The Hinges of Fate: Pivotal Moments in Chiefs History, Part 1

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A 3 Part Series Fanpost by StJoeChief

A Fanpost by stjoechief

Each of us has moments in our lives that were pivot points, where things could have gone in many different directions.  Sometimes those moments are positive and sometimes they are negative, but they have a disproportionate impact on who we are. Organizations are the same.  They can roll along for years on essentially the same track, and then something happens that affects their direction for years to come. This is an attempt to catalog those moments for the Kansas City Chiefs.  Because this is the dregs of the offseason and I’ve re-watched the video of all 50 of Patrick Mahomes’ touchdowns last year so many times I can’t stand it.


Lamar Hunt Forms the Foolish Club

This is the “duh” entry here.  No AFL, no Chiefs. But it’s worth remembering just how improbable it was that this team would still exist 60 years later.  In 1959 Lamar Hunt had been rebuffed twice in attempts to acquire an NFL franchise. Initially, he and a group of co-investors wanted to buy the Chicago Cardinals and move them to Texas.  The NFL owners were only willing to sell 49% of the team and insisted on keeping them in Chicago. (The value of the contested 1% was $15,000 at the time). Hunt then approached the NFL about an expansion team, but was again refused. At that point he began discussions with fellow businessmen with a love for football about starting a new league. Ultimately that resulted in the formation of the American Football League, with Hunt owning the Dallas Texans. There was an immediate response from the NFL, including an offer to AFL owners to join the NFL—an offer accepted by the Minnesota Vikings in 1960.  There was also an NFL expansion team placed in Texas to compete with Lamar’s team. Hello, Dallas Cowboys. To replace the departed Vikings, the AFL decided to put a team in Oakland. No single owner could be found, so a group of general partners was recruited instead. This is why Al Davis (who was not one of the original group) was never an “owner” on paper, but had various titles like “Managing General Partner.”

The new league struggled initially, and for a couple of years Lamar Hunt seemed to hold it together through sheer force of will.  But eventually the AFL’s more aggressive offensive style became popular and the new league was playing football at a high enough level to gain a TV contract and make a profit.  When it became clear that the AFL was able to compete evenly with the NFL for fans, TV money, and players there began to be talk of a merger. We’ll get to that, but the next major turning point for Hunt’s team was…

The Move To Kansas City

By 1963 the Dallas Texans had won their first AFL championship and led the league in attendance.  But as noted above, the NFL had put the expansion Cowboys in Dallas as well. While the Cowboys basically sucked at that time, they got far more fans and media attention simply from being in the NFL.  Lamar Hunt started exploring options for moving the Texans, a major hit to his initial dream of owning a Texas based professional football team. Enter Mayor Harold Roe Bartle of Kansas City.

He made an offer that blew away those of Atlanta and Miami, guaranteeing to triple the team’s season ticket sales and doing a renovation/expansion of Municipal Stadium.  Since the Kansas City Texans just sounded weird, the team name had to be changed as well. Mayor Bartle’s nickname in Kansas City was “The Chief,” which he actually got from participation in Boy Scouts.  The team was renamed the Chiefs based on the results of a fan poll in which over 1,000 names were submitted. A ballot box logo would have been somewhat uninspiring, so the team went with Native American symbolism, putting an arrowhead on their helmets instead of the Texas map they had previously worn.  So yeah, lumping the Chiefs in with the Redskins in the “racist sports team name pool” is just silly.

From one man’s desire to own an NFL team in Texas sprang an entirely new football league competing almost evenly with the venerable NFL.  The NFL responded by adding two new franchises, one stolen from the new league and one deliberately placed in Lamar Hunt’s backyard. From that petty retaliation and the vision of a legendary mayor the Dallas Texans became our very own Kansas City Chiefs.  

The AFL-NFL Merger

By 1966 the AFL was thriving and owners began pushing the NFL in new ways.  The New York Jets were able to sign Joe Namath, the top college quarterback prospect in 1965, with the biggest player contract in NFL history.  That same year the AFL got its first TV contract. The NFL tacitly admitted that the AFL was no longer a second rate league when they began attempting to sign away AFL players.  With no salary cap in place, the stage was set for a bidding war that would be great for players but hurt the bottom lines of owners in both leagues. So the two groups of massively wealthy businessmen did what massively wealthy businessmen do:  they acted to protect their money.

