This is the twenty-fifth in a series of examinations of football-related urban legends and whether they are true or false. This week, learn what the name of the official NFL football is, discover how the Cleveland Browns got their name and find out about the strange origin of the Dallas/Houston Governor’s Cup.
Click here to view an archive of all the previous football urban legends.
FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The National Football League’s official football has a name.
Giving names to inanimate objects is a tradition that has been going on for centuries, from the christening of vessels on their way to sea to the guy down the street who calls his old beat-up Chevy “Betsy” (the number one name car owners give their cars). This tradition has extended to baseball, as well. From Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose famous bat “Black Betsy” (man, people sure love to name their stuff “Betsy,” don’t they?) sold for nearly $600,000 at an auction a decade ago to current Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, who names his bats after fictional swords (like Hrunting, the famous sword used in the epic poem “Beowolf”), giving nicknames to your bats is not particularly unusual. However, the National Football League (NFL) has gone one step further with its official game ball – it has an actual official name!
Tim Mara founded the New York Giants in 1925 at the behest of the NFL, who felt that their fledgling league needed a team in the biggest market in the country. Mara was the owner and President of the Giants from 1925 until his death in 1959. In that time, he turned the Giants into one of the most successful franchises in NFL history. When the Pro Football Hall of Fame was founded in 1963, Mara was an inaugural member. Mara’s sons, Jack and Wellington, took over the running of the team upon Mara’s death (Jack as President, Wellington as Vice-President – the brothers had already been running the day-to-day operations of the team unofficially since 1946, with Jack handling the business side of things and Wellington handling the on-the-field side). Jack died in 1965 and then Wellington ran the team from 1966 until his own passing in 2005, with his son John then taking over the team (Bob Tisch bought a piece of the Giants in 1991 and co-owned the team with Mara until 2005, as Tisch died less than a month after Mara. Tisch’s son Steve currently co-owns the team with John Mara). Wellington Mara was also enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (unlike his father, he lived to see his enshrinement in 1997). Mara’s most significant achievement as an owner came in the early 1960s when he and his brother Jack agreed to split the revenue from the TV airings of NFL games evenly with the other teams. This decision reverberates in the NFL to this day (and it is the main reason why the Green Bay Packers are able to still have a team).
Long before he was owner of the team, though, Wellington Mara was associated with the Giants. During the team’s first season in 1925, at the ripe old age of nine, he served as the Giants’ ball boy. After graduating college, Wellington went to work in the Giants front office, serving as the Assistant to the President and Treasurer in 1937; Secretary from 1938–1940; Vice-President and Secretary from 1945–1958; Vice-President from 1959–1965; President from 1966–1990; and finally President and Co-Chief Executive Officer, 1991–2005 (his death). Everyone believed that Tim Mara had named his son after Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington (a famous military and political leader who was born in Ireland, which would likely be appealing to the Irish-American Mara). Whether he did or not (and he almost certainly did), the key point is that everyone thought that he did, so they nicknamed the younger Mara “The Duke.”
Here is Mara with the team in the 1940s when he was in his mid-20′s (he is in the middle of the photo)…
In 1941, George Halas (owner of the Chicago Bears) began to negotiate with Wilson Sporting Goods to make Wilson the exclusive supplier of official game balls for the NFL. Mara backed Halas on the deal and at the 1941 owners meeting, the NFL signed a deal with Wilson that still goes on to this day. In gratitude for Mara’s help in getting the deal done, Halas suggested that they name the ball after Mara’s son, Wellington, then serving a stint with the U.S. Navy for World War II (the only time from 1937 until his death that Wellington was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the New York Giants). This was agreed upon and the official NFL game ball was officially named “The Duke.” It was displayed in big letters on one side of the ball.
This remained the status quo from 1941 until 1969. In 1970, the NFL merged with the American Football League (AFL). Presumably not wanting to exacerbate any feelings that the NFL thought that they were better than the AFL, the original NFL owners agreed to drop the name from the ball. So for over thirty years, the official NFL game ball had no official name.
