The Chiefs’ latest loss in the NFL playoffs began another year of collective waiting for Kansas City – and for the entire region that wears red and lives and dies red, too.
Dies? Consider the obituaries in The Kansas City Star, where a remarkable number list as one of a deceased’s noteworthy attributes “avid Chiefs fan.” In this part of the world, following the fortunes of the Chiefs has ranked as one of the great pleasures. It has been that way more than half a century.
The team arrived in 1963 from Dallas, where it had operated for three seasons. The Dallas Texans played in an upstart eight-team league formed by small group of men with plenty of money but too little clout to make their way into the established National Football League. The new American Football League and its Dallas franchise, called the Texans sprang mostly from the mind of Lamar Hunt, a son of the oil baron H.L. Hunt.
The younger Hunt had been a reserve end on his college team at Southern Methodist University. With an unrequited love for sports spurring him on and a family fortune to help, Lamar Hunt formed one of the first teams of the fledgling AFL in his hometown of Dallas. He could only watch as the NFL responded by planting a new team of its own – the Cowboys – in the same city. In short order, Hunt saw that there wasn’t room for both of them. The Dallas Texans lost money and Hunt’s fears grew that his expensive hobby might become even more expensive if it lost some of its tax benefits. He began to consider other cities.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Kansas City – a big, booming and persuasive man named H. Roe Bartle – caught wind of Hunt’s wanderlust, traveled to Dallas and began to make the case for Hunt to move his team to Kansas City.
The mayor’s sports-loving city was due for a boost. Kansas City already counted a Major League Baseball team, the Athletics, which had come to town in 1955 amid a burst of civic excitement but who had rarely risen above mediocrity. A’s fans suffered under a series of owners who traded away star players, or who continually threatened to move the team elsewhere. Professional football – even the underrated AFL kind – would be a break.
Bartle spirited Hunt into town to look things over. He introduced the Texan only as “Mr. Lamar.” Hunt’s team general manager, Jack Steadman, took up residence at the Muehlebach Hotel. The mayor referred to him as “Jack X.” Meanwhile, Bartle worked with the Kansas City Council to assemble a package of benefits. Among them was rent of $1 a year for the first two years at Municipal Stadium, a city-owned baseball park dating to 1923. And the mayor promised a campaign to sell 25,000 season tickets.
Promises in hand and their due diligence done, Hunt and Steadman agreed to move the team to Kansas City. They hoped to draw fans not only from Missouri and Kansas, but also Iowa and Nebraska and even Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The name was changed from Texans to Chiefs. Official accounts maintain that the name came from Mayor Bartle’s nickname, “Chief,” which he earned in his years as a Boy Scout official who organized a Native-American-themed leadership society for Scouts deemed worthy.
Early on, hopes for the Chiefs came up somewhat short. Season ticket sales reached just past 15,000 the first year and attendance averaged 21,500. Yet there were positive signs: though it fell short of promises, the season-ticket total marked the largest in the AFL and 50 local companies signed on for 50 tickets each, a far cry from the four companies who had done the same in Dallas. On the field, the 1963 team won only five games and lost seven. The Chiefs’ play improved in 1964 and 1965, but attendance and season-ticket sales slid.
Then came a shakeup in the front office, upgrades at various playing positions and a vigorous season-ticket campaign. As part of the marketing effort, the team created a section called the Wolfpack, where fans could cheer at their primal best.
Those improvements came with the maturing of young, recently drafted personnel such as Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell and Ed Budde and of veterans such as quarterback Len Dawson. For 1966, the Chiefs sold 22,000 season tickets, saw their biggest home crowd – 43,885 in a game against Buffalo – and won the AFL championship. As fate would have it, the AFL and NFL had decided to end the 1966 season for the first time with a game matching the champions of the two leagues.
Thus, in early 1967 the Chiefs represented the AFL in what could come to be known as the first Super Bowl. Although they performed about to expectation – losing to the more established NFL champion Green Bay Packers, 35-10 – the Chiefs won over their fans in Kansas City and the region.
Momentum from the championship season carried over into a drive to build new stadiums for Kansas City’s professional football and baseball clubs, which in turn contributed to the city’s winning a new baseball franchise when the owner of the A’s pulled up stakes for Oakland.
With their help in winning public support for the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, the Chiefs had contributed mightily to changing the physical face of Kansas City. With their success on the field in the late 1960s and their victory over the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in the fourth Super Bowl in 1970, the Chiefs contributed not only to civic pride but also to a spirit of civic togetherness that would last well into the 21st century.
By the late 1960s, professional football had taken the top spot in America’s sports consciousness, surpassing baseball as the national pastime. In 1970, the AFL merged with the NFL to form a league that still dominates sports television ratings, merchandise sales and, for much of the year, the entire sports landscape.
The Kansas City Chiefs fell out of the ranks of top teams in the late 1970s and much of the 1980s. They returned to the playoffs several times in the 1990s and 2000s, but have never made it back to the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, the city and the region have kept dreaming and the fans have kept filling Arrowhead Stadium or tuning their TVs to the game.
Even when it means waiting till next year, year after year, the Chiefs have provided a bit of common ground in a fractious time. Every autumn, thousands of Kansas Citians of nearly every income, age and ethnicity can agree on at least one thing: they want the Chiefs to win.
For that, Kansas City has to thank Lamar Hunt, H. Roe Bartle and a city that was hungry a half-century ago for some sports team to love.
Monroe Dodd is a historian and contributor for KCUR 89.3.