First in War, Third in the AAFC: The Story of Pro Football's Yankees and Dodgers

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJuly 3, 2015

AP Images

World War II ended, and American soldiers came marching home ready for some football.

Some returned ready to play football. Most came back to watch. A cabal of millionaire entrepreneurs waited stateside to welcome them all onto the rosters and through the turnstiles of an all-new professional football league. Returning soldiers and the fans who never left for war suddenly faced a dizzying array of pro football choices, including a jumble of teams vying for the right to call themselves the Yankees and Dodgers.

This is the story of how a 20-year-old B-17 co-pilot with a knack for narrow escapes, some military-base football superstars, a legendary baseball executive, one of the Navy's leading medical experts, several blustery businessmen and an adviser to one of the 20th century's most important military figures joined forces to battle a formidable foe. No, not the Axis. The Cleveland Browns.

This is the story of the Yankees and Dodgers of the All-America Football Conference, two teams that helped win a war but lost the peace. It's also the story of how returning World War II heroes reshaped professional football in their own image—and how the NFL stopped thinking of itself as baseball's baby brother and learned to stand on its own.

The Coffee Klatch

On June 4, 1944, two days before D-Day, several of the most powerful men in America met to coordinate an attack.

They would later be called "the millionaires' coffee klatch" or just "men of millionaire incomes." They included a famous actor-comedian (Don Ameche), a former heavyweight boxing champion (Gene Tunney) and a host of oil tycoons, lumber magnates and men of industrial might. Not all members of the klatch were men: Eleanor Gehrig, widow of Lou Gehrig, was also at that first meeting. Like power brokers of any era, they were staying one step ahead of current events and planning to profit from an approaching peace dividend.

The founding fathers of the AAFC
The founding fathers of the AAFCHarold Valentine/Associated Press

The millionaires sensed an upcoming postwar surplus of athletes and fans, and they wanted to get into the football business. They were the financial muscle behind the vision of Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward. Ward, the organizer of many college-versus-pro exhibitions during the war, envisioned a rival to the National Football League. The moguls and celebrities he gathered in Chicago wanted to own their own football franchises but had been spurned by the tightly knit fraternity of the NFL. After a few meetings, the coffee klatch became the All-America Football Conference.

The NFL of the World War II era was vulnerable to attack. The league weathered the Great Depression as a nine-team regional league clinging to the Northeast and Midwest. NFL teams temporarily merged (like the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh "Steagles") to cope with manpower shortages. Gate receipts plummeted. The NFL was tiny, vulnerable and not particularly well-funded.

The coffee klatch, meanwhile, was deep-pocketed, media savvy and truly national, with representatives from New York to Los Angeles to Miami. Ward preached peaceful coexistence and hoped for a "World Series of Football." NFL commissioner Elmer Layden responded in a typical NFL-commissioner way, saying the new league must "first get a ball, then make a schedule, and then play a game." Packers coach Curly Lambeau was slightly less dismissive, noting that any new league would "suffer growing pains just as we did for many years" and predicting that NFL teams would be three-deep with the best football talent.

But not everyone in NFL circles agreed. Dan Topping was one of the NFL's wealthiest owners, but the grandson of New York's most powerful tin-industry magnate was trapped in the Brooklyn hinterlands, his Dodgers playing in Ebbets Field instead of glamorous Yankee Stadium. John Mara, whose Giants played at the Polo Grounds, did not want his nearest neighbor encroaching any further. So Topping purchased the Yankees—the "real" baseball Yankees—for $2.8 million, then approached the AAFC with a roster, an incredible stadium and the most marketable name in professional sports.

Topping's New York Yankees joined the AAFC. There was only one problem: Billy Cox also wanted a New York franchise. Cox was a lumber magnate whose company provided the timber used during construction of the Panama Canal. He had formerly owned baseball's Philadelphia Phillies but had to give up control of the club when commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis learned that Cox was betting on Phillies games. Cox received rights to the AAFC's Brooklyn franchise, which put him in exactly the position Topping had just spent $2.8 million to escape.

Forcing Cox's Dodgers to compete with Toppings' Yankees, Mara's Giants and (in early fall) the real Yankees, Giants and Dodgers proved to be the kind of mistake which, in just a few years, would doom the AAFC. But in 1946, Topping and the other AAFC owners, as well as their NFL counterparts, battled to sign the best football players in America, most of whom were sailors, soldiers or pilots a few months earlier.

