"MEN IN BLACK"
HELMET HUT NEWS/REFLECTIONS March 2010:
MEN IN BLACK
By Dr. Ken
When the New Orleans Saints were given an NFL franchise on November 1st, 1966, few realized that this $8 million entry to professional football came only after a New Orleans ownership group could not previously purchase the Oakland Raiders for the comparatively cheap price of $400,000.00 just three years before. As the Saints signed local talent, or at least players who had southern or Louisiana connections like Green Bay Packers great Jim Taylor and number one draft choice Les Kelley out of Alabama, their fan base immediately exploded. Despite my strong relationship with the New York Giants, I was one who hoped that this new underdog collection would do well, especially with Taylor as one of my all time favorite players. Unfortunately, it became obvious once the season began that Taylor was literally on his last legs after years of pounding and that his 130 carries as a Saint would be his last. It was also quickly obvious that the Saints weren’t very good and in the next few seasons, their personnel department would prove to be among the worst. The one thing the Saints were strong at from their inception however, was merchandising sales.
Jim Taylor in gold helmet totes the ball in the Saints inaugural 1967 season
Many forget that Tulane University was a long time Southeastern Conference participant with a very loyal following. Their contests with rival LSU routinely filled Tulane Stadium and that the rabid LSU faithful were just as devoted to the Saints. In this football hotbed, retail outlets for Saints merchandise were established almost immediately after the announcement welcoming the expansion team into the league. From their inception New Orleans was among the top grossing teams for merchandise sales with official outlets opening in New Orleans and other Louisiana cities. The venerated D.H. Holmes, later purchased by retail giant Dillard’s, and Maison Blanche department store chains handled much of the Saints initial merchandise sales and it was literally a boon to the local economy. Having the long established D.H. Holmes as their distributor, perhaps the most respected retail store name in the south, as the official Saints merchandiser, also granted immediate legitimacy upon the team, so well respected was the store’s reputation. Their season ticket sales were also among the league’s leaders and they set an NFL record when 20,000 tickets were gobbled up on the first day they were offered to the public. Many of the established NFL franchises were envious as New Orleans’ first year sales of pennants, bobble-head dolls, and apparel dwarfed the annual numbers of some of the NFL’s leaders.
Unfortunately, the team that began their NFL play with an exemplary 5-1 pre-season mark limped home with a three win season in their debut though they were given credit for their ability to hit with authority, often play hard, and respond well to their coaching staff. If nothing else, their popularity soared. Their uniforms were considered among the nicest looking in the NFL or AFL and despite improving to only four victories in their second season, their merchandise continued to fly off of the shelves of the regional stores that were named as “official Saints outfitters.” Team owner John Mecom believed that a change was necessary to foster a winning attitude, thus for the 1969 season, the beautiful gold helmet with the identifiable black fleur de lis on each side was retired in favor of a black shell with gold fleur de lis decals. Unfortunately, no one in the Saints organization had approached the NFL office with the projected change. With an entire line of official Saints items being marketed with gold helmets and what had always been their gold motif as the base color, there was no way that the NFL was going to allow the use of the new black headgear. Putting politics and the usual civic matters on the back burner, the Saints fans were in full support of the NFL decision, often flooding the “letters to the editor” department of local newspapers with their complaints. While Mecom took the attitude that he could in fact dictate the uniform change, the fans’ response made it clear that the “men in black” look was not a popular one.
The infamous black Saints helmet in pre-season practice
To many uniform connoisseurs the black shell with one-inch gold center stripe and white flanking stripes was the perfect palette for the gold with white trimmed fleur de lis. However, with no choice but to bow to NFL and fan pressure, Mecom sent the entire inventory of black helmets to the Saints Atlantic Coast Football League affiliate, the Richmond Roadrunners. Perhaps this was the most predictable outcome for the new helmets. Some wondered why the Saints would not paint over the black shells and then use them for the regular season but almost every team in the ACFL had a working agreement with an NFL club that “sponsored” them. Typical was the situation with the Westchester Bulls located in a northern suburb of New York City. The New York Giants supplied the uniforms, thus the Bulls looked in attire at least, exactly like their big-time, big city counterparts. The coaching staff was made up of Giants personnel and injured Giants players who had otherwise been on the active roster, such as Packers Ice Bowl star Chuck Mercein, played their way back into condition with the Bulls before being re-activated by the parent club. Since the Saints were helping to outfit the Roadrunners, Mecom may have felt that sending the black helmets where they would be “out of sight and out of mind” was the best solution.
Though the short-lived black helmet fiasco is but a blip on the radar of history for the Saints, it remains a helmet variation that is fascinating to many collectors and fans. The team showed slow but continued improvement, inching up their record by one more win over 1968’s results to finish at 5-9 with defensive end Doug Atlkins, running backs Tony Baker and Andy Livingston, guard Jake Kupp, and kicker Tom Dempsey being named to the Pro Bowl game.
and his single bar black Saints helmet in 1969 exhibition game