"The Earliest Raiders"
HELMET HUT NEWS/REFLECTIONS August 2011:
The Earliest Raiders / Part 1
By Dr. Ken
The Oakland Raiders franchise as all serious fans know, and “serious fans” would in my opinion, include all HELMET HUT readers, was the last of the original eight to receive inclusion to the 1960 inaugural season of the American Football League. Taking the place of the departed Minneapolis group that bolted when an NFL opportunity became available, Oakland was represented by an unwieldy collection of eight owners, certainly a recipe for corporate disaster. Compounding the Raiders awkward arrival was the inability to find a suitable home field that wasn’t located in San Francisco. Despite deep seated concerns about having two professional football teams sharing San Francisco, even temporarily, Oakland finally won out over the very strong presentation by Atlanta, thus becoming the final “original” AFL city. By the time the issue was resolved and approval granted, the Raiders were but six months away from holding their first training camp. With most of the Minneapolis draftees already signed by the NFL, CFL, and even by other AFL teams (visualize Abner Haynes in a Raiders uniform!) the Raiders needed to then draft off of the existing rosters of the other seven AFL clubs. Unfortunately, by the time they began to select these players in order to pursue some sort of competitive balance, they had perhaps four months to assemble their training camp roster.
Of course, as a twelve and thirteen year old during the birth of the American Football League, all of the behind-the-scenes intrigue, was just that, behind the scenes and like most young fans, I knew little more than there would be “more football” which truly was all I cared about. In the New York City area, I recall attending Titans games in the dilapidated Polo Grounds. My father, primarily a baseball fan, had gone sour towards the game for a few years after “his” Brooklyn Dodgers packed up Duke Snider, Johnny Podres, Gil Hodges (who lived close by on Bedford Avenue), and the rest of the boys and shipped them to Los Angeles. Thus he seemed ready for something new and we both latched on to the American Football League’s New York Titans. For my father who loved sports only as an avenue to satisfy his urges as a compulsive gambler, the AFL was another four games a week with betting potential. For me, it was more football and definitely, football of and for the underdogs.
Though we did not see the Raiders often on television, the perception of my father, my friends, and I were that this new California team was absolutely terrible. I believe that all New York Giants fans believed that the Titans were the worst team in the league but for the majority of AFL fans, the Raiders somehow seemed worse than the Titans in the first two seasons of the AFL. The Titans performances were in fact made worse, at least by perception, due to their home field. The despised-in-Brooklyn baseball Giants had departed for California soon after the Dodgers and left the Polo Grounds barren. My dad explained that the City was going to renovate and spruce up the place if the Titans put up half the money for the job. No go, the team started, as the old man said, “behind the eight-ball” and had nary a nickel for physical improvements. This made my six or seven trips to the Polo Grounds in 1960 and ’61 an adventure. I have noted in previous HELMET NEWS/REFLECTIONS columns that especially when going with an older cousin or friends, we would purchase the least expensive seats possible. Though today’s fan won’t relate to the concept of walking up to the ticket window the day of the game and plunking down three dollars for a ticket, a seat was rather easy to come by. At one or two of the night games we attended, we were scared silly by the dog and cat-sized New York City rats that were cavorting over and around the seats in the upper decks. With the cheapest seats being on the top deck, this unfortunately, was our area. With less than 5,000 fans at some contests, we would of course quickly work our way down to “premium seating” to enjoy the game from a 45 yard line seat and regale in the Titans up and down performances. Although the Titans were quickly known to be financially strapped, and certainly not one of the AFL’s best teams, to our small group, they also never seemed wretched. As a die-hard NY football Giants fan, I knew who Don Maynard was and loved the hard running of new Titans Bill Mathis and Dewey Bohling. The Titans of course completed that first season with a record of 7-7 but it seemed worse, perhaps because of the stories already leaking out about players being stood up for paychecks and the wretched confines of the home stadium. For some reason however, the Raiders seemed so much worse.
We didn’t have much news about the Oakland entry in the New York papers and I was often struck by the thought, “Who are these guys?” when looking at Petersen’s Pro Football Annual in both 1960 and ’61 and perusing the Raiders roster. Coincidentally, I actually knew one of the Raiders. My father had the practicality of most immigrants who endured great hardship to travel to the United States from Europe and then lived a hardscrabble existence of physical labor and little material comfort until much later in life. Being practical, he deemed it essential that I know how to drive not only an automobile, but the twenty-four foot flatbed truck he used to pick up steel in the Bronx. That he taught me to drive at the age of nine and often set me off on driving errands, not through the cornfields of my wife’s Indiana home, but in the New York City Metropolitan area, seems reckless even to me at this point in time but driving was one of those necessary skills he expected one to have as early as possible. This led to a job repossessing automobiles for a private investigator friend of my father when I was fifteen years of age and was preceded by a valet parking gig when I was twelve. The brothers that ran the valet parking were hell raisers, if not they would not have hired me nor would they have known my old man. Over the summer of 1960, I was sprinting back and forth to retrieve cars when one of the owners called me over, told me to take a rest, and meet “a real football player.” A friend of his from Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, Alan Goldstein had been a schoolboy legend and then had an outstanding career at the University Of North Carolina as one of their all time great receivers to that point in time.
Though listed at 6’ and 200 pounds, Goldstein, getting ready to leave for the Raiders pre-season camp, was all muscle and to my young eyes, seemed to be larger than life. He gave me the rather obvious though excellent advice to “do a lot of running” and “keep lifting those weights.” Okay, I had it covered and I was doing something a real Oakland Raider presumably did so now, I was ready to pay attention to the Raiders and their new wide receiver, Al Goldstein. Not realizing it until the 1961 pre-season issues of the football annuals arrived on the newsstand over the summer of ’61, Goldstein actually had an excellent 1960 season, snaring twenty-seven passes for the first Raiders team. That he did not make the roster in his second season or otherwise decided to move on to his life’s work was lost to me, but at least I had a “personal” reason to follow the Raiders.
Interestingly, it never registered that the Raiders, like the Titans were quite a bit better than perception. In truth, none of the AFL teams in 1960 were “terrible,” a doormat that was pummeled by every other team with scarcely a victory. The Denver Broncos brought up the rear in the Western Division with a 4-9 record, the Patriots in the Eastern with a 5-9 mark, neither sinking to the depths of a one or two win team. Yet it was the Raiders that we would treat with derision, believing they were the worst of the worst. Perhaps it was the helmets!
With every team but the Raiders and Titans donned in what was considered the “state of the art” Riddell helmets, the Wilson helmets, seemingly worn by every Raiders player the first two seasons of AFL play and the MacGregors worn by many of the Titans, made them look as if they had less money or less class. One of my all time favorite photographs showed former Giants Don Maynard in his home Titans uniform getting jacked up by the Patriots Ross O’Hanley and his distinctive MacGregor helmet popping off of his head.