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Significant Events in Broncos History: How Baseball Brought Football to Denver

Oh, how things might have been different in Denver.

Doug Pensinger

Denver, Colorado . . . a state capital . . . known far and wide as the Mile High City . . . in 2011 was ranked the 16th most populous U.S. metropolitan area . . . is the second most populous city in the Mountain West and Southwestern U.S, falling below only Phoenix, Arizona. Two of its professional sports teams have won their league championships -- incidentally, both of them have won that honor twice -- while a third team has appeared in its league championship. Despite these many attributes, Denver -- and its sports teams -- still struggle to dispel the image of Denver as a relatively small, frontier town nestled against the Rocky Mountain foothills. This has meant that the city has had to fight, scrap and scrape to bring professional sports -- and professional American football, in particular -- to Denver.

You might (or might not know) that Denver was founded in 1858 to provide services to miners who were flocking to the Rocky Mountains during the Pikes Peak gold rush. The plan was to provide miners with gambling halls, saloons, livestock and trade goods. The Colorado Territory was formed in 1861 and Denver became its capital in 1867. The city was dealt a severe blow in the late 1860s when the Transcontinental Railroad was routed through Cheyenne instead of Denver. Despite this, the city struggled on, grew and prospered. By 1890, it was the largest city west of Omaha, Nebraska. By 1900, however, it had lost ground to both San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The perception of Denver as a small venue is reflected in how professional sports leagues in the United States have dealt with the city. Let's start with baseball. The National League was founded in 1876 and the American League in 1901 and merged into a single organization in 2000. Denver was only able to boast a minor league team -- the Denver Bears -- from 1948-1992. The team changed its name to the Denver Zehpyrs in 1985 and was moved New Orleans in 1992 when the National League agreed to add an expansion team in Denver -- the Colorado Rockies.

Basketball in the Mile High City followed a similar pattern. The National Basketball Association was formed in 1946. Denver's amateur basketball team -- founded in 1932-- the Denver Nuggets became a professional team in 1948, but in the National Basketball League, not the NBA. This team played one season in the NBA after the NBL merged with the NBA in 1950. The Nuggets disbanded in 1950. Professional basketball returned to Denver in 1967, but again, it was not with the NBA, it was with the rival American Basketball Association and the team was called the Denver Rockets. The team became an NBA team in 1976 when the ABA and the NBA merged. The Denver Rockets also changed their name to the Denver Nuggets at this time.

Professional hockey provides a third example of this perception of Denver. Despite the fact that the National Hockey League was formed in 1917, Denver did not receive a major league franchise until 1976, and even then the NHL Colorado Rockies were moved to New Jersey in 1982. Denver then had to wait until 1995 to see another NHL team placed in the Mile High City.

Given the history of other professional sports' treatment of Denver, is it any wonder then, that Denver was largely ignored by the National Football League (founded in 1920)?

What's truly surprising, however, is that it was professional baseball that lead to the founding of a professional football team in Denver.

Our story now turns to businessman and baseball excutive Bob Howsam. Howsam and his family owned the minor league baseball team, the Denver Bears from 1947-1962. The Howsams built an 18,000 seat stadium -- Bears Stadium -- in 1948. The Bears were considered a successful, though minor league, team. In 1958, events unfolded that gave Howsam hope that he might bring a major league baseball team to Denver. That hope began with the relocation of two major league teams.

Both the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers chose to move out of New York City and relocate to the west coast following their 1957 seasons. New York's mayor appointed a committee, lead by an attorney named William Shea to bring MLB back to the city. Both the National and American leagues were resistant to the idea of expansion, so Shea proposed the formation of a third major league, to be called the Continental League.

The Continental League initially formed franchises in Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York City and Toronto. Additional teams were expected to be formed in Atlanta, Buffalo and Dallas-Fort Worth prior to the commencement of play. Howsam was going to be the owner of Denver's franchise. Howsam, like each of the other owners had to front $50,000 to the new league (that would be approximately the same as $390,000 today). He also had to commit to a $2.5 million capital investment (or $19.5 million today). Finally, he had to provide a baseball stadium with a minimum seating capacity of 35,000. Howsam made the financial commitments, then went to work having Bears Stadium expanded to 34,657 seats.

The National and American Leagues did not respond well to this proposed league. Each league announced plans to add two expansion teams. The American League announced that one of it's charter teams, the Washington Senators would relocate to Minneapolis-St. Paul beginning in 1960. The American League then went on to place expansion teams in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. At the same time, the National League announced the placement of expansion teams in Houston and New York City. With the return of a MLB team to New York City.

WIlliam Shea felt his job was done and withdrew his support from the efforts to get the Continental League off the ground. Shea's withdrawal, along with MLB placing teams in three of what would have been the five charter cities for the Continental League dealt a deathblow to the project. The league folded in 1960 without any team having played a game.

Now Howsam was faced with a dilemma. He had incurred a large debt in his attempt to bring a major league baseball team to Denver. He also had a 35,000 seat stadium that he could not hope to fill to capacity. He began searching for other options. One such opportunity came from the National Football League.

In the late 1950s, the NFL's Chicago Cardinals were struggling financially. The Bidwell family (the Cardinals' owners) approached the NFL about relocating their team to St. Louis. The two sides could not reach an agreement on a relocation fee. Feeling cash-strapped, the Bidwells began courting potential investors. These potential co-owners included Texas oilman Lamar Hunt -- who wanted to move the team to Dallas, Texas oilman Bud Adams, Minneapolis businessman Max Winter, and . . . Bob Howsam. These negotiations never came to fruition -- largely, according to most reports, because the Bidwells wanted to retain control of the franchise and because they were not receptive to moving to anywhere other than St. Louis.

Hunt, at this time, became enamored of the idea of owning an NFL franchise. So he -- along with Adams and Howsam -- approached the NFL and asked to be allowed to found an expansion team. The NFL turned them down. Hunt decided that if the NFL would not let him own a franchise, he'd start a league of his own. He approached other businessmen, including Bud Adams, Max Winter and Bob Howsam about starting a new professional football league. They agreed and on August 14, 1959, the first meeting of the American Football League was held. At that meeting, Bob Howsam became a charter member of the league and received a professional football franchise for Denver.