Now, for the first time, Commissioner Ford Frump reveals what really happened behind the scenes in the last two years as the National Fly Casting League confounded critics by emerging as another strong and popular member of the ever-growing fraternity of successful new American professional major leagues.
Now, for the first time, I want to reveal what really happened behind the scenes in the last two years as the National Fly Casting League confounded critics by emerging as another strong and popular member of the ever-growing fraternity of successful new American professional major leagues. This story should clear the air, as it were, of the charges and innuendoes that have been irresponsibly bandied about by certain elements of the press ever since the league started operation.
We have been "bucking the tide" all along, that is for sure. Sports fans said to me from the first, "It'll never work, Frump. The people won't go for it." Or, if they knew me: "It'll never work, Ford. The people won't go for it." Sure, I had to remind myself, keeping my "cool," the people weren't interested in talking motion pictures either, at first. We had to educate the public, to show them what a great spectator sport fly casting is, live and on TV. Now that we have, now that we have established ourselves as a power in professional sport, I think at last it's time to spread the true facts before the American people and, in my own words, show how a germ of an idea grew into what is now one of the largest major leagues in this country.
I shall certainly never forget how first I became aware of what was then, so to speak, the incipient National Fly Casting League. It was one crisp autumn day in the fall of 1969 when I had lunch in a swank midtown Manhattan (N.Y.) restaurant with a recent acquaintance of mine, Frankie Scilizi, the pharmaceutical magnate and, as you know, now the owner of our Buffalo Bass franchise. After exchanging niceties, Frankie and I got down to where, as my old daddy used to say, where the rubber really hits the road. Frankie told me about the other meetings he had been having with various millionaire civic leaders and scions of leading families throughout the 50 states, as they all made initial plans to start the first National Fly Casting League. National Fly Casting League! I sat up in my chair, with a start. This was the first time I had ever heard of such an enterprise.
"It'll never work, Scilizi," I said. (How could I know then how "off base" I would be proven by subsequent events!)
"Why don't you think so?" Frankie asked me, leaning forward.
"The people won't go for it," I went on.
But Frankie was a strong advocate of this bright new project, and he began to point out the real facts to me. He told me how 93.7 million Americans will fly-cast at one time in their lives, how 189.6 million Americans lived near large or medium bodies of water at one time or another and hence were all potential fans, how a nationally commissioned poll showed that 78% of all Americans answered "yes" they would like to go to a sports contest on the water if they had the chance, etc., and so on.
"Whew," I said, "those are all mighty impressive figures I wasn't aware of." Though still something of a "layman" to the world of fly casting, I was beginning to see the potential in this exciting, bold new venture.
"The National Fly Casting League can combine our American tradition of the pioneer outdoors with our modern desire to see a competitive sports event in clean, comfortable, safe surroundings," the young pill mogul and sports innovator explained to me. "Here, look at this report."
He handed me a file from the advertising company of Evans, Rees and Mundy, the famous firm that had recently been in the "public eye" when it had directed its considerable efforts toward electing the controversial, paroled ex-drug lord K. H. (Mumbles) Barnhorst to the U.S. Senate with the snappy, prize-winning saturation slogan: "A Second Chance for a First-rate Guy."
I flipped through the Evans, Rees and Mundy report, my eyes catching the eye-catching headline that declared: "The National Fly Casting League can combine our American tradition of the pioneer outdoors with our modern desire to see a competitive sports event in clean, comfortable, safe surroundings."
"This certainly backs up just what you were saying, Frankie," I said. I was beginning to be "infected" with some of his contagious spirit, in a manner of speaking. Then I paused. "Wait a minute, Frankie," I said, reflecting. "Why are you telling me all of this?"
That question caused the hard-working but soft-spoken industrialist to lean forward, placing one elbow uncomfortably close to a large, square pat of butter. "Ford, we want you on our team," he said. "More than that, we want you running the team. We want you to be our commissioner."
I was taken aback, and my first inclination was to politely decline. After all, I had never been a public man. I had preferred to make my contribution on the "sidelines," to borrow an apt sports analogy, away from the glare of the spotlight, going my way without fanfare and "hoopla" but getting the job done. Besides, as the father of three college-age youngsters, I felt my first obligation was to my family. I was also deeply involved in community work and with the church or synagogue of my choice. I could not blithely turn my back on these duties. Finally, however, and perhaps most important of all, was my work. As executive secretary of the National Congressional Commission, Conservation of Sports Fishing Department, I was most disposed to remain with this vital area of development and conservation. Nevertheless, as a courtesy, I asked Frankie a few pointed questions about the commissioner's job. I declared immediately, for instance, that I would never take the job if I could only be a front for the owners, a "figurehead."
