As the twentieth-century began, a thirteen-year-old boy, whose family was living in poverty on the Lower East Side of New York, quit school to sell newspapers on street corners to help support his family-a not uncommon occurrence.
He soon became a runner for bookmakers–a legal operation then–his job consisting of collecting debts from losers or making pay-offs to winners. He got one-per-cent of all debts collected and received tips from winners. He soon hustled enough to have his own operation and by 1925 was a fixture at New York racetracks.
The NFL was then struggling to gain traction, having been formed three years earlier in a Hupmobile auto showroom in Canton, Ohio. College football was the main attraction after Babe Ruth and baseball, with few fans showing up for pro football games.
One day, that bookmaker, Tim Mara, had a good day at the racetrack and bought the first pro football franchise available in New York for the princely sum of $500. The team struggled to get fans and over the next fifteen years played to sparse crowds.
Then, in 1939, a watershed moment in sports history occurred when Fordham University played Waynesburg College in the first football game ever televised. Incidentally, the announcer that day was the legendary Bill Stern, who, sixteen years later, paid me out of his own pocket to assist him in doing the NBC Southern Cal-Minnesota radio broadcast. I was red-shirting after transferring to Minnesota when Fordham dropped football.
I remember him saying to me at game’s end, “You did a great job, kid,” and then slipping me five bucks!
These sixty-odd years later, I can only hope I’m safe from NCAA censure, and that neither Stern nor Vince Lombardi were breaking any rules when the former slipped me that $5 and the latter drove me from the Bronx to West Point in his Buick Roadmaster to introduce me to the coaches at the United States Military Academy about transferring there when Fordham suddenly dropped football.
The first coast-to-coast pro football telecast happened a decade later, and then in 1958, the “greatest game ever played,” — the New York Giants against the Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas–an overtime championship thriller–tuned in all of America to the Sunday afternoon ritual of the NFL.
Members of the Mara family have run the Giants ever since, most notably Tim’s son Wellington who had the good sense to make the acquaintance of a young Lombardi while they both attended Fordham.
Wellington then got Vince coaching jobs at Fordham and the Giants, sending him on his way to his legendary Green Bay Packer career.
The NFL is now a $12 billion a year business, and the Giants–winners of four Super Bowls–are valued at $2.8 billion..
Not bad for a fledgling bookie’s $500 investment.