The Lucky Landing

Twenty-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Wade Landry flew over newly liberated France in the late autumn of 1944, searching for a place to land. He was the co-pilot of a B-17 that was low on fuel. The countryside below was pitch black.

Just weeks earlier, Landry and the B-17 crew nearly died in a mission over Belgium. All four engines died at once, sending the bomber into a nosedive. Landry maxed out the fuel mixture in a last-ditch effort to revive the engines, and the gambit worked, except that the engines were now propelling the plane toward the earth. Pilot Kenneth Sainz raised the bomber's nose and regained control, all the while zigzagging to avoid flak from Nazi guns in Amsterdam.

Now there was no fuel to max out. Landry's brother Robert had died in a bomber crash. Two of his former teammates on the Texas Longhorns—Roy Weiss and Mike Sweeney—also died that way. Sainz and Landry considered ditching the B-17 in the English Channel, but hypothermia from icy waters was just as likely to kill the 12-man crew as a crash landing.

Sainz spotted a level stretch of open field, and he aimed the B-17 toward it before the engines sputtered out. The crash-landing plane dug a deep burrow as it slid through the field. Both wings sheared off as the plane split a pair of trees like goalposts. Finally, the bomber rumbled to a halt. The crew unbuckled and raced away before any remaining fuel could ignite. As it turned out, there was nothing left to burn.

"Every member of our crew walked out of that crash without a scratch," Landry recalled many years later. They hiked to a road, flagged down some Allied troops in a jeep and drove to Ipswich.

A few days later, Landry, Sainz and their crew were back in the air, piloting another B-17.

The Ramblers and Blue Jackets

The best football teams in the world from 1942 to 1945 weren't the Chicago Bears, Texas Longhorns, Fighting Irish of Notre Dame or any squad dreamed up by a coffee klatch of millionaires. They were the Randolph Field Texas Ramblers, Fleet City Blue Jackets, Second Air Force Superbombers of Colorado Springs and other military-base teams.

The armed forces scooped up every able-bodied young man in America during World War II, including most of the college upperclassmen. While some entered active service, others were assigned to base football teams. Pro football may not have enjoyed Major League Baseball's status, but football was still immensely popular, and commanders considered inter-base football games essential for morale.

A good service-academy football game could also help fill the war chest. The Texas Ramblers and Second Air Force Superbombers squared off in the "Treasury Bond Bowl" at the Polo Grounds on December 2, 1944. Due to bad weather, only 8,356 fans attended the game, but thanks to donations and promotions, the contest helped sell $79 million in war bonds.

The Ramblers won the Treasury Bond Bowl 13-6 to complete an undefeated season. Their star was Pete Layden, a single-wing tailback and defensive back from Dana X. Bible's famed University of Texas team. Fourteen players from that team, including Layden (the Longhorns' leading scorer, rusher and passer in 1941), appeared on the cover of Life magazine on November 7, precisely one month before Pearl Harbor. Appearing on the cover of Life was as close as you could come in the 1940s to trending on Twitter.

BES/Associated Press

Chal Daniel, one of the Longhorns on the magazine cover, died in an army training exercise in 1943. As mentioned earlier, Longhorns Roy Weiss and Mike Sweeney had died in bomber crashes, and little-known freshman Tom Landry was flying dangerous missions over Europe.

Layden, meanwhile, fought to keep spirits high and coffers full. The "black browed Irishman from Texas" (as Chicago Tribune columnist Wilford Smith called him) was a box-office draw: a great deep passer, fast runner and accurate kicker/punter. Even his name carried a cache, though he was not related to Elmer Layden, one of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen and NFL commissioner during the war. When Arch Ward organized a game between the Chicago Bears and College All-Stars in the summer of 1944, he tagged Layden to quarterback the All-Stars and made sure Tribune readers knew who he was. Layden threw a 47-yard touchdown pass and intercepted another pass to win the Treasury Bond Bowl.

The Great Lakes Naval Station fielded its own powerhouse team. The Blue Jackets were coached by Paul Brown, fresh off a very successful run at Ohio State. The team was stacked with stars from Big Ten schools, including Buddy Young of Illinois, who earned comparisons to Red Grange as a freshman before getting drafted by the Navy. Young was still young, and he was short (some sources listed him as 5'4"), so he was relegated to kick-return duties for the deep Blue Jackets.