"No, sir," Frankie reassured me in his dynamic way. "We owners in the NFCL are all busy, influential, vital men, and we do not want to have to devote our full time to the league. We want a strong commissioner to handle league affairs for us. That's why we're willing, Ford, to start you with $100,000 on an escalating five-year contract, an unlimited expense account, a country-club membership, a Cadillac automobile and an international Air Travel Card—if you'll take this job."
Given such strong reassurance that I would not be a pawn of the team owners, I could not, in all conscience, turn the job down. I felt, anyway, that my long years' stewardship of the Conservation of Sports Fishing Department had begun, as they say in the financial world, to pay dividends. Conservation was no longer the priority item it had been. What a pleasant coincidence, too, I mused, that I would still be involved with fish in my new endeavor. Not only that, but Frankie happened to point out later, as he lost a cigar ash into his chocolate mousse by mistake, that one of the fledgling league's greatest problems was that it was having difficulty lining up enough fish to stock a full schedule of games.
"Luckily," I replied, "that just happens to have been my old area of work, and I think I can divert a few fish 'earmarked' for conservation over to our league, since such a move would give so much pleasure to so many sports-loving Americans."
"What a terrific break, and what a way to start," the classy sports leader said. "That's the kind of execution of problem-solving that we want from our commissioner."
So talk of a so-called figurehead was, to all league insiders, halted before it could begin. Why, in the first hour on the job I had already solved one of the new league's most vexing problems! I would hardly suggest, however, that I carried the whole NFCL on my shoulders alone, as it were. No one man, even a commissioner of my disposition, could handle the full job by himself in such exciting but demanding times. I was truly relieved when Slicky Ziegelman, the well-known Miami Beach hosteler and owner of the Miami Piranhas, suggested that the league owners provide me with an assistant to handle the more mundane chores of my office, thus freeing me to give full attention to the significant tasks. A former associate of Slicky's, Boom-Boom (Carl) Keeney, was proposed as the right man for the job, and after a discussion of his qualifications with Ziegelman, I granted my approval.
It was shortly thereafter that the first league meeting was convened by me. We mixed, as they say, business with pleasure, sojourning on a boat of Panamanian registry somewhere in the Caribbean. The National Fly Casting League was fast taking shape. Already 10 cities were represented and definitely slated for membership, and it was at this very first full-league meeting—the inaugural session, you might describe it—that we got right down to where the rubber hits the road and set up a revolutionary 10-division arrangement for regular-season play.
This exciting new modern sports concept, whereby each team is guaranteed a pennant in its division, helped attract much attention to the new league. Some of the shortsighted critics could not see the value in the 10-division setup but, as I have said many times in the past, I don't care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right. That is one of my mottoes.
So on the fateful morning of February 3, 1970 all of America woke up to read about the new NFCL, its revolutionary 10-division set-up and the distinguished gentlemen who were committing themselves to this new league. Here is the list of our charter members and their well-known owners:
Boston Cods; Shammy O'Flaherty, construction
UPSTATE NEW YORK DIV.
Buffalo Bass; Frankie Scilizi, pharmaceuticals
DOWNSTATE NEW YORK DIV.
New York Sharks; Rafael Sanchez, election machines
Baltimore Softshells; Hip Gypley, fishing equipment
Miami Piranhas; Slicky Ziegelman, hotels
Houston Swordfish; Taylor Houston Bowie, oil
St. Louis Sardines; Tip Sanders, trucking
Chicago Whales; Ollie Zorch, scion
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA DIV.
Oakland Sea Lions (formerly San Francisco Sea Lions); Sam Lu, export-imports
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA DIV.
Los Angeles Angelfish; Herb (Patsy) Kline, radio-TV
Shortly thereafter, of course, after I perused many application forms, it was decided to "swell" the league to its present membership of 12, an even dozen. At the same time we increased the number of divisions to 12, as well. This is a workable arrangement, particularly for the playoffs. The two new teams were:
Atlanta Mackerels (formerly Milwaukee Mackerels): Carter Russell Harrison, pecan and peach magnate
ORANGE COUNTY DIV.
Anaheim Grunions; Sharp Constant, movie actor
It was decided early that there should be interdivisional play. I led the fight for this measure for, as I pointed out, if regular-season league games were not permitted outside of each division, there would be no regular-season league games possible. My able new deputy, Boom-Boom (Carl) Keeney, had pointed this "loophole" out to me, and when I carried the matter to the floor and carefully explained to the members what was at issue, the motion was promptly carried. This kind of firm, expeditious take-charge behavior stilled what was left of any outside snipings about a "figurehead commissioner."
