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Wismer as host of Sports-Ten on the Mutual Broadcasting System.
June 30, 1913|
Port Huron, Michigan
|Died||December 3, 1967
New York City
|Alma mater||University of Florida|
|Known for||Charter owner of the New York Titans|
A native of Port Huron, Michigan, Wismer displayed great interest and prowess in sports at an early age. He was a multiple sport star at Port Huron High School, but bad grades temporarily derailed his college plans and he entered a private school, earning letters in football, basketball, and baseball at St. John's Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin. He later played college football at both the University of Florida and Michigan State University, his playing career ending at the latter school when he damaged a knee severely during a game against the University of Michigan. He then began broadcasting Michigan State sports on MSU's radio station WKAR in a position arranged for him by his coach, Charlie Bachman. In 1934 he was hired as the public-address announcer for the Detroit Lions, who were then owned by the same man, George A. "Dick" Richards, who owned Detroit radio station WJR. Wismer soon began doing a ten-minute daily radio show covering the Lions in addition to his PA duties, while continuing as a student at Michigan State.
After the 1936 season, Wismer was encouraged by Richards to abandon his studies and come to work for WJR on a full-time basis as the station's sports director. Among Wismer's WJR duties was serving as play-by-play announcer for the station's Lions broadcasts. He stayed until 1941 when he was hired by the NBC Blue Network, the predecessor to ABC. During the 1940s Wismer was named Sportscaster of the Year three years running by Sporting News magazine. In 1947 he was named one of 10 outstanding young Americans of the year by the U.S. Jaycees, along with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and physicist Philip Morrison. However, a subsequent management change at ABC led to a new regime that was hostile to sports, and Wismer became a free-lancer, selling his service to the highest bidder. Wismer became known for an enormous ego and developed a reputation as a "namedropper", preferring to announce the names of celebrities of his acquaintance who were in the audience to the actual game action, and was alleged at times to include them in the crowd of games which he announced when they were in fact elsewhere.
In the late 1940s he provided the voice talent to numerous 16 mm college football films. Wismer often added the sound commentary long after the games were over, and added a radio style commentary with sound effects such as referee whistles to recreate an authentic sound. He was owner of HarFilms, a short-lived New Orleans based sports film production company. He appeared in the 1948 Hollywood production Triple Threat as a football broadcaster.
Wismer achieved the height of his fame as the voice of the Washington Redskins. His first game for the Redskins was a most inauspicious one, their 73-0 loss to the Chicago Bears' great "Monsters of the Midway" team in the 1940 NFL Championship Game. At one point Wismer was a 25% owner of the club as well, with the majority of the stock being retained by founding owner George Preston Marshall. However, the relationship between the two had greatly degenerated by the mid-1950s over several issues, not the least of which was Marshall's steadfast refusal to sign any black players. The relationship dissolved in claims, counterclaims, and litigation, and Marshall then set out to destroy Wismer's future as a broadcaster, with some success. Wismer was also involved for a time in the broadcasting of Notre Dame football.
In 1953, Wismer was involved in an early attempt to expand football into prime time network television, when ABC, now with a renewed interest in sports, broadcast an edited replay on Sunday nights of the previous day's Notre Dame games, which were cut down to 75 minutes in length by removing the time between plays, halftime, and even some of the more uneventful plays. (While this format was not successful in prime time, a similar presentation of Notre Dame football later became a staple of Sunday mornings for many years on CBS with Lindsey Nelson as the announcer.) Also that season was the first attempt at prime time coverage of pro football, with Wismer at the microphone on the old DuMont Network. Unlike ABC's Notre Dame coverage, DuMont's NFL game was presented live on Saturday nights, but interest was not adequate to save the DuMont Network, which had by this point already entered what would be a terminal decline (although it did mount a subsequent 1954 season of NFL telecasts, minus Wismer, which proved to be one of its last regular programs).
