It was National Football League Commissioner Bert Bell who first let the sports world know that another league was forming on the American football landscape.
At the time, Bell told a Senate sub-committee that the established NFL welcomed the new league, which later became known as the American Football League.
That proved to be wishful thinking on Bell’s part, because it didn’t take long for the NFL to answer back against the new league and kickoff a football war that was probably inevitable.
The date was August 29, 1959 and the cannon shot came in Houston, Texas. That’s where the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers were playing a pre-season game. Speaking with reporters, Bears owner and the most powerful man in the NFL at the time George Halas and Steelers owners Art Rooney announced that the league would expand to Dallas and Houston in 1961.
Halas was the head of the NFL’s expansion committee, and just a few months before he’d told Lamar Hunt that the NFL was not going to expand at any time soon. NFL types had told Bud Adams the same thing when the Houston oilman was interested in having an NFL team.
(That’s Halas on the left, Rooney on the right, with Dick Gallagher, of the Hall of Fame between them.)
Then, less than a month after the official announcement of the AFL and its first six teams, the NFL was announcing an expansion.
Hunt was less than pleased, telling the Dallas Morning News that the move was “sabotage.”
“I think it’s unfortunate for the NFL that they have made this move,” Hunt told the newspaper. “Everybody’s been knocking on their door for years and they’ve turned everybody down. It’s obvious what they’re trying to do and it conceivably can get them into trouble. I think some congressmen and senators from states where we will have teams are not going to stand for it.”
Many years later, Lamar Hunt smiled when asked about that first month, when the older league tried to run him off, then tried to bribe him into joining the NFL and eventually put a team in Dallas to go head-to-head with his AFL club.
“We really weren’t trying to bother anybody,” Hunt said several years ago. “We were sort of naïve. We thought Bert Bell’s comments were for the league. Turned out his words were for the politicians.”
Halas said that day 50 years ago that the decision to expand came after the NFL appeared well balanced in strength.
“(Bert) Bell has always indicated we would be ready for expansion as soon as we were equalized. In exhibition games of the past two weeks, we’ve had four or five games decided in the last three minutes or less. According to Bert Bell’s formula, the time for expansion has arrived.”
Papa Bear said the new franchise would be created by transferring experienced players from other NFL teams. “The new clubs also would be given extra choices in the annual draft of college players,” said Halas. “I don’t see why any opposition to the recommendations should develop. After all, it is just sound thinking.”
He also added: “There are so many Southwest players in pro ball. The Southwest is the hot bed of football right now … (Houston and Dallas) were first choices from the very beginning.”
Halas said two groups in Dallas and one in Houston will apply for franchises at the next league meeting and that each group has “virtually unlimited financial resources.”
Halas and Rooney made no direct reference to the AFL.
Hunt was not buying what they were selling.
“The American Football League has tried from its inception to operate its relationship with the National Football League on the highest plane and with an amicable attitude on all matters,” Hunt told the Associated Press at the time. “It is now apparent that Mr. Halas and the National Football League are not interested in this type of relationship but are interested in continuing the stalling and sabotaging efforts which have kept pro football out of Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis, Louisville, Buffalo, Dallas, Houston and Miami despite repeated efforts from these cities to expand the National Football League.”
Adams was not surprised the NFL came after Hunt and himself, and he had no thought of abandoning his AFL franchise.
“It’s a sure thing that this never would have been announced if it hadn’t been for the AFL,” Adams told United Press International. “We were surprised. I’m just surprised the announcement didn’t come earlier.
“We’re still going ahead,” Adams added. “It seems funny that it would take them until 1961 to act. Their league has been in existence for 50 years and they’ve been meeting a couple of times a year in that period. So it takes them two years to set up two teams they’re considering taking in. We’re talking about a whole new league and teams in 1960.”
A day later, Hunt attempted to reach Bell by phone to talk about Halas’ announcement. “I don’t think Mr. Bell aggress with Mr. Halas statements,” Hunt said.
The Morning News reported that another Dallas man, Curtis Sanford, made an effort to get a club in the NFL within the previous year. Sanford told the paper: “I told Mr. Bell that I’d put one million dollars in the bank and guarantee 25,000 season tickets. Bell said he wasn’t interested and expansion wasn’t in the foreseeable future.”
Charles Burton, sports columnist for the Morning News may have summarized the whole affair best with his column two days after the announcement:
“The wily Halas naturally claimed that formation of the new Hunt circuit had nothing at all to do with his seemingly sudden decision that the NFL should expand in 1961. And it was his decision all right, for Halas’ is the most powerful voice in the NFL, with only George Preston Marshall of the Washington Redskins among the other club owners running him even a reasonable close, if vociferous, second.
Halas in his first play from verbal scrimmage against the a-borning AFL has struck a damaging, though not necessarily staggering blow to the new circuit. It could cause confusion and hesitancy on the part of potential new clubs for the league and Hunt hopes to have two more join the original six of Dallas, Houston, Denver, MSP, Los Angeles and New York at a Sept. 12-13 meeting. It will cause college stars to be even more reluctant about signing contracts with clubs in the new league when they also have a chance to play in the established NFL and Canadian circuits.
These things are realized by Hunt, but he, a man with a mission, had gotten over the initial shock of the Halas announcement by late Saturday night sufficiently that he could laugh at the unexpected “harassment.”
Ultimately, Dallas did get an NFL team, but not in 1961. It actually came the next year in 1960; that’s when the Cowboys began play. Houston never saw an NFL team because there was no stadium availability at that time. The team that eventually came in for the 1961 NFL season was the Minnesota Vikings, one of the original AFL teams.
The NFL harassment went on for some time for Hunt, Adams and the rest of the AFL.