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Just Win, Baby
The Al Davis Story
By Murray Olderman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Murray Olderman
All rights reserved.
On an early spring afternoon in 1966, Oakland Raiders owner Wayne Valley sauntered casually onto the team's practice field at Hayward High School in northern California and radically changed the life of Al Davis. This was Davis' terrain. The young Oakland head coach stood there in baggy, gray-white warm-up pants, a gray-white sweatshirt — he had trouble distinguishing colors and preferred neutral shades of white or black — with a Raiders' logo cap on his head and a whistle dangling around his neck. Normally not even the main owner of the team, which Wayne Valley was, invaded his turf.
"Hey, Genius," the brusque, burly owner — he was a former college lineman — addressed his coach. Davis was never sure if Valley was paying him a compliment or meant it to be mocking sarcasm. "We need a guy to take on the NFL. It sure ain't Joe Foss."
Foss, a genuine American hero, a man who shot down 26 Japanese planes as a U.S. Marine pilot in the South Pacific during World War II, had been the commissioner of the American Football League since it opened for business in 1960. He was a likable and personable man out of South Dakota, but not prone to be confrontational.
"We want a guy," Valley explained, speaking for his fellow AFL owners, "who's not afraid of fighting them, who knows their people, who knows players, who can go out and get them, grab 'em by the balls." Valley could be blunt.
Davis was approaching his fourth season of coaching the Oakland Raiders and coming off an 8–5–1 second-place record as he concentrated on this off-season mini-camp, more interested than anything else in catching up to the San Diego Chargers, who had won three straight Western Division titles.
"You're the guy," blurted Valley.
"Me?" said Davis, feigning surprise. "Oh, no, I don't want to move back to New York." That was where the AFL headquarters would be located.
"Hey," argued Valley, "you don't do it, we won't have a league."
Valley had already checked with other influential AFL owners such as Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills, Billy Sullivan of the Boston Patriots (they wouldn't become the New England Patriots until 1971), and Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs, to see if they approved of his proposal to have Davis succeed Foss as commissioner. The Raiders had a big rivalry going with Kansas City, but Hunt, the conservative founder of the AFL, surprisingly said it was fine with him to supplant Foss with Davis.
Among other possibilities broached to head the fledgling league was Jim Corbett, the athletic director at Louisiana State University, but he had no pro-football background. Valley campaigned for his young coach and general manager on the premise that "Davis knows the NFL; he's not afraid of them. He can handle the New York press and the networks and guys like Howard Cosell."
Valley reiterated firmly, "You're the guy."
And Davis began to mull it over in his mind: "Maybe I am the guy."
In early April, he flew to New York and met with Sonny Werblin, whose ownership group of the revived New York Jets included Don Lillis, Phil Iselin, and Leon Hess — all big money men. Sonny was a super theatrical talent agent and top executive at MCA, the entertainment colossus. He had negotiated a big television contract for the league with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Running the Jets, he had also boosted the AFL image by signing Joe Willie Namath to a $400,000-plus contract as the centerpiece quarterback of the rebuilding franchise.
Davis also met with Billy Sullivan, the owner of the Patriots and an AFL original. He knew that Barron Hilton, who owned the San Diego Chargers, was for him — Al had started his pro coaching career as an assistant with the original Chargers — though Hilton was getting ready to bail out of pro football and sell the team to Gene Klein. The key man was Kansas City's Lamar Hunt, who had created the AFL. It was whispered in league circles that he covertly wanted a merger with the NFL, and there were rumors that he was in contact with representatives of the older league. It was later revealed that Hunt had been meeting secretly with general manager Tex Schramm of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys to forge a merger. Davis felt that Lamar was persuaded by the thought that a bold and aggressive new man heading the AFL would spur a union of the two leagues.
Because Wayne Valley had recently undergone bypass surgery in Houston, performed by one of the area's renowned heart surgeons, and was convalescing there, the AFL owners decided to convene in that city to decide on a new commissioner. Davis flew from Oakland to Houston on April 7, 1966, and was picked up at the airport by Kenneth (Bud) Adams, the owner of the Oilers. Adams, the first man to join Hunt in the AFL venture, was gung ho about going after the NFL. "Kick 'em in the teeth," he encouraged Davis on the ride to the Shamrock Hotel, site of the owners' meeting.
Davis signed a contract that morning for five years at $60,000 a year, plus an investment bonus of $15,000 annually. As the new commissioner left the meeting room and headed to the hotel elevators, accompanied by Bud Adams and Buffalo's Ralph Wilson, they were met by Jack Gallagher, a contentious local football writer for the Houston Post. Bud derisively called the Houston journalist "Baldy." Gallagher had no hair on his head from a congenital condition. Gallagher retorted, "Fatso!" One word led to another as their animosity escalated. Bud swung a fist at Gallagher, bloodied his nose and knocked him down, then fell on top of him as they continued to pummel each other. Wilson was trying to pull Bud off Gallagher and tumbled on the heap, too. The first official act of Al Davis as commissioner of the American Football League was to reach down and pull Ralph Wilson and Bud Adams off Gallagher.
