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!

Be sure to visit our sponsors OldSchoolShirts.com, Streaker Sports, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, and 503 Sports for great World Football League garb and gear!

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

Detroit Wheels WFL classic T-shirt from OldSchoolShirts.com - buy here

Detroit Wheels WFL classic T-shirts or replica jersey from 503 Sports - buy here

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!

Check out all the great World Football League garb and gear from our friends at: 503 Sports, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, and OldSchoolShirts.com!

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.

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 #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.

Show your support for the show and the legendary WHA by purchasing commemorative garb from our great sponsors 503 Sports, OldSchoolShirts.com and Streaker Sports!

Slim and None: My Wild Ride from the WHA to the NHL and All the Way to Hollywood - buy here

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.

Our appreciation to OldSchoolShirts.com, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, 503 Sports, Audible, and MyBookie for sponsoring this week’s episode!

The Eight Wonder of the World: The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome - buy here

Houston Astrodome-Related T-Shirts from OldSchoolShirts.com - click individual shirt photos or buy here

Houston Texans WFL & Gamblers USFL Sportswear from 503 Sports - click individual shirt photos or buy here

                

Cool Houston Oilers Stuff from New Era, ‘47, Cufflinks, Proline, and Mitchell & Ness - click photos or buy here

Astrodome & Hurricane NASL Items from SportsHistoryCollectibles.com - click individual photos or buy here

EPISODE #57: The Pro Football Life of Upton Bell

Upton Bell grew up at the knee of the National Football League’s second-ever commissioner – his father, the legendary Bert Bell – who not only saved professional football from financial ruin in the aftermath of World War II, but also became one of its greatest innovators.  Originator of the iconic phrase “on any given Sunday,” the senior Bell created lasting contributions to the NFL, such as the first pro football draft, scheduling parity, television revenue-sharing, and sudden-death overtime.

For the junior Upton, it was a priceless childhood amidst pro football’s formative years – begun while watching his father draw up the league schedule each year using dominoes at the kitchen table – steeped in the personalities, lore, and economic pragmatism of a game that would ultimately dominate the American professional sports landscape like no other.

In a seemingly preordained career, Upton Bell (Present at the Creation: My Life in the NFL and the Rise of America’s Game) has been an owner (the wacky World Football League’s Charlotte Hornets), a general manager (the NFL’s New England [née AFL Boston] Patriots), a player personnel director (the 1960s NFL-dominant Baltimore Colts), and long-time sports commentator/talk radio host – remaining a true and insightful “football guy” throughout.

In this very revealing conversation, Bell joins Tim Hanlon to discuss his personal and professional journey through the sport he loves; the lessons learned and insights gleaned from his unique purview into the pro game’s coming-of-age era; the current state of the NFL and where it might be headed; and heretofore untold stories about the stranger-than-fiction WFL.

This week’s episode is brought to you by SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, Audible (where you can listen to the audiobook version of Present at the Creation!) and Podfly.

Present at the Creation: My Life in the NFL and the Rise of America's Game - buy book here

Intro audio & numerous photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's Charlotte Hornets Football Network website - visit here

EPISODE #52: The Wild & Wacky World Football League with Author Mark Speck - Part Two

We conclude our conversation with WFL researcher Mark Speck (WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League; World Football League Encyclopedia; . . .And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams, and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers), as we find the league limping its way through an inaugural 1974 campaign that featured two mid-season franchise relocations (Houston to Shreveport, and New York to Charlotte), two outright team collapses (Detroit and Jacksonville), dwindling attendance and TV ratings, the ousting of league founder/commissioner Gary Davidson – and a championship “World Bowl” between two cash-strapped finalists (Birmingham and Florida) that was only allowed to take place after the IRS agreed to accept the game’s gate receipts as payment for an overdue tax bill.

