The Philadelphia Bell, Papergate, and Possibly the Most Disastrous Pro League EverPosted: July 23, 2015 | Author: Johnny Goodtimes | Filed under: Football | Tags: JFK Stadium | 2 Comments »
It was a soggy, rainy night at Franklin Field, and almost everyone in Philadelphia had found something better to do. A mere 1,293 fans were on hand to watch the Philadelphia Bell take on the Charlotte Hornets, and those fans were treated to a sloppy, turnover-filled game that ended with the Bell ahead 18-10. There wouldn't be much time for the home team to celebrate, however. The World Football League would go under 4 days later. It was the last game the Bell would ever play.
The team had started with so much promise the year before. The owners, Al Sica and John Bosacco, convinced Jack Kelly, Princess Grace's brother, to be their president. They signed King Corcoran as their QB, a playboy whose cocky swagger and eccentric dress had given him the nickname "the poor man's Joe Namath." At wide receiver, the squad signed a former track star at St. Joe's by the name of Vince Papale.
They decided to play games their first season JFK Stadium. It was considered a strategic error. JFK had seating for 100,000 people, and the puny crowds the pundits were predicting would look even tinier in such a massive stadium. But those pundits were proven wrong when over 55,000 fans showed up to cheer the Bell on to a 33-8 victory over the Portland Storm (a team that had a young linebackers coach by the name of Marty Schottenheimer).
Two weeks later, the Bell returned home, and a crowd of 64,719 showed up to see the Bell battle the New York Stars. The game was a thriller, with the Bell missing two field goals in the final three minutes and falling 17-15. Nonetheless, the enormous crowd had the city abuzz and the World Football League looking like a real challenger to the NFL. Then, a few weeks later, it all fell apart.
Reporters began asking questions when a mere 12,396 fans showed up for the Bell's next home game. It turned out that the Bell had been selling many of their tickets at a remarkably cheap discount, and in fact gave tens of thousands of tickets away to local businesses to give to their customers. When the league was forced to pay city taxes on the tickets, the actual figures for paid attendance for those two games was a paltry 13,855 and 6,200. Bell Executive Vice President Barry Leib confessed, What can I say? I lied. I never thought those figures would come out."
A few days later, Jack Kelly held a press conference at the Warwick Hotel and announced his resignation. The team, and the league, never recovered from a scandal that was quickly dubbed "Papergate". The league began a downward spiral, but the stories of the characters that played, coached, and owned teams in the league became legendary.
Jacksonville Sharks owner Fran Monaco borrowed $27,000 from his head coach Bud Asher, then quickly fired him. Several players on the Hawaiian Islanders allegedly got cut without getting the money owed them, and therefore couldn't afford flights back to the mainland. The Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms seized after a game with Shreveport Steamer. The Hornets, who had bounced out of New York midway through the season and headed south, had been followed by a cleaner who claimed the team owed him over $26,000. Team owners had to post bond for the uniforms. The Detroit Wheels were coached by a screwdriver salesman.
The Memphis team was known as the Grizzlies, and had an actual grizzly cub as a mascot. At one game, the cub came across an electrical wire and began to chew on it. Eventually, it got to the core, and received a shock that not only knocked the poor bear on its back...it also shorted the stadium scoreboard. In Houston, the local sheriff showed up with a warrant for renowned wildman John Matuszak (who would later win two Super Bowls with the Raiders and star as Sloth in the Goonies). Matuszak had blown off his contract with the Oilers to play for the WFL's Texans. The coach allegedly told the sheriff he would give him a game helmet if he would just let the Tooz play a couple of series. The sheriff relented, and Matuszak was served papers after playing 7 plays, one of them a sack.
King Corcoran would recall shortly after the league folded in 1975, " Once we flew commercial to Portland and the flight back made eight stops. It was brutal. Then we got on a bus in Philadelphia and it broke down and we had to get out, carry our bags and hitchhike."
The insanity continued at the "World Bowl". The game was initially supposed to be played in Jacksonville, but when the Jacksonville team folded, the league moved the game to Birmingham. The Birmingham Americans would face the Florida Blaze. They were two of the best teams in the league. However, they weren't the best compensated; players on both teams hadn't seen a single paycheck in over a month. The Americans held on for a dramatic 22-21 win. After the game ended, federal agents arrived and seized the Americans' helmets and uniforms, hoping to recoup part of what their owner owed the IRS.
The Bell had lost $2 million in 1974, but incredibly were one of only two franchises that decided to move forward in a restructured WFL in 1975. They made history shortly before the '75 season began: after head coach Ron Waller quit, they hired Willie Wood, former star of the Green Bay Packers. He was the first African American ever hired as coach of a professional football team. The team also decided that it's low attendance wouldn't look quite so paltry at Franklin Field, and decided to stop playing at JFK.
A few months later, with the writing on the wall, in front of a miniscule crowd at the hallowed Franklin Field, the Philadelphia Bell played their final game. The league owners decided, a few days later, to scrap the league. Bell head coach Willie Wood was emotional when he spoke about the end of the league. "I can't say I was shocked by what has happened. But I suddenly realized how hard I've been rooting for this underdog. I suddenly realized a whole lot of good people are out of work. I suddenly realized a great idea had gone to dust."
You can grab your Philadelphia Bell shirt by clicking above or by swinging by our store, Shibe Vintage Sports, located at 13th and Walnut in Center City. Be sure to like us on facebook and follow us on twitter!