The images are grainy, the commentary earnestly naïve, and the theme music disco-infused, but the bigger picture is clear – it’s American soccer history, in all its VHS videotape glory.
Gleaned from a simpler, pre-HD media landscape of the 1970s and early 1980s – much of it before even the mass consumer adoption of the VCR – the roughly 900 hours of TV broadcast match coverage that still survives from the pioneering North American Soccer League is a veritable time machine of pro soccer’s coming-of-age. And one man has been chiefly responsible for compiling and preserving it.
De facto soccer video anthropologist Dave Brett Wasser has spent over two decades tracking down virtually every known snippet of NASL game footage – more than 450 league and exhibition matches in all – for what is arguably the most comprehensive collection of vintage soccer Americana anywhere.
Meticulously (and sometimes just plain luckily) sourced from a myriad of former players, coaches, TV network vaults, and even garage sales – Wasser’s now-digitized trove has become the go-to source for some of the NASL’s most memorable competitive moments for today’s generation of soccer broadcast producers and documentarians. Including even the newly-rechristened National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, TX.
In this revealing conversation with host Tim Hanlon, Wasser talks about: his childhood memories of local WOR-TV/New York broadcasts of Cosmos games; the impetus to rediscover them as an adult in the early 1990s lead-up to World Cup USA 1994; the people he’s met along the way of amassing his collection; and the tenuous relationship with the Hall of Fame in his quest to comprehensively digitize and permanently house the entire set of videos for current and future generations of American fans of the “beautiful game” to enjoy and learn from.
Author John Eisenberg (Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future) returns, this time to guide us through the fascinating formative years of the National Football League – and the five now-legendary figures responsible for nurturing its development through tumultuous times and an often-uncertain future into what is now America’s most popular sport.
In his new book The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire, Eisenberg highlights the individual dedication and collective conviction of Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney, Chicago’s George Halas, New York’s Tim Mara, Washington’s George Preston Marshall, and Philadelphia’s Bert Bell to risk everything in building and growing the game of professional football.
Originally formed (as the “American Professional Football Association”) at a time (1920) when the sport barely registered on the national scene (baseball, boxing, horse racing, and even the college version of the game all rated higher in fan appeal) – the circuit (renamed the National Football League two seasons later) injected structure and integrity into the sport, on the shared belief that a viable professional business was both possible and inevitable.
Fending off existential threats from a constant stream of challengers – including the better-funded All-American Football Conference (AAFC) of the late 1940s and American Football League (AFL) of the early 1960s – the five owners ultimately succeeded by repeatedly sacrificing short-term success of their respective teams for the longer-term good of the NFL as a whole.
The story of the NFL’s rise to the top of America’s pro sports landscape is one of not only historical significance but also of methodical – and sometimes, just plain lucky – business ingenuity.
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The Buffalo Braves were one of three NBA expansion franchises (along with the Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers) that began play in the 1970–71 season.
Originally owned by a wobbly investment firm with few ties to Buffalo, the Braves eventually found a local backer in Freezer Queen founder Paul Snyder – who, by the end of the first season, had inherited a team that was neither good (penultimate league records of 22-60 in each of its first two seasons), nor easy to schedule (third-choice dates for Buffalo’s venerable Memorial Auditorium behind the also-new NHL hockey Buffalo Sabres, and Canisius Golden Griffins college basketball).
Snyder addressed the Braves’ on-court issues by luring head coach Dr. Jack Ramsey from the Philadelphia 76ers, while drafting key players like high-scoring (and later Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Famer) Bob McAdoo, eventual NBA Rookie of the Year Ernie DiGregorio, and local (via Buffalo State) crowd favorite Randy Smith – yielding three consecutive playoff appearances from 1973-74 to 1975-76.
Off the court, Snyder looked to regionalize the team’s appeal beyond “The Aud” by scheduling select home games in places like Rochester, Syracuse and even Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens – and team attendance, TV ratings and revenues achieved league-average levels.