On June 8, 1966 the framework of a merger was announced.  The NFL name would be retained and the league would be divided into two conferences, the AFC and the NFC.  The bargaining strength of Hunt’s compadres was shown in the fact that all of the AFL teams would be accepted into the new league.  A Championship Game would be held between the winners of the two conferences at the end of each season. That practice began after the 1966 season, when the Chiefs lost to the Green Bay Packers in what became Super Bowl I.  The Packers also won Super Bowl II, but then the AFL came into its own when the Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and then the Chiefs trounced the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

Embed from Getty Images

While the Championship games were started immediately, the final merger only took effect in 1970.  There were several sticking points, including getting Congress to pass a law exempting the NFL from antitrust regulations and indemnities to be paid by AFL teams operating in NFL cities (specifically the Raiders to the 49ers and the Jets to the Giants).  There was also the issue of the numbers of teams in the two leagues; by 1969 the NFL had 16 teams to the AFL’s ten. None of the NFL owners were thrilled about the prospect of moving to the “junior” conference. The impasse was finally broken by the much-maligned owner of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell.  He agreed to take the Browns to the AFC on condition that the Steelers go with them to preserve their rivalry. At that point the Colts agreed to go along as well and the modern AFC and NFC structures were set.

The merger was the hinge between the past and the future for every professional football team, but Lamar Hunt and the Chiefs were at the center of it.  Although Al Davis was the AFL commissioner, it was Hunt that the NFL owners approached secretly to start negotiations. Lamar famously came up with the name Super Bowl for the AFL-NFL Championship Game, and his team represented the AFL in two of the four pre-merger Super Bowls, winning the last one. And of course the whole existence of the AFL was Hunt’s creation.  So for us as Chiefs fans it’s a wonderful thing that the Cardinals refused to sell Lamar Hunt that extra 1%.

These early pivot points for the Chiefs have all been positive.  But not all change is good, and decisions often don’t work out. The next few turns for the Chiefs didn’t end happily.


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sydenham
sydenham

Echoing the positives below, great read, great topic, worthwhile series.

stjoechief

Thanks for all the kind words. I never would have thought of this if not for ChiefsandSabres excellent history series.

Tyrone
Tyrone

Brilliantly written.

Tyrone
Tyrone

It has a Ken Burns series sort of feel to it.

StramtoReid
StramtoReid

Great read, I too didn’t know the Vikings reneged on their agreement to join the AFL. I like to tell all my Cowboys friends, if it wasn’t for the Cowboys their wouldn’t be a K C. Chiefs. I never met one Cowboy fan who knows why Dallas was awarded team.

MidKan Chiefs Lifer
MidKan Chiefs Lifer

This was very well done with some great tidbits that I didnt know /remember (Minnesota was an original AFL team that defected for one). Really looking forward to the rest.

Better sign this one to the standard AG contract Anthony he does good work.

stjoechief

So is that like the standard “rich and famous” contract from the Muppets movie?

Berserker

Good history. I didn’t know, or maybe forgot, that the Vikings had defected from Lamar’s league. That adds a cool-factor to Lamar’s team beating them in Superbowl IV.

tsv0728
tsv0728

Great read. Always interesting to see how the lifestyles of the rich and famous impact us wee peons. What would I do at work all day if there were no Chiefs? Speaking of, great article on the Athletic by Jayson Jenks. “The story behind Patrick Mahomes’ lone college baseball appearance”. It’s pretty funny.

Team Player
Team Player

To think…
the NFL could have lost KC if they’d only lost the Bidwill’s too

I love KC but that’s a wash.

Chief-Blinders-On

I got to experience Canton and the Hall of Fame on a drive across half the USA — Reading some of the Chiefs history lessons within that football historical place was one of the coolest experiences of being there. The worst was watching the Broncos Super Bowl win in their rotating theater. The theater was amazing, the content was sickening… but I survived.

It’s where I got my Hall of Fame Will Shields jersey. This article reminds fans there was so much Chiefs even before guys like Derrick Thomas, Shields and SHOWTIME.

History is our foundation, and the Chiefs history is our foundation as fans. It’s always good to know how the team got to where it is today and what was involved in making the Kansas City Chiefs an organization that we all live and die with.

Excellent read!

slackator
slackator

Its crazy to think $15,000 could have changed my fandom of a sport entirely. Assuming my life plays out the same way it has because why would my life change, Kansas to Oklahoma, would I even be a fan of football in general if for that $15,000? Im not a fan of the NFL really only care about the Chiefs, and its because I was born into a Chief family with my entire family being from Kansas/Missouri, if Hunt gets the Cardinals and moves them to Dallas, then the Cowboys most likely never come about and when I as a kid move to Oklahoma I probably dont become a fan of the Dallas team because I hate Oklahomas love affair with Texas teams already and also because Im most likely still a Royals fan and wouldnt be able to cheer for a Cardinals team on principle.

This is assuming KC doesnt get a team, which maybe they would have but they’d be down on the list of expansion cities and even then if not for the $15,000 would the NFL even have had the expansion it has because no AFL no merger no real push for expansion, and for me most likely no real fan of football. Thats a crazy butterfly effect

Tony Sommer

That whole Cowboys thing is so stupid. Like they said no to an expansion team, but when he starts his own league suddenly they’re perfectly ok with two new teams.

But I’m glad they made that mistake.