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At the end of the 1950s, there were few American institutions as well established as the National Football League. Under Commissioner Bert Bell, the league had a stable hand at the rudder. Bell had guided it through a difficult stretch that included a challenge from the All-American Football Conference, as well as a period of unprecedented growth that had made a motley collection of owners who were teetering on the brink of financial ruin into a unified group of wealthy individuals. By 1959, they were able to stand side by side with Major League Baseball as a viable professional entity.
And why not? They had more money than most third-world countries. They had owners who were willing to pour cash into their product. They had larger-than-life coaches like Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown, square-jawed Midwestern men of honor who put team above everything in the quest for a title. And it had the stars needed to rival baseball: Johnny Unitas, Sam Huff, Paul Hornung, and Jim Brown; all joined the league within a four-year span in the late 1950s and went on to become authentic American pop culture archetypes, larger-than-life characters who loomed over the sports landscape.
And most importantly, the owners had television. While baseball was distrustful of television, the NFL embraced it. In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins had all their games televised, while other teams were able to strike separate deals that would ensure at least some of their games were on television. The following year, the DuMont Network paid the league $75,000 to televise the 1951 NFL Championship Game nationally. The ratings were enough to draw attention from other networks, and NBC upped the ante in 1955, becoming the official televised home of the NFL Championship Game—and paying $100,000 to the league for the privilege. But the league entered a new realm on December 28, 1958, when a nationwide audience watched the NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. In a game that went into sudden-death overtime, Johnny Unitas, Alan Ameche, Roy Berry, Sam Huff, and Frank Gifford became household names. Known since as the Greatest Game Ever Played, the images from that game—Unitas masterfully leading his team down the field, the physical charisma of Huff, the heroics of Ameche—built a passion for the game that would grow throughout the rest of the century. “Three days later, Castro’s forces would overthrow Cuba. But on December 28, 1958, America witnessed the beginning of its own revolution—and this one would be televised,” said Michael MacCambridge in America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation. “Like a rebel army seizing the seat of power, pro football had announced its insurgency with an epic football game at the most hallowed ground in baseball, the House That Ruth Built.”
Into this climate came a rich young Texan by the name of Lamar Hunt. Hunt had watched the 1958 title game, and like the rest of the American sporting populace, he was transfixed. He had petitioned the NFL for a team, but had been turned down. Despite their level of success, the thinking among NFL executives was that the league must be careful not to “oversaturate” the market by expanding too quickly.
In response, Hunt decided to start his own league—the American Football League, or AFL. Hunt’s new league boasted all kinds of cash. He was the heir to a fortune built on Texas oil—in 1948, Fortune magazine said his father, H. L. Hunt, was the richest man in world—and would never have to work a day in his life if he didn’t want to. In New York, he got the support of Barron Hilton of the Hilton hotel chain. Houston’s Bud Adams, the wealthy scion of another Texas oil family, was also part of the group. These were men with deep, deep pockets. Many others who were soon involved weren’t as wealthy as those men, but they at least owned their own stadium, like Denver’s Bob Howsam. Hunt quickly found like-minded millionaires who were interested in replicating the success of the NFL, inking deals in New York and Los Angeles. By the end of the summer of 1959, they had six teams, two shy of their goal to start a new league.
That’s when Boston entered the picture.
Pro football and New England never seemed to fit. It started in the early stages of the twentieth century, when the Boston Redskins began playing in 1932 at Braves Field. Owner George Marshall was the man at the controls of the Redskins—who were originally named the Braves, because they shared Braves Field with their baseball brethren. They moved their base of operations to Fenway in 1933, and were a perfectly pedestrian 15–15–4 over their first three seasons. As a result, the city’s sports fans paid relatively little attention. For Marshall, the final straw came in 1936, when Boston won its last three regular season games to vault into the NFL Championship Game—and only 4,813 showed up for the regular-season finale. Despite the fact that Fenway was to host the NFL Championship, an enraged Marshall moved the game to the Polo Grounds in New York, where the Redskins were handed a 21–6 loss by the Green Bay Packers. Marshall soon gave up on Boston, as the Redskins moved to Washington a year later.
In 1944, pro football gave Boston another shot with the Boston Yanks. Ted Collins—known as the manager for singer Kate Smith—tried to get a team in New York, but had to settle for Boston. The Yanks merged with Brooklyn in 1945 and joined the All-America Football Conference a year later. But no series of moves could help the troubled franchise, which would go 9–24 over three years before moving to New York.
As the world of professional football continued to grow throughout the 1950s, Boston sports fans were left on the sidelines, content to watch a budding Celtics dynasty and the final act of Red Sox legend Ted Williams. Instead, they adopted the Giants as their football team. New York games were broadcast throughout New England, and generations of football fans were raised on stories of Huff, Gifford, and Charlie Connerly.
But that wasn’t going to stop Billy Sullivan. The Boston businessman and former Notre Dame public relations man spent the better part of the 1950s trying to obtain an NFL franchise for the city. He had a grand vision of a pro football team in Boston, complete stadium having a retractable roof and plenty of luxury boxes. After all, Boston was the biggest city in the country lacking a football team. Why shouldn’t Bostonians be able to watch football? Throughout the decade, he had a team squarely in his sights: the lowly Chicago Cardinals. The Cardinals had lost more than a hundred games and roughly $1 million in the 1950s, thanks in large part to the Bears, who ruled the hearts and minds of the Chicago football fans. Sullivan, as well as a small group of Boston-area businessmen, believed they could attract the Cardinals to New England.
But while Sullivan was long on charm and guile, he was short on cash—at least, the kind of cash needed to land an NFL team. “Billy Sullivan was a great character,” said sportswriter Leigh Montville, who covered the team for The Boston Globe for almost twenty years as a beat writer and columnist. “I’ve always felt he was like Frank Skeffington in The Last Hurrah. You know, the ultimate Boston Irish bullshitter.”
Sullivan loved football, but was in way over his head when it came to raising the kind of dough needed to support a professional football team. And there were several other people—many of whom had deeper...