The New York Jets are one of those teams that every year just never seem to be in the conversation of the upper-tier clubs. For one, they are in the same division as the All-World New England Patriots and the ageless ones. And their roster rarely has any superstars or special players.
Not so in the 1960s when Broadway Joe Namath was the QB. Everyone wanted to have the Jets play at their stadium because Namath was such a huge draw. At the time, Namath had signed the richest contract in pro football history worth $427,000. This occurred when the superstars of the NFL might make $30,000 a year.
When the American Football League (AFL) merged into the National Football League (NFL) and then were split into two conferences, the AFC had all 10 former AFL teams while the NFC had all 16 NFL franchises. When it was decided that three teams had to switch over in order to balance out the two conferences, the NFL Baltimore Colts leaped at the chance to be in the same division as the Jets to play the charismatic Namath twice a season.
Birth of League
When the AFL began in 1960, the NFL was a 12-team league and happy with the status quo. Expansion was out-of-the-question and truth be known, the owners liked one another and were not happy with the prospect of not having any new-fangled blood with radical ideas floating down their pigskin river.
But suddenly, here was another pro football league – played at the same time with wealthy owners and in cities the NFL had talked about but never really seriously considered placing any teams into. Like Dallas. The Cleveland Rams wanted to move to Los Angeles in 1946 but were considering going to Dallas instead only because it was closer to the other teams in the league and would not be such a travel expense burden. The AFL’s first franchise called Dallas home.
Oakland and Denver were considered markets that were way too small to consider for the NFL. Houston was growing and on the NFL’s list of one-day possible locations. So were Miami, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Seattle and Milwaukee.
It had been some time since a club called Boston home, although Bean Town had plenty of teams call it their domicile throughout the years - just none of them stayed for very long. The AFL liked the size of the city and the Boston Patriots were born.
The AFL also chose Minneapolis, Denver, Houston and Buffalo. Los Angeles and New York were targeted because of their utter size and marketability, and the idea that those cities could and would support two pro football clubs since the NFL already had the Rams in Los Angeles and the New York Giants. At different points in New York City’s professional football annals, there have been as many as three teams competing in the same season in different leagues with franchises called the New York Bulldogs, Brooklyn Tigers, New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yanks, Giants, Staten Island Stapletons, and New York Brickley Giants. The city had seen them come and go.
The AFL felt it was crucial to place a franchise in New York City, and ultimately have it become one of the league’s most successful teams. The media coverage alone was what the league - as a whole - needed.
Calling New York City Home – Sort Of
“The Titans of New York” were placed in one of the world’s most important cities. They were not the New York Titans, but the Titans of New York. However, they had one major flaw – they were horribly under-financed. When that happens and you have a great team on the field, the part of the business where you are being close to broke soon becomes a non-issue. But when your roster is horrible then obviously things just get worse.
And they did.
The Titans wore blue and gold uniforms. Their helmets appeared more like a college helmet with a solid blue body with only a single gold stripe down the middle and nothing else. All of New York’s professional teams had some sort of “NY” design configuration, but not the Titans.
Because the crosstown Giants played their home games at the nicest venue in town at Yankee Stadium, the only arena large enough for the sport and the hope that huge crowds would arrive for each home contest was the ancient Polo Grounds - built in 1890. Its nickname was “The Bathtub.” The New York Cosmopolitans baseball team and the Football Giants had called it home for decades, but for now, it was venerable, had horrible parking and a lack of modern conveniences.
The Titans hired as their head coach the legendary Sammy Baugh who was paid in advance $20,000 for his services. The team owner was Harry Wismer, who had been a minority owner of the Washington Redskins but got involved in a feud with principal owner George Preston Marshall and jumped at the chance to possess a team of his own.
Wismer was part of a pioneering effort in professional sports. In those days each individual sports franchise negotiated their own TV contracts which financially benefited just the single club. Wismer navigated with ABC for the entire league, with the financial aspects that would be paid to each league team equally. This had never been done before in pro sports. Obviously, this helped the smaller-market franchises such as Buffalo and Denver which made the league as a whole more solvent. When the NFL merged all of the AFL franchises into their shield later in 1970, they used Wismer’s model and since then every club shares the TV money equally.
Building a team from the ground up
Baugh invited over 100 players to training camp in order to select a 35-man roster. Many players who were expected to remain on the roster were later waived as NFL clubs cut their teams and those experienced players were scooped up by multiple AFL squads. One of those players who remained on the Titans roster was a skinny kid from Oklahoma named Don Maynard. He was a former draft pick of the Giants and then played his second season with Hamilton of the Canadian Football League. Maynard had average speed, but was shifty and a knack for not being hit. He credited this feat with the fact that he was not a big man and was trying to avoid getting hit, so he developed moves that prevented this. Maynard also ran good routes and caught just about everything thrown his way.
