The year Hershey joined the NFL

When the league took control of the Dallas Texans in 1952, the team moved its operations to Hershey for the remainder of the season.
A record player
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Giles E. Miller, left, with wife, Betty, completes the purchase of the NFL franchise that will become the Dallas Texans in 1952. At right is NFL commissioner Bert Bell. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During his Oct. 15 performance at downtown Hershey’s Choctoberfest, singer Rhett Miller noted that he is a seventh-generation Texan.

But Miller’s family also has a significant connection to Hershey that for a number of weeks in fall 1952 made the small central Pennsylvania community home to a National Football League franchise.

In a column for Sports Illustrated in January 2015, Miller wrote:

“In 1952 my grandfather pulled off quite a feat. He managed to go broke bringing professional football to Dallas. Yes, that Dallas, the city that is now a gridiron capital and proudly harbors ‘America’s Team.’ ”

In fact, the Texans were the last NFL franchise to fold. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Compared to Green Bay

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Hersheypark Stadium

Hersheypark Stadium opened in 1939, envisioned as a home for high school, college and professional football, among other uses. Beginning with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1941, a number of NFL teams held their training camps at the stadium, culminating with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1951 through 1967.

NFL teams also played exhibition games in Hershey: Philadelphia vs. Chicago in August 1961, for instance, with future Hall of Famers Sonny Jurgensen and Chuck Bednarik listed on the lineup card for the Eagles, Mike Ditka for the Bears.

John Sollenberger, who oversaw programming for the stadium, talked in 1945 about bringing an NFL team to Hershey.

“We have the facilities and we have the population in and around Hershey that would compare favorably with Green Bay,” according to FootballGeography.com, citing an Associated Press story.

Also among the NFL teams that trained in Hershey was the franchise that began as the Boston Yanks before moving to New York, where it was known as the Bulldogs in 1949 and the Yanks in 1950-51.

It was the Yanks that Rhett Miller’s grandfather, Giles E. Miller, along with his brother and other investors, bought for $300,000 and moved to Dallas for the 1952 season.

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Rhett Miller, grandson of Dallas Texans owner Giles Miller, performing in Hershey on Oct. 15, 2016.

Rhett Miller wrote in Sports Illustrated:

“Giles Miller, then a 31-year-old ex-boxer possessed of movie-star good looks and a considerable share of his family’s textile fortune, purchased the recently belly-up New York Yanks, who in their three seasons of existence had won just nine of 36 games.”

The Texans’ fortunes weren’t much better, on the field or at the gate. Attendance at the 75,000-seat Cotton Bowl peaked at 17,499 for the home opener. Tens months into Miller’s ownership, the winless Texans defaulted on payments to the NFL.

In mid-November, the league took the team back, finding the club “guilty of acts detrimental to the NFL.”

‘Wayward Jack O’Lantern’

The Philadelphia-based NFL shifted the Texans’ base to Hershey, where it practiced between games. From the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 3, 1952:

“The Texans are staying in Hershey, Pa., this week and will come into Philadelphia Friday, putting up at the Bellevue-Stratford. They will return to Hershey after Sunday’s game to get ready for their finale with the Detroit Lions in Detroit a week from Saturday.”

News accounts variously referred to the club as homeless or orphaned.

“The National League presumably is stronger than ever before,” wrote Lawnton Carver, a columnist for the International News Service, “except for this one franchise which bounces from here to there like a wayward Jack O’Lantern never quite lighting squarely anywhere.”

A United Press story described some players as being “a little perturbed about moving their families on such short notice.” But Texans coach Jimmy Phelan, who had been with the franchise in New York, minimized the disruption to his team.

“Their job is to play football and they are going to get to do that — right down to the wire,” he said.

The Texans finished the season 1-11, winning a “home” game played against the Bears in front of 3,000 fans at Akron, Ohio’s Rubber Bowl.

At the end of the season, the NFL disbanded the Texans. Many of the club’s players ended up with the new Baltimore Colts franchise in 1953.

Of course, Hershey never got its NFL team. Dallas got an expansion team in 1960; today, the Cowboys are worth $4.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine, making it the most valuable professional sports team in the world.

Meanwhile, Miller, the seventh-generation Texan, is left to lament his family’s missed opportunity. The title of his Sports Illustrated column: “We Could Have Been Cowboys.”

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