After he broke up the brawl, a national sports newspaper in St. Louis reported in its April 23, 1966, issue: "(Jack) Gallagher had his bloody nose X-rayed afterward, but it was not broken, so our Sporting News correspondent still has a nose for news."
In New York, where Davis set up new league offices at 555 Madison Avenue, he proceeded on his first order of business. "I realized," he recalled, "you had to know how to handle Howard Cosell, the feisty ABC sportscaster who was really sticking it to the NFL at that time, and how to get key writers on your side. Bill Wallace of the New York Times was an NFL guy, but he wrote a complimentary piece about me taking over as commissioner of the AFL."
Larry Merchant, a pungent columnist for the New York Post who went on to become a cable TV boxing oracle, usually alluded to Davis as a "gutter fighter from Brooklyn" but now praised him as "... one of the appointed winners of the new religion of pro football."
Around the country, too, media support for Davis' new role was strong. Jack Gallagher, the columnist disentangled from Bud Adams' clutches, wrote a day later in the Houston Post. Under the headline, "Signing Davis Master Stroke for American Football League" it read:
"Significantly, the new commissioner is held in great esteem in the National Football League, a distinction not accorded every AFL executive.
"'This guy will think faster than Pete Rozelle, he'll outtalk him, and he'll outscheme him,' predicted an AFL official. To the young league, which has been humiliated publicly on so many occasions by the NFL, the words are sweet indeed....
"Davis has a tremendous football mind. Ben Hogan once said he remembered every competitive hole he ever played. Talk to Davis about that third and eight situation, with Oakland trailing, 18–16, at the Houston 30-yard line, in 1963, and he'll remember the call (quarterback) Cotton Davidson made.
"In addition to his photographic mind, Davis is a tireless worker. He doesn't play golf or tennis or bridge. He likes to lift weights, and works out every day. He spends countless hours on the job, working until midnight during the season....
"The first time you meet Al he might strike you as a wise guy from Brooklyn. First looks can be deceiving. He has a leer and a knowing smile, but he certainly isn't a popoff and he's anything but a wise guy. He's an educated, intelligent, dedicated coach and executive....
"It's the thought here that Al Davis will bring peace between the warring leagues a lot closer."
In the Kansas City Star the following day, Bill Richardson wrote, "Davis is the symbol of the league, a leader for owners, players, coaches, officials, networks and fans. ... His knowledge, experience and penchant for work should make him an able commissioner."
Davis was 36 years old and wanted to surround himself in the new office with young, eager aides. To help shape a bold image, he brought in three media-savvy administrators: Mickey Herskowitz, an ambitious Houston sportswriter and author; Val Pinchbeck, the respected sports information director at Syracuse, Al's alma mater; and Irv Kaze, an experienced sports public relations executive in New York and Los Angeles.
Carl Lindemann, the director of sports for NBC, the TV network that carried the league's games, came up to the office, met the staff, and shook his head in admiration. "I can't believe," he said to Davis, "you were able to get such high-caliber, competent men to come here with you."
Davis felt he needed a football man on his staff and hired Mel Hein, with whom he had coached on the football staff at the University of Southern California. Hein was a legend in New York for his 15-year Hall of Fame career as a center and linebacker for the Giants, and was enshrined in the original class at Canton, still regarded as maybe the best ever at his two-way positions. Wellington Mara, the Giants' owner, was astounded when Hein joined the AFL because he considered the former great player part of the Giants' family. When Hein was asked why he made the move, he shrugged and said, "The Giants never did anything for me, except use my name."
"What really ticked off the NFL people," recalled Davis, "was that Mel was going around saying the AFL was the better league. I made him supervisor of officials.
"I also brought in Ron Wolf from Oakland to fulfill a primary mission: find and sign more than our share of the best available talent at the college level because we were still competing directly with the older league for players chosen by both in our respective drafts held the previous winter. Ron had been with me as a talent scout since my first days with the Raiders. I originally hired him sight unseen on the basis of an unsolicited phone call from him when he was a kid working for Ted Ebert on a sports newspaper in Chicago. I liked what I heard. I was impressed with his knowledge of college players all over the country."
Mike Garrett, the 1965 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Southern California, was chosen No. 18 by the Los Angeles Rams in the second round of the NFL draft the previous November. The well-stocked Kansas City Chiefs, who weren't very active at that time in accumulating more players, waited until the 20 round of the AFL draft before picking him. Bobby Beathard, a Kansas City talent scout (and later a respected general manager who built the Washington Redskins into a Super Bowl winner) admitted the Chiefs were laying off in the signing market at that time because Lamar Hunt didn't want to ruffle feathers while he was angling secretly to secure a merger of the two leagues.
Kansas City wasn't meeting Garrett's salary demands, but Davis was determined that the AFL sign a player who had led the nation in rushing and gained more than 3,000 yards for his collegiate career. So at a league meeting, the young commissioner baited Lamar by telling him, "There's a rumor going 'round that the Chiefs are bankrupt."
