If you’re old enough to remember, the buzz is the first thing that pops into your mind. This game was electric. It made board games look boring. It was cool enough that your sister wanted to play or at least watch. Anything that made plastic football players move on their own raised the bar and made your mother just a little bit nervous. Electric Football was borderline dangerous.
Games usually came with either generic plastic players or miniature plastic players representing real NFL teams, depending on the price level. Each slid onto a plastic base and when the power current was turned on, the action commenced. If you didn’t have the direction of your player set just right, he sometimes turned into a confused, circling mess. If you were good, he followed his blockers to daylight.
While Play Station and Madden have made it seem antique, let there be no misunderstanding.
Electric Football is still cool.
Each year, there’s a convention in Philadelphia where all kinds of folks get together to play games, display their collections of vintage NFL teams and those metal playing fields where kids from the 1960’s and 70’s spent much of their free time.
It’s also the subject of a recently published, 652-page book that tells the complete story of a game that made huge amounts of money for the NFL after a rocky start and has spawned a collecting element among devotees who aren’t shy about paying hundreds of dollars for some of the early NFL ‘teams’ of plastic players.
Today, we have the first of two excerpts from the book appropriately entitled The Unforgettable Buzz: The History of Electric Football and Tudor Games. Authors Earl Shores and Roddy Garcia explore the beginnings of the game that spawned the collectibles and captivated a generation of Baby Boomers. We’ll follow with another excerpt Sunday night and have an article on the collecting aspect of the game starting Monday night.
Chapter 1 – Toys For The NFL
Norman Sas hadn’t made many mistakes during his seventeen years as president of Tudor Metal Products, but this was shaping up as a big one. And as a meticulous decision maker, Norman now wondered what he had missed on that fateful day in 1960 when he declined to give away a 5% cut of his company’s record-setting profits. The honest answer was nothing. Significant changes had come to the unique intersection of American business and culture that Tudor inhabited. Anyone claiming to have foreseen the events of the last five years was either a liar or a lunatic.
It was now the fall of 1965, and Tudor’s specialized station in the world was that of toy maker, complete with a six-story factory and warehouse just off Flatbush Avenue near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. The company had been founded by Norman’s father Elmer Sas in 1928, but after two decades in business a dispute between Elmer and his partner pushed Tudor to the verge of a postwar liquidation. Only a last-minute deal brokered by the company accountant had saved Tudor from joining the Everest-like scrap pile of defunct toy manufacturers. Under the terms of the agreement Tudor stayed in business, but Elmer and his partner had to sell their halves of the company and “retire.” Buying the partner’s share of Tudor was sales manager Joe Tonole. Elmer’s half of the company was sold to Norman, who was just a year removed from his college graduation. In addition to half of the company, Norman got something else – Elmer’s job. He was just twenty-three years old and now the president of Tudor Metal Products.
Considering Norman’s limited work experience – he’d spent the previous year working for General Electric – it was an enormous gamble to put him in charge of a struggling company of any kind. Yet by the time the annual American Toy Fair got underway the following year in March of 1949, Norman had invented the game that would make Tudor a household name. That game was electric football. Tudor had the electric football category all to itself in the early 1950’s, building the brand and profits as the game became a Christmas-morning staple. When a competitor finally stepped onto the vibrating gridiron in 1954, Tudor’s electric football game was available in all forty-eight states. As the 1950’s came to a close the Gotham Pressed Steel Corporation was struggling to pick up yardage against Tudor’s popular and well-established Tru-Action No. 500 model. But Gotham’s electric football games had become a regular part of both the Sears and Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogs, which at the time imparted almost biblical influence on Christmas shopping and toy marketing. Thanks to Sears, who was the country’s largest toy retailer, Gotham still maintained championship ambitions for electric football.
Norman’s mistake, at least as he viewed it now, had come in early 1960 when he received a phone call from a company that up until that moment, he had never heard of. On the line, long-distance from Beverly Hills, California, was Larry Kent, who introduced himself as the vice president of National Football League Enterprises, the newly created marketing arm of the National Football League. Kent’s actual employer was Roy Rogers, with NFL Enterprises being a subsidiary of the extremely profitable Roy Rogers Enterprises. As Kent explained it, he had full command of the new entity and was prepared to offer Norman one of the first official licenses the NFL would ever hand out. In fact, Tudor had been targeted several weeks earlier during the foundational meeting of NFL Enterprises, a New York City event whose attendees included Kent, Chicago Bears owner and NFL legend George “Papa Bear” Halas, acting league commissioner Austin Gunsell, and…Roy Rogers. Also taking a prominent seat at the conference table on January 13, 1960, was the man who helped Kent pitch the licensing concept to the NFL, and who knew as much about the purpose of NFL Enterprises as anyone in the entire league. That man was Los Angeles Rams’ general manager Pete Rozelle. Not long after the meeting adjourned, Rozelle was unexpectedly promoted to the position of NFL Commissioner.
