Since unloading the majority of my collection this past summer, I have been very hesitant to jump back into collecting. I have picked up a few signed AFL cards, my old standby, but I haven’t purchased any memorabilia. I suspect the main reason is that I once had such a large collection that it is an odd feeling to start almost completely over. Still, I love the old AFL, and routinely look around for items that I would enjoy.
I recently came across an autographed copy of the 1960 AFL championship program. The 1960 AFL championship program is a nice piece by itself. I would suspect that it is the second-rarest of AFL championship programs, next to the 1962 edition. This was, of course, the AFL’s first season, which makes it special. This particular program once belonged to former Chargers defensive lineman, Volney Peters, and had apparently been signed to him as a birthday gift. Peters grew up in San Diego, and attended Hoover High School, the same school as Ted Williams and Ray Boone. One of his high school teammates and lifelong friends is Bill McColl, and All-American at Stanford who later played end for George Halas’ Bears in the 1950s.
Peters attended USC as a two-way lineman, and was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals in the 1951 NFL draft. He played two years with the Cardinals, four with the Washington Redskins, and one with the Philadelphia Eagles before he began lending veteran experience to the upstart Los Angeles Chargers of the American Football League in 1960. Volney played one season for the Chargers, and in fact, this program represents his last game with the team. He played for the Oakland Raiders in 1961, before retiring from the game.
Scanning through the auction, I was immediately impressed by the program, but hemmed and hawed over whether I wanted to spend the money to obtain it. I took a few days to continue looking over the auction listing and read the different signatures. Ultimately I made the purchase, and the book was shipped to me from the seller in Maryland. Now that it is in-hand, I can honestly say that I am thrilled to own it. There is just so much history surrounding this program that I felt compelled to not only buy it, but also reveal that history to others. If you make it all the way through this, I applaud you. Hopefully, I will have edutained you (educate + entertain) a bit along the way…
January 1, 1961, was not only New Year’s Day, the day of the first AFL championship, and what would be Peters’ final game with the Chargers, but it also happened to be Volney’s 33rd birthday. I don’t know who sent this program around to be signed for Volney. He is a shy and quiet man, and getting a program signed for himself is not something that I can envision him doing. However his wife, Margaret, is a spitfire (I interviewed them both for my AFL Chargers book), and I would suspect that she was the person obtaining the signatures.
This book contains 58 signatures, and as I said earlier, many have great historical significance. The autographs cover the founding of the American Football League, a touch of the NFL, some Southern California sports journalism, and even a bit of Hollywood.
Barron & Marilyn Hilton – The original first couple of the Chargers. Barron Hilton secured the Los Angeles franchise when he bought into the American Football League for $25,000 in 1959. Though he helped form the league and put up the money for the team, perhaps his greatest football move was to hire Sid Gillman as head coach and ultimately general manager. Hilton founded the team, moved them to San Diego in 1961, and then sold his interest for $10 million in 1966, when he was forced to take a greater role in operating the family hotel chain.
Bud Adams – When Lamar Hunt initially thought to start his own football league, the first call that he made was to Bud Adams. Adams, like Hunt, was a Texas oil millionaire who had been shut down when he tried to purchase the Chicago Cardinals. Adams was immediately interested in joining Hunt in his new venture, and the two built the league and owned the two Texas franchises – Hunt with the Dallas Texans (later Kansas City Chiefs), and Adams with the Houston Oilers (later Tennessee Titans).
Joe Foss – Former WWII ace, Medal of Honor winner and Governor of South Dakota, Joe Foss, was tabbed as the first commissioner of the AFL. Though not the league’s first choice, Foss was a national hero who helped lend instant legitimacy to the league and open a lot of doors with his constant public appearances and glad-handing.
Sid & Esther Gillman – Sid Gillman set the bar high for the American Football League. A longtime collegiate and NFL coach, Gillman had a tireless work ethic, and was one of the great innovators in modern football. The Hall of Fame coach is known as the Father of Modern Offensive Theory, who led his Chargers teams to five of the first six AFL title games.
Esther Gillman, Sid’s wife, is considered by many to be the greatest coach’s wife of all time. She was smart, beautiful, and knew everyone. Many players have told me that Sid likely wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as he was if Esther wasn’t at his side. Additionally, Esther was good friends with Margaret Peters, and since Esther was the only one in the program to inscribe a happy birthday to Volney, it furthers my belief that Margaret was the one getting the program signed for her husband.
