Posted Sep 26, 2012

I guess I’m just a showman...

Baseball’s legendary owner Bill Veeck carried to his grave a well deserved reputation as one of his game’s greatest promoters while Lamar Hunt holds similar – if less recognized – credit for building fan interest and support for the sport of professional football.

As the founder of a new professional sports league, Hunt had to be on his toes when he set about luring attention to his new game and anyone who has followed the Texas sportsman knows that up until the end of his life he was more than equal to that task. “I guess I’m just a showman,” he reportedly said once when asked why a start-up of a new professional tennis tour. Endless memoranda flowed from Hunt to his charges in Kansas City, as well as to those who operated his tennis and soccer operations around the globe, as he identified marketing and promotional gimmicks to attract fans.

Hunt was never one to give up on the enormous task before him. A move to Kansas City in 1963 with its dismal baseball team and its owner, Charley Finley, who wasn’t bashful about his dislike for the town, was not going to be easy despite the initial interest the city leaders had shown and popular mayor H. Roe Bartle had backed. Indeed, Hunt said in an early August of 1963 letter to GM Jack Steadman that he was “convinced that our sales at first are going to be very few” unless the team was “involved in a close race” It wasn’t.

So, promotion was very much on Hunt’s mind in those early days and he was committed, as he wrote to Steadman, to “calculating in advance that any step we take will be a success before we decide to do it.”

Well, most were.

While Hunt’s promotional gimmicks were not of the bizarre nature of Veeck’s Eddie Gadael stunt, they could border on the bizarre. Consider one using Olympian and Kansan Jim Ryun to run against a relay team composed of Chiefs’ players. Hunt got the idea from a Jesse Owens exhibition where the gold medalist received $150,000 for races all over the world where he ran against horses. Owens would run 100 yards while the horse traveled 135. Apparently, Owens never lost, as Hunt understood it, but he offered a twist or two of his own. Chiefs’ players would run 80 yards and Warpaint, the team’s mascot, would run 110 yards, “or whatever is a good handicap,” as the always thinking Hunt considered it.

If it was to be Ryun and not Warpaint, then he wanted assurances that the Kansan would win against a relay team of Chiefs.

“For a baton, I’d let the players use a football,” he suggested, “they would drop some of the relay exchanges and the ball bouncing along the ground would create a good effect.” The race would be “one mile in length, using nine of our players to run in relay order, the first eight to each run 195 yards (one and one-half laps) and the last one to run 200 yards. I figure our players at 28 seconds per leg of the relay – 4:12 mile. Ryun runs a 4:10 and wins by two yards.” To further promote the race, the PA announcer would be a fellow veteran player offering running commentary.

As to who might be lured – or perhaps “encouraged”– to participate, the team founder suggested Reg Carolan, Bobby Bell, E.J. Holub, Len Dawson, Buck Buchanan, Jerry Mays, Curtis McClinton, Mack Lee Hill, and Frank Jackson.

The upshot to this stunt, bragged the always enthusiastic Hunt in a memo to this promotion: “Color it Fantastic!”

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