This is the third excerpt from “The Unforgettable Buzz”, a recently released book that chronicles one of the most popular sports games in history: Electric Football. The Unforgettable Buzz was inspired by a simple premise: For millions of Baby Boomer boys, finding an Electric Football game under the tree was like Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story, who pined for and finally received a special BB gun.
Yet the story of Electric Football ranges far beyond Christmas morning. 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.
The growing popularity of a toy and a sport intertwined over the next decade, as football became a fixture on television and Electric Football achieved featured toy status in the Sears Christmas Wish Book.
Sas’ knack for exquisite timing surfaced again when he landed an NFL license for Electric Football right on the eve of the NFL-AFL merger in 1966. For the next decade Tudor’s line of NFL Electric Football games would provide NFL Properties with nearly two-thirds of its income. This remarkable success came despite competition from three other Electric Football makers, including one by run a former Tudor employee.
The Unforgettable Buzz is the first and only book ever written on the game. But it also chronicles the rise of the NFL and the hyper-expansion of the Boomer generation toy industry. One player who had a major role in helping the game grow was a certain New York Jets quarterback.
A New Star for Electric Football (1969)
For both toys and professional football, March was a critical month. The Toy Fair would be the center of the toy universe during the opening days of the month, while just a short time later the NFL and AFL owners were scheduled to get down to the nuts and bolts of merging the two leagues. Television was a driving force in both worlds. Pro football needed to sort out its details so a new television deal could be signed. The sooner the owners could secure their major stream of income, the happier they all would be. In toys, the overriding theme was the amount of money major toy companies were going to spend on television advertising. Ideal, Remco, Kenner, and Hasbro were all pouring record sums – almost $25 million combined – into getting their products presented to both kids and parents through the magic of television.
It was no accident that space-themed toys had prominent placement when the Toy Fair opened on March 2. NASA’s successful Apollo program, helped by the Christmas Eve broadcast of Apollo 8, was inducing a severe case of space fever among all Americans. Benefiting from some fortuitous timing was the Fair itself, as Apollo 9 was scheduled to lift off on the afternoon of March 3. Toy manufacturers were also looking into the future. If all went well, two Apollo manned moon landings would happen by December. To help kids relive any moonwalk memories, Mattel’s Major Matt Mason and Eldon’s Billy Blastoff would be ready for duty on Christmas morning.
Not needing any help from the heavens was Tudor. For the second year in a row, electric football was NFL Properties’ top-earning product. Again, the company sold all the NFL games it had and could have sold even more. Tudor was playing up its link to professional sports and the NFL with a two-page Playthings spread. The ad theme picked for 1969 was “go to the pro,” the pro of course being Tudor thanks to its licensing relationships with the NFL, AFL, Major League Baseball (new for 1969), and the Players Associations of both the NBA and NHL. Included in the ad was a list of all the professional games Tudor was making. At the top of the list were the company’s NFL and AFL models.
What the ad did not include was any promise or mention of television advertising. Norman still didn’t see any reason to join the crowd. He was already selling out his entire stock; why waste money on television spots? And really, Tudor had an expansive national television spot every Sunday afternoon from September to January. No other toy company could claim such visibility.
Tudor brought four electric football games to the 1969 Toy Fair with – the NFL No. 620 and No. 510, the AFL No. 520, and the ever-present Tru-Action No. 500. The Tudor game drawing the most attention during the Fair was the AFL Jets-Chiefs game. What toy retailer wouldn’t want the Super Bowl champs and Joe Namath on its shelves? In addition to the champion Jets, the rest of Tudor’s line was pretty strong. The NFL Champion Colts were on the No. 510.
The AFL was playing a bigger role in the 1969 Tudor sales catalog as well. Not only did the AFL shield make the cover of the catalog, for the first time ever, all nine AFL teams were pictured inside sharing a color page with the teams of the NFL. Serving as a tease for coming attractions, Tudor included a close-up photo of a Jets player in a white uniform posed next to a Colts player in a dark uniform. Once again, it was a strong Fair for Tudor. Norman and Lee had created a core of highly recognizable NFL products.
