May 20, 2019
Of the five major sports leagues in North America, one has had more than its fair share of challengers. Indeed, the National Football League (NFL) has endured over half a dozen so-called rebel leagues looking to gain the hearts and minds of fans.
The first three were all called the American Football League but were completely different entities. They were established in 1926, 1935, and 1940, respectively, with none lasting longer than two seasons before disappearing.
The fourth challenger opened for business right after World War II and was called the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). In 2015, Cleveland broadcaster and author Gary Webster wrote a book about that league's most successful franchise, the Cleveland Browns. Called Just Too Good, the book chronicled the team's 1948 undefeated season. While the book is primarily about that particular franchise and that one season, readers also got a glimpse into the rest of the AAFC in 1948.
Webster’s new book takes a deep dive into the entire league’s four-year history. Students of pro football history know how it ends, as the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts (not the same team that today is now in Indianapolis) joined the NFL in 1950. The four years leading up to that are a fascinating tale of wheeling, dealing, and crisis management.
There are some interesting discoveries in the pages of The League That Didn’t Exist. For example, there were two other leagues set to compete with the NFL in 1946, one of which had hired football legend Red Grange as its commissioner. It was called the United States Football League (no relation to the league of the same name from the 1980s).
It is also revealed how the NFL thought about merging the then-struggling Chicago Cardinals with the minor league San Francisco Clippers, with the new team based in the Bay Area, in advance of the AAFC’s debut in 1946.
As it turns out, Chicago, for a time, had three pro football teams, the Bears and the aforementioned Cardinals in the NFL along with the Rockets (later renamed the Hornets) in the AAFC. The latter was supposed to be the new league's flagship franchise, but it didn't work out that way.
There’s also the story about how the NFL Brooklyn Dodgers became the AAFC New York Yankees, thereby giving the new league the most prestigious sports venue in America as a home field.
In his earlier book, we learn that the Browns' dominance was the key to the league’s demise, as even Cleveland fans got bored with winning (the Browns captured all four league titles). However, there were several other factors at play. Everything from cash-strapped owners in both leagues, spite, naivete, and stubbornness all contributed to the end of the AAFC.
And as for the book’s title? Well, even though it absorbed three teams from the AAFC, and many players from the remaining four clubs, the NFL does not recognize any AAFC statistics. It does for the American Football League which began in 1960 and completed a full merger with the NFL in 1970.
Webster’s book gives a wonderfully detailed, and well-reported account of the All-America Football Conference and the men who played in, coached, and operated it.
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