That changed in 2006. In honor of the passing of Mara, the NFL agreed to once again officially name the NFL game ball “The Duke.” Now, though, instead of being in big letters on one side of the ball, it is in small letters on the left side of the NFL logo (right above the Wilson logo).
Still, it is quite an honor for the Mara family.
Thanks to Tyler Kepner for the neat information about R.A. Dickey’s bat-naming habits.
FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The Cleveland Browns were named after boxer Jou “The Brown Bomber” Louis.
The Cleveland Browns opened shop in 1946 as one of the inaugural teams in a new professional football league designed to compete with the National Football League (NFL), the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). They were led by coach (and part-owner) Paul Brown, who was one of the most famous sporting figures in the state of Ohio at the time, having coached Ohio State to a shared national championship earlier in the decade (following years of dominance in Ohio High School football). So it would seem logical that the team was named after Coach Brown, right?
Well, from a 1995 Washington Post article when the announcement was made that Browns owner Art Modell was moving the team to Baltimore (where they became the Baltimore Ravens):
Contrary to popular belief, the Browns were not named for their famous coach Paul Brown. Rather, they were called the Brown Bombers, after the nickname of the revered boxer of that era, Joe Louis. The name later was shortened to the Browns.
So, is the popular belief true?
While Paul Brown certainly enjoyed the respect that came with being such a successful coach, he did not care as much for the hoopla that surrounded it. When Arthur “Mickey” McBride agreed to form the Cleveland franchise for the AAFC, McBride was not particularly versed in the world of football. He was more concerned with owning a sports franchise in Cleveland, it just happened that football was the one that was available. He first tried to buy the NFL team, the Cleveland Rams. They turned him down so he was “forced” to be a part of a new league instead (read here for an earlier Sports Legends Revealed column about the strange reaction the Cleveland Rams, the 1945 NFL Champions, had to the news that a rival team was opening up shop in their city). So when it came to naming his coach, he went with the one thing he did know about football – Notre Dame. He offered a contract to the pre-World War II coach of Notre Dame, Frank Leahey. The President of Notre Dame, though, convinced McBride to choose someone else, as the school did not want to lose their coach. A Cleveland sports reporter suggested Brown, and McBride went for him big time, seemingly more because of his popularity in the area than for his actual coaching resume. Brown (who was serving in the military as a football coach for the Great Lakes Naval Training Center) received a substantial salary, a percentage ownership of the team and complete control over personnel decisions. In effect, the new team was Brown’s team.
That much would be made evident by the results of a 1946 Cleveland Plains-Dealer poll to name the new franchise (with a $1,000 War Bond offered up as a prize for the fan who suggested the winning name). There is some dispute over the exact timeline of the naming of the franchise. What is clear is that after the poll, the team was going to be named the Cleveland Panthers, which was the nickname of a failed American Football League (AFL) franchise in Cleveland that only lasted a single season in 1926. The team was owned by General C. X. Zimmerman, who was the Vice-President of the AFL. The dispute is over how the Panthers was chosen. It was either that they simply were the highest vote-getter in the poll or that they were the second highest, with the highest vote-getter being “The Browns,” chosen for Coach Brown. Coach Brown did not like the idea of the team being named after him, so either way, the team was going to be named the Panthers (either because it was the top vote-getter or because Brown refused to have the team named after him). However, Zimmerman chimed in, noting that he still owned the name and that he would have to be compensated for its usage. The new franchise declined (I’ve seen some reports argue that Brown was not a fan of the team being named after a failed franchise anyways, which could be true, but I find it a bit hard to believe, since Brown later named the Cincinnati Bengals after a…wait for it…failed AFL franchise).
So Brown eventually bowed to popular sentiment and went with the Browns (I believe that there was the formality of having a second poll, but it was clear what was going to be the #1 choice). For years, though, Brown played it coy over whether the team was named after him, publicly offering up the Joe Louis suggestion. Also, after Brown left the organization in the 1960s after a dispute with new owner Art Modell, the Browns (under Modell) supported the Joe Louis version of the story (which would almost certainly be why the Washington Post reported as such in 1995, since that was the official position of the Browns organization at the time). Brown, though, never really held fast to the Louis position and late in his life he would cop to the fact that the team was named after him.
