The fledgling American Football League needed attention – and a strong national television contract – so naturally it turned to New York for one of its inaugural franchises.
Enter Harry Wismer, a colorful, volatile character with a long history as a sports announcer. In 1953, he had done play-by-play for the first prime-time, national NFL television package, Saturday nights on the DuMont Network.
Among many other things, he was a part-owner of the Redskins in the 1950s, during which time he feuded with owner George Preston Marshall over Marshall’s controversial foot-dragging in signing African-American players. (It took him until 1962 to do so.)
Wismer was not as deep-pocketed as many of his fellow new AFL owners, and he did have financial partners, especially from the oil business, in which Wismer also served as an executive.
But long term, the hope was that being in New York would pay off for him and for the league, as it had for the Maras and the NFL Giants decades earlier.
Wismer was granted control of the franchise at the AFL’s organizational meeting in Chicago in August of 1959 and quickly set out to sell his new project. He called the team the Titans. Why Titans?
“Titans are bigger and stronger than giants,” he explained.
At that point there were only six AFL franchises, in New York, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul. But Wismer, head of the league’s television committee, promised two more teams would be added, and that the league would seek a TV contract worth $2.5 million.
Subscribe to Sports Now newsletter
(Minneapolis eventually bailed in favor of an NFL expansion team, and the AFL added Boston, Buffalo and Oakland.)
There initially was confusion over where the Titans would play. The New York Times speculated about ancient baseball stadiums in the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, or a planned new baseball stadium in Flushing, Queens.
Wismer wooed New York sportswriters with a series of news conferences at his apartment on Park Avenue, hiring recently fired Penn coach Steve Sebo as general manager and Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh as coach.
Newsday’s Stan Isaacs wrote of Baugh, a Texan, “He looked as if he had just parked his horse on Park Avenue.”
Baugh was 45, but many journalists and fans suggested he might be the best choice to play quarterback, given the challenges the AFL faced in signing talented players.
Receiver Don Maynard, who had played for the Giants in 1958 and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL in 1959, was an early signing.
Newsday’s Ed Comerford wrote Maynard “didn’t impress in two seasons with the Giants and played Canadian football last year. His scouting report says: fast, but butterfingered.”
Maynard was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
The lordly Giants did not take any of this lying down. In January 1960, owners Jack and Wellington Mara sent AFL commissioner Joe Foss a letter offering the possibility of cooperation between the leagues.
Just two little requests: 1. Void the contract fullback Charlie Flowers had signed with the Los Angeles Chargers after the Giants thought they had secured his services. 2. Move the Titans to a different city.
“It is our opinion that every city is a one-team city,” the Giants wrote in their letter.
“I violently disagree with the Giants’ view about a one-team city,” Wismer responded, then added, “I also resent the lack of confidence the Giants have in the people of New York.”
Things started out a bit rocky for Baugh’s boys, who found less-than-ideal conditions at training camp in Durham, New Hampshire, including food so awful it turned into a story in the Times.
As it turned out, the Titans were not terrible on the field. They finished 7-7 and led the AFL with 382 points. But they had plenty of hiccups.
That included a play in their second game, a 28-24 loss to the Patriots at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 17. Chuck Shonta returned a fumbled punt by the Jets 25 yards for the winning score on the last play of the game.
Wismer later called it “stupid football.”
Baugh responded, “I don’t give a goddamn what Mr. Wismer says.”
Wismer said he had lost $250,000 in the first season. By 1962, the league had to take over the team’s financial affairs. In 1963, they became the Jets upon being sold to a group headed by Sonny Werblin.
Wismer died at 54 in 1967. He fell down the stairs of a Manhattan restaurant and fractured his skull.