Football Short Story
The NFL's Space Ship Division
Richard Bak, The Coffin Corner (May/June 2020)
Foortball coaches are always looking for an edge, and new technology often provides it. In the early stages of the 1956 season, several teams, led by rivals Cleveland and Detroit, rolled out an innovative messaging system that was a glimpse of the National Football League's future. For the first time, selected players were "wired for sound" - outfitted with miniature radios that allowed them to receive signals from the bench or the press box.
Unsurprisingly, the pioneer was Paul Brown. The Cleveland coach had been fooling around for years with the idea of using radio signals to more efficiently send plays to his quarterback, instead of relying on his usual system of messenger guards and backs. According to a source, at one point Brown "actually got a radio in Otto Graham's helmet. Then he experimented at League Park and Cleveland Stadium. Brown broadcast from the bench while Graham ran to all corners of the field, wig-wagging the results."
It wasn't until September 15, 1956, in the second of back-to-back preseason games with the Lions, that Brown field-tested the system against a real opponent. The helmets of quarterbacks George Ratterman and Vito "Babe" Parilli were each outfitted with a receiver about the size of a pocket watch. Brown, who had to obtain a shortwave license to operate the radio, used a four-watt transmitter and microphone to send plays from the bench. There was no difference in the outcome. A week earlier the defending champs had lost to Detroit, 17–0, without Brown's gizmo, and on this occasion they were whipped by the same seventeen-point margin, 31–14, with it. "There is some speculation that quarterbacks Ratterman and Parilli might have picked up some short-wave police calls, some dance music, or an SOS from a stricken fishing boat off the coast of New Zealand," wrote a bemused Lyall Smith in the Detroit Free Press. Actually, Ratterman spent much of the stormy evening in Akron fearing for his life. In addition to the head-hunting Lions targeting the contraption in his helmet, there were the occasional flashes of lightning that he admitted "scared the hell" out of him by threatening to fry his electronic ears.
Lions head coach Raymond "Buddy" Parker was more concerned than amused. Other teams, such as Los Angeles, the defending division champs, also were experimenting. Parker wasn't about to be left behind, even as the Lions opened the 1956 campaign with road wins in Green Bay and Baltimore. With the first home stand of the season coming up against the Rams and 49ers, he had general manager Nick Kerbawy explore the cost of putting in a system at Briggs Stadium. The retail price came to $1,161.50. However, Kerbawy was able to strike a deal with electronics expert Len Kieban for about $500. The grounds crew installed 2,200 feet of wiring under the sod, criss-crossing nearly the entire playing area. The network allowed a wired helmet to pick up signals extending 30 feet beyond each sideline. Of course, Parker's star quarterback, Bobby Layne, wouldn't countenance any play-calling from the sidelines, electronic or otherwise. But Joe Schmidt, in his first year as middle linebacker in the Lions' reconstituted 4-3 defense, was receptive—-literally. A button-sized receiver and an amplifier shaped like a cigarette lighter were fitted into Schmidt's helmet. The unit weighed a combined four ounces and cost $79.50. "I'm for it solidly," Schmidt said. "We can always use a 12th man."
L-R: Paul Brown, Otto Graham, George Ratterman, Babe Parilli
The Lions had three additional helmets outfitted, "in case Parker should elect to increase his Space Ship membership for future home games," wrote the Detroit News's pseudonymous Buck Rogers. The Lions' so-called Space Ship Division made its debut at the home opener on October 14, 1956. With assistants Aldo Forte and Red Cochran making observations from their vantage point in the press box, defensive coordinator Buster Ramsey relayed coded defensive formations from the bench to No. 56 on the field. "Couldn't help feeling a little funny every time Ramsey's voice came into my helmet," Schmidt said afterwards. "Caught myself looking around a couple of times to see what he was doing out on the field." Ramsey was happy that, for once, he wasn't hoarse for two days from spending the entire game screaming out instructions. The Lions narrowly won, 24–21, stockpiling a 17-point lead and then holding off a fourth-quarter Rams rally. After the game, Los Angeles officials complained about not being able to utilize their own gadgetry. According to commissioner Bert Bell, "The Rams said they were told certain equipment was denied them, that they weren't cut into the wire. If the Lions wire the field, I think everyone is entitled to the use of that wire." Electronic skulduggery was the order of the day. In New York, the Giants bragged that they had used a receiver tuned to the same frequency as Cleveland's to intercept signals and score an upset win. The short-wave revolution was short-lived. Four days later, with the unanimous backing of owners, Bell issued a directive. "All electronic devices, including walkie-talkies, hearing aids of any description used to receive messages, radio equipped helmets or any device of this nature must be eliminated," he ordered. Although the ban was intended only for the balance of the 1956 season, it stayed in place until 1994, when owners officially approved the league-wide use of helmet headsets. Bell's embargo caused the Lions to cancel plans for expanding and improving their system. Meanwhile, Schmidt went back to calling signals and pretending not to hear any shouted instructions from the sidelines that he didn't agree with.
L-R: Bobby Layne and Buddy Parker, Joe Schmidt, Bert Bell