For many years Minneapolis and St. Paul lived together somewhat fretfully, separated partially by the upper reaches of the Mississippi but more completely by a sort of sisterly jealousy. With the advent of major league baseball in 1961 the Twin Cities concluded an uneasy peace, like two feuding maiden aunts drawn together in admiration of a first nephew.
Now another sports baby—the pro football Vikings—has appeared, and it seems likely to convert the Twin Cities to lasting friendship. Indeed, the two cities have joined so enthusiastically in support of the Vikings that the club will open its first National Football League season with an unprecedented 27,000 season tickets sold for eight home games—seven league and one exhibition. At $40 per set of tickets, this represents something over $1 million already in the bank.
The extraordinary prosperity of the Vikings' birth did not, of course, come about by accident. It happened as the result of a carefully planned, well-thought-out program which could stand as a model for promoters of the future. The man responsible is Bill Boyer, a big and dynamic person who is now president of the Vikings and the owner of two automobile agencies in Minneapolis. The son of a lumberjack, Boyer never attended college, but he has an old grad's enthusiasm for football and sports in general.
"We formed a major league sports committee about 10 years ago," Boyer says. "We hired a market research firm in Chicago to find out for us what we could expect to draw in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with a major league baseball club."
September 3, 1961
The market research report showed that a major league club could expect to draw some 770,000 people in 1955, the figure increasing to well over a million by 1965, the 10-year period covered in the report. It erred on the conservative side. The Minneapolis Twins, in this projection, should have drawn about one million people this year—but if their home attendance continues for the rest of the season at its present pace, the attendance will be nearly 1,300,000.
"The whole thing was based on baseball at first," Boyer says, "and on the strength of that report alone we decided to build a stadium and woo one of the existing clubs to move here."
The stadium was completed in 1956 and is strategically located in Bloomington, the apex of a triangle with St. Paul and Minneapolis on the other corners. It is also strategically located in Minnesota, which is to say, in the heart of football country. During the last 19 years, the University of Minnesota has averaged almost 50,000 at each home game, and this despite the fact that only once during that time were the Golden Gophers the Big Ten champions.
It was only natural that Boyer and his four associates, in looking around for a way to fill the stadium when baseball wasn't in season, should turn to pro football. A successful franchise would pad out the baseball rent and help pay off the bond issues. Boyer's group first tried to lure the Chicago Cardinals from their uncomfortable juxtaposition to the Chicago Bears but failed. When the new American Football League was formed two years ago, Boyer and his friends showed a great deal of interest.
"It would have given us a pro club," Boyer says. "But we really wanted an NFL franchise. When we heard from George Halas of the NFL expansion committee that one might be available. we hesitated before committing ourselves absolutely to the new league."
This hesitation proved to be a thinking man's falter. In January of 1960 the NFL granted Minnesota a franchise, to become operative in the 1961 season. The long time lag between the granting of the franchise and the actual fielding of a team was another bonus. It allowed Boyer and his associates to move as carefully and methodically in the organization of the team as they had originally in the development of the Twin Cities as major league baseball territory.
The five owners included three from Minneapolis (Boyer; H. P. Skoglund, president and principal stockholder of the North American Life and Casualty Co.; and Max Winter, a Minneapolis sports entrepreneur who formerly owned the basketball Lakers), one from St. Paul (Bernie Ridder Jr., publisher of the St. Paul evening Dispatch and morning Pioneer Press among other newspapers), and one from Duluth (Olaf Haugsrud, a wholesale candy and tobacco dealer who, incidentally, once owned the Duluth Eskimos in the old NFL.
Upon acquiring their franchise, Boyer and company, who were now the Vikings, moved logically to implement it. Their first employee was Joe Thomas, a football-wise former assistant coach for the Los Angeles Rams. He was hired in April of 1960 at the suggestion of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to do two things: first to scout college talent so that the Vikings would go into their first NFL draft meeting well prepared to make an intelligent selection of available college seniors; second, to scout the NFL itself so that the Vikings would be certain to pick the best of the players made available to them from the rest of the teams in the league.