By the summer of 1976, however, Snyder was facing severe pressure to sell the team and get it out of “The City of Good Neighbors.” Of particular consternation was Canisius president Fr. James Demske, who publicly thwarted the Braves’ attempts at decent home dates – which angered the NBA enough to force the issue with Snyder.
Snyder, who said he was losing money anyway, threatened to move the Braves to suburban Miami’s Hollywood Sportatorium, a deal that collapsed after the city of Buffalo sued and secured a new 15-year Aud lease – with a provision it could be broken if the team didn’t sell 5,000 season tickets in any future season.
Author and Western New York native Tim Wendel (Buffalo, Home of the Braves) joins the pod to discuss the convoluted story of what happened next, including:
On January 12, 1969, the American Football League champion New York Jets stunned the sports world when they beat their heavily favored NFL title-winning counterparts the Baltimore Colts to win the third annual “AFL–NFL World Championship Game” – today remembered as version III of the “Super Bowl.”
The key to the Jets’ ultimate success, of course, was superstar quarterback Joe Namath – whose talent, confidence and charm had already made him an instant celebrity when he first arrived on the Gotham sports scene in 1965. But the rise of the former (and by the end of its third season in 1962, insolvent) New York Titans to the top of the pro football heap was far from a solo effort.
Author Bob Lederer (Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the decade-long saga of the Jets’ remarkable evolution from a mediocre team in a dilapidated stadium in an oft-derided "Mickey Mouse" league, to a franchise that literally saved the AFL from itself and vaulted a newly merged NFL into the modern era of pro football.
It was, unwittingly, the center of the New York professional sports universe in 1975.
The official home of both Major League Baseball’s Mets and AFL-then-NFL football’s Jets since 1964, Shea Stadium was always a busy venue. But when the football Giants and baseball Yankees found themselves displaced by extensive renovations to their shared Bronx home of Yankee Stadium, Shea instantly became Mecca for Gotham sports fans – hosting all four teams over the course of their respective 1975 seasons.
The Giants, of course, had already started their wayward journey away from the Bronx in 1973, when plans were announced for a brand new, state-of-the art facility in the Meadowlands of East Rutherford, New Jersey to open in time for Big Blue’s 1976 season. After two miserable seasons at New Haven, Connecticut’s Yale Bowl (winning only one of 12 games there), the Giants were wooed by New York mayor Abe Beame to play one last season back inside the city limits before absconding for good across the Hudson.
The Yankees, meanwhile, set up temporary shop at Shea beginning in the spring of 1974 – the first of two seasons the Bronx Bombers would play “home” games there while awaiting their new digs, also to open in 1976.
Thus, for one crazy 1975 season, all four New York teams – the Mets, Jets, Yankees, and Giants – called Shea Stadium home. Four teams, 175 games, 3,738,546 fans, and one stadium – the only time in professional sports history that two baseball teams and two football teams shared the same facility in the same year.
Brett Topel (When Shea Was Home: The Story of the 1975 Mets, Yankees, Giants, and Jets) joins the pod to discuss the highlights – but mostly lowlights – of one of the oddest years in New York City sports history.
By the end of the 1958 NFL season – one punctuated by an iconic, nationally televised “Greatest Game Ever Played” championship – interest in professional football had risen to unprecedented levels across the country, capturing enough attention to seriously challenge baseball for America’s chief sporting interest. Nowhere was the ground more fertile than in the state of Texas, where college and even high school football had held sway for generations – but the pro game (last attempted with a relocated 1952 NFL franchise called the Texans that ended in mid-season abandonment) had still yet to firmly root.
But in the spring of 1960, after an unlikely series of events, two young oil tycoons each became convinced of the opportunity to start their own pro franchises in Dallas’ legendary Cotton Bowl: a reincarnated club called the “Texans” – part of a new upstart circuit called the American Football League; and a hastily arranged response from the established (and newly threatened) NFL called the “Cowboys.” Virtually overnight, a bitter professional football feud was born – with Dallas sports fans caught in the crossfire.