In the Titans first-ever preseason game, the Los Angeles Chargers ran back the opening kickoff 105-yards. In the Titans first league game, a monsoon descended upon New York City as remnants of Hurricane Diana. The Polo Grounds had terrible field drainage so the field was a quagmire throughout the contest. Only 5,727 paid patrons braved the weather to see the newest New York edition of professional football.
Wismer had some skills in business, but was not suited for professional sports. When asked for publicity photos for local newspapers, he sent pictures of himself. He would often refuse to turn on the lights at the Polo Grounds as the day progressed into the evening as to avoid the light bill.
The first player to die playing pro football happened in the fifth game against the Houston Oilers. Toward the end of the fourth quarter, Titans’ offensive guard Howard Glenn had complained about not feeling well. In the locker room at the game’s conclusion, he slumped over and was rushed to the hospital where he was declared dead 40 minutes later. The cause of death was listed as a broken neck.
Many other players throughout the 1960 season were injured but were not replaced on the roster in order to avoid paying the extra players. Several players played both ways to make up for the missing bodies. Wismer was having financial issues and was trying to keep the outgoing bills to a minimum. The AFL had started their season three weeks ahead of the NFL in order to get the most of media coverage. The Titans had played all three games at home to get a jump on the Giants and hopefully raid some of their fans. The second game had 19,200 in attendance while the third saw 20,982 patrons.
Because the Titans opened up with three home games, their last three games were all on the road which meant travel expenses plus the visitor’s cut of the gate (which was always smaller than the home team). Wisner estimated that he spent over $150,000 on that trip because the team remained on the West Coast instead of traveling back to New York. The first game was against Denver, then on to Oakland and finally Los Angeles. This meant added hotel and food bills. In Wismer’s 1965 autobiography The Public Calls It Sport, he states at the conclusion of the maiden season he lost $1.2 million on the 7-7-0 Titans.
Bankruptcy and other changes
The Titans began 3-1-0 in 1961, but finished 7-7-0 once again. They averaged 15,231 per home game including 9,462 for their final home game against the AFL defending champs Houston Oilers, a 48-21 loss. The club was supposed to move into the new Shea Stadium that was going to be built, but funding delays and various legal issues kept the start dates getting pushed back so that construction could finally begin. The Titans never played a game in the new digs which would have brought some much needed respectability to their franchise.
Financial misfortunes continued to plague the struggling franchise. Most of the Titans’ draft choices signed with the NFL instead because of the low contract offers they were receiving from Wismer. Without new and younger talent, the roster remained the same players who had struggled on the field to become competitive.
In 1962, things got so bad for Wisner that he could not meet payroll and had to get a $40,000 bailout from the league. He was determined to keep the club and try to make it work. The league had an offer from a group in Miami to relocate the franchise, but Wismer was set on staying in New York and keep his team even though crowds were getting smaller each season and the franchise was hemorrhaging money.
Before the 1963 season, a five-man group that called themselves “Gotham Football Club, Inc.” paid $1.3 million for the Titans. The group was headed by Sonny Werblin who was an executive at the Music Corporation of America, commonly known in the record business as MCA.
In April of 1963, Werblin changed the team name from “Titans of New York” to “New York Jets” and made an agreement to move the franchise into Shea Stadium in 1964 to share confines with the baseball Mets. He also changed the team colors from the dark blue and mustard yellow to green and white, to honor his own St. Patrick’s Day birthday.
After playing one last season in the Polo Grounds, the Jets made Shea their home in 1964. The Jets became aggressive with rookie draft picks, even outbidding the crosstown Giants for Matt Snell, the All-American RB from Ohio State. A 110-piece band was assembled for home games called the “Jetliner Band” and a scaled model jet airplane rode along the sidelines during games. All ushers for home games wore green and white attire. The radio airwaves were bombarded with commercials about the new and improved New York Jets and their swanky new stadium. Despite a 5-8-1 record, the home gate averaged over 42,000 per game.
Namath arrived in 1965 with his record deal which included a $7,000 green Lincoln Continental. He had a strong arm with a quick release and was flamboyant, which fit the New York City lifestyle. As the Giants helped boost the Jets’ fan base with a decades-long decline, from there the Jets became the darlings of New York. They won the AFL title in 1968 which catapulted them into Super Bowl III against the powerhouse Baltimore Colts, an 18-point favorite. The Jets would go on to win 16-7 marking the first time an AFL club had defeated an NFL team.
The Titans were never mentioned in the Jets’ championship releases as if those days were like leprosy. Today, the memory of the Titans lives on with a pro lacrosse team who called themselves the New York Titans.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.