Not far away in the Gotham showroom, however, Eddie Gluck was set for one of his most ambitious Toy Fair presentations in some time. Despite the company’s financial issues, he had not been idle during the last year. There was the new Denny McLain Baseball, which even had a miniature Denny McLain as the pitcher. And Gotham’s designers had been hard at work trying to keep their electric football line viable against Tudor.
For 1969 Gotham had come up with a midsized electric football game, and an endorsement deal with the National Football League Players Association. Gluck couldn’t get the NFL, so he did the next best thing – just as Tudor had done with basketball and hockey. The new G-895 NFLPA game measured 30” x 17” and came with a large wrap-around grandstand that was streamlined and much easier to assemble than the Big Bowl. Gotham designers created a clever football-shaped logo that emphasized the “NFL” part of the NFLPA. The “Players Association” part of the logo was printed in much smaller text. Another new feature was 48 “self-stick name tabs” featuring the names of star NFL players. This would be the Gotham way of personalizing the players.
And in “bigger” news, Gotham had discontinued the Big Bowl. In its place was a new flagship electric football game, the G-1512 Super Dome. Standing 21” high, the Super Dome game was inspired by Houston’s Astrodome, the stadium that introduced the world to indoor football during the previous season. New Orleans also had a domed stadium on the drawing board, so football stadiums with a roof and a rug seemed like an obvious new direction. It wasn’t the first time that Gluck had gotten an early jump on a stadium architecture trend.
The Super Dome, at least the dome itself, was an innovative and inspired concept even though the top of the dome wasn’t actually enclosed. Sitting on a large G-1500 game board was a colorful metal and plastic grandstand that fully encased the game from three sides. More like a tent than a stadium, the dome rose inward and upward instead of sloping away from the game like the Big Bowl grandstand did. So for practicality, the Super Dome was in the form-over-function category. It was going to be even more challenging to play with than the retired Big Bowl.
But Gluck hadn’t survived over thirty years in the toy industry without being resourceful. In the April issue of Playthings a full-page Gotham ad challenged the toy world: “If these 3 Action Games don’t make money for you, the other 9 will.” The games in the ad were the Super Dome, the NFLPA G-895, and the Denny McLain Baseball game. Also promised was “Gotham games will be backed by the biggest advertising and promotional campaign ever.” It wasn’t clear what this meant, whether it was the biggest campaign in toy history or in Gotham history. Those in the toy trade would know right away it wasn’t the biggest campaign in toy history. And considering that Gluck had recently sold his building off for a dollar, it was really hard to believe that Gotham could even muster the biggest campaign in company history.
Eddie Gluck then had one more trick play to unveil before April finished. Late in the month Gotham finally issued its 1969 sales catalog. In it was the toy equivalent of a “Hail Mary” pass. A new electric football game would be available in August. It would be numbered the G-812. Oddly, the catalog didn’t have a photo of the game, just the mock-up of a box lid. And the player whose photo was on the game was unmistakable. Gotham’s new game was…the Official Joe Namath Electric Football Game.
Somehow in the weeks since the Super Bowl, Gluck had landed a personal endorsement deal with the hottest name in all of sports – the Super Bowl MVP, the man with the guarantee, the one, the only, Broadway Joe. The text introducing the game asked, “Has Joe Namath Sold Out?” Of course he had, but the coy Gotham response was “Not yet…But we think the Official Joe Namath Game will be the biggest selling sports game ever produced.” While the reality of that claim was open to debate, the game would be the first player-endorsed electric football game ever produced.
The selling point of the game was a special Joe Namath passer figure – which Gotham had yet to design. So toy buyers were being asked to take on faith that Gotham could produce a decent looking Joe and, therefore, a viable game. It was a bold move on Gluck’s part. Super Bowl III was one of the biggest football stories ever – the hype of the Jets’ victory still reverberated throughout the country. Perhaps Namath could do the same thing for underdog Gotham that he had done for the underdog Jets?
Still to come: The collecting aspect of Electric Football and how the games, players and other elements have become sought after in their own unique market.
Want to read the entire book? The Unforgettable Buzz is available on Amazon.com.
Visit the Unforgettable Buzz website here.
See electric football games, parts and more for sale on eBay here.