A return for an improbable second season in 1975 was made possible only by dissolving the league entirely and legally reconstituting into a second incarnation (inexplicably with the same name), under the stricture of resort developer/Hawaiians owner Chris Hemmeter’s eponymous operating plan that called for franchise deposit fees, limited budgets and player revenue-sharing based on business success.  But with no renewed national TV contract (TVS declined the option after Joe Namath spurned the Chicago Winds’ lucrative offer to jump), a now-highly suspicious fan base, and far less press coverage than the previous year’s spectacle, the “new” World Football League fared even worse – folding entirely and for good on October 22, 1975 – after just 13 weeks of play.

Please support the show by visiting our sponsors: Audible, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com and Podfly!

          

WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League - buy book here

World Football League Encyclopedia - buy book here

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

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

 

 

EPISODE #51: The Wild & Wacky World Football League with Author Mark Speck

Perhaps no defunct league in modern-day professional sports history endured a more ignominious storyline and spectacular demise than that of the World Football League – a uniquely disastrous attempt to establish a summer-into-autumn rival to the National Football League during the mid-1970’s.

Brimming with confidence from his co-founding exploits with two previous (and at the time, still very-much-alive) challenger pro circuits – the American Basketball Association in 1967, and the World Hockey Association in 1971 – WFL founder/commissioner Gary Davidson saw the 1974-era National Football League as the next logical target for his quintessentially anti-establishment sports management ambitions.  While the ABA and WHA both eventually yielded successful mergers of their most viable franchises into their established rivals, the World Football League quickly proved to be quite different – and, ultimately, Davidson’s professional and personal Waterloo.

The WFL initially succeeded in persuading dozens of NFL stars to jump leagues for its hastily-arranged summer 1974 launch, largely because the NFL had no free agency, and the promise of a legitimate alternative offered newfound leverage for players seeking to improve their market values.  Many who did jump, however, signed “futures” contracts that would only take effect after the expiration of their NFL deals – a proposition that became increasingly dubious as under-capitalized WFL franchises seemingly began shutting down almost as soon as they debuted.  And that was just the start of what quickly became a litany of insurmountable calamities (including scandalous admissions of widespread game attendance inflation) that befell and ultimately sank both Davidson, and then the league itself – not once, but twice in just two years.

We begin our exploration of this most head-scratching of professional leagues with the dean of WFL researchers Mark Speck (WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League; World Football League Encyclopedia; . . .And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams, and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers), in a gift of an episode that just keeps on giving!

We appreciate Podfly, Audible and SportsHistoryCollectibles.com for their support of the podcast!

          

WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League - buy book here

World Football League Encyclopedia - buy book here

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

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

EPISODE #26: The TVS Television Network with Producer/Director Howard Zuckerman

On January 20, 1968, a frenzied crowd of 52,693 packed the Houston Astrodome to witness the #2-ranked University of Houston Cougars nip the #1 (and previously undefeated) UCLA Bruins in a college basketball spectacle that legendarily became the sport’s “Game of the Century.”  In addition to the record-sized gate, it was the first-ever college game to be televised nationally in prime time – and it was sports entrepreneur Eddie Einhorn’s scrappy little independent network of affiliated stations called the TVS Television Network that brought it to millions of TV viewers.  Calling all the shots from the production truck was veteran TV sports director Howard Zuckerman – who quickly became the backbone for the fledgling ad hoc network’s subsequent coverage of not only college hoops, but also two of the most colorful pro sports leagues of the 1970s – the World Football League and the North American Soccer League.  Zuckerman joins host Tim Hanlon to recount some of his most memorable (and forgettable) moments in TVS history, including:

  • Surviving a power outage in the middle of the WFL’s first-ever national telecast from Jacksonville;
  • Managing a motley crew of rotating guest commentators for WFL broadcasts, including the likes of George Plimpton, Burt Reynolds and McLean Stevenson;
  • Hastily reorienting weekly WFL production travel plans as teams suddenly relocated or folded;
  • Faking on-field injuries during NASL telecasts to allow for ad hoc commercial breaks;
  • The origins of the specially-composed TVS theme song and its orchestral big band sound; AND
  • Post-TVS work, including the Canadian Football League’s Las Vegas Posse, and the worldwide music landmark event Live Aid.

Thank you Audible and Podfly for supporting this episode!

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