BY David Eskenazi 06:30AM 10/14/2015

Wayback Machine: First flirt with pro football

The Seattle Rangers of the Continental League succeeded the Seattle Ramblers and provided the city with pro football prior to the arrival of the Seahawks in 1976.

Don White coached the Seattle Rangers in 1969, their final season in the Continental Football League. / David Eskenazi Collection

By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman

If Sam Schulman had gotten his way, the chairman of the board of the San Diego Chargers would have relocated the franchise to Seattle in the spring of 1970, the year the American Football League officially merged with the National Football League. But Schulman, also owner of the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics, couldn’t extricate the Chargers from an onerous lease at San Diego Stadium.

“I have a great desire to move the franchise to Seattle,” Schulman told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in early April, 1969. “If I could do it, I would do it right now.”

Program cover from the 1968 Rangers-Spokane Shockers game. Ex-NFL star Ken Stabler played for the Shockers. / David Eskenazi Collection

If not for that lease, Seattle fans would have been cheering for the John Hadl-Lance Alworth Chargers six years before the Seahawks made their debut in the Kingdome. And if not for a leak, they might be rooting today for Tom Brady and the Seattle Patriots.

At about the same time Schulman plotted to move the Chargers, which he owned in partnership with Eugene V. Klein, who got rich by selling used cars the same way supermarkets sell hamburger (by the pound), Lafayette “Lafa” Lane, a Seattle mortgage broker, dangled $8 million in front of Boston Patriots president Billy Sullivan. He was fed up that his franchise had no permanent stadium.

Lane might have been successful in his quest to lure the Patriots to Seattle had not a member of his inner circle, never identified, leaked to the media that Lane had offered Sullivan $8 million for his ball club.

“It’s been my experience that the only time a sound businessman talks about a deal of that magnitude is after it has been completed,” Sullivan huffed. “I have never seen the man (Lane), but that story disturbed me greatly.”

Said Lane after the damage was done: “The story concerning my offer to the Patriots leaked out of Seattle and I felt it best to tell the whole story instead of allowing it to become another rumor concerning pro football in Seattle.”

Lane’s explanation didn’t assuage Sullivan. That turned out to be Seattle’s best chance to acquire a pro franchise until Herman Sarkowsky and partner Ned Skinner successfully petitioned the NFL for an expansion team, awarded in 1974.

The Seattle Rangers played in the Continental Football League, which billed itself as a “Triple A” operation. The league folded after the 1969 season. / David Eskenazi Collection.

As for Lane, he never again sought an NFL franchise, a goal of his since the mid-1960s when he became prominent locally as the owner of the Seattle Rangers, a “Triple A” franchise in the short-lived Continental League.

Lane had an intriguing background. He came from Gas City, KS., a small town of no distinction in the southeastern part of the state, just down the road  from Iola. Lane worked on his family’s farm, stocked groceries, played backup quarterback and ran track for Iola because Gas City had no high school. After graduation, Lane boxed professionally for four years. He had a flattened nose, and little else, for his efforts. Newspapers later referred to him as “Flat-Nose Lane.”

Program cover from a 1956 Seattle Ramblers game against Humboldt State. The Ramblers represented Seattle in semi-pro ball from 1947-64. / David Eskenazi Collection

“Flat Nose” eventually moved to Seattle, got a job in a grocery store, and then went into the mortgage business. He formed Ballard Mortgage in 1955, about the time that various Seattle groups, principally the Greater Seattle Association, a downtown booster club headed by Roscoe “Torchy” Torrance, began angling for an NFL franchise by promoting a series of NFL exhibition games at Husky Stadium.

At that time, Seattle had no pro football to speak of other than the semi-pro Ramblers, who started out as the Rainier Beach Athletic Club Ramblers (1947-49) and became the Seattle Ramblers in 1950. Originally owned by Ted Gatz, the Ramblers were primarily Don Sprinkle’s team from 1948-63 and played home games at Howe Field on Queen Anne, Catholic Memorial Stadium and West Seattle Stadium.

Sprinkle came from Queen Anne and played varsity football for the Queen Anne High Grizzlies from 1931-34, missing one year when he dropped out to work Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Times paper routes in order supplement the family income.

Sprinkle received a football scholarship from Oregon in 1935 and played on the freshman team, but eventually had to drop out in order to return home to again help his family. He later quit the University of Puget Sound for the same reason. In the late 1930s, while working for the Seattle Gas Co., he played semi-pro ball for the Renton Rams of the Northwest League.