Thomas did a good job; so good, in fact, that the Vikings will begin their maiden season in the NFL roughly 30% stronger than the Dallas Cowboys, who rushed into existence in the too-short space of six months and without the benefit of a player draft of college seniors.
Next in the order of business was the employment of a knowledgeable general manager. After considerable research, and after listening to an almost unanimous recommendation from the NFL club owners, the Vikings settled on Bert Rose Jr. Rose, who was at the time the publicity director for the Los Angeles Rams, fitted everybody's specifications neatly. He was—and is—an intense, intelligent man with a thorough background in pro football. Perhaps more important, he had worked for the most promotion-minded club in the NFL. As a side benefit, he had also worked for a group-owned team in the Rams—and in their case it was a group of five owners split by an unbridgeable schism. Diplomacy came as naturally to Rose as breathing.
"We turned the whole thing over to Bert." Boyer says. "Even now, I only spend about an hour a day on Viking business. We want to be informed. We leave all the decisions up to Bert and to Coach Norm Van Brocklin."
Rose, who had despaired of ever becoming the Rams' general manager, took over the Viking job with a sure hand and a ready imagination. He sat down and listed on a yellow, legal-size note pad the things he had to do. By last week the list had grown to 147 items, most of them completed and crossed off. No. 87 on the list, for instance, was a cryptic note: "Chain-gang uniforms." This was a reminder to Rose that he had to find easily noticed shirts for the officials who would man the first-down chains.
The most pressing immediate problem, and first on Rose's list, was the sale of 25,000 season tickets, a prerequisite for admission to the National Football League. Rose opened his season-ticket campaign just seven weeks after he was hired. By December I he had sold 19,000 season tickets—a record for a new professional team in any sport.
"We had to get all of Minnesota working for us," Rose says. "We had a luncheon in Minneapolis September 27, with about a thousand people there. We had another one in St. Paul the next day and a third in Duluth the day after."
But far more important than the luncheons were the Minneapolis Minute Men, whom Rose recruited as salesmen. A group of 25 or 30 young Minneapolis businessmen who are dedicated to the growth and improvement of the city, the Minute Men originally organized to sell bonds for the construction of the stadium. They were divided for the ticket-selling campaign into 13 teams, named for the other 13 clubs in the "NFL, and they proved as successful with the tickets as with the bonds.
From September to April 8, 1961, the Minute Men sold 9,000 season tickets. To honor them, the Vikings threw a banquet and presented a prize to the team which had sold the most season tickets. Ironically enough, this team was named the Dallas Cowboys; their namesakes in the NFL a year before had set what is probably an alltime low in the sale of season tickets.
There were no Minute Men in St. Paul, so Rose developed another plan for this city. December 6, 1960 was designated as Blitz Day; between 100 and 150 young business executives of the staid old city met for breakfast that morning at 7, then fanned out to devote the whole day to selling Viking tickets. By the time they returned to their meeting hall for a beer bust and buffet dinner at 6 in the evening, they had disposed of another 2,000 season tickets.
"It's an easy sell," one of the blitzers admitted later. "The people here don't like to plunk down $234—the cost of a baseball season ticket—but they don't mind $40 for a football ticket. Especially since lots of them have been squeezed out of the University of Minnesota home games."
With season-ticket sales in the Twin Cities well in hand, Rose turned his attention to state sales. Again he called upon the Minute Men. This time he organized six crews and laid out 12 routes that involved 22,000 miles of driving. Each crew left Minneapolis early one morning, drove out for the day, spent the night near the state border, then returned by another route the following day. The crews stopped in some 90 cities in the state, giving the Viking sales pitch to Chamber of Commerce and service club meetings.
"They sold 500 or 600 season tickets," Rose says, still somewhat awed by his own success. "On the trips, that is. But we began getting a flood of mail orders from outstate after they got back, and they haven't stopped coming yet."
