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Vikings leave American Football League at the altar in 1960

Minnesota was an original team in the newly-formed eight team league

In the mid-to-late 1950’s, the National Football League (NFL) was finally getting some traction in the public’s eye of becoming a major sports league. In 1958, the “Greatest Game ever played” between the Baltimore Colts and New York Football Giants had been the very first nationwide telecast by NBC. And it was the championship game of the league that year.

It was also the first sudden death game which amplified the mystique.

The NFL was making a huge turnaround since almost shutting down during World War II. The league was now 12 teams set up in two divisions. And just like in baseball, the winner of each division played for the league title. Clubs were finally finishing their seasons in the black. Each year, the crowds were getting larger. More college star players were choosing to play professional football instead of going into the business world.

In the late 1950’s, several cities across the United States were earmarked for possible expansion into the NFL and placed in a folder. A folder that was only opened when some young hotshot with money came nosing around asking about starting an expansion team. His information would be jotted down and notes were taken, but that was the end of it.

The fact of the matter was, the owners of those 12 NFL clubs had no intention of expansion. They liked their group which consisted of football men who had done well in the business world. The NFL at the time was uncomplicated. And it was devoid of new blood with newfangled ideas. Or were from cities that just weren’t big enough to be considered a “major league” town to place a new club.

The NFL was in fact adamant about not expanding into new cities.

The money comes calling

Over the years after the war, Americans had more time for pleasurable activities and an access of funds in order to spend more on entertainment activity.

Several wealthy businessmen had inquired about being owners of an NFL team, mainly expansion into whatever their hometown was. The information given to each gentlemen was that the NFL was on hold for expansion. However, they could inquire to each club owner if they might have an inkling to sell their franchise.

Which, 11 owners weren’t.

Lamar Hunt

Lamar Hunt had graduated from SMU in 1956 with a degree in biology. A former college football player who rarely played, he considered himself an avid sports enthusiast. He was the son of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt. When H.L. passed away, Lamar was now the recipient of great wealth despite being just 26-years old.

Hunt was one of the men the NFL had turned away. Repeatedly.

The NFL did steer him to Charles and Violet Bidwell who owned the Chicago Cardinals. Publicly, the Cardinals were not for sale. But they struggled to compete against the crosstown Chicago Bears for patrons and were willing to listen to offers. The Bears annually were one of the league’s best teams and drew very well.

The Bidwell's did meet with Hunt, and after several meetings agreed to sell him 20% of the franchise. However, the club would remain in Chicago. Hunt’s intent was to buy a team and relocate it to Dallas where he worked and owned a home.

During the years of attempting to buy an expansion team, Hunt had run into other rich men who had the same thoughts but were also refuted in cities such as Seattle, Miami, Boston, Houston and Minneapolis. So, Hunt had the idea to begin his own league in 1959 and called it the American Football League (AFL).

With his negotiations with the Cardinals, he knew the man from Houston who wanted in on the pro football scene by the name of Bud Adams. In addition to his own team called the “Dallas Texans,” Hunt contacted Adams and asked if he had any interest in a pro football team. Adams said yes and eventually his new team would be labeled the “Houston Oilers.”

And so, the new league was off and running. Approximately 250 college football players graduate each year with only around 60 that make NFL squads. That left about 190 players available and football ready.

AFL Owners
1969: Here are four of the first eight owners of the original American Football League (AFL). Clockwise: Lamar Hunt (Dallas), Ralph Wilson Jr. (Buffalo), Wayne Valley (Oakland) and William R. Sullivan Jr. (Boston).
Photo by Ross Lewis/Getty Images

At this point, Hunt began to seek out other potential owners for the AFL. He knew that for the new league to have credibility he needed franchises in New York and Los Angeles, but knew of other men who had tried to buy the Cardinals as well from the cities of Denver and Minneapolis. Hunt felt the Minneapolis franchise was just as crucial to the new league because of the location in the upper Midwest.

The State of Minnesota was not new to professional football with clubs in the past such as the Minneapolis Marines (1905-1924), Duluth Kelleys (1923-1925), Duluth Eskimos (1926-1927) and the Minneapolis Red Jackets (1929-1930). So Hunt felt they had a large interest in the pro game.

Which brings us to the Minnesota Vikings of the American Football League

One of the men who had petitioned the NFL about an expansion team was Max Winter He had once been part owner of the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Association. When contacted by Hunt, Winter - along with business partner Bill Boyer - jumped at the chance to rekindle pro football back to the state.

Suddenly, the AFL had confirmed clubs in Dallas, Houston, Denver and now Minneapolis-St. Paul. Other cities on the agenda were Seattle, Kansas City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Louisville, and Boston. Owners were found for the New York and Los Angeles teams and in the end, Buffalo and Boston would round out the final alignment of eight franchises.

The AFL was complete - eight teams to begin in the fall of 1960. The next step was to set up a college draft. Meetings and the draft would be held November 21-23, 1959 at a hotel in Minneapolis. Representatives and owners from every club were on hand. The AFL weekend assembly was arranged by Winter, Boyer and minority owner H.P. Skoglund.

In the meantime, the NFL abruptly decided that another pro football league was not in their best interests, so they devised a plan to attempt to squash the new entity before it had time to gain momentum.

When only a year ago, the NFL was dead set against any expansion, suddenly, two new clubs were planned for 1960 and another two shortly thereafter.