NFL Enterprises represented the league’s first ever attempt to market football merchandise on a national scale. Up until this point, teams sold pennants and other souvenirs on their own, with game-day stadium sales accounting for the bulk of their mostly meager proceeds. Kent’s vision was much more ambitious. During his seven years with the “King of the Cowboys,” Kent had created the Roy Rogers Corral, an exclusive in-store display area that sold only Roy Rogers merchandise. These Corrals were now a year-round feature in hundreds of department stores across the U.S., including major chains like Sears, Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, the May Company, and Macy’s. Kent hoped to apply his Corral model to the NFL and impressed upon Norman that the fledgling merchandising program was a ground floor opportunity. All Norman had to do was put an NFL shield somewhere on his boxes and games, then give NFL Enterprises 5% of his gross sales.
That the NFL was getting more popular really wasn’t in question. Just thirteen months earlier in December of 1958 the Colts and Giants had played the NFL’s “greatest game,” a championship contest won by the Colts in sudden-death overtime. Not only did the game capture the imagination of the sixty-four thousand fans in Yankee Stadium, it entertained a national television audience of more than 45 million people. Yet Norman still wasn’t sure that the NFL’s rising profile would automatically translate into additional electric football sales. Tudor had sold more than $1 million worth of electric football games in 1959 – if the company had been a licensee that year it would have handed over more than $50,000 to NFL Enterprises. After quickly doing the math in his head, Norman decided that an NFL license wasn’t worth $50,000. Tudor was already selling out most of its electric football inventory. It honestly didn’t need the NFL to help move games. Norman thanked Kent for the call, but politely passed on the NFL’s offer.
Kent was stunned. Tudor and the NFL seemed like a perfect match – how could Norman not want to be a part of pro football? But Kent wasn’t deterred. He had a backup plan, and soon found a company who thought that an NFL license for electric football was a great opportunity, 5% and all. That company was cross-town toy making rival Gotham Pressed Steel.
Recently ascending to the top of Gotham’s organizational chart was toy veteran Eddie Gluck, who didn’t need to think twice about signing on with the NFL. There were a number of motivations for Gluck’s eagerness to be associated with professional football. First, he had been the one who steered the Bronx-based company into electric football, and he had long grown tired of his company’s second-string status behind Tudor. An NFL license offered Gotham a very visible way to make its electric football games different from Tudor’s. Additionally, Gluck had been a professional basketball player in the 1920’s and 1930’s and carried a preference for the “pro” side of things. Sports licensing wasn’t even a new concept for Gotham, as the company had sold baseball games endorsed by Jackie Robinson and Carl Hubbell during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Finally, there was the issue of being a former Tudor employee. Even though Gluck left the company three years before Norman was named president, he seemed to resent Norman’s success with electric football. There had even been a bout of trash talk at the 1954 Toy Fair where Gluck threatened to bury Norman and Tudor. Perhaps with the NFL Gluck had finally found a shovel.
What Gotham unveiled in 1961 was the largest and most elaborate electric football game ever made. It was almost a foot longer than all previous games, and sitting along the sideline was a 3-foot long metal grandstand that looked exactly like Yankee Stadium, complete with paper NFL pennants “flying” high above the stadium’s distinctive façade. On the field were more innovations. Since Norman invented electric football in 1949 the players had been flat, two dimensional, and plastic, with the “team” component indicated by the color of the figures. (Tudor’s current teams were red and yellow, while Gotham’s were red and blue). Gotham had produced new plastic players that, although still flat, were tan in color. This generic color scheme served as a blank canvas for team creation, which came in the form of self-sticking paper jerseys and helmets. Seven sets of “removable” uniforms were included in every new Gotham game – each set came printed in an official NFL team color.
Whether Norman liked it or not he now had to go head-to-head with Gotham and the NFL. That meant Tudor would have to have its own oversized football game on toy store shelves for 1962, and considering Gotham’s NFL muscle, Norman knew that he would have to come up with something that was more than simply “big.” The new game would have to have a feature that made it clearly different from Gotham’s NFL game. Norman’s answer came from a talented young industrial designer whose name wasn’t even officially on Tudor’s payroll. Thanks to Calvin “Lee” Payne, all of Tudor’s 1962 electric football games would have an electric football “first” – realistic looking three-dimensional players. And these new plastic players didn’t need paper jerseys. They could be painted to look like a kid’s favorite team.
Norman’s response to Gotham in 1962 was timely in more ways than one, as Commissioner Rozelle had finally landed a league-wide national television contract. Starting in September, CBS began televising NFL games on each and every Sunday. The deal was groundbreaking because all the NFL teams were now “equal,” receiving an equal cut of the CBS fee, equal benefit from the CBS promotional department, and equal access to the latest television production technology. Previously teams had negotiated their own individual television contracts, with the financial rewards being determined mostly by the luck of geography. Pressure for a league-wide single-network contract had come not only from Rozelle, but also from the rival AFL, who already had a similar television deal in place with ABC.
As the NFL made its debut on CBS, the league had another very special debut in the Sears Christmas Book. There at the top of page 344 was Gotham’s NFL football game – in glorious full color. It was the first time Sears had elevated an electric football game to the status of a color catalog page, which at the time was very costly to print. It was a development that meant the nation’s largest retailer viewed electric football as a toy whose star was on the rise.
Coming in excerpt 2: How football's increasing popularity led to the birth of electric football and why Tudor was banking heavily on the new game.
Want to read the entire book? The Unforgettable Buzz is available on Amazon.com.
Visit the website here.
See electric football games, parts and more for sale on eBay here.