Young was African American, but the armed forces were integrated and most of the nation's biggest football programs were already becoming color blind, at least where top football talent was concerned. Football had no Jackie Robinson, just soldiers and sailors like Young who quietly joined professional teams. Many of those teams were in the new AAFC and were coached by military-base coaches like Brown.

By 1945, there was no reason to station any significant naval resources on the Great Lakes. The entire Blue Jackets team, except for coach Brown, was shipped off to Fleet City in Shoemaker, California. The relocated Blue Jackets scored 165 points in their first two games (!) of the 1945 season, then tore through a schedule full of other military bases and California semi-pro teams.

The Blue Jackets faced the Pearl Harbor-based Navy All-Stars in front of 60,000 fans at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium in what was billed as the naval championship game in December 1945. Young returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown, losing his helmet as he turned up the sideline for the score, in a 23-7 Blue Jackets victory. A gorgeous full-color highlight reel shows the game in all its glory; Young's touchdown is at the 6:50 mark.

Two weeks later, the Blue Jackets faced the El Toro Marines, featuring Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch and other future NFL stars, at the Los Angeles Coliseum in front of 55,000 fans. Young returned a kickoff 94 yards and a punt 88 yards for the first two Blue Jackets touchdowns in a 48-25 win. The Blue Jackets then challenged the U.S. Naval Academy itself to a game. The Midshipmen politely declined.

Military football teams were forgotten almost immediately when World War II ended. Buddy Young went back to Illinois, where he led the Illini to a 45-14 Rose Bowl victory over UCLA after the 1946 season. Layden, who excelled in baseball as well as football, entered the Red Sox farm system.

They would be teammates three years later, facing an opponent no one could vanquish: Paul Brown, Young's old coach from Great Lakes Naval Station.

The Doctor, the Hand-Biter, and the Chinese General's Adviser

If Dan Topping thought he could transplant his Dodgers into the AAFC, rename them the Yankees and dominate the fledgling league, he was in for a rude awakening. His Dodgers went 0-8 in 1944 and merged with the NFL's Boston team due to manpower shortages in 1945. Topping was nearly starting from scratch.

He caught a huge break, however, from the AAFC's geography. The Cleveland Browns, coached by Paul Brown (the Browns recruited Brown when he was still coaching in the Navy, and they capitalized on his Ohio State fame by naming the franchise after him), were a Western Division team, as were the well-financed San Francisco 49ers. Topping's Yankees shared an Eastern Division with Cox's Dodgers, a Buffalo Bisons team whose coach resigned before the inaugural season even began and the Miami Seahawks, one of the weakest professional sports franchises in human history.

Associated Press

Topping hired Ray Flaherty, a successful coach for the Redskins until the outbreak of the war, to helm the Yankees. Topping also brought back 34-year-old Navy lieutenant Ace Parker, one of his Dodgers stars through 1941, as his single-wing tailback. At quarterback, safety, punter, return man and possibly PA announcer, Topping followed Flaherty's advice and signed Spec Sanders, a 22-year-old from the University of Texas.

Sanders was yet another member of the Longhorns team that appeared on the cover of Life in 1941. He was a sophomore backup to Pete Layden on that team. Sanders enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and spent most of the war playing for camp teams in Georgia and North Carolina, though he also saw action in the Pacific. By 1946, Sanders was a skinny, elusive, ornery rookie. When a Los Angeles Dons defender was slow to climb off Sanders after a sack in one of the AAFC's first exhibition games, Sanders bit his hand. He became a fan favorite and eventually the greatest player in the AAFC outside of Cleveland or San Francisco.

With Parker and Sanders sharing the backfield, the Yankees quickly established themselves as the second-best team in the AAFC. Cox's Dodgers were not nearly so lucky. His quarterback was Glenn Dobbs, one of the greatest players in University of Tulsa history. During the war, Dobbs played for the Randolph Field Ramblers before getting replaced by Layden, transferring to the Second Air Force Superbombers team and losing the Treasury Bond Bowl to his former team/base.

Dobbs led the Dodgers in passing, rushing, kick returns and punt returns, and he tied for the team lead with two interceptions. But he had little support. His most effective teammate was Mickey Colmer, a minor league football star from California before the war who, while stationed in Southeast Asia, earned a Bronze Star and caught the eye of a Chinese general named Chiang Kai-shek.

