BATTLE FOR THE DEEP SOUTH
Just two years and a couple of screen passes ago, Atlanta was like a lot of other American cities. It had a minor league baseball team, the Crackers, which seldom aroused ecstasy among its followers, and a college football team, Georgia Tech, which had lost some of its rambling, wrecking ways. Today, as one looks in on the friendly old southern community, it appears that even the magnolias and juleps are getting a little pushy.
In far less time than it took such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, Cleveland, Washington, San Francisco, Kansas City, Chicago and Houston, peach-fed Coca-Cola-washed Atlanta has become the 16th to possess major league professional football and baseball clubs.
First, the Milwaukee Braves of the National League decided to move into Atlanta's $18 million stadium, which is located within sight of every downtown office amid a tangle of 32 lanes of expressway traffic. Atlanta would have been more than happy with the Braves alone. But then last week, after a furious 23 days of mysterious maneuverings that only Agent 007 or Pete Rozelle could really clear up, the National Football League swiped the city from the American Football League for expansion in 1966.
Why the rush to Atlanta?
There were several lures for both the Braves and the Peach Pits, or whatever the NFL club decides to call itself. Not the least of these is the new stadium (52,000 for baseball, 57,000 for football). Although it does not have a dome—yet—it is a handsome structure that was built in 51 weeks on property the city did not own, with money the city did not have and for teams that did not exist. A new stadium, especially one as good as Atlanta's, is quite a magnet to a professional sports team.
But more important was Atlanta's potential for television. It is the major city of the Deep South, and will command a sweeping commercial range throughout Dixie, all the way to Baltimore in the East and to Houston in the West. This will mean more instant money for the Braves than for the NFL, where TV revenue is divided equally among the clubs. But it will encourage a higher-priced package when the NFL goes up for TV grabs again after this season.
Next, Atlanta is, and has been, a civilized, cosmopolitan city—a liberal oasis of sophistication compared to such southern centers as Birmingham, Jackson or Montgomery. It has been a growing, progressive-minded city, a place where one could get a drink across a bar and do the frug before that tribal ritual was discovered by the discotheques.
Atlanta also offered the NFL a chance to be the league that took the pro game into the Deep South, a vast reservoir of college talent. The recruiting benefits should be overwhelming.
Most important of all, however, it was a city with a novice politician for a mayor, Ivan Allen, who believed in fairy tales and was either too determined or too naive to be confounded by connivers.
The new battle of Atlanta began on April 6, 1963. Charles O. Finley was making one of his usual scouting trips, looking for a place to move the Athletics. In Atlanta the mayor showed Finley three possible stadium sites, and Finley selected the one that later was used.
"Mr. Mayor," said Finley, "if you'll build a stadium here, I'll guarantee you a major league baseball team." It was at least the third city in which Finley had made the same guarantee—but Ivan Allen believed him.
The mayor went to a banker, Mills B. Lane, and told him about Finley.
"How bad you want this stadium?" Lane asked.
"Bad," said Allen, knowing that in that precise moment he was gambling his city hall future.
Lane advanced $750,000 for architects and engineers while the mayor reactivated a dormant stadium authority and began chasing down titles to the property. By early July it became depressingly clear to Finley that he was stuck in Kansas City—again—and clear to Allen that he was just plain stuck. Atlanta thereupon went shopping for another team, with Arthur Montgomery, chairman of the Stadium Authority and head of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Atlanta, as the lead shopper. It was Montgomery who landed the Braves' promise to leave Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1965, a promise that resulted in the city paying out $700,000 in bonuses to the contractor in exchange for getting the new stadium ready in record time.
With the stadium under way, and the fact dawning on a lot of football owners that the TV market would be lucrative, Atlanta did not have to worry about getting a pro football club. In fact, the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL were all but suiting up in Atlanta when the Bid-will brothers, the Cardinal owners, discovered a prior contractual agreement in St. Louis that appeared to be legally binding.
It was at this point that Atlanta paused briefly to worry. The Braves suddenly developed contract trouble in Milwaukee, at least for another season, and with the Cardinal deal failing, the stadium was in danger of being built, beautiful—and empty. Some people—faithless people—began to call the structure "Allen's Folly."
