The first edition of Arizona Republican newspaper did not contain a sports section, but a sports story featured on the front page.
It wasn’t much, just the scores of five “live” “baseball” (two words) games played across the country the previous day, May 18, 1890, including the Toledo Maumees beating the Brooklyn Gladiators, 3 -2.
It takes a leap of logic to see this blurb and write, “From day one of business, 130 years ago, sport was important to the newspaper.”
So I won’t.
Especially since the ball scores were just below a grade on an effort to oust a Pittsburgh judge who “slept a good chunk of the time” while hearing a case, and just above a paragraph on the death of the wife of a former senator from California.
But decades later, the newspaper recognized the power of sport to unite a community and spur growth. It has played a prominent role in the Valley, growing from a sunny but remote outpost in the sports world to a regular destination for nearly every major sporting event in the country.
Super Bowls. NCAA Final Fours and college football championship games. Star games. NASCAR races. The Cactus League. PGA and LPGA tournaments. And so on.
“There’s no doubt that major league sports have really helped build this valley, in every way,” said Bill Shover, community relations manager for the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette from 1963 until his retirement in 1998. “It brought new energy to the people of the Valley.”
Get the paper on board
Jerry Colangelo was just 28 when he was named general manager of the new NBA expansion team in Phoenix. But he had spent the previous two years helping the Chicago Bulls expansion get off the ground, so Colangelo knew something about what it takes to get a city interested in a new team.
Part of this strategy was to ship the logs.
In Chicago, Colangelo shared an office with Ben Bentley, a boxing promoter/con artist/comedian/master of ceremonies/PR man.
“A Damon Runyon type character,” Colangelo said.
Bentley’s job was to get the media, especially the newspapers, to pay attention to the Bulls.
Sometimes that involved serving them with whiskey and cigars, Colangelo said.
Colangelo didn’t get that far in Phoenix, but came close.
One of the first people he contacted when he arrived in town in 1968 was Shover, who arranged a meeting with the editors of both newspapers.
Colangelo lobbied publishers to pay to send writers on the road with the team. The publishers said they couldn’t afford it.
“Which surprised me a bit,” Colangelo said. “I said, ‘look, I’m willing to pay for this. I need someone on the road, and it was agreed.
It wasn’t an uncommon practice in professional sports at the time, but Colangelo still laughs that two years later the papers were prepared to not travel to cover the Suns because of the expense.
“What expense? he said.
(A side note: the newspaper has long paid travel expenses for journalists.)
Shover convinced Eugene Pulliam, who owned the Republic and Gazettethat supporting the new NBA team was good for the community and good for business.
The newspaper sponsored a naming contest for the team and helped Colangelo by sponsoring games on Christmas Day.
“We wanted to build spirit in the community because we were such a disparate community,” Shover said. “We come from everywhere. We are a melting part of the country. Sport unites people and it did.
“It’s a one-day event”
Shover was working for Pulliam in Indianapolis in late 1962 when Pulliam asked him to move to Phoenix to become community relations manager for both newspapers. Pulliam’s only running order: do it right and don’t spend a lot of money in the process.
By the late 1960s, Arizona State football was the city’s most popular sport, and there was considerable consternation when the Sun Devils were not chosen for bowl games in 1968 and 1969, making it 19 straight seasons without a bowl appearance.
At a public event one evening, school president G. Homer Durham suggested that the area start its own bocce game. A little after, Republic Editor and sports columnist Verne Boatner began lobbying for it to be printed.
Shover and eight other prominent Valley men began work on it, asking the NCAA to approve a new game, something it rarely did at the time.
The group was called the Greater Phoenix Sports Foundation. He had a nice title but no money.
So when it came time to travel to Washington, DC, to present to the NCAA, Shover asked Colangelo if the Suns would pay around $10,000 to cover the expenses.
“Why should I do it?” said Colangelo. “I’m trying to start a franchise. We don’t need anything else.
“It’s just a one-day event,” Shover said.
But both men knew better. Shover got his $10,000 and the NCAA gave its approval for what was later named the Fiesta Bowl.
The Arizona Eagles?
Before the Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988, NFL teams constantly flirted with moving to the Valley, only to stay home when stadium deals were sweetened by government entities and nervous politicians.
There was also an effort to host a Super Bowl, but it was pushed back by the NFL because Phoenix was not an NFL city.
“All of those major sports were tough to deal with, but the NFL was the toughest,” Shover said. “They had the golden prize and they knew it.”
An open NFL market in Phoenix meant leverage for teams looking for better deals on their stadiums.
The Dolphins, Vikings and Colts were among the flirts, Shover said.
The most interesting banter was with the Eagles in December 1984. Oddly enough, if not for Arizona Republic Sports columnist Bob Hurt, the Eagles may well have moved to the desert under the cloak of darkness.
Hurt, who died in 2009, had friendly manners and an Oklahoma drawl. He was instantly likeable and his Rolodex of source material was the envy of other writers.
Need a quote from, say, North Carolina basketball player Dean Smith? Hurt could get it for you.
Around noon on December 10, a Monday, Hurt received a call from a source who said Eagles owner Leonard Tose was ready to move the team to Phoenix. Deep in debt from a gambling problem, Tose had an investor, Phoenix businessman James Monaghan, lined up.
Twenty phone calls later, Hurt had five sources confirming the Eagles were ready to move to Phoenix.
Hurt announced the news on December 11, 1984. The official announcement was scheduled for the 17th, but it was delayed after Hurt’s column.
There was outrage in Philadelphia, but also concern. Negotiations begin and in a few days, everything is settled. The Eagles remained in Philadelphia.
A Philadelphia writer joked to Hurt that a statue of him should be placed outside Veterans Stadium. Hurt said he preferred to be near the “Rocky” statue near the city’s art museum.
Farewell to the “good old days”
Meanwhile, the Valley continues to grow rapidly and the sport keeps pace.
In the spring of 1988, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill announced that the team was leaving St. Louis to play at Sun Devil Stadium.
Seven years later, in the spring of 1995, a group led by Colangelo received a Major League Baseball expansion team. A year later, the Coyotes moved to the Winnipeg Valley. Today, Phoenix is one of 13 metropolitan markets with teams in every Big Four league.
In 2000, the Pulliams sold the papers to Gannett.
Times had changed, as they tend to do.
The Valley sports scene was no longer a family operation. Neither does the newspaper.
“There was a time and a place where we were partners with the newspaper in all community initiatives,” Colangelo said. “It would be difficult to do today. In a way, those were the good old days.”
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