Colmer served as Chiang's liaison and nearly stayed in China as an adviser, but Colmer's wife kiboshed the idea. So Colmer played wingback for the Brooklyn Dodgers instead of trying to guide Chiang Kai-shek through the Chinese Civil War.

The Dodgers' coach was Mal Stevens, whose story was even stranger than Colmer's. Stevens was football's Moonlight Graham—or a cross between Hawkeye Pearce and Rich Kotite. In his youth, Stevens was "The Kansas Comet," a 160-pound halfback for Yale. Stevens earned a medical degree at Yale, opened a practice in New Haven and simultaneously coached and taught medicine at Yale. He did the same thing for New York University until the outbreak of war.

Lieutenant Commander Stevens, one of the Navy's top orthopedic experts, then served as a medical liaison with the British navy during D-Day. Afterward, he shipped off to the Pacific to command the medical ship USS Haven, which was one of the first vessels to land at Nagasaki after the atomic bombing.

Then, naturally, Stevens became head coach of football's Brooklyn Dodgers; he was one of Cox's co-investors.

Stevens lasted only a few games. His Dodgers were terrible. All of the teams in the AAFC East other than the Yankees were terrible. The Bisons started the year 0-6-1. Seahawks owner Harvey Hester lost his life savings just trying to field a team. The other owners pitched in to pay off his debts, then replaced the franchise with the Baltimore Colts. The Dodgers went 3-10-1, with wins over the Bisons and Seahawks padding their record, while assistants Cliff Battles and Tom Scott shared the coaching chores.

The Yankees cruised to a 10-3-1 record against feeble opposition. Two of their losses were to the Browns by a combined score of 31-7. The Browns beat the Yankees in the AAFC Championship Game 14-9.

Anonymous/Associated Press

The Browns were the AAFC's greatest draw, greatest team and biggest problem. They won games in 1946 by margins like 28-0, 51-14, 34-0 and (against the Dodgers) 66-14. Paul Brown, quarterback Otto Graham and running back Marion Motley were breaking the AAFC, and the problem would soon get worse.

After the 1946 season, Topping and Flaherty let Ace Parker retire and began building around Sanders. Mal Stevens joined the Yankees as team physician. The Yankees added former Illinois and Blue Jackets star Buddy Young at running back. Sanders rushed for an amazing 1,432 yards and 18 touchdowns in 1947, adding 14 passing touchdowns. Young pitched in 712 rushing yards and 27 catches. The Yankees went 11-2-1, then were beaten 14-3 by the Browns in their second straight AAFC championship appearance. Topping and Flaherty lured Layden away from baseball to join Sanders and Young in the backfield for 1948.

Cox endured one more 3-10-1 season before selling his Dodgers to the ownership of baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers. That meant one of the AAFC's weaklings was under the auspices of a successful, forward-thinking and (in 1948) controversial sports executive named Branch Rickey.

The Wild Horse of the Osage

Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. Roy Campanella joined him in the Dodgers lineup in 1948. The Dodgers were en route to finish third in the National League when Branch Rickey, the executive who signed Robinson and Campanella and orchestrated the end of over a half-century of segregation, had time in the late summer of 1948 to tinker with a newly acquired football team.

With the AAFC already integrated by players like Young and Marion Motley, Rickey turned his mind toward other innovations.

Kenneth R. Crippen's The Original Buffalo Bills tells of Rickey meeting with the Bills owner (the Bisons had been renamed and buttressed with better players) before a preseason game and discussing some bold new ideas for the AAFC: two games per week and a 28-game season. Yes, a 28-game season, which would be "fair to the thousands of fans who would like to see our teams and to the owners who are being whipsawed financially under the current setup."

Associated Press

Rickey had another wrinkle up his sleeve: the extra-point specialist. No, not Tim Tebow—Pepper Martin. Martin was called "The Wild Hoss of the Osage," a star outfielder and third baseman for the Cardinals in the 1930s. He had also been a very good semi-pro football player in his early years. But Martin was 43 years old when Rickey had the crazy notion that Brooklyn Dodgers fans would come to the park to see an old outfielder kick field goals.

Martin missed three field goals in that exhibition against the Bills. One, according to Crippen's book, was blocked straight back into Martin's arms. "He stood there, alarm registering on his face while several fierce 250-pounders bore down on him, wondering whether to bullyrag the officials or throw the ball to second base," Bills coach George Ratterman said. "As I recall now, he fell down in a protective heap instead."

