The contentious owners of the National Football League spent a long, acrimonious week in Miami Beach selecting a new commissioner to replace Bert Bell and deciding that it would be wise to admit Dallas to their select circle as a 13th franchise. On the surface, disturbed as it was, the issues seemed clear-cut. Beneath the surface there were complex undercurrents of tension and personal antipathy. The owners were not just fighting for the fun of it, as some facile reports from Miami Beach implied. They were fighting for serious stakes, and some of their maneuverings would have done credit to backroom pros at a political convention.
The accomplishments at this marathon meeting were simple: 1) Alvin Ray (Pete) Rozelle, a charming, able man of 33 who had been signally successful as general manager of the stormy Los Angeles Rams franchise, was elected commissioner; 2) Dallas did come into the league (to begin play in 1960), and Minneapolis-St. Paul was admitted for a year later.
The architect of expansion was George Halas, the founder, owner and coach of the Chicago Bears. Halas is an ordinarily quiet man, calm and serious behind thick, horn-rimmed glasses. The mildness can be deceptive; you have to watch him ranting on the sidelines at a football game to understand the violence and determination which underlie his being. He has been a part of professional football since its inception, and he has a real dedication to it—and to his personal creation, the Chicago Bears.
When the new American Football League was formed in August of 1959, Halas became convinced that the NFL had to fight back with strength against the budding competition. He remembered only too well the long and costly war the NFL fought with the old All-America Conference from 1946 through 1949. As longtime chairman of the NFL expansion committee, Halas had already explored the possibilities of granting franchises to several cities, among them Dallas and Minneapolis-St. Paul. At Bert Bell's funeral he conducted a quick, informal poll of the NFL owners, and after these soundings took it upon himself to commit the NFL irrevocably to expansion to those two cities.
But aside from this, Halas had an even more compelling personal reason for enlarging the league. Chicago is the only two-team city in the NFL. Halas is forced to share this rich market with the Chicago Cardinals,
owned by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Wolfner. He has offered the Wolfners as much as $500,000 to move their franchise elsewhere, but Violet Wolfner is a stubborn woman who considers that the Cardinals have as much right in Chicago as the Bears. Besides this—or because of it—she has a strong dislike for Halas. And it is Mrs. Wolfner who runs the Cardinals; she inherited the team from her first husband, Charles Bidwill.
Aside from competition at the gate, which is negligible, Halas would like to get the Cardinals out of Chicago so that he can cut a bigger share of the television cake. All of the other clubs in the NFL televise their road games back to their home cities, realizing a nice profit from the deal. Halas cannot do this because when the Bears are on the road the Cardinals are at home, and league rules forbid televising a game into a league city where the home team is playing.
The Cardinals could easily have accepted Halas' offer, since they have had frequent opportunities to leave Chicago. Their very weakness at the gate has made them the first target for any rich young man seeking to own a pro football team. This marketability has inflated the value of the Cardinals, and it is one of the reasons why the Wolfners have been against expanding the league. When the National Football League finally did admit the two new teams, this meant to the Cardinals that 1) they had fewer locations available to move to and 2) they had fewer prospective franchise buyers. The bull market for the Cardinal franchise was over.
The Washington Redskins, to a lesser degree, were in the same fix as the Cardinals. Playing in a small park (Griffith Stadium seats only 28,669), they depended heavily upon an extensive TV market in the South for their profits. George Preston Marshall, the Redskin owner who has been in the league 27 years and is just as tough as Halas, was as violently against the addition of new teams as Halas was for it. Realizing that a Texas team would cut into the Cardinal TV market in Texas, he quickly made common cause with the Wolfners against expansion.
Halas knew that if the Cardinal TV income was diminished, the Wolfners would very likely be unable to stay in Chicago. What he was unable to accomplish by offering money, he set out to do more deviously.
THE HALAS WAITING GAME
When he came into the sun-bright room off the plush lobby of the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami Beach, Halas felt reasonably sure of nine of the 10 votes he needed to insure expansion. He cared very little about who would be elected commissioner, and he sat quietly through the long drawn-out arguments. During the recesses and frequent caucuses among small groups of owners, he plugged away for expansion, shoring up his certain votes and trying to secure a commitment from the only uncertain team, the New York Giants. Wellington and Jack Mara, Giant owners, were for expansion in principle, but they were doubtful about the realignment of teams which would logically follow the addition of Dallas and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The Maras wanted Baltimore—which had been arbitrarily assigned to the West when it joined the NFL in 1953—assigned to the Eastern Conference.
While Halas was fighting his undercover war for expansion, the rest of the owners were haggling over the selection of a commissioner. The old guard of the league, led by the hawk-nosed, irascible Marshall, favored Austin Gunsel, who was pro tern commissioner after the death of Bell. They wanted the league office to stay in Philadelphia, where it had always been, and they wanted a commissioner who was amenable to suggestion. Voting with Marshall for Gunsel were Frank McNamee of the Philadelphia Eagles, Carroll Rosenbloom of the Baltimore Colts and, in later rounds, Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Solidly aligned against them was a bloc of seven teams voting for Marshall Leahy, the attorney for the San Francisco 49ers. Leahy, a freckled, husky man with a forceful personality, suited the seven teams' needs perfectly. He was every bit as strong as Bell had been, but he was oriented more toward the new teams in the league than toward the old.