The Browns, meanwhile, support the “Named after Paul Brown” position. From the Browns’ media guide:
Not a single entry in the contest listed Louis or his nickname as a reason for choosing ‘Browns.’
When you add in the fact that while yes, Jou Louis was quite famous at the time, he was not particularly associated with Cleveland at all (Louis was born in Alabama and became a famous boxer out of Detroit), then I think there’s enough evidence to support the assertion (that both the Browns and the NFL itself both agree with now) that the team was, in fact, named after Paul Brown.
Thanks to Charles Babington and Ken Denlinger for the initial Washington Post article, Cleveland Browns.com writer Matt Florjancic for the Browns’ media guide take on the topic, the NFL for their official take on the subject, legendary Cleveland sports reporter, the late Chuck Heaton (for his take on the situation in a Baltimore Sun article in 1991. Heaton supported the “Browns named after Brown” story) and Frank M. Henkel for his book Cleveland Browns History.
FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The annual Governor’s Cup game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston team from the AFC began due to a legal settlement.
In the early days of the existence of the American Football League, then a rival to the National Football League, there were many battles over college players. In fact, the existence of the AFL was, in many ways, one of the biggest boons to players’ salaries in the history of professional football. Until the AFL came along, there was no way of truly demonstrating how much a given player was worth on the open market because there WASN’T an open market. Once the AFL came along, they were desperate for relevance, and the quickest way to get to relevance was to get star players. So the AFL paid through the nose for the best of the college graduates. As a result, salaries soared. One of the reasons the NFL was willing to merge with the AFL was that they couldn’t afford to continue fighting with the AFL for players.
One of these players was Ralph Neely, the standout offensive tackle from the University of Oklahoma. The beginning of his professional career led to a great battle between the two pro teams from Texas, the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL and the Houston Oilers of the AFL.
In 1965, Neely was drafted in the second round of both the NFL Draft and the AFL Draft. In the NFL, he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts. Neely signed with the Houston Oilers in a deal that included an ownership stake in a gas station in Houston. Neely kept the deal quiet so that he would remain eligible to compete in the Gator Bowl during his Senior year (eventually the news got out and he was ruled ineligible for the game). During this time, the Cowboys made a trade with the Colts for Neely’s rights. The Arkansas native Neely was okay with choosing Houston over the Baltimore Colts, but now that the nearby Dallas Cowboys were interested, things were different. So Neely returned the Oilers’ check and signed with the Cowboys. As you might imagine, the Oilers were none too pleased about this particular turn of events, so they sued the Cowboys (presumably tortious interference with contractual relations).
The case dragged on into 1966, even as Neely began playing for the Cowboys in 1965, where he was a starter at right tackle right of the bat (a position he played for five seasons, plus eight more at left tackle) as he made the NFL All-Rookie team.
When the AFL/NFL merger was being negotiated in 1966, one of the outstanding matters was the lawsuit between the Oilers and the Cowboys. The Cowboys were ordered to settle the matter so that the merger could be completed. They sent three draft picks and cash to the Oilers and also agreed to begin to play a yearly game against the Oilers starting in 1967. These games became known as The Governor’s Cup. They took place in the preseason unless the two teams happened to be scheduled against each other during the regular season. The Governor’s Cup continued until the Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997. A number of notable Governor’s Cup games were played, including games in Tokyo, Japan as well as Mexico City, Mexico.
The Cowboys won 18 of the 31 Governor’s Cup games.
In 2002, the expansion Houston Texans brought professional football back to Houston. The Texans and the Cowboys picked up the Governor’s Cup tradition and played the game every year until it was a casualty of the shortened NFL preseason following the resolution of the NFL lockout in 2011. They have not yet announced the 2012 NFL schedule, but I imagine that the Governor’s Cup will continue to be played in 2012. The Cowboys have a 5-4 advantage in Governor’s Cup games against the Texans.
Okay, that’s it for this edition!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org