Martin swiftly gave up football. Rickey would soon give up on the idea of a 28-game schedule. One of the biggest problems with the idea was the likelihood that the Cleveland Browns would go 28-0. The Browns went 12-1-1 in 1947 before beating the Yankees again for the league title. In 1948, they went 14-0 and beat Ratterman's Bills 49-7 for the title. (Here is a highlight reel from the game). Their average margin of victory in 1948 was 28-14. AAFC fans in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles had no hope of beating the powerhouse from Cleveland, making it hard for the league to promote itself in its biggest markets.

The NFL had parity issues of its own before World War II, with the Bears and a few other powerhouses often running away with the title. But former Eagles and Steelers owner Bert Bell succeeded Elmer Layden as commissioner, and Bell was to competitive balance what Albert Einstein was to physics.

Bell had already come up with the idea of a draft in the 1930s and convinced the other owners of its merits. As commissioner, he began front-loading schedules with difficult rivalry games for his league's top powerhouses. The 1940s Bears invariably faced the Packers and crosstown Cardinals at the start of their seasons, while the weakling Lions and Steelers might face each other in the opener, then take turns against the Boston Yanks. By midseason, the contenders would each have a loss or two, the weaklings would have a win or two, and fans scanning the newspaper standings could hope that on any given Sunday…

No scheduling magic could stop the Browns. Topping fired Flaherty as Yankees coach early in what would become a disappointing 6-8 season. A knee injury slowed Spec Sanders. Layden had to take back many of the passing and punting chores from his former college backup. Young's productivity tapered.

One problem was that Paul Brown was modernizing football with dropback passing and precisely drawn route combinations, while the Yankees were still running a Depression-era Single Wing. Red Strader replaced Flaherty, and the Yankees prepared to switch to a more modern T-formation.

Rickey and the Dodgers, meanwhile, prepared to cash in their chips. There was no way to compete as the third-best football team in the New York area. Officially, the AAFC merged the Dodgers with Toppings' Yankees. Unofficially, the Yankees got a handful of Dodgers, with many of the others shipped off to help the desperate Chicago Rockets, who were stuck being the third-best team in Chicago. The Yankees got Colmer, star lineman Martin Ruby and a few bit players in the merger.

With Sanders ailing and Layden aging, the Yankees selected rookie Don Panciera as their T-formation quarterback. Ruby joined Arnie Weinmeister on a line nearly as good as anything Paul Brown could muster. Perhaps the combined might of the Yankees and Dodgers could bring New York a championship and save the AAFC from the Browns' stranglehold.

But the New York-Brooklyn Yankees (as they were often called by newspapers) also needed to replace Sanders at punter. Topping turned once again to the University of Texas, where a decorated B-17 co-pilot who had been a freshman on the 1941 squad was about to finally graduate.

The Last Stand

Tom Landry returned to the University of Texas after World War II. The Longhorns were a powerhouse again, as they had been before the war, but Landry was just a role-playing running back, defensive back and punter for a team headlined by Bobby Layne. Landry completed his studies and earned a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering.

Buddy Young, featured in a 1949 newspaper cartoon.
Buddy Young, featured in a 1949 newspaper cartoon.Courtesy Newspapers.com

The Giants drafted Landry in the 20th round in 1947 as a "future" selection, knowing he had college eligibility left. But Topping sent an assistant to meet Landry after his final college game, the Longhorns' Orange Bowl victory over Georgia on New Year's Day in 1949. The Yankees offered Landry a $6,000 contract with a $500 signing bonus. Landry took the offer and used the signing bonus to pay for his wedding.

Spec Sanders gave training camp a try, but he would not be able to play in 1949. Still, the Yankees-Dodgers had plenty of talent. The 250-pound Ruby returned an interception for a touchdown in the season opener against the Bills, helping turn a 14-0 deficit into a 17-14 Yankees win.

The Yankees then travelled to Cleveland and endured a 14-3 loss. The Browns had not lost a game in nearly two years, and they seemed to be getting even stronger as the rest of the AAFC fought for survival.

When the Browns weren't on the field, however, the Yankees were tough to beat. Young rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns against the Chicago Rockets in a 38-24 win. Layden returned a Y.A. Tittle interception for a touchdown to beat the Baltimore Colts.