There was some small dispute within the league, however, about which divisions should be included in each group. This was of small moment, I thought, the important thing being which team would be in each division. Many of the owners wanted their divisions to be in the same group that also included the divisions which had the New York and Los Angeles teams, because of the many good airline connections and whatnot in these cities. I had more vital matters to contend with, so I let Boom-Boom (Carl) Keeney take care of this little detail. "Carl," I said, lapsing into the use of this familiar nickname that many of his friends know him by, "Carl, you stick with this minor issue while I get down to where the rubber hits the road on more important issues."
Carl, I thought, showed what a good aide-de-camp he was by delegating authority. He asked Frankie Scilizi, the birth-control-pill magnate, to become head of the Eastern Group and Slicky Ziegelman, the amiable hotel chain "innkeeper," to head the Western Group, and, graciously, they both accepted this additional responsibility. Of course, Slicky is Miami-based, and I had to chuckle with Carl about his geography, but Slicky is such a competent administrator that a certain "fudging" with the road map seemed appropriate under the special circumstances.
Everyone is probably familiar with the way Frankie and Slicky arranged the teams in the division by conference and group, but here is a complete listing:
UPSTATE N.Y. DIV.
ORANGE COUNTY DIV.*
St. Louis Sardines
Great Divide Conf.
NORTHERN CAL. DIV.
Oakland Sea Lions
Gadsden Purchase Conf.
DOWNSTATE N.Y. DIV.*
New York Sharks
SOUTHERN CAL. DIV.*
Los Angeles Angelfish
*Indicates division will switch conferences in alternate years, switch groups every election year.
Working with the Schedule Committee that was co-chaired by Frankie Scilizi of the Bass and Slicky Ziegelman of the Piranhas, I produced a schedule that called for both intergroup and intergroup play, including additional games against various intraconference "traditional" rivals, like Oakland and Anaheim. The schedule listed 62.5% of the games with the five teams in each group, five-eighths of that number against conference foes. The other 37.5% of the games were to be played against the six teams in the other group, except where "traditional rivals" were involved, when the "B" formula had to be invoked. We also set up a revolving year-to-year scale for the intergroup home-and-home arrangement, alternating various divisions in odd years. We also established the policy that 15% of the intergroup games and 10% of the intergroup games must be played on neutral sites, helping us create the revolutionary four-team fly-cast doubleheaders. In any event, whoever played, the important thing for the spectator was that he would always see divisional champions clash.
It was a terrific plan, firm and flexible, but when we began to calculate it more finely, we discovered that it would take 14½ months to play a year's schedule, regular-season and playoff. "I like the concept," I told the Schedule Committee, "but I think we better stick to the solar calendar."
Agreeing to my demands, the committee went back into session and we began to pare the schedule down. Originally we had envisioned six months of regular-season play, two weeks of All-Star sudden-death, and eight months of double-elimination playoff games, with an interlocking round-robin interdivisional, inter-conference and intergroup set of layered playoffs.
We instituted a special now playoff formula. Instead of just winning the best of seven games, a team had to win by two games, like in tennis. You will certainly recall the excitement this created in the very first season when the Baltimore Softshells and the Anaheim Grunions met in the quarter-finals of the optional inter-conference crossover quarter-final consolation playoffs and went to 19-17 in the best of seven before the valiant Grunions finally pulled the series out. The series took six weeks, complicating some travel arrangements but bringing emotions around the country to a veritable "fever pitch."
Anyway, with the original 14½ months plan, we had to cut back somewhere in the schedule, so we dropped the regular season down to four weeks. The All-Star period is a traditional "bonanza" for fans, and I certainly did not want the eight-month playoff time shortened either, as that is the time during the season when our teams make money. Since, fortuitously, all our teams not only make the playoffs but do so as divisional champions, I made the concession to the loyal owners not to reduce the playoffs at all. So many of my hard-nosed decisions (i.e., absolutely demanding interdivisional play) had gone against the owners that I think they had come to feel that I would never favor them with a decision to their liking.
I also was in agreement with the owners that we would have to cut the exhibition season down to a maximum of 60 games within two months so that the flycasters would be guaranteed at least two weeks off every year between seasons. "If we don't give 'em the two weeks, we'll have some players' committee on our fannies right off," Shammy O'Flaherty, the jovial Irish head of the Boston Cods, jested with me after one meeting when we were "washing our hands," so to speak, next to each other in the gold-embroidered downstairs lavatory at Houston Swordfish Owner Taylor Houston Bowie's sumptuous ranch hideaway.