Wismer was a charter owner in the AFL, which was announced in 1959 and began actual play in 1960. He was one of two owners with experience in sports team ownership and in broadcasting. He had previously been a part owner of the Detroit Lions and the Washington Redskins (Buffalo's Ralph Wilson was also a part owner of the Lions). His New York franchise was nicknamed the "Titans". Wismer devised a plan in which the proceeds from the broadcast rights to league games (initially with ABC) would be shared equally by all teams, very innovative at the time but setting the standard for all future professional football television broadcasting contracts. As Wismer owned what would seem to have been the most potentially lucrative franchise, especially with regard to broadcasting rights, in the nation's largest media market, the act seemed at first blush most generous for a self-described "hustler". However, Wismer realized that the fledgling league needed for all of the eight franchises to be successful in order to survive long-term. Unfortunately for Wismer, his own team, despite being located in the nation's largest city, was probably the most problematic in the league in its initial years. For one thing, the team was relegated to playing its home games in the rotting remains of the old Polo Grounds, which had been abandoned three years before by the New York Giants baseball team for San Francisco and was never a particularly satisfactory football venue. In contrast, the NFL football Giants played in prestigious Yankee Stadium. Additionally, the New York media for the most part was derisive and dismissive of the Titans, when it deigned to mention them at all. For most New York sports reporters of the era professional football in New York City began and ended with the Giants. Wismer's volatile personality was of little help in this area; he resented not only other media figures but also Dallas Texans owner Lamar Hunt, whom Wismer saw as a rich boy whose father had bought him a football team as a toy. Wismer also had an ongoing feud with the first AFL commissioner, Joe Foss, and had at times a far-less-than-warm relationship with the Titan's first coach, the legendary former Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh. (In fact, Baugh had been the losing tailback in the 73-0 debacle back in 1940 that had marked Wismer's debut with the Redskins as noted above.) Wismer also lacked the truly "deep pockets" of some of the other early AFL owners, particularly Hunt, possessed. For the most part their wealth had come from sources outside the field of sports, which, although already quite popular in the U.S., was not the major industry it was shortly to become. Wismer's wealth, such as it was, had come entirely from his sports involvement.
The Titans drew just 114,682 total paid admissions for the league's entire initial season in 1960; by 1962 this number had dwindled to a mere 36,161 and Wismer was broke. Supposedly it was loans from other AFL owners, including Wilson and Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams, which kept Wismer and the Titans (as well as several other teams including the Oakland Raiders and Boston Patriots) afloat. This was a necessity for the league to remain viable, as U.S. broadcasters have traditionally had a very limited level of interest in team sports leagues without a viable New York franchise, due to the size of that market area. Wismer, who had long tended to live "hard-and-fast", began to drink even more heavily, and eventually ruined his relationships with all of the other AFL owners, even Adams. They arranged the 1963 sale of the team to the more financially stable Sonny Werblin, who proceeded to change the name of the team to the "Jets" and move it the next year into the now-completed Shea Stadium, where it was to play for two decades. When Werblin signed University of Alabama star quarterback Joe Namath after the 1964 season for a package worth a then-unheard of value of roughly $430,000, the Jets, and the AFL, were made; the Namath signing, and his subsequent stardom, along with a new, more lucrative television contract with NBC, led more than any other single factor to the AFL–NFL merger. Wismer was left embittered and with debts totalling approximately $2,500,000, which he eventually struggled to settle for 78 cents on the dollar.
Wismer wrote a book, The Public Calls It Sport, which was something of a combination autobiography and explanation of his philosophy of life. Sales were not particularly brisk. He got involved in the Michigan Speedway project, which, to his great chagrin, was very slow to get under way. Wismer's health, far from brisk, broke completely from depression and alcoholism on top of his other problems after a trip overseas. In 1967 he sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic for cancer before returning to his hometown of Port Huron, where he underwent more treatments, including the replacement of his cancerous hip. Largely given up on, he rallied, and soon fulfilled his desire to return to New York City. Once there, he found that he was no longer a celebrity or even much noticed, and of those who did notice, more held him in contempt than liked him. His drinking problem returned with a vengeance, and on December 2 he suffered a fall at a restaurant while drunk, falling down a flight of stairs. Still weakened from his earlier health problems, he died the next day. An autopsy gave a skull fracture as being the immediate cause of death. Wismer's brother John, a Port Huron radio station owner, claimed ever afterward Harry had been thrown down the stairs by mobsters, though for what reason wasn't clear, unless they were old Titan fans. Today Wismer is remembered, when he is remembered at all, primarily as something of an eccentric rather than as a crucial founder of the American Football League and one of the creators of professional football's modern era through shared broadcast revenues.
"...no matter how good you think you are, how shrewd you are, there is always someone down the block, across the street, in the next town, who is a little better, shrewder, more ruthless." From The Public Calls It Sport
In popular culture
In a song on Commentary! The Musical, a bonus feature on the DVD of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Simon Helberg mentions his character Moist's fear of stairs, commenting "That's how Harry Wismer died."
While pulling the New York Titans and the AFL together, Wismer was approached by writer George Plimpton, who asked to join the team's training camp for a Sports Illustrated profile. Wismer agreed, later forgot about it, and Plimpton ended up playing with and writing about Wismer's old team, the Detroit Lions, for the magazine and in the book Paper Lion. Plimpton on Wismer: "He was an odd man. He used to say 'Congratulations' to many people he met, on the grounds that they had probably done something they could be proud of."
- Port Huron (Mich.) Times Herald, 07/22/46.
- Port Huron (Mich.) Times Herald, 01/20/1947.
- Plimpton, George. Paper Lion. Pocket Books / Simon and Schuster, 1967. pp. 11-12.
- The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946–Present, Eighth Edition, by Jim Brooks and Earle Marsh, ISBN 0-345-45542-8.
- The Golden Voices of Football, by Ted Patterson, ISBN 1-58261-744-9.