Los Angeles Chargers Coaching Staff – Sid Gillman, Al Davis, Chuck Noll, Jack Faulkner, Joe Madro – Some historians consider this to be the greatest coaching staff ever. Sixty percent of the members are in the Hall of Fame, and two members have seven Super Bowl titles between them. Everyone knows Gillman, Noll and Davis, but Jack Faulkner spent 53 years working in the AFL/NFL, and Madro had more than 25 years as Gillman’s offensive line coach in college and the pros.
Jack Kemp – The Chargers and Bills quarterback who played in five AFL championship games, winning two. He later became a Congressman from Buffalo, and enjoyed a long political career.
Bob Laraba & Emil Karas – Laraba was a qb/lb/p for the Chargers in 1960 and 1961. He was a good player, but not a standout. Laraba was killed in February 1962, in a single-car crash in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego.
Karas was a linebacker as well, though of greater acclaim. He was a three-time AFL All-Star, who moved into the Chargers front office and radio broadcast booth when his playing days came to an end. A fan favorite, he died of stomach cancer in 1974.
Bob Laraba and Emil Karas are two of four players who made up the inaugural class of the Chargers Hall of Fame, all of whom were inducted posthumously – Bob Laraba, Emil Karas, Frank Buncom, Jacque MacKinnon.
Ben Agajanian – “Bootin’ Ben” was 41 years old when he became the Los Angeles Chargers’ kicker in 1960. His professional football career began with the Hollywood Bears in 1942. He also played for the San Diego Bombers, Hollywood Rangers, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Dons, New York Giants (twice), Los Angeles Rams, Washington Redskins, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Texans, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders and finally the San Diego Chargers. After playing, he spent more than 20 years as kicking coach for the Dallas Cowboys. Aggie is credited with being the first kicking specialist in professional football, and did so without any toes on his kicking foot, which he lost in an elevator accident in college.
JC Agajanian – Brother of Ben, JC was famous in his own right, but in the world of motor sports. He was a successful and well-known race car owner, who has been inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame, National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame and Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame.
Bob Garner – When the Chargers were originally trying to fill out their first roster in 1960, Sid Gillman ran an advertisement for an open tryout in the Los Angeles Times. Anyone who thought they could play professional football had the opportunity to try out for the Chargers. The event was rife with truck drivers, bouncers and dock workers – every tough guy in town. Bob Garner was the only one, of more than 225 men, to actually make the Chargers roster. He was a defensive back and returned kicks for the Chargers in 1960, and the Raiders in 1961-1962.
Brad Pye Jr. & Ernie Ladd – Sid Gillman had coached the Los Angeles Rams for the five years prior to taking over the Chargers in 1960, and as such, he knew the local sports media quite well. Brad Pye Jr. is an African-American newspaper writer who went to great lengths to promote black athletes. As such, Gillman used him to help recruit black ballplayers. Ernie Ladd is one of the more famous players that were courted by Pye. In fact, Pye brought Ladd to the 1960 AFL championship game to meet the Chargers and their staff for the first time. The situation was covered on pages 66-67 of Ed Gruver’s fantastic book, The American Football League.
“At Grambling, Ladd was part of a team that included future all-pros Buck Buchanan, Willie Brown, and Roosevelt Taylor. He was drafted by the Chargers and the Chicago Bears, and to improve their chances of signing the young giant, [Los Angeles] dispatched Brad Pye, a local black sportswriter, to meet Ladd. Pye took him to Houston for the 1960 AFL title game. It was there, on New Year’s Day, when Ladd met Al Davis for the first time.
‘There was a knock on the door,” said Davis, an assistant with the Chargers at the time, ‘and in walked Brad. And behind him this giant of a man. I couldn’t believe it. Well, we didn’t let him out of our sight. We tried to sign him right after the game, but he said the Bears had made him a good offer and he wanted time to think about it.’
Davis put Ladd on a plane to Los Angeles and sent him out to meet Gillman. A week later, Davis, who had signed the huge Bill Hudson, called Gillman to inquire about Ladd.
‘You know what?’ Gillman said. ‘This big SOB wants a no-cut contract.’
‘Give it to him, Sid,’ Davis responded. ‘Can’t you see it now? We’ll have the biggest damn defensive line in football.’”
