NFL – The Old Line

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With the end of the 1949 season, the NFL had made it through their first 30 years. It had survived the Great Depression and a second World War. But not without casualties. Over that 30 year span, forty-eight separate teams took the field. By the end of 1949, only ten teams (21%) survived and one of them (the New York Bulldogs) would disappear within three years. Economic issues aside, they overcame significant problems in regular season scheduling, player acquisition and determining an annual league champion (all of which I will discuss in detail in future articles).

What the NFL needed now was internal stability and another post-war economic boon similar to the one in which they launched the league back in 1920. The latter was a virtual lock to occur as the early signs already pointed to just that. The entire country was welcoming their “boys” back home from the service and converting the vast industrial might from war production back to civilian commodities. It was just a matter of time until the American citizen would have more expendable income then they ever thought possible.

Internal stability was another thing. From everything I have researched and read, the closest comparison to the ownership group in place in the 1940’s would be the Scottish clan system of the 13th century (think “Braveheart“). Some had more wealth than the others, some had more power than the others but virtually every single one of them placed the good of their own franchise above the good of the league.

Trying to keep the whole thing from falling apart at the seams was the Commissioner. However, he was elected to the position by the owners and could be just as easily tossed out by these very same owners so he had to navigate a very prudent political course to keep the ship upright. He had to know who the Alpha Dogs were and how much he could push their buttons. He also had to keep one eye on the horizon looking for any early warning indicators of potential problems that could affect the league. Bert Bell, elected to the job in 1946, did just that.

Earlier, Dan Topping (owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers / Tigers) requested permission to move his team from Ebbets Field into the larger Yankee Stadium. The move was blocked by Giants owner Tim Mara by evoking his “Territorial Rights”. Then, in December 1945, just before Bell was elected as NFL Commissioner, Topping announced he was accepting an invitation to join a new league – the All American Football Conference (AAFC).

The NFL’s response was both swift and predictable. They revoked Topping’s franchise and awarded all of the players to the Boston Yanks franchise. Thus, when Bert Bell took office, he already had a blip on the horizon – the AAFC.

The AAFC was not the first to challenge the NFL but it would turn out to be the most successful up to this point in time. It had some advantages over the other failed leagues (and in some cases, the NFL itself) such as;

  • The founder, Arch Ward, was a key figure at a major newspaper (the Chicago Tribune) and, as such, the league enjoyed more than its share of publicity.
  • The AAFC owners, in general, were wealthier than their NFL counterparts. All of them held substantial financial assets whereas the NFL owners’ primary asset was (generally) their NFL team.
  • The end of World War II produced a surplus of talent as many pro and college players returned to civilian life. In addition, many college players were now eligible to be signed as their original classes had graduated. (The AAFC took more than its share of these players. The 1946 AAFC rosters included 40 of the 66 College All-Stars, two Heisman Trophy winners and more than 100 players with NFL experience.)
  • Air travel was now a viable option. The NFL only played in the Midwest and the Northeast. The AAFC took advantage of this and placed teams in open spots such as Florida and California.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Rams owner Dan Reeves was losing money despite winning the 1945 NFL Championship. In addition, he was about to face some stiff local competition as AAFC owner Arthur McBride was using his deep pockets to aggressively market the AAFC Cleveland Browns and had hired an Ohio icon, Paul Brown, as the Head Coach. Accordingly, Reeves requested NFL permission to relocate the Rams to Los Angeles.

The NFL rejected Reeves’ request citing travel costs and then refused to consider his second choice, Dallas. Reeves then threatened to move his team to the AAFC. Having already lost Topping and his Brooklyn franchise, the NFL reconsidered and approved the move to Los Angeles. Without taking a single snap in a game, the AAFC had already affected two of the ten NFL franchises. That blip on the horizon was now noticeably larger and it had Bert Bell’s attention.

Publically, the NFL owners showed distain towards the new league. Ex-commissioner, Elmer Layden, one year prior to the AAFC’s first game was quoted to say, they [AAFC]” should first get a ball, then make a schedule and then play a game.” When approached by the press about the AAFC, Bert Bell would simply say, “No comment“. But privately, Bell knew what was about to come.

At the end of the 1946 season, both leagues did well at the gate but player salaries shot up due to bidding wars and the only two teams to make a profit were the two league champions, the Chicago Bears and the Cleveland Browns. By 1948, the war was getting very expensive due to the continued rise in salaries and dropping attendance in both leagues. So much so that the NFL finally acknowledged the AAFC. Talks of a merger began but broke down as the AAFC wanted the NFL to admit four teams but the NFL would only sign up for two (the Browns and the 49ers).

