball experienced its first-ever mid-season interruption of play, as players took to the picket lines against ownership beginning on June 12th – just over two months into the schedule.

Once big-league play stopped, fans and sports reporters alike scrambled to fill the void – with organized baseball’s robust minor league system as the immediate beneficiary.  And suddenly, the heavily Yankee-influenced Triple-A Clippers found themselves basking in the unexpected spotlight of New York and national media attention, as the newfound best team in baseball.

The Clippers’ mix of raw recruits, MLB prospects, and minor league journeymen responded to opportunity by playing some of the greatest baseball of their lives – on what would be, arguably, the greatest team most of them would ever belong to.

Yet, almost as suddenly as the strike began, it ended (roughly two months later on August 9th) – leaving most of the Clippers to return to their ordinary aspirational lives and to be just as quickly forgotten.

Herman walks host Tim Hanlon through the previously untold story of a baseball team and its players (including the likes of once and future major leaguers like Steve Balboni, Dave Righetti, Buck Showalter, and Pat Tabler) performing in the shadow of one of the MLB’s most famous teams and infamous owners, George Steinbrenner – becoming a launching pad for some, a last chance for others, and the end of the major league dream for most.

Thanks mightily to our wonderful sponsors: 503 Sports, Streaker Sports, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, OldSchoolShirts.com, and Audible!

Almost Yankees: The Summer of ‘81 and the Greatest Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of - buy 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.

Check out all the great “forgotten sports” garb and gear from our awesome sponsors: SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, Streaker Sports, OldSchoolShirts.com, and 503 Sports!

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

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.

Be sure to check out our awesome sponsors: Audible, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, MyBookie, 503 Sports, and OldSchoolShirts.com!

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EPISODE #18: Pro Football Historian Ken Crippen & the All-America Football Conference

Pro Football Researchers’ Association president Ken Crippen (The Original Buffalo Bills: A History of the All-America Football Conference Team; The All-America Football Conference: Players, Coaches, Records, Games & Awards) joins Tim Hanlon to discuss the upstart pro football circuit that gave the war-weary NFL a formidable challenge in the late 1940s.  Crippen describes:

  • How a newspaper sportswriter from Chicago convinced big money investors spurned by the NFL to start a directly competitive alternative league;
  • The NFL’s public attempts to minimize the credibility, yet private efforts to contain the success of the AAFC;
  • The head-to-head battles between the leagues to dominate pro football in markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cleveland;
  • The immediate dominance and innovative approach of Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns, who many felt were the best team across both leagues;
  • Why the Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts were ultimately absorbed by the NFL, but the Buffalo Bills weren’t; AND
  • The controversy among football historians around why the AAFC’s game records are still not “official” in the eyes of the NFL, despite being recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Thank you Audible for sponsoring this week’s episode!

The All-America Football Conference: Players, Coaches, Records, Games & Awards - pre-order book here

The Original Buffalo Bills: A History of the All-America Football Conference Team - buy book here