THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE
If Only They Had Given Lamar Hunt His Own Team
When the NFL rebuffed the Texas oil magnate’s expansion proposal, he said fine, and went off to start his own league.
Welcome to the serial release of my book If You Can’t Join ’Em, Beat ’Em, a celebration of the history of the American Football League in this, the 60th anniversary year of the league’s debut in 1960.
Through the turbulent decade of the 1960s, the AFL became the first rebel league to take on an established major American sports entity — in this case the NFL — that not only survived, but thrived, ultimately forcing a merger prior to the 1970 season that helped create the modern-day behemoth that the NFL has become.
In each post, you will be transported back in time and you will meet the great players and coaches who made the AFL what it was, and I will take you onto the field in recounting some of the great games that took place during those 10 years that changed the landscape of professional football.
Throughout the 1950s, the NFL chugged along by itself, pro football its private domain. Though baseball and college football were still more popular, the NFL gained strength, and no one thought it prudent to challenge this powerhouse. No one until Lamar Hunt, the son of billionaire oil man H.L. Hunt of Dallas.
Hunt had played college football at Southern Methodist University, but he wasn’t nearly talented enough to play at the pro level. So, if he couldn’t play, he figured he’d get into the business end of the sport. Upon graduation, Hunt — buoyed by a trust fund that was worth a reported $500 million — began his quest to purchase the financially-strapped Chicago Cardinals NFL franchise with the intention of moving the team to his native Dallas.
It was 1959, but apparently the nightmare of the Dallas Texans’ colossal failure as an NFL franchise in 1952 was too fresh in the minds of the other NFL owners. Despite the fact that the Cardinals were a financial drain and an embarrassment to the league, team owner Walter Wolfner decided against selling to Hunt.
Wolfner also rejected offers from Bud Adams of Houston, Bob Howsam of Denver, and Max Winter of Minneapolis. Perplexed by Wolfner’s unwillingness to sell, Hunt, Adams and Howsam met with Bell to explore the possibility of NFL expansion, but the commissioner offered a resounding no to that inquiry.
With his dream of owning an NFL franchise now sabotaged, Hunt left his meeting with Bell in Philadelphia, boarded a plane bound for Dallas, and it was on that trip that he came up with the idea to form the fourth American Football League.
“It was like you see in the cartoons where a light bulb comes on over a guy’s head,” Hunt said in the book The American Football League. “It occurred to me that if all these people were trying to do the same thing I was, we could join together and form a new league.”
Not only did Hunt have perfect timing on his side, but money was a key issue. He had lots of it, and so did the men he courted as potential franchise owners. Another benefit: They were all willing to spend it.
Hunt recognized that sports had become an integral part of the American way of life, and 1959 was a great time to be an American. The country was free from war, free from recession, and it was about to enter into a new decade with a young, vibrant president named John F. Kennedy leading the way.
There was room for pro football expansion, and Hunt — so rich that he could literally buy the American dream — knew it. The trick was to find seven other millionaires who — as Bob Carroll wrote in his book When the Grass Was Real — were “willing to buy cabins on the Titanic.” As it turned out, it wasn’t at all that difficult.
Adams, another Texas oil magnate multi-millionaire, was eager to come on board, as was Howsam, who was owner of the highly successful minor league baseball Denver Bears. Fourth on Hunt’s list was Winter up in Minneapolis, who had once owned the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers. Like Hunt, he had tried to buy the Cardinals and move them to his city, so Hunt knew Winter wanted a team, and sure enough, he convinced him to join the AFL.
Hunt was now halfway toward his goal of eight teams, but he needed to hit the big markets of New York and Los Angeles. He went to New York first in the hopes of convincing William Shea to invest. Shea had been involved with the AAFC Yankees, but in 1959 he had turned his attention to baseball and was trying to land a team in the Branch Rickey-proposed Continental Baseball League which the former Brooklyn Dodgers executive was trumpeting as a potential third major league.
Shea shuffled Hunt in the direction of his friend, Harry Wismer, who was one of the era’s most prominent sports broadcasters. Wismer, who had made his money in the stock market, held a 26 percent share of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, but he agreed to sell his stake and put a team in New York.
Hunt then flew across the country to speak to Barron Hilton, the middle son of hotel mogul Conrad Hilton. Barron admitted he didn’t know a thing about football, but all Hunt cared about was Hilton’s vast wealth. He served as vice-president of the Hilton Hotels Corporation, he was director of Carte Blanche which was the Hilton’s credit card subsidiary, he’d made a killing in oil, and he had turned a $25,000 investment in a citrus products firm into a $6 million profit. Hunt needed less than an hour to bring Hilton into the fold.
In August of 1959, the six potential franchise owners met in Chicago after the AFL’s intentions were publicly revealed in an announcement made by Bell two weeks earlier. With the NFL facing an investigation in Congress regarding its alleged monopolizing of pro football, Bell saw the AFL as a perfect defense against those charges.
He asked Hunt to divulge his plans, and Hunt obliged by telling Bell what was going on and who was involved. Hunt didn’t want Bell to inform the world because no one had actually put up any money, but Bell did anyway, then lied through his teeth by adding that he was in favor of the league and he would help “nurture it.” Obviously, Bell wanted nothing to do with the AFL because he felt it could only hurt the NFL, the congressional hearings be damned.
Yet by notifying the public of Hunt’s plan, Bell actually gave the AFL a needed boost. “The news created an incredible stir,” said Hunt, who was energized by his league’s out-of-the-closet status. “This was the turning point for us because our plans were out in the open. There was no turning back now.”
It was decided at the Chicago meeting that the league would begin playing in the fall of 1960, and that two more cities were needed to complete the roll.
In the meantime, the NFL began to squirm over the possibility of competition. Soon after Bell’s announcement, Halas, chairman of the NFL’s committee on expansion, met privately with Adams and was prepared to offer him an expansion franchise for Houston, but Adams — citing his commitment to Hunt and the AFL — turned it down.
Two weeks after the AFL’s first meeting, the NFL announced that it was changing its position on expansion and was now ready to move forward. Halas announced that Houston and Dallas were being recommended for membership in the NFL, and that Miami, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Boston, Louisville, Denver and New Orleans were also being considered for possible future NFL franchises.
Hunt was enraged at the NFL’s underhanded tactic which was clear in its intent: To squash the AFL before it ever opened for business by getting some of its owners to put teams in their prospective cities under the NFL’s banner. Hunt and Adams had just asked about expansion and had been told the NFL wasn’t interested. Now they were being given the opportunity to start NFL teams in Dallas and Houston at the expense of abandoning the AFL. Both refused and pressed onward with their own plan.
“Mr. Halas tried very hard to persuade us not to start this new league,” said Adams. “He said it would be very costly and it wouldn’t be good for pro football.”
NEXT: Finalizing the AFL’s original footprint