In the bitter fight which raged for nearly a full week and for 23 ballots, Halas never voted. He sat quietly in the meeting, passing when the vote came to him. He had expansion votes on both sides of the commissioner question—everyone but Marshall on the anti-Leahy faction, everyone but Mara and Wolfner on the Leahy side. He did not want to offend any of his supporters and he took no sides.
The fight over the election was as tough and vicious as the line play in a championship game. The seven clubs behind Leahy were determined to break what they considered to be the control of the old guard over the league. They remained obdurately behind Leahy, rejecting compromise candidates Edwin J. Anderson, president of the Lions, Donald S. Kellett, general manager of the Colts, and other less-qualified men tossed into the pot by Marshall and his adherents. As the week wore on, the atmosphere in the long, narrow room grew warmer and warmer. Only Halas, watching impassively through his horn-rimmed glasses, remained quiet.
On three different ballots, when the vote reached eight for Leahy and three for his opponent, Halas might have broken the deadlock. It takes nine votes—or three-fourths of the voting members—to elect a commissioner; but Halas, nursing his expansion plans, prudently passed.
Ostensibly, the dispute which handcuffed this meeting came over whether or not Leahy could operate the league office from San Francisco. He refused to move to Philadelphia, and Marshall, who was the vociferous spokesman of his opposition, contended that a league office on the Coast was eminently impractical. Rosenbloom of the Colts, an old and close friend of Bert Bell, wanted NFL headquarters kept in Philadelphia for the sake of old retainers, among them Assistant Commissioner Joe Labrum, 63, who would not move west.
Actually, the schism between the two groups went far deeper. "It's the last stand of the old power elite of this league," one owner said, "the men who dominated pro football for 20 years. Their time has passed now. They don't own the biggest parks or best teams, and they can't wield the power they used to. You remember the old picture, Stag at Bay? These are stags at bay. And they haven't a chance against the wolves."
Late in the balloting, tempers flared. Once Rosenbloom, after offering Kellett as a compromise candidate, blew up. "You people are being ridiculous," he said bitterly. "You don't want to compromise. If God Almighty came down from heaven and agreed to serve as commissioner, you'd vote for Leahy." Marshall kept his temper remarkably well and even enlivened the meeting with a flash of humor. Mentioned once as a candidate, he said, "I'm available. And I can go anywhere. My wife put me on waivers not long ago." Marshall is recently divorced.
The log jam was finally broken by Wellington Mara of the Giants and Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns. They settled upon Rozelle as a compromise candidate, and the tall, persuasive young general manager of the Rams was elected on the first ballot on which his name appeared.
He was an ideal compromise, acceptable to the Leahy bloc because he is from the West and acceptable to the anti-Leahy faction because he was a favorite of Bell, who had put him into the Ram job to handle the difficult peacemaking chore imposed by two factions of warring owners. And Rozelle was willing to move to Philadelphia for a year before shifting the league office to New York.
Immediately after Rozelle's election, Halas' shrewd refusal to take part in the bitter fight over a commissioner paid off. His expansion program passed when Mara joined Halas' nine sure votes, giving him the 10 needed to put over expansion and admit Dallas in 1960 as the 13th team, playing against each club in both divisions. Although Baltimore was not put in the Eastern division, the East was given the right to decide whether to take Dallas or Minneapolis-St. Paul after the 1960 season.
News of the admission of Dallas to the NFL was received joyfully by the Dallas NFL owners, who had been waiting all week in the lobby of the Kenilworth. Bedford Wynne Jr. and Clint Murchison Jr., two immensely rich young Texas oilmen, and their general manager, Tex Schramm, had grown progressively gloomy through the long week of haggling over the commissioner. They had nearly given up hope of being admitted to the league in 1960.
Back in Dallas, where the owners of the new American Football League were meeting and voting Oakland in as their eighth franchise, the news that had proved so agreeable to Murchison, Wynne and Schramm was received with a great deal less enthusiasm. The reaction of the AFL owners, in fact, was quick and angry. Said Commissioner Joe Foss, the ex-governor of South Dakota, who is well versed in the intricacies of politics and well acquainted with members of the Senate antitrust subcommittee: "This is an act of war. We will go to court or to Congress to prevent the NFL from putting the AFL franchise in Dallas out of business. You have antitrust laws to take care of such situations."
Here is where Pete Rozelle stepped in, giving promise that behind that deceptively ingratiating manner of his is a strong will. His reply to Foss was simple but direct: "They moved into our territory in New York and in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. Why shouldn't we be allowed to move into Dallas?"
Lamar Hunt, the young, serious and well-heeled Texan who owns the AFL Dallas franchise and who founded the league itself, had an answer to that: "It's not the same at all. In our case it's just like a little dog going into the big backyard of a big dog. But in their case it's the big dog going into the little backyard and asking the little bitty dog if there's not room for him. It's the size of the backyard that counts."
Senator Estes Kefauver, head of the Senate subcommittee, refused to take sides in what he considers a private battle. "I'm for expansion of football," Kefauver said. "But it is not a question of rights. It is a question of who has the better product in a city, if he produces it fairly without monopolization and without pushing anyone around."