Tom & Elyse Harmon – This is the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner, Tom Harmon, who was the 1960 Chargers radio broadcaster on KNX 1070. His wife was the actress, former Elyse Knox. Per Wikipedia, Knox performed in 39 films, mainly in minor or secondary roles until 1942 when she had a leading role with Lon Chaney, Jr. in The Mummy’s Tomb.
Fred Gehrke – Gehrke was a former Los Angeles Rams running back, teammate and friend of Tom Harmon. Gehrke was a creative sort, and in 1946, played with the idea of painting logos on football helmets. Two years later, Rams owner Dan Reeves hired Gehrke to pain horns on the Rams helmets. Gehrke is also credited with inventing the first full facemask for a football helmet, which he designed after breaking his nose three times in 1946.
Gehrke was an assistant on Tom Harmon’s radio broadcasts for 13 years, and thus was working at the championship game.
Mona Freeman – per Wikipedia, Freeman was a model while in high school, and after becoming the first “Miss Subways” of the New York City transit system. Her first film appearance was in the 1944 film Till We Meet Again. She became a popular teenage movie star. After a series of roles as a pretty, naive teenager she complained of being typecast. As an adult, her career slowed and she appeared in mostly B-movies, though one exception was her role in the film noir Angel Face (1952). Also in 1952, she was called a “vest pocket Venus” by sculptor Yucca Salamunich because her proportions were the same as those of the Venus de Milo but three-quarter size.
Freeman was also a portrait painter and after 1961, she concentrated on painting. Her best-known portrait is that of Mary See, founder of See’s Candies
Jack Murphy – Jack Murphy was the sports editor of The San Diego Union when the AFL was formed in 1960. Murphy, who was well-connected and highly-respected, was perhaps the first media member to know that the Chargers were looking to get out of Los Angeles after the 1960 season. His first public mention of the possibility of the Chargers coming to San Diego came in his column of December 21, 1960, when he said, “The story will be denied and I’ll probably be denounced as a third-rate fiction writer, but it comes on excellent authority that the Los Angeles Chargers franchise is San Diego’s for the asking.”
Murphy immediately mounted a campaign to bring the Chargers to San Diego. The Greater San Diego Sports Association was formed to aid the process, and behind Murphy’s lead, the whole city got behind the effort. Amazingly, the whole campaign took a little over a month, and on January 25, 1961, the San Diego City Council approved the Chargers deal to move south.
After Jack Murphy died of cancer in 1980, San Diego renamed San Diego Stadium. It was called Jack Murphy Stadium from 1980-1997, when it was renamed Qualcomm Stadium, though the playing field retained Murphy’s name.
There are a host of other signatures on the program, though the ones above appear to be the most significant.
Braven Dyer – Los Angeles Times sports reporter
Bud Furillo – Los Angeles Herald-Examiner – Sports Editor
Tom Eddy – Aide to Barron Hilton and Los Angeles-area publicist
Kearney Reeb – Chargers trainer
Tom Denman – Chargers equipment manager
Al Barry, Dick Harris, Don Norton, Fred Cole, Royce Womble, Bob Zeman, Paul Lowe, Dick Chorovich, Al Bansavage, Jim Sears, Howie Ferguson, Charlie Brueckman, Garry Finneran, Charlie McNeil, Doyle Nix – all Chargers players
Ken & Sandra Gopsill – These two names were completely unfamiliar to me. I was discussing who they might be with my friend, Pete Lowry, when minutes after our conversation, Pete texted me. “I found a Ken Gopsill online who is 83 and lives in Colorado. Here is his number… Worth a shot?”
I figured it was worth the shot, so I called. As luck would have it, it was THE Ken Gopsill, and he quickly cleared up my question as to their connection to the team. “Oh,” Ken laughed, “Sandra’s brother was Dick Chorovich, who played defensive line for the Chargers. We went to that game, and after, Dick took us into the locker room.” That made perfect sense, as the Gopsill’s signatures are on the same page, right next to Chorovich.
Lastly, there are four signatures of people that I do not yet know –“John White Polaroid Camera,” Carl Romer, and Sy (or Soy or Roy) Williams and one more than I cannot yet make out. White might just be a note about someone that the Peters’ met at the game, but I will likely never know. I’m still researching the others.
As a Chargers collector and AFL historian, I am ecstatic to have this program in my hands. It connects with me on many levels – team, league, vintage signatures, and the several people that I have had the pleasure of meeting and knowing. While this purchase won’t open the proverbial floodgates for me, I will be continue to add the occasional, quality piece to my now humble collection.