- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
If you think you know professional football and the rise of the National Football League, you probably don’t know squat until you’ve read Evan Weiner’s “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century” (Smashwords eBook, $2.99, ISBN 9781301093977, approx. 61,847 words).
Weiner’s book is especially timely, of course, with the upcoming 47th Super Bowl in New Orleans, LA at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013.
Football as exemplified by National Football League is the premier sport in the United States. But it always wasn’t that way. Weiner takes us back to the days when the NFL was a mom and pop store operation with the players and others who witnessed the league’s growth first hand. The game started in the coal mines in western Pennsylvania and is a multi-billion dollar business today.
Weiner traces the history of football back to that day in 1869 when Princeton and Rutgers played the first game of what was really a form of rugby. It wasn’t until eight years later that a game recognizable as today’s football was codified.
The NFL started modestly in 1920, and teams came and went. Interestingly enough, blacks played and coached in the fledgling NFL until 1932, when the racism of the period — and especially of team owners — drove them out of the league. Much of the book deals with the impact of racism on pro football, including the blatant racism in New Orleans that led to the Crescent City losing the 1965 AFL All-Star Game to Houston. Weiner tells how white players, especially Jack Kemp of Buffalo, stood shoulder to shoulder with black players who were disrespected in New Orleans.
Kemp was with black players Cookie Gilchrist and Ernie Warlick to play in the AFL All-Star Game to be held in New Orleans. When they tried to catch a cab to the hotel, the cabbie told Kemp only he could ride and Gilchrist and Warlick would have to take a “colored cab”. The players — white and black together — succeeded in moving the game to Houston in one of the first civil rights stands in pro football history.
It took wheeling and dealing involving legislators from Louisiana before New Orleans finally acquired an NFL team on Nov. 1, 1966 — All Saints Day — hence the team’s name, the Saints.
Credit radio and later television with the growth of professional football. Weiner shows how it’s a marriage made in Gridiron Heaven, with football arguably the ideal sport for TV.
The hectic 1930s and 1940s, when teams lacked stability, gave way in the 1950s with the arrival of television. Television transformed North American sports. In 1950, Baseball, Boxing and Horse Racing were among the most popular sporting events in the country. Within 10 years, football, the NFL, would begin its ascent and by 1965 become the country’s most popular sport.
In the old days, you could find Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas at the Chicago Bears offices in the fall and part of winter, the rest of the year he would be in his Chicago sporting goods store. Andy Robustelli is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his work with the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants. Robustelli was a star with Los Angeles between 1951 and 1955 but requested a trade to New York because he could not be away from his thriving Stamford, Connecticut businesses and the Rams accommodated him. As Hall of Famer Artie Donovan once told me, his NFL of the 1950s bares absolutely no resemblance to today’s NFL.
The National Football League was in the right place at the right time. There is no better TV game than football. A viewer can see everything as it develops on the field, the line of scrimmage, the quarterback handing off or passing the ball and the receiver catching it. It’s an easy game to watch and it didn’t hurt that the New York Giants won a World’s Championship in 1956 and played in the “Greatest Game of All Time” in 1958, losing in the NFL Championship game to Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts. That game started the lasting love affair between Americans and football. The Giants became the darlings of Madison Avenue, led by the handsome Frank Gifford and football gained acceptance. By 1960, the CBS show “20th Century” hosted by Walter Cronkite caught the football bug. The CBS weekly documentary ran a program entitled, “The Violent World of Sam Huff.” Huff, the Giants middle linebacker was profiled and miked during a pre-season game to give the viewers an inside look during an NFL game.
The move from the mom and pop operations, the old football families, the Maras in New York, the Rooneys in Pittsburgh, Halas in Chicago to today’s corporate status did not come overnight. The NFL had to fend off a rival league between 1946-49, taking in three All American Football Conference franchises in 1950, and continued to be plagues by franchise failures until 1952. The NFL enjoyed some franchise success between 1953 and 1956 and started to make plans to expand with the goal of adding teams by 1961. The Giants-Colts 1958 Championship Game changed football. Dallas businessman Lamar Hunt, who struck in his attempts to move the Chicago Cardinals to his home city talked to Houston businessman Bud Adams in 1959 about starting a rival league after Adams failed to purchase the Cardinals and move them to Houston. The new American Football League was born and all of a sudden, football took off.
At the end of the book Weiner provides profiles of important people who made the game what it is today, including Al Davis, Pete Rozelle, Arch Ward, Red Grange, Lamar Hunt, Art Modell, Joe Namath, Howard Coselll, and many, many more. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of pro football, you might be surprised at how entertaining and enlightening Weiner’s book is.
About the author:
Evan Weiner is an award winning journalist who is among a very small number of people who cover the politics and business of sports and how that relationship affects not only sports fans but the non-sports fan as well. Weiner began his journalism career while in high school at the age of 15 in 1971. He won two Associated Press Awards for radio news coverage in 1978 and 1979. He was presented with the United States Sports Academy’s first ever Distinguished Service Award for Journalism in 2003 in Mobile, Alabama. Advisor to the SUNY Cortland Sports Business Management Program. The United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award.
He is the author of two previous books, “The Business and Politics of Sports — 2005” and “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition — 2010.”
He has been quoted in 15 other books and his words were read into the United States House of Representatives Congressional record: July 14, 2004 – Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, One Hundred Eighth Congress, second session.
He was been a columnist with the New York Sun and provided Westwood One Radio with daily commentaries between 1999 and 2006 called “The Business of Sports.” He has also appeared on numerous television and radio shows both in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Weiner speaks on the business of politics of sports in colleges and universities as well as on cruise ships around the world.
In 2013, Evan Weiner will be part of a video documentary “Touchdown Israel” discussing American football’s growth in that country.
Weiner’s website: http://www.bickley.com/evan_weiner.html