Well, that's all you had to tell the son of legendary oil magnate H.L. Hunt, who, when asked how long Lamar could go on losing $1 million a year on football, responded, "Oh, about 150 years."
Lamar upped the ante and signed Garrett, who played eight years as a pro and was instrumental in Kansas City winning Super Bowl IV. He was the same Mike Garrett who, as athletic director at the University of Southern California, headed the dominant college football program in the first decade of the 21 century until the Trojans ran afoul of the NCAA on recruiting violations.
The AFL owners were generally well-heeled to survive the AFL-NFL battle, though player salaries certainly escalated with two entities bidding against each other. The AFL was fortified by the five-year contract for TV rights negotiated with Bob Sarnoff and NBC in 1964 that gave the new league a $36 million economic cushion. Art Rooney Sr., the venerated owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a pro-football pioneer dating back to the 1930s, stood up at an NFL meeting and said, "Anybody that's getting $36 million for television, we better take seriously." The AFL was in business to stay. It had only eight teams against the NFL's 15 at that point in the summer of 1966, but there were plans to expand with the immediate addition of a franchise in Miami and eventually another one in Cincinnati.
Davis flew to Detroit to meet with Ralph Wilson, who was serving a term as president of the AFL, about the application of Joe Robbie, an obscure South Dakota lawyer, and comedian Danny Thomas to acquire the start-up Miami Dolphins (Robbie was granted the franchise). Davis was sitting in Wilson's office in Grosse Pointe — although he has owned the Buffalo Bills since their inception in 1960, Wilson has resided all these years in Michigan, where his chief business interests were located — when one of his insurance executives, Lou Curl, poked his head inside the door.
"The New York Giants," announced Curl emphatically, "have just signed Pete Gogolak!" Gogolak was the star kicker of Wilson's Buffalo Bills.
"What?!" shouted Wilson, obviously disturbed by the news.
"Don't let it upset you," Davis soothed the Bills' owner. "You just got a merger of the leagues." Lamar Hunt was on the phone with them from Dallas, and Davis said to him, "You do what you're doing" — he was dickering secretly with general manager Tex Schramm of the Cowboys for a merger — "and we'll do what we're going to do. And that'll get us a merger."
He quickly grasped the implication of the Giants' move. Their brazen theft of the Hungarian-born kicker from the Bills had opened up a new strategy for Davis in the war between the leagues. Until then there had been a gentlemen's agreement between the AFL and NFL that one wouldn't tamper with players from the other league. In retrospect, Davis believed that Wellington Mara, the Giants' longtime owner, was feeling the pressure of competition from Sonny Werblin and his rival New York Jets, who had signed colorful Joe Willie Namath to a record $427,000 pact (over five years). Mara wanted to do something spectacular in return. Besides, the Giants desperately needed a kicker, since their rookie booter in 1965, Bob Timberlake, missed 13 straight field goal attempts.
Gogolak was a revolutionary figure himself. He and his family had fled to the United States from Budapest when Russian troops moved into the Hungarian capital. An accomplished soccer player, he went to Cornell University and introduced a new method of kicking to American football, approaching the ball from the side and booting it with his instep, soccer style. It eventually was adopted by every kicker in the game: high school, college, and pro. The Bills drafted him in the 12th round, and he was a key to their consecutive AFL titles in 1964 and 1965. But Gogolak, making $10,000 a year as a rookie, bridled at their offer of a $2,000 raise and took a pay cut to play out his option, though Buffalo could match any other offer he got in the AFL. The Giants reportedly agreed to pay him $32,000 a year to jump leagues.
Now the handcuffs were off. Davis figured the AFL was free to go after the other league's players with impunity. Davis flew back to New York, and at the chic Plaza Hotel, where he was residing during the start of his AFL reign, the press assembled in the legendary Tea Room downstairs off the lobby, waiting for him. The cluster was so heavy that, to Davis, it looked like a war zone.
"What are you gonna do?" the reporters yelled at him. "We want to hear what you've got to say about the Gogolak signing."
"You'll hear plenty," Davis answered. "They fired the first shot. Just watch what we're going to do." What the Giants did was "totally unacceptable" to the new commissioner.
"The mystery to me," he recollected, "was why commissioner Pete Rozelle of the NFL okayed the contract. You'd think he would have anticipated the backlash. His own owners were angry as hell."
Davis' locale at the Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park gave him easy access to influential NFL owner Carroll Rosenbloom of the Baltimore Colts, who preferred to spend most of his time in New York. Rosenbloom's main living base was just down the block on 59 Street in a suite at the Hotel Navarro overlooking Central Park South. There, Carroll would plot parties with Ambassador Joe Kennedy, his Florida neighbor. A block west on 59 Street, Carroll's secret girlfriend and future wife, Georgia Hayes, was ensconced in her own apartment.
Excerpted from Just Win, Baby by Murray Olderman. Copyright © 2012 Murray Olderman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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