It was about this time that I pointed out to Boom-Boom (Carl) Keeney that the NFCL was going to need flycasters to play on the franchises. Money, organization and planning would go for naught if the teams did not have athletes. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, I like to say sometimes. That is one of my mottoes, and one I like to impress upon the owners. Carl pointed out that the world, the whole globe, is full of flycasters of all races, creeds, colors and nationalities, and we would have to scout intensively to uncover the most exciting and best flycasters. Unless you have superstar flycasters, you just will not draw the fans in this star-oriented day and age. "The fans sure won't come out just to see the fish," Carl said. "That's the way the star system works."
"Where are we going to get these flycasters?" I wondered out loud.
"You know what I think," Boom-Boom said rhetorically, striking his characteristic pose that we all came to know so well—stuffing his index fingers in his ears and then sneezing—"I think that you yourself ought to get out and proselyte this new league. Show the people what a vigorous commissioner we have, let people see that you are not in an 'ivory tower,' but a 'just folks' kind of guy. That way, I'm sure you can attract the kind of A-1 talent we need, and sign the best prospects yourself, from all over the world."
I liked the idea right away, and "took" to it. Later I explained it to the Group presidents, Scilizi and Ziegelman. "In today's jet age," I pointed out, "the world is shrinking, and sport knows no national boundaries." They grasped the exciting new concept right away, and even suggested that on my travels I take along Miss Celeste Mossway, a bright-eyed, buxom young junior college graduate who was employed in several capacities by our advertising firm of Evans, Rees and Mundy. She would not only be able to help me with the taxing administrative details, but she could publicize my efforts and also begin to create a public "image" for me. Despite anguished appeals from my family when I spoke to them on the telephone, Miss Mossway and I were able to arrange an itinerary and leave for our first stop, the Hotel Nitti Gritti Palace in Venice, on a night flight that very evening.
When we returned 18 months later, two days after the traditional lid-lifter between the Bass and the Piranhas inaugurated our first season, no one could deny that the mission had been fruitful. We had signed flycasters in 47 states and 32 foreign countries, including some from behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains, because I firmly believe that politics has no place in sport. Moreover, while Celeste—later tabbed Miss National Fly Casting League by my executive decree—and I "rounded up" prospects, my deputies were able to run the office without me and tie up various loose ends back at the loop headquarters in the Scilizi-Ziegelman Building in midtown Manhattan. It's the petty little matters that can be so aggravating, and Boom-Boom (Carl) Keeney and Group Presidents Frankie Scilizi and Slicky Ziegelman all gave unselfishly of their time to settle the nagging little incidentals that are always "popping up" in big business.
For instance, the matter of television. We were lucky here in some respects. First, it certainly was a "break" for the league that one of our owners, Herb (Patsy) Kline of the Los Angeles Angelfish, happened to be in the radio-TV game. Secondly, at this time, you will no doubt recall, the "tube" was looking for new sports attractions, since TV saturation had just brought an end to the American Football League, the Kentucky Derby, the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, the Winter Olympics, the Wide World of Sports, the 11:10 p.m. sports news and all heavyweight-boxing championship tights.
It was, so to speak, a sellers' market, and the TV committee, headed by Frankie Scilizi and Slicky Ziegelman, working with Patsy Kline, who knew all the "ropes," was able to put together an attractive, long-term television package that realized $320 million annually for us. This money, along with the many good flycasters that Celeste and I signed, were the two major factors that helped get the league "off the ground."
In any business luck also always plays a part. Who could have imagined that a pleasant little soiree given by Baltimore Softshell Owner Hip Gypley, the fishing equipment tycoon, at his villa in Seaford, Del. would result in a whole line of NFCL products being established? It just so happened at this little "get-together" that representatives from the National Association of Manufacturers, the AFLCIO and the Department of Commerce were all on hand. Over brandy and canapés, several of the guests began trading ideas, and before the evening was out a whole line of items were planned for production. These included rods and reels, T shirts, lockets, foul-weather gear, bicycles, kitchen appliances, good-luck charms, automobile accessories, maple syrup, cocktail glasses, travel bags, wrist-watches, combat helicopters, cookbooks, birth-control pills, pennants and many other useful items and attractive "knick-knacks." It is conservatively estimated that, with 25% of the profits slated for NFCL coffers, the league will earn up to $180 million a year from this profitable sideline.