In 1949, red ink continued to flow in both leagues. The NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles were sold by Alexis Thompson, the Green Bay Packers were forced to issue new stock and the AAFC’s Los Angeles Dons were subsidizing both the Baltimore Colts and the Chicago Hornets. Clearly, both sides were losing. Then on December 9, 1949, one week prior to the final AAFC Championship game, a deal was struck and professional football peace was at hand.

As part of the AAFC/NFL merger, the NFL agreed to admit three AAFC teams into the NFL, the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts. The choices of Cleveland and San Francisco were obvious as these two teams were clearly the best teams in the AAFC plus the 49ers offered the NFL a second team on the west coast and a geographic rival to the relocated Los Angeles Rams. The selection of the Baltimore Colts, on the other hand, was a controversial one.

There were some who preferred the Buffalo Bills over the Colts as the Bills had a history of better attendance and had a better team than the Colts. However, there were some concerns about Buffalo’s market size (only Green Bay was smaller) and climate. George Preston Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins, objected to the Colts due to their close geographical proximity to his Redskins. Ultimately, Marshall (“inspired” by receiving a $150,000 encroachment fee) decided that the Colts would provide a natural rival for the Redskins and agreed to waive his territorial rights.

The Buffalo fans would end up petitioning the NFL to admit the Bills. The NFL, realizing the problems associated with having an uneven, 13 team league was open to this idea and held a vote of the NFL owners. A majority of the owners (including the Browns, 49ers and Colts) approved the addition however, league rules at that time required a unanimous vote to add a new team and the vote failed (the only vote against the Bills that I could determine was cast by Dan Reeves of the Los Angeles Rams).

The inclusion of the three AAFC franchises put the NFL now with 13 teams divided into two conferences, the “American” conference consisting of the Browns, Giants, Eagles, Steelers, Cardinals and Redskins and the “National” conference with the Rams, Bears, Yanks, Lions, Packers, 49ers and Colts.

The selections of the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers to join the NFL proved to be correct as the Browns went on to a 90-30-2 record in their first ten years and played for the NFL Championship seven times winning three of them. The 49ers garnered a 63-54-4 record over that same period of time but failed to see the post season.

The choice of the Baltimore Colts . . . not so much. The 1950 Colts became the only team in NFL history to give up more than 50 points in four separate games in a single season. Their scoring defense averaged 38.5 points per game and were one of only two teams to surrender 70 or more points in a regular season game (the 1966 Giants gave up 72 against the Redskins). They finished the season at 1-11-0 and owner Abe Watner sold the team and player contracts back to NFL for $50,000 at the end of the season.

Meanwhile, . . . the erstwhile Boston Yanks who had moved to New York and morphed into the New York Yanks weren’t faring much better. In their three years in New York (1949 to 1951) they posted a combined 9-24-3 record. Owner Ted Collins had enough and, prior to the 1952 season sold the team back to the NFL. (There are some conflicting reports that the NFL pulled the plug on the franchise.) Within days, the NFL awarded a new franchise to an ownership group in Dallas, Texas after they purchased the assets of the Yanks.

This new team, the Dallas Texans, began play in 1952. The team was so bad and attendance so low that the ownership group sold the team back to the NFL halfway through the season. The league moved the operation of the team to Hershey, Pennsylvania and turned the Texans into a traveling team. They finished the season with a 1-11-0 record and became the last NFL team to fold.

Enter – Carroll Rosenbloom. Rosenbloom, along with a group of Baltimore businessmen citing advanced ticket sales, convinced the NFL that a franchise in Baltimore could, in fact, succeed. As a result, they were granted a franchise and awarded the holdings of the now defunct Dallas Texans. Rosenbloom elected to retain only the Texans’ colors of blue and white and insisted that all other ties to the failed franchise be severed. The new Baltimore Colts started play in 1953 and finished with a 3-9 record. They would go on to finish the decade with a modest 41-42-1 record but would become a force in the NFL in the 1960’s.

So, if you have been keeping track, the NFL began the 1950’s with thirteen teams, lost two and added one resulting in a twelve team league that went unchanged for the rest of the decade. These twelve teams would become known as the “Old-Line” teams that pre-dated the 1960 launch of the AFL and subsequent merger with the NFL in 1970.

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I am a transplanted Connecticut Yankee. My family moved to Northern Ohio in the very early 1950's and plopped me right smack dab in the middle of the Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley era Cleveland Browns and I have been a fan ever since. I'm also an avid history buff so the combination of the NFL and history seems to be a perfect match for me. I hope that I will be successful in sharing some of my research on the history of the NFL and hope you learn something new while reading my articles.
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