Texans owner (and AFL league founder) Lamar Hunt and Cowboys head Clint Murchison wasted no time drawing battle lines for the hearts and minds of Dallas’ (and the state’s) pigskin faithful; their teams took each other to court, fought over players, undermined each other’s promotions, and rooted like hell for the other guys to fail.
Hunt’s Texans focused on the fans – building squads heavy on local legends and using clever promotions to draw attention to both his new team, and the new league. Murchison’s Cowboys concentrated their efforts on the game – hoping to quickly match the competitiveness of the NFL’s established teams with a young cerebral coaching talent named Tom Landry, and a draft strategy that eyed the long term.
John Eisenberg (Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the three-year battle for pro football supremacy in Dallas – from which both teams eventually (and ironically) emerged victorious in their separate pursuits of success.
When it debuted to the public on April 9, 1965 (with an exhibition Major League Baseball game featuring the newly-renamed Houston Astros and Mickey Mantle’s New York Yankees), the Astrodome – audaciously dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by its builders – immediately captured the attention of the sports, entertainment and architectural worlds.
It was a Texas-sized vision of the future – a seemingly unimaginable feat of engineering, replete with breakthrough innovations such as premium luxury suites, theater-style seating, and the world’s first-ever animated stadium scoreboard. At the time, it was the biggest-ever indoor space ever made by man – an immense cylinder nearly half-a-mile around and with a flying-saucer-like roofline – that evoked a modern space age that the city of Houston and a reach-the-Moon-obsessed nation envisioned for itself.
Amidst the ambition, not all was perfect: baseball outfielders were initially unable to see fly balls through the stadium’s clear Plexiglas roof panels, and attempts to grow natural grass for its playing surface failed repeatedly (ultimately leading to the development of artificial “AstroTurf”).
Yet, unquestionably, the arrival of the Astrodome changed the way people viewed sporting events and – putting casual fans at the center of the experience, that would soon become the expected standard for all facets of live communal entertainment.
Penn State University professor Rob Trumpbour (The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the life, impact and ongoing legacy of the Astrodome’s signature role in transforming Houston as a city – and some of the memorable (and not so memorable) pro franchises that called it home during its 43-year run, including the AFL/NFL football Oilers, the NASL soccer Stars and Hurricane, and challenger-league football’s Texans (WFL) and Gamblers (USFL).
Plus, the backstory of Major League Baseball’s 1962 expansion Houston Colt .45’s – the original catalyst behind the dome’s conception and construction.
The third incarnation of the Baltimore Colts – the second as an official member of the NFL – produced some of the most memorable and dominant teams to ever play the pro game.
Winners of impressive back-to-back NFL titles over the New York Giants in both 1958 (the December 28th Yankee Stadium sudden-death overtime final regarded as the mythic “Greatest Game Ever Played”) and 1959, the Colts and head coach Weeb Ewbank surprisingly stumbled into mid-table mediocrity in the early years of the 1960s – enough to convince mercurial owner Carroll Rosenblum to make a stunning change at the end of the team’s (7-7) 1962 season – one that would quickly shake up the squad and the expectations behind it.
The selection of Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Don Shula to become the new head coach of the Colts was eyebrow-raising for a number of reasons – age (at 33, the youngest-ever to be chosen for such a role in the NFL up until that time); relative inexperience (only two years as a college assistant at Virginia and Kentucky before his first pro stint in Detroit building the famous “Fearsome Foursome” defense); and karma – cut by the Colts as a player seven years earlier, Shula was now suddenly coach over former teammates who hadn’t previously accorded him much respect.
Chief among those players was quarterbacking legend-in-the-making Johnny Unitas – arguably the Colts’ most valuable franchise player, who was hugely responsible for the team’s titles in the late 50s, and through whom any future success depended.