The Yankees hosted the 49ers, the AAFC's second-best team, at Yankee Stadium on October 23. The Giants hosted the Bears at the Polo Grounds on the same afternoon. It was a head-to-head battle for gate receipts, and the Yankees won. A reported 36,000 people attended the AAFC game, as opposed to 30,000 fans at the Giants game, despite the arrival of the mighty Bears.

With so many pro football teams losing money, however, the victory was Pyrrhic. "Total attendance at Sunday's Bears-Giants and Yankees-49ers games seems to confirm [Giants owner] Tim Mara's theory that there are only about 60,000 pro football fans around New York," quipped Hugh Fullerton Jr. in his national column for the Daily Standard.

The Yankees won on the field as well, beating San Francisco 24-3 on the strength of two more Young touchdowns. The win lifted the Yankees to 5-1. Soon, they were 7-2 and had clinched a playoff berth. The AAFC played as one seven-team conference in 1949, with the top four teams making the playoffs. The playoff berth was nice, but it meant nothing if the Yankees could not beat the Browns, who traveled to Yankee Stadium on November 20.

The Yankees believed they could finally beat the Browns. So did rival and former coach Ray Flaherty, now leading a Chicago team full of ex-Dodgers. "The Yanks have the greatest line in the game," Flaherty told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's Harold C. Burr after his Rockets lost to the Yankees. "They can beat the Browns."

The line may have been great, but there was trouble in the backfield. Quarterback Dan Panciera, who was proving to be far less than advertised as a T-formation quarterback, was briefly benched in favor of Gil Johnson during the Rockets game. Johnson turned out to be worse. Colmer, a star in Brooklyn, was worn out, averaging just 2.8 yards per rush.

Associated Press

The defensive secondary faced an even bigger crisis. Defensive back Harmon Rowe tore a ligament in his right knee. Rowe's backup was rookie punter Landry. Landry's job against the Browns: cover Mac Speedie, one of the fastest players in pro football. This was one nosedive Landry would not be able to pull out of.

The Browns beat the Yankees 31-0 at Yankee Stadium in front of over 48,000 fans, who booed the home team as it trudged off the field at halftime. Speedie caught 11 passes for 228 yards. The Browns bucked conventional strategy by passing early in the game and from deep in their own territory. That Yankees line was indeed tough, but there was no need to run Motley up the middle with Speedie open on nearly every play.

"Speedie was a Lone Ranger out there, all by himself, to gather the ball," Yankees coach Strader told Burr after the game.

"Mac Speedie turned me inside out and hung me out to dry," Landry said years later. Adding insult to injury, Landry also had a punt blocked. And Buddy Young left the game in the second half with an injury.

Young's productivity fell off after the injury, though he stayed in the lineup. The Yankees offense sputtered. They beat the Los Angeles Dons, then lost their season-ending rematch to the 49ers. The Yankees were the third-seeded team in the playoffs, meaning they had to face the 49ers in San Francisco for a second consecutive week while the Browns toyed with the Bills in Cleveland. It was the first time in football history that seedings were used to determine home-field advantage for playoffs, and it had a disastrous effect on the Yankees.

Associated Press

The 49ers defeated the Yankees 17-7 in the playoff game. Young carried just three times. The desperate Yankees turned to Layden to replace Panciera at quarterback, but Layden went 2-of-9 with an interception. Landry rushed three times for a loss of two yards. He also punted 10 times for 550 yards, including a 73-yarder.

In fact, a UPI report called the game "one of the most spectacular punting duels ever seen in the west," with Landry and 49ers star Frankie Albert exchanging booming punts.

That's how the history of the AAFC and football's Yankees and Dodgers ends: not with a whimper, but with a bunch of banging punts.

The Aftermath

Chiang Kai-shek lost the Chinese Civil War and retreated to Taiwan as China became a communist nation. Mickey Colmer retired from football after the 1949 season and worked for the Douglas and Rockwell aircraft manufacturers for the rest of his life, passing away in 2000.

Ken Seinz, Landry's commander aboard the B-17, returned home to raise a family and enter the tanker-truck rental business. Branch Rickey managed the baseball Dodgers as that franchise, as well as baseball's New York Giants, left for the West Coast. Billy Cox became an art collector and a pioneer in the collectables field. Doctor Mal Stevens became chairman of the Medical Advisory Board to the New York State Athletic Commission and became a noted boxing safety reformer among many, many other achievements.

