Monday, February 22, 2016

The Story that Never Ran

Departing here from the usual working over issues that are not covered in the mainstream media.  Although the following story involves bad decisions by an official city body -- and have we seen a bunch of that lately -- this is a piece of Memphis history, a bit of nostalgia and a twist of fate.

The Story that Never Ran

Just how close did Memphis come to getting a National Football League team in 1974?

So close that as a 22-year-old Commercial Appeal sportswriter covering pro football, I had a story in the can, which was to run the day after the NFL made its announcement,  recounting the history of the successful effort to bring big-league football to town. 

Of course, it was a story that never ran. 

In fighting the unending battle against clutter and keeping way too much stuff,  I recently came across the 10-page hard copy of my story in a trunk stored off the garage.    

On April 24, 1974, the NFL named Tampa Bay as the location of a new franchise, and the league said a second city would be named June 4.

The Commercial Appeal had thoroughly covered efforts of local businessmen, including promoter Mike Lynn, to convince the NFL expansion committee that Memphis was the place to be – next.

We ran a story saying the deal was about to go down, per unnamed NFL insiders, and E.W. ‘Ned’ Cook was to be the owner. 

Instead, the NFL picked Seattle on June 4, 1974. 

What happened?

Although there was much gnashing of teeth and finger-pointing at the time, the Memphis Park Commission cast the city’s lot with the fledgling and short-lived World Football League on May 6, 1974,  instead of waiting one more month for the NFL to act.

After the park commission had voted 3-1 to lease Memphis Memorial Stadium to a World Football League team headed by John Bassett of Toronto, the NFL could not award Memphis a franchise for fear of a certain anti-trust lawsuit.   Besides, the lease terms that the park commission approved effectively barred another team.  If the park commission had turned down the WFL, it would have been on the city – and the NFL would not be bowling over a new team in a competing league. 

Park Commission members, including chairman E.R. ‘Bert’ Ferguson, took a bird-in-the-hand view of things.  

Some bird.

Only ad executive John Malmo voted against the lease, urging fellow commission members to wait on the NFL to come around.   Since the World Football League was a new outfit, and since its owners and cities were already being shuffled around, it seemed likely that Memphis would have ample opportunity to get a WFL team later, should the NFL fail to come through. 

Bassett, who owned TV and newspaper outlets in Canada and who was married to Carling Beer (“Hey Mabel, Black Label”) heiress Susan Carling, had famously signed Miami Dolphins Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to give the new league credibility.  Bassett’s WFL franchise, originally the Toronto Northmen, turned to Memphis when Canadian politicians threatened to enact a law forbidding a foreign football league from entering Canada.  

In those ancient days of print journalism – you know, when every city had two major newspapers as God intended – the ongoing pro football story created an opportunity for competition between The Commercial Appeal and The Press-Scimitar.  The Commercial Appeal’s editorial position basically was, Run the WFL scoundrels out of town (which made things extra dicey for me as the beat reporter covering the team).  So, the Press-Scimitar decided to take the opposite tact and became the new team’s biggest cheerleader.  In fact, it was the Press that somehow ginned up calling the team “Grizzlies,” instead of the official name, “Southmen,” although the closest grizzly bear to Memphis is 1,500 miles.

The World Football League folded in the middle of its second season, and a spate of lawsuits with various theories from various persons got nowhere in pursuit of the NFL.  We don’t know for a dead-solid fact if the NFL would have chosen Memphis over Seattle as its next expansion city, but there is little doubt that the park commission sealed the city’s fate when it voted to lease Memphis Memorial Stadium to the WFL team, instead of waiting 29 more days. 

We have some pro “Grizzlies” now, and Memphis is happy about that.  But, amid some dried and faded newspapers shoved in a box in my garage, oh, what could have been and almost was.

No comments:

Post a Comment