While he worked on the season-ticket sales, Rose considered a long list of possible head coaches—the second item on his list. He arrived finally at Norman Van Brocklin, who had just led the Philadelphia Eagles to a world championship as a quarterback. It required courage for Rose to name the Dutchman as head coach—although he was regarded as probably the best quarterback in pro ball, Van Brocklin had never coached so much as a high school team. More, or perhaps less than that, he was regarded by some experts as too hot-tempered to take the vicissitudes of major league coaching in stride.
"I wasn't worried," Rose says. "I knew Van from the Rams. I figured he'd work out."
So far, he has. Although the Vikings lost their first three exhibition games, Van Brocklin accepted adversity philosophically. "As soon as some of these guys get rid of their beer tumors," he said, "we'll be O.K."
Rose and Van Brocklin chose Bemidji, a resort town in northern Minnesota, as their training site, and it has turned out to be ideal. Not only are the facilities (dormitories and practice fields of Bemidji State College) more than adequate, the town itself offers commendably little distraction to the players. Basketball is the big sport in Bemidji; after looking the place over, Van Brocklin said: "Couldn't be better. This is the only town I ever saw where the definition of a juvenile delinquent is a kid who can't hit eight out of 10 from the free-throw line."
Because of the owners' foresight in hiring a talent scout before they took on anybody else, Van Brocklin has exceptionally good players to work with. Even before last year's player draft began, Rose worked out a trade with the New York Giants in which the Vikings gave away a future first-draft choice for George Shaw, who had spent a peculiarly frustrated pro career as a stand-in, first for Johnny Unitas of the Colts, then for Charlie Conerly of the Giants. Thus freed from the paramount necessity of drafting a quarterback, the Vikings were able to select Halfback Tom Mason of Tulane as their first-draft choice. Mason would have been the first man picked by most of the teams in the NFL.
The Vikings' second pick was Rip Hawkins, who will be a powerful linebacker in time and the key to their defense. They got backing for Shaw on their third choice in Fran Tarkenton, a quarterback from Georgia, then surprised the draft meeting by selecting a future (a player with another year of college eligibility) on their fourth round.
"We figured when we picked the old players made available to us from the rest of the league, we'd plug the immediate holes," Rose says. "We want to look ahead to about three years from now. We'll need the young ones to replace them then."
Rose and Van Brocklin culled a choice crop of veterans from the players who had been pooled for them by the other teams in the league. To go with Shaw in the offensive backfield, they chose Hugh McElhenny, still sprightly and dangerous at 32, from the San Francisco 49ers, and later they traded with the New York Giants for Mel Triplett, a strong blocker and a fine runner. With Mason, the Vikings have a truly remarkable backfield for a new team.
The lines—offensive and defensive—are, for the most part, elderly but good. The team has soft spots in the defensive backfield, and it could use more offensive ends, but some of these weaknesses may be repaired as the other teams in the NFL begin cutting players to get down to the season limit.
Van Brocklin's assistants are youthful but quite capable men. In Harry Gilmer, obtained from the Pittsburgh Steelers, he has one of the best young minds in pro football; Gilmer coaches the all-important defensive backfield. Line Coach Stan West is an ex-teammate of Van Brocklin's from the Rams and a fine morale builder; Walt Yowarsky, who coaches the offensive line, came from one of the toughest offensive lines in football, the New York Giants. And End Coach Darrel Brewster brings with him the methods that have helped make Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns consistently one of the best passing teams in football.
Aside from its youth, Van Brocklin's staff has in overflowing measure the one quality they will need most this year—optimism. "I figure we can win four or five games this year," one of them said the other day (the schedule calls for 14). "The Cowboys maybe twice, the Bears once, the Rams once, and then we sneak up on someone."
Rose, older, sadder and, as an ex-Ram man more accustomed to defeat, does not commit himself to guessing how many the Vikings may win. Concerned with more immediate problems, he checked off No. 147 on his list of things to do the other day. ("Notify victor of program-ad-sales award"—which means let the Minute Man who sold the most program ads know he has won.)
"I don't know," he said cautiously. "We win four, I'll be happy. So will everyone else."