History says the NFL and AAFC merged after the 1949 season. More precisely, the NFL grabbed the Browns and 49ers, great teams in very good markets, then scratched its head about what to do with the rest. Redskins owner George Preston Marshall thought the Colts would make a good local rival and waived his territorial rights to Baltimore, making the Colts the third team permitted into the expanded NFL (which was called the National-American Football League for one year).

Commissioner Bert Bell, who assembled schedules using index cards on his home kitchen table, wanted to add a fourth AAFC franchise to give the NFL an even 14 teams. The Buffalo Bills, a very good team in a pretty good market, petitioned hard but could not win a unanimous vote. The NFL went ahead with 13 teams. Bell got his even number when the Colts folded after one year. The Browns, meanwhile, played in the next six NFL championship games, winning three.

The Yankees? There was no way Mara and the Giants would vote for their inclusion. Topping faced another opponent: Ted Collins, owner of the Boston Yanks. Collins wanted a team in New York, which is why he named his team the Yanks, which resonated as well with Boston fans then as it would now. Cox's Yanks merged with Topping's Dodgers during the player shortage of 1945, then spent the post-war years as an NFL punching bag, waiting for the AAFC to go away so they could swoop into New York.

Bell allowed Cox to move when the Dodgers folded, on the stipulation that he officially fold the Yanks (for tax purpose), then start an all-new franchise. The Yanks became the New York Bulldogs, but when the AAFC folded, they were free to become the Yanks again.

Topping's Yankees dissolved, with most of the players dispersed to Collins' Yanks or Mara's Giants. Spec Sanders returned to the field for those Yanks. Buddy Young and Pete Layden also joined the new team. The Yanks were good in 1950 but terrible and insolvent in 1951. In 1952, they officially unofficially (Bell again dissolved one franchise, then created another with a mostly similar roster) became the Dallas Texans. In 1953, they were the new Baltimore Colts, though again unofficially: Bell had a loosey-goosey way of moving struggling franchises around, so you have to follow the careers of Young and others like a trail of breadcrumbs to keep up with the maneuvers.

Layden and Sanders retired to small-town life in Texas and Oklahoma, respectively. Young played for the Colts through 1955, retiring just before Johnny Unitas arrived and turned the franchise around. Topping owned baseball's Yankees through 1964.

Landry, meanwhile, joined the Giants. He was already in his late 20s, slow-footed and balding, but he could punt and had learned much from his Speedie encounter. Landry had three eight-interception seasons, became a player-coach in 1954, then a full-time coach in 1956 as the Giants' defensive coordinator. Vince Lombardi was the offensive coordinator. The Giants won the 1956 championship and became a perennial powerhouse of the late 1950s.

Charley Conerly of the glamorous 1950s Giants.
Charley Conerly of the glamorous 1950s Giants.Associated Press

The Giants also became glamorous. Quarterback Charlie Conerly was a sex symbol as one of the original Marlboro Men. Halfback Frank Gifford was a Big Apple celebrity. In Los Angeles, where the Dons merged with the Rams (who had left Cleveland to escape the Browns), Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield married actress Jane Russell, and Rams players began appearing in movies and television.

Pro football was baseball's baby brother and college football's weird uncle before the AAFC arrived on the scene. A decade later, NFL teams no longer had to pretend to be Yankees or Dodgers. The NFL spanned the continent and was making its mark on a new medium called television. In a few decades, the army co-pilot too slow to cover Mac Speedie would be back in Texas as the head coach of America's Team: not some Yankees wannabe, but the Dallas Cowboys, the most popular team playing the nation's new pastime.

It all started with a lucky landing, a millionaire coffee klatch and an upstart league that was better at challenging the NFL than it was at providing a challenge for its own best team.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

This story draws on historic information chronicled by The Pro Football Researchers Association, Archives.gov, History.com, America's Game by Michael MacCambridge, the Ironwood Daily GlobeThe Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry by Mark Ribowsky, LA84.org, the Austin American-Statesman, the Chicago Tribune, JockBio.com, EasyReaderNews.com, the Osborne County Hall of Fame, The Original Buffalo Bills by Kenneth R. Crippen, On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell by Robert Lyons, the Daily Standard, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, UPI, Findagrave.com, the New York Times. Links are provided, when available.

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