Tuesday, July 21, 2009

New digs for the Roughriders?


Evan Weiner
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Business of Sports Examiner

New digs for the Roughriders?

July 21, 10:16 PM

Old-timers in Regina, Saskatchewan must be shaking their heads with the announcement that Regina political leaders are thinking about building a domed facility that would house the Canadian Football League Saskatchewan Roughriders. There is no guarantee that the stadium will ever be built but more than 50 years ago, the Roughriders organization was holding all sorts of fundraisers to make sure the team continued from season to season which wasn’t totally unusual in the football business in those days.

Chicago Bears owner/coach George Halas used to travel up to small Wisconsin towns in the off-season to help raise money so that the Green Bay Packers had enough funds to play from year to year. Those fundraisers also took place in the 1950s.

The National Football League thought it got rid of a competing league after the 1949 season when it accepted three teams from the folding All America Football Conference, the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers.

In 1953, the NFL would set an attendance record and by 1954 most of the NFL teams had local TV contracts. But another league had set its sights on a war with the NFL.

The Canadian Football League. The CFL signed the 1952 Heisman Trophy Winner Billy Vessels, along with Eddie LeBaron and Gene Brito. In 1955 LeBaron, Birto, Norb Heckler, Alex Webster and Tom Dublinski left the CFL for NFL teams after representatives from the two competing leagues failed to work out a no raiding treaty. The CFL gave up on competing with the NFL by 1956, but Frank Tripucka who was the Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback said people should not have dismissed the CFL as just another league somewhere north of the United States border. Tripucka was with the cash strapped 1952 Dallas Texans franchise that ended up playing on Thanksgiving as the home team in Akron in a high school-pro doubleheader that saw most people not staying for the Texans-Chicago Bears match up and practiced in Hershey, Pennsylvania. "A lot of people think, even in those days, that the National Football League was the almighty league but it really wasn't," said Tripucka.

”The National Football League in those days was haphazard."I'd come home here (to New Jersey, after the CFL season had ended) and I'd watch the Giants play at the Polo Grounds and you could walk up to the ticket window and buy yourself a ticket to anywhere in the place that you wanted. I am talking about 1952, 53, 55. The time the Giants turned it around was the time they moved from the Polo Grounds to the Yankee Stadium in 1956. "They had the playoff game for the National Football championship against that Baltimore (1958) which was that Dallas franchise. I was their property, but I decided, I came home and I was going to call it quits (after the 1952 season with the Texans)."I was totally disenchanted with football, so I came back here to Bloomfield, New Jersey to call it quits and I get a call from Saskatchewan and the fellow says what would it take you to come up here and play? I'm making a big $12,000 at that time, so I hurriedly say $25,000 and he says you got it. That was the year they opened up the Canadian League to eight Americans, prior to that they only had three Americans on each team. "The instructions they had given us was that if you were coming to Canada, don't tell anybody. Because they were going to put an injunction against you, so what most of the players did was say they were going to retire and then they went to Canada and started practicing. "By that time the Canadian courts wouldn't send you back so you could play the season. If the National Football League wanted to sue you, they would sue you after the season was finished. Most of them didn't bother you, so that's how we got away with it." Tripucka recited the names of Kenny Carpenter, Mac Speedie, Neill Armstrong, Bud Grant, Frankie Albert, John Henry Johnson who jumped from the NFL to the CFL. "These were the all the type of people who went up there, so you can see the National Football League in those days wasn't that almighty so to speak. We all went up there and it was great because we played 14 games, you got up there in July and you were home in November. Whereas in the National Football League you were in January when you got home and you were making double the money. Tripucka started with the Chicago Cardinals and ended up in Dallas in his brief NFL career, but he knew one thing about the National Football League. Bert Bell might have been the Commissioner but George Halas was running the league in the early 1950s. "He was the founder and he pretty much ran that league," said Tripucka of Halas' influence thirty years after the NFL got its start in a Canton auto dealership. "Many a time we used to kid on the field on sideline that a referee would reach into his pocket and first look over on the sideline to George Halas if Halas didn't give him any sign, he throw the flag. If Halas shook his head no, he wouldn't throw the flag. When the CFL stopped competing, the owners had another problem. In 1956, an early form of the National Football League Players Association formed and started pushing for a minimum salary of $5,000 and pension benefits. Canadians playing in the CFL were working a fulltime job and playing football. The Americans were commanding big salaries and Tripucka said in many ways, the CFL of the 1950s resembled the NFL in the 1920s. "We didn't have to," he said, "The funny thing about is this is why the native Canadians liked the Americans because they felt this was going to raise their salaries up. Because these poor kids were playing for $50 just like our semi-pros down here. "You talk to some of these old-timers from the National Football League, when the league first started they were getting $100 a game, $50 a game. Well it was the same thing up in Canada. Of course when they brought the Americans in and raised those salaries then the Canadian kids started to get more money.”

To pay for those players, the Roughriders sold tickets to dances, dinners and had other non football activities which all added to the bottom line. Five decades later the team could end up with a municipally funded home with all of the gadgets to succeed like a roof, luxury boxes, club seats, in-stadium restaurants and other amenities that Tripucka could never image back in his days in Regina.