Author Jack Gilden (Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss how these two eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame titans battled each other and the rest of the NFL during the remainder of the 1960s, and lifted the Colts back to elite status in the league – while setting themselves both up for further individual greatness once they again parted ways.
Career journalist and baseball history author Bill Felber (A Game of Brawl: The Orioles, the Beaneaters, and the Battle for the 1897 Pennant) joins the big show to discuss the most cut-throat pennant race in American baseball history – a multi-level study in contrast that also symbolically set the course of how the modern-day game would ultimately be played.
On one side was the original incarnation of the Baltimore Orioles – a charter member of the 1882 American Association who migrated to the National League ten years later (and not genealogically connected to today’s current American League club). Led by eventual baseball Hall of Famers John McGraw, Wee Willie Keeler, and managerial innovator “Foxy” Ned Hanlon (no relation to your humble host?), the original O’s had a reputation as the dirtiest team in baseball – though many of the tactics they employed (e.g., tight pitching, base-stealing, hit-and-run plays, and precise bunting) were simply edgy approaches to the rules that later became strategic staples of the modern game.
On the other, the comparatively saintly Boston Beaneaters – part of the longest lineage in baseball history dating back to the earliest days of the professional game and predecessors of today’s Atlanta Braves – and eight-time National League champs over the course of the late 1800s. Boasting five of their own Cooperstown enshrinees – pitcher Kid Nichols, outfielders Hugh Duffy and Billy Hamilton, third baseman Jimmy Collins, and manager Franke Selee – the 1897 Beaneaters were the latest installment of a franchise that largely dominated the NL for most of the 1890s.
A hotly contested battle throughout the season, the pursuit of the pennant was the most intensely watched team sporting event in the country’s history to that time, right down to the dramatic final week that climaxed with a decisive three-game series. The effective championship match on the last day of the season saw 30,000+ crazed Boston fans – including a rabid self-appointed supporters group known as the “Royal Rooters” – break down the gates of the 10,000-capacity South End Grounds to watch the Beaneaters grind out a win and bring down baseball’s first and most notorious “evil empire.”
PLUS: soap suds on the pitcher’s mound; the Temple Cup; late-Senator Ted Kennedy’s grandfather; the “Baltimore Chop,” and "Nuf Ced" McGreevy!
AND, we fire up the old Victrola to hear one of (if not) the earliest known recordings of the Boston “Royal Rooters” de facto fight song, that originated with the Beaneaters during this memorable season!
In a nearly 20-year playing career across the 1960s American Football League and 1970s NFL, defensive end Ron McDole (The Dancing Bear: My Eighteen Years in the Trenches of the AFL and NFL) experienced pro football’s modern-day coming-of-age from inside his old-school, two-bar helmet. From 1961-1978, McDole played in over 250 professional games, including championship runs with the AFL Buffalo Bills (1964, 1965) and a Super Bowl appearance with the NFL Washington Redskins in 1972.
A cagey and deceptively agile athlete, McDole wreaked havoc on football’s best offenses as part of a Bills defensive line (including left tackle Jim Dunaway, right tackle Tom Sestak, and right end Tom Day) that held opponents without a rushing touchdown for 17 straight games across 1964-65. His twelve career interceptions remain a pro record for defensive linemen.
Traded by the Bills in 1970, he was given new life in Washington as one of the most famous members of George Allen s game-smart veterans known as the “Over the Hill Gang.” Through it all, McDole was known and loved by teammates and foes alike for his knowledge and skill on the field and his ability to have fun off it.
In this revealing conversation with host Tim Hanlon, McDole describes: the unique camaraderie of playing in small-market Buffalo and in the upstart AFL; the reality of needing off-season jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet; the continual magnanimity of Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson; and (at 45:00) the price he and many of his fellow players are now paying health-wise for playing the game they loved, with very little acknowledgement or support from the NFL.
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