Various representatives from the NFL contacted several of the new owners of AFL teams to inquire if they would prefer to have an NFL expansion team instead. The plan was to get these confirmed owners to drop their interest in owning a pro football franchise in a brand new, non-established league that was devoid of any fans, located in smaller cities, unknown financial stability, no television contracts, sub-standard stadiums and rosters that would apparently be formed with castoffs from the NFL, Canadian Football League or the rookies who were cut from either of these leagues.

Crude tactics indeed, but the NFL’s thought process was that if several owners accepted NFL expansion franchises now, quite possibly the entire structure of the newly-formed league would implode and simply close up shop before it got going.

Education from past experiences

The NFL had experienced plenty of headaches with the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) that had formed right after World War II and operated from 1946-1949.

The end result of that NFL rival league was that player salaries and other expenses went soaring while ticket prices remain relatively the same in order to get regular paying crowds through the gate each game.

That financial fiasco had taken many years to rebound from, and the NFL and their owners were just now seeing daylight at the end of each season.

The last thing any of these owners wanted was another war with yet another pro football league. They didn’t want to trudge down that financial explosion and talent exodus again. Back then, quite a few NFL clubs were about to fold because of the competition for players, fans and advertisers - not to mention escalating player salaries. The feeling was that right now it would be more cost-effective to simply admit a few expansion teams immediately, promise a few more prospective owners a spot in the future upcoming years and go about business as usual.

And be done with the AFL before they played their first game.

Houston owner Adams was offered an NFL expansion team for $650,000. He subsequently declined explaining to the established league that he was a man of his word. The owner of the Los Angeles franchise, Hilton Hotels owner Barron Hilton, was offered part ownership of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams where he owned a home.

The NFL’s first announced expansion club was to be placed in Dallas without an owner, team name, colors, equipment, any employees or players or even a stapler. When the NFL went league-busting, they offered Hunt half stake in the newly-formed Dallas club.

George Halas, owner and head coach of the Bears was the head of the NFL’s newly-formed Expansion Committee. He set up a meeting with Hunt and then another to discuss closing up the AFL to avoid a financial war.

Hunt made a counter offer. The NFL would accept every committed AFL team and merge them immediately into the NFL. Hunt’s rational was that would avoid the economic repercussions.

Halas’ response to Hunt’s counter was that the NFL would accept the teams in Dallas and Minneapolis in 1960, then add Houston and Buffalo in 1961. However, the NFL had no interest in adding a second team in Los Angeles or New York to compete with the Giants and Los Angeles Rams. Moreover, their league had zero attraction in fielding a team in Denver whatsoever which they claimed was small market material and that Boston had numerous teams call that city home and all of them failed since it was deemed a baseball and hockey town.

The pitch given to Minnesota’s owners

As Hunt arrogantly expected, the NFL passed on his idea. Basically, Hunt wanted every AFL club to become a part of the NFL despite having never even played any games.

To the NFL, that was a stupid idea and one from beggars and thieves. The AFL had done minimal work to progress the game of professional football into the public whereas the NFL had decades of problem-solving, strife and innovations to get where they were now. And they knew Hunt was grasping at straws and wishing upon fallen stars.

So far, Halas and the NFL had gotten three “no thank you” notices from AFL owners. If they could get two out of the remaining five ownership groups – perhaps even one – to drop their AFL commitment and accept an NFL expansion entry, perhaps the new league would pause their start for a year or two and after momentum had lessened, would eventually give up.

Halas contacted the principal owners of the Minneapolis AFL team. He informed them the NFL was definitely expanding into Minneapolis-St. Paul and offered them the ownership group if they wanted to join the older league. But the decision would have to be right away because they were going through with placing a team there regardless of whether the new AFL was still in business or not. That meant, having a competitor instantly in the same city.

All of the AFL owners were in a meeting room at the hotel in Minneapolis on the eve of their inaugural college draft.

The owner of the Titans of New York burst into the room holding a local newspaper with the headline “Minnesota to Get NFL Franchise.” The article explained how Halas had gotten the Minneapolis group to bolt the AFL and renege their agreement for the established league and that the new team would delay one year and begin play in 1961 instead of 1960.

Immediately, this was considered a major blow to the infant league. Other owners had the chance to become partners in NFL teams and yet, had passed and stayed steadfast. Another insult to the new league, was that they were situated and doing business in the exact same city that now was announced as having defected and the irony was that the one club that defected was also the team that hosted the event.

Despite Minneapolis’ defection, the AFL draft went on as scheduled. The AFL looked for a suitable new home for the now-vacant eighth franchise, and several months later announced that Oakland, California would be given the opportunity to join. This would allow another team in California as a natural rival to Los Angeles.

Prior to Hunt’s idea of a rival league, the NFL had said that expansion would be out of the question. After only a few weeks after the announcement of the birth of the AFL, suddenly there were two new franchises and an announced expansion of two more in 1962 (which did not happen).

On September 27, 1960, the Minnesota franchise was officially announced as the NFL’s 14th franchise. They named their team the “Vikings” because of a large contingent of Scandinavian descendants that hail from and live in the area. They drafted future Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton in the third-round of their inaugural draft, who was later traded to the Giants in 1967 and then traded back to the Vikings.

In 1981, the Vikings built a large complex in suburban Eden Prairie, Minnesota which would become the new home for offices, locker room, training facilities and practice fields. The complex was named “Winter Park” after original owner and founder Max Winter.

The Vikings would capture the 1969 NFL Championship, their only pro football title. They have played in four Super Bowls without a single victory.