This is the second of a three-part excerpt series from the book The Unforgettable Buzz: The History of Electric Football and Tudor Games by Earl Shores and Roddy Garcia. Part One ran last Friday.
The 652-page book tells the complete story of the game that was a staple in the home of millions of baby boomer kids and is still avidly played today. Many adults who grew up playing the game are also electric football collectors who chase down rare games and NFL team pieces that were created in the 1960’s and 70’s.
The book chronicles how the growing popularity of a toy and a sport intertwined, culminating with Tudor Electric Football being the NFL’s top earning item from
With the fate of Tudor Metal Products riding on his decision making skills, 23-year-old MIT graduate Norman Sas invented Electric Football at a time in the late 1940’s when both television and football were starting to make their mark on American culture.
This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of the book.
Norman Sas arrived at Tudor in the summer of 1948 knowing that the company needed a new item, something to lift the Brooklyn firm out of its financial doldrums and also distinguish it from the dozens of other companies making metal toys. And he knew that a “fad” item, while nice for raising the company profile, might not be the best way to secure Tudor’s financial future. Sometimes these toys, despite their super sales for a single Christmas season, didn’t end up covering the cost of their development. What Norman wanted for Tudor was “popular and long lasting,” and he reasoned that tying into the postwar culture might help accomplish these two objectives. It would also help if Tudor didn’t have to spend major amounts of money developing the new toy. Perhaps the company had something lying around that, with some modifications, could be transformed into a totally “new” item.
One of the prewar items that never made it back into the Tudor line was a vibrating electric horse race game. Elmer and Gene Levay created the game, which evolved from Tudor’s 1937 Electric Auto Race. The electric horse race had the unfortunate luck of debuting in 1941, and thanks to wartime metal shortages, that turned out to be the only year it was ever produced. Its concept was simple. Six miniature horses lined up on an oval track that was lithographed onto a 26” x 14” metal game board. When the game was turned on, an electro-magnetic relay device – a repurposed doorbell ringer – converted alternating current (AC) into game-board vibrations. Once the metal game surface began vibrating, the horses “ran” around the track thanks to a pair of copper reeds mounted on the bottom of each figure.
“AC changes 120 times per second, with the board cycling up and down sixty times,” said Norman, explaining the electric vibrating game principle. “As the board goes down, the reed goes down with it, which brings whatever is on the reed a little forward. And as the board vibrates up, the reed straightens up causing forward motion.”
Not long after the pleasantries and formalities of taking over Tudor died down, Norman pulled a long-forgotten horse race game out of a dusty factory back room. He’d always been fascinated by the vibrating concept, and in watching the horses run, Norman could see that while a couple were genuine Triple Crown contenders, the others banged along the rail, completing a rough and tumble lap where things looked more like roller derby than a horse race. It only took a few moments of pondering before the young Tudor president thought of another sport that might really lend itself to the vibrating game board – football.
Football didn’t come to Norman through fond memories of autumn afternoons spent cheering in the crisp Boston air. Since its founding in 1865, MIT had never fielded a football team. But football, while not holding the iconic stature of baseball, was clearly growing in popularity. In New York City during the late 40’s, football was hard to miss. During the fall, newspapers devoted pages of their Friday, Saturday, and Sunday editions to football, almost exclusively the collegiate type. On Sunday, college football coverage expanded to take up the first five pages of the New York Times sports section with details and results reported from games all around the country. (Previews of Sunday’s professional football games were usually squeezed into a single column article on page 6.) The crowds major college football powers were drawing could boggle any sports fan’s mind, as schools like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn, and Southern California were all averaging over 70,000 fans per home game. Providing an exclamation point on college football’s popularity were the spirited rivalries of Army-Navy and Notre Dame-Southern Cal. Both games were capable of selling out 100,000 seat stadiums.
Live football in the city consisted of Columbia University, which played a top-notch schedule and drew over thirty thousand fans per game to Baker Field in northern Manhattan. And several times a season Yankee Stadium became the home of Army, one of the top college football teams in the country. The 1946 “game of the century” between No.1-ranked Army and No. 2-ranked Notre Dame drew more than 74,000 fans (the game ended 0-0), while a 1947 contest between No. 2-ranked Army and unbeaten Illinois drew 65,000 (another 0-0 tie). On the professional side there were now three teams in New York, with a professional football attendance record for the city being set just weeks after the Army-Illinois game. Attracting 70,060 spectators to Yankee Stadium were the New York Yankees and Cleveland Browns, who battled gallantly in a 28-28 standoff. The original New York City attendance record had stood since 1925 when the New York Giants hosted Red Grange and the Chicago Bears in a National Football League contest. Setting this new record were two teams from the two-year-old All-America Football Conference.
Yet there was something else going on in the New York City area that made its football scene unlike any other in the country. Almost all the college and professional football games played in the city were broadcast on television. In fact New York television manufacturer DuMont was enticing buyers with a fall advertising campaign using football. (It was no coincidence that DuMont owned WADB, the New York City television station that owned the broadcast rights to both the baseball and football Yankees.) With prices running $400 and up, there still weren’t a lot of sets in U.S households. But it was the New York City area that had the greatest concentration of television sets and television stations. Local owners of the exotic and expensive new medium could watch a lot of football, especially the pro version, since the city was home to the NFL Giants and AAFC Yankees and Dodgers. Many times during the fall of 1947, television programming on Saturday and Sunday consisted of a single event – a football game.
So when Norman thought, “Gee, I could make a good football game out of that race game,” he was taking into consideration more than just the toy world. He realized that 1948 might be an ideal time to create a football game, especially if that game looked and played unlike anything sports-loving boys had ever seen before. Football’s popularity was likely to continue to grow, and maybe, just maybe, this television gadget could help football’s popularity during the next couple of years. At least this is what Norman hoped. And this hope compelled Norman to move forward with designing prototype football game boards and football players. After several months of testing and going back to the drawing board, Norman finally approved the production of the first toy football game where the players would “run” around the field without any human help – the Tudor Tru-Action Electric Football Game Model No. 500. If everything worked as planned, the game would be on toy store shelves in 1949.
While offensive schemes of the late 40’s football leaned heavily on the “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy, Tudor gambled and threw a bomb with its new game. “We spent a lot of money on the tools and dies, plastic molds, and other stuff for the game,” said Norman. “Everything rode on electric football…if that game didn’t work out, who knows what would have happened to Tudor.”
Making such a decision in the toy industry today would involve boards of directors, CPAs, stock analysts, market studies, and of course, focus groups. And what was Norman’s basis for his company to risk almost everything on a completely new and unproven game?
“It was a gut feeling,” said Norman with a laugh.
A third excerpt will follow tomorrow followed by a piece on the collecting angle of electric football.
Want to read the entire book? The Unforgettable Buzz is available on Amazon.com.
See electric football games, parts and more for sale on eBay here.