The mayor was undaunted. He called on James M. Cox Jr., chairman of the board of Cox Broadcasting, to help him find a football team. Cox turned the job over to J. Leonard Reinsch, president of the Cox Corporation. Allen then went to the NFL, and Reinsch went to the AFL. Although Allen got a polite brush-off from Pete Rozelle, Reinsch very nearly lured the Broncos away from Denver. Atlanta was within two hours of getting them when Denver's Jerry Phipps stepped in and kept the team at home.
Reinsch came close enough for the AFL to promise him a club when the league expanded—a move that was expected in June. Indeed, on June 7 the AFL awarded a new franchise to the Cox company, provided it could get an exclusive stadium lease. But meanwhile the NFL had decided that Atlanta was too good for the younger league. Rozelle showed up, met secretly with the Stadium Authority, and promised an NFL franchise by 1966, not 1967, which was when the NFL had publicly announced it would expand. Rozelle had approval of the NFL owners by a vote of 12-2, the negative votes being cast by the Chicago Bears' George Halas (he would sooner have had the AFL expanding into Atlanta than into Chicago) and the Los Angeles Rams' Dan Reeves. The fight was on.
For three weeks NFL and AFL owners flew in and out of Atlanta like training pilots, wooing the Stadium Authority. The choice seemed to be Atlanta's.
Even before it had been officially announced, it was clear that the NFL had captured the city. This was partly thanks to a shrewd move by Pete Rozelle, who sent in Pollster Lou Harris for a three-day survey to prove the NFL was superior. The poll revealed that Atlanta favored an NFL team by a 5-1 margin; also that Atlanta had an 83% population of sports fans compared to the norm of 63%; also—woe to the Braves—that the residents preferred football to baseball.
"Atlanta," concluded Harris, "is the hottest football city in the world."
Atlanta now has a population of only 600,000. While it is growing, it is no Houston (where the next NFL team most likely will go, to play under the Astrodome that the Oilers recently vacated), with its vast NASA complex and shipping and oil industries. Moreover, Atlanta has always been a college football town, devoted to Georgia Tech, which can count on a corps of 50,000 spectators even if it plays Tulane and throws only three forward passes.
The man with the most fervent hope that Harris was right is the new NFL owner, Rankin M. Smith, who won the privilege of paying $9 million for the club over millionaire sportsman Lindsey Hopkins Jr. and William G. Reynolds of Richmond, Va. Rankin Smith is 40, tanned, tall, an executive vice-president of Life Insurance Co. of Georgia who attended the University of Georgia. "I don't know anything about football," Smith says, "but doesn't every male adult want to own his own team?"
Smith is a member of the State Game and Fish Commission, a farmer, a bird raiser (doves), the owner of a 32-foot yacht anchored in Miami, a close friend of Georgia Governor Carl Sanders and, first of all, a businessman.
Speaking of the $9 million, Smith says, "It's like when the old prospector held a six shooter on the cowboy and asked him if he had ever kissed a mule. The cowboy said, 'No, but I always wanted to.' Actually, I'd never given this thing a second thought if I had not felt it to be a good business deal. My homework shows it is."
Smith is also aware that Atlanta will have a big edge over the last two NFL expansion teams, Dallas and Minnesota. The new franchise will get the first draft choice of the 1965 collegiate group, plus a bonus pick in each of the first five draft rounds. And each of the other 14 teams will be permitted to protect only 25 players on its 40-man rosters as "untouchables" from purchase. Atlanta can have a good team quickly.
It will be listed as an Eastern Division team, but will play all 14 clubs in the league next year. If the new club changes the television habits of the whole Deep South, it will change Rankin Smith's as well. Says his wife: "For as long as I can remember, Rankin has been watching NFL football on TV. I guess he'll have to give that up now."
But it was really Mayor Allen who had the last word. With ingenuous charm the mayor declared, "We used Charlie Finley to get into the National Baseball League, and now we have ridden into the National Football League on the backs of J. Leonard Reinsch and the AFL. We must consider ourselves most fortunate."
Millionaire Lindsey Hopkins barely missed.
Charlie Finley had to remain in Kansas City.
J. Leonard Reinsch tried to sell the AFL.
Commissioner Joe Foss got a ride to Atlanta.