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Our pal Al

Ralph Wilson (left) and old pal Al Davis.

blog by Ben Kirst  • 

It’s been stylish to knock Al Davis, the recently deceased owner of the Oakland Raiders, over the past decade or so.  And why not?  In seven of the previous eight National Football League seasons, the Raiders failed to win more than five games.  In fact—with the exception of a three-year stretch at the turn of the century and flare-ups in 1990 and 1993 (both snuffed out in the playoffs by the Buffalo Bills), Oakland has been decidedly mediocre since the mid-1980s. 

Regardless, Davis was one of the most dynamic characters in the history of league and oversaw a franchise that went from the dregs of the old American Football League to become an iconic, three-time Super Bowl-winning organization.  He forced the boring old NFL to re-acknowledge that the ball could, in fact, be thrown down field on a regular basis.  He made track suits cool for old people once again.

Alright, maybe not the last part, but in honor of Al’s passing, here are some of the unique ways he was tied to our own fair city of Buffalo.

1.) The Raiders were nearly the Saints!  Well, kind of.  Here’s former Buffalo News sports editor Larry Felser’s explanation of the famous Ralph-lends-Oakland money story:

“By the end of the 1962 season, it appeared the Raiders would either relocate, probably to New Orleans, or close down operations. Instead Wayne Valley, the (Oakland) managing partner, convinced his board of directors to give it another year, mainly because the team had received a $400,000 infusion of cash from Ralph Wilson, owner of the Bills, in exchange for 25 percent of the team. Wilson later said, ‘I knew it was against the constitution, but the league would have folded. I did it for the sake of the league.’”

2.) Did you know Al Davis was the commissioner of the old AFL?  Indeed he was!  It is unknown how often he wore track suits to league offices.  What is documented, however,  is that he hired a Buffalo Evening News sports writer—Jack Horrigan—to be his PR man.  Horrigan was the advocate that allowed AFL teams to retain their uniforms, logos and identities once they merged into the NFL in the late 1960s.  Given the creativity and open-mindedness of the Mad Men-style suits running the NFL at the time, we should thank Horrigan that teams weren’t required to run the Wing T every play, as well.

3.) Everyone knows Oakland QB Daryle Lamonica as “The Mad Bomber,” but did you know he had six rushing TDs for Buffalo in 1964?  In fact, Lamonica had 128 passing attempts and 55 rushing attempts as a non-starter for the Bills in that championship season.  Anyhow, Davis got his paws on Lamonica in 1967 and the former Notre Dame QB went on to become a vertical passing star.  The trade (Oakland sent QB Tom Flores and WR Art Powell to the Bills for Lamonica and WR Glenn Bass) is remembered in Buffalo as a moment when we were suckered by the slippery Al Davis.

From Jeffrey J. Miller and Billy Shaw’s Rockin’ the Rockpile: The Buffalo Bills of the American Football League:

“‘The biggest mistake the Bills ever made was trading Daryle Lamonica,’ said Bobby Burnett, echoing the sentiment of Lamonica loyalists that lingers to this day.  ‘That was the dumbest move.  Not only because he left—it was the people who came in.  That was two young players, and we got two old guys who were done.  Tom Flores was a sweetheart of a man—he was a great man—but he was done.  His career was done.  Here’s this young Daryle Lamonica just coming up.  Daryle’s just coming into his own, he can throw the ball like a crazy man, and he knew the game and he was good and everybody liked him.  I never understood that move.’”

Since Lamonica went from a 1966 season with 0 starts, a 39.3 completion percentage, four TDs and five INTs for Buffalo to a 13-1 record as a starter with 30 TDs as the MVP for a Super Bowl team in Oakland in 1967, it is probably fair to say that the Bills got fleeced by Davis.  Powell, however, was a 1,000-yard receiver in 1966 and Flores had thrown for 24 TDs while going 7-2-1 as the Raiders’ starter.  Both Powell and Flores were 29 years old in 1967—Lamonica was 26.  It’s not as though the incoming Oaklanders were tottering old men.  They just happened to fall apart at the same time.  C’est la vie!

The craziest part about that story, by the way—there was once a time when Notre Dame QBs were good in the pros.  Freaky!

4.) Although they have been in the league together since 1960, Davis’ Raiders have met the Bills in the playoffs just twice—Buffalo won both times (51-3 in 1990, 29-23 in 1993).

5.) Ralph and Al used to chill together!  Again from Felser:

“‘About six weeks after I was named commissioner (in 1966),’ Davis said, ‘I was visiting Ralph Wilson in his Detroit insurance office, since Ralph was serving as president of the league. We were talking about Miami. Suddenly one of his top people, Lou Curl, walked into the office with some big news—the New York Giants had just signed Pete Gogolak. Ralph was indignant, since Gogolak was his player, very important to the Bills.  I told him, Ralph, don’t be indignant,’ Davis said. ‘The NFL just handed us the merger.’”

What a great image: Al, with his slicked-back hair and antsy demeanor, fidgeting in a chair in Ralph’s swank Motor City office—probably has his feet on the desk one minute, then pacing nervously the next, then flopping into a chair while the shockingly handsome 1966 version of Ralph (played by Dick Van Patten) ruminates heavily on the fact that he may need to pay Paul Costa an extra $5 a week.

Davis, of course, was excited about the opportunity to go after NFL talent while Ralph was mad about the looming salary issues.  Ah, some things never change.  Have a great afterlife, Al.

TAGGED: buffalo bills, nfl, oakland raiders, ralph wilson

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