The only real "snag" in our plans was the question of where the fly-casting games would be held. After all, not a single American city at the time had adequate facilities for presenting fly-casting competitions. The Stadium Committee, chaired by Frankie Scilizi, joined with the Marina Committee, headed by Slicky Ziegelman, and, together with the advertising firm of Evans, Rees and Mundy, they undertook a public-relations campaign to educate the American public to the fact that the government had been derelict in supplying fly-cast fans with sufficient—not to say any at all—spectator fly-casting facilities. The "ad men" did a "peach" of a job, and soon the campaign "caught fire," as it were. Senator K. H. Barnhorst first noticed the grassroots groundswell demanding government funds for such facilities. Senator Barnhorst, the genial ex-drug-lord-turned-legislator, mentioned to our lobbyists themselves how much attention he was paying to the subject, and at last he was able to invoke a common senatorial courtesy to obtain the necessary monies. The Senator attached a "rider" to the administration's $200 million poverty bill, designating an additional $870 million in funds to be directed to the building of fly-casting arenas and stadiums in all our franchise cities.
The rest, as sports fans know, is history. It only remained for us to convince business and municipal authorities in each of our franchise locations that failure to buy season tickets and support fly-casting teams with every power at their disposal was a civic disgrace. Celeste Mossway, the new league vice-president in charge of public relations, joined me in an NFCL "task force" that visited each city and explained how much business and fame a franchise could bring. We showed the community spirit ourselves, too, volunteering to allow orphans and our senior citizens and wounded servicemen in on special "discount" tickets and donating generously to local causes. I am at liberty and proud to say that our 12 divisions have given more than a total of $2,700 to worthwhile local charities, as well as distributing used uniforms and equipment to needy "ghetto" youngsters. Before the unfortunate players' strike, hardly a day went by that our athletes were not, in their spare time, out visiting shopping centers and schools, providing clinics and tips and generally distributing goodwill.
This is no place, I believe, to "wash our dirty linen in public," and I know readers have a minimum of interest in incidental squabbles that show up in the finest of families. As I said at the time when I settled the players' strike, the league office expects little grievances from time to time. Certainly it was unfortunate that so-called "TV time-outs" had to be called to satisfy important sponsor commitments, sometimes just when a player had a fish on the line. Players will just have to hold on to their fish until the time-outs are over, and, as I pointed out, if we have the kind of fly-casters I know we do, they can certainly manage this. In order to foster the best player-owner relations we did arrive at what I consider to be a most equitable compromise in the other dispute, over meal money. The players wanted $15 a day, while our Personnel Committee, headed by Frankie Scilizi of the Buffalo Bass and Slicky Ziegelman of the Miami Piranhas, held to its original plan of permitting the players to eat all the fish they could catch. My compromise, as you will remember, let the players have $2 a day in addition to all the fish they could catch. This certainly satisfied both parties in the dispute and showed once again that this is a "players' league."
Certainly, to be candid, we have had some disappointments, though small setbacks are to be expected in any new enterprise. Some franchises do need shoring up, but to say that the league was not gratified by its first season's average attendance of 182 per game would be unfair.
Our meteoric success has been such that, while I am not able to divulge the names, at least 10 other cities have presented applications to our Expansion Committee, headed by pharmaceutical mogul Frankie Scilizi, and Mr. Hotel, Slicky Ziegelman. In the league office we are already discussing orderly expansion, and new teams will be charged in the vicinity of $40 million in initiation fees.
After talks with Celeste Mossway and Boom-Boom (Carl) Keeney, I am even considering holding the line at 12 divisions and placing up to two teams in each division. As Celeste pointed out the other day, "It takes two to tango." Indeed, in some quarters there is talk of eventually having up to four teams in each division. This is such a revolutionary concept that I have taken the matter under advisement, for we do not want to plunge headlong into any new area without careful consideration. But it shows, I think, what a forward-looking outfit we have.
Indeed, the phenomenal success of this new league proves, as I reported just the other day at our special league meeting, held at a Holiday Inn somewhere in the Midwest, that the National Fly Casting League can combine our American tradition of the pioneer outdoors spirit with our modern drive to see a competitive sport even in clean, comfortable and safe surroundings. The new, improved contract that the owners gave me at that time proves that they like the kind of aggressive, independent leadership that I am providing, and that as long as we can hold a TV contract and flood the nation's retail markets with our merchandise, the National Fly Casting League will stay on top in the "sports whirl."