Owner Lafa Lane ran the Seattle Rangers out of his office in the Ballad Mortgage building. / David Eskenazi Collection.

Sprinkle eventually got into coaching at Queen Anne High and with the Queen Anne Boys Club (won three city championships), and in 1948 became head coach of the Rainier Beach Athletic Club Ramblers while supporting his family as a member of the Seattle Police Department. According to the Greater Northwest Football Association, Sprinkle at one time simultaneously coached the Rainier Beach semi-pro team and Queen Anne High.

The Rainier Beach Athletic Club became the Seattle Ramblers in 1950 and played at least 10 games a year for the next dozen years, first as an independent and later in the North Pacific Football League. Newspapers of the day never accorded them much ink.

Program cover for a Rangers-Capitols game. / David Eskenazi Collection

Among the Ramblers’ opponents: Bremerton Navy Shipyard Yellowjackets, Fort Lewis Rockets, Butte Buzzies, Washington State Penn Steelers, Fort Lewis 4x4s, Vancouver Cubs, Fort Ord Warriors, Hamilton Air Force Base Defenders, Oak Bay Drakes, Spokane Valley Olympics and Portland Pioneers.

(In a 1953 game against Vancouver, the Ramblers and Cubs played American rules for a half and Canadian rules for the other.)

The Ramblers also played a lot of colleges – University of Washington JV, Olympic J.C., Everett J.C., Oregon Tech, Lewis & Clark, Whitworth, Linfield – and even some games against the Washington State Reformatory. The Ramblers drew many of their players from those schools. One of the best was Ray Jackson, who played on Washington’s 1959-60 Rose Bowl teams and led them in rushing both years.

Between 1950-64, the Ramblers went 108-46-3, had four undefeated seasons and won two championships, but faded into history after the 1964 season when the Edmonds Warriors of the new Pacific Football League absconded with many of their players.

Sprinkle didn’t live to see the end. After serving as undersheriff of King County from 1955-63 and graduating from the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA., he was elected King County Sheriff  in 1962 and served from January 1963 until his death the following August at 47.

Lafa Lane emerged as the region’s top pro football broker in 1966 when he purchased the Warriors, running the franchise under the umbrella “Puget Sound Professional Sports, Inc.,” out of his office at the Ballard Mortgage building on the southwest corner of 24thAvenue NW and NW Market.

The Rangers drew their players from Northwest colleges. Among them: Mac Bledsoe of Washington (shown upper left), whose son, Drew, starred at Washington State and in the NFL. / David Eskenazi Collection

Lane changed back the club’s name to the Seattle Ramblers, who went 10-0 and wiped out the San Jose Apaches, winners of the Northern California League, 48-13, in an inter-league championship game.

In 1967, Lane re-branded the Ramblers as the “Jets,” but was threatened with legal action by the AFL’s New York Jets. So he opted for “Rangers” and was immediately sued by the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers. That legal action went nowhere and the Seattle Rangers moved from the Pacific Football League to the one-year-old Continental Football League, which included 17 teams in two divisions (East and West).

Program cover from a Rangers game against the San Jose Apaches. / David Eskenazi Collection

The Rangers played in the West with the Eugene Bombers, Long Beach Admirals, Orange County Ramblers, Sacramento Buccaneers, San Jose Apaches and Victoria Steelers.

“The next thing you know, I was in the football business pretty deep,” Lane told reporter Hy Zimmerman of the Seattle Times. “We got ourselves a good nucleus, renamed the team the Seattle Ramblers and won the championship. The next year, Sol Rosen, commissioner of the Continental League, called about membership in his organization. We went for it. We signed bigger names, increased our budget, renamed the team the Rangers.”

The Continental League hoped to become a major force in pro football outside the NFL and AFL and managed to attract a number of individuals who later enjoyed success in both of those leagues.

Bill Walsh, coach of the 1967 San Jose Apaches, later won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. Ken Stabler, quarterback of the 1968 Spokane Shockers, had several All-Pro years with the Oakland Raiders. DE Otis Sistrunk also played with the Raiders, and Sam Wyche, later head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals (1966-67), quarterbacked the 1966-67 Wheeling Ironmen of the Continental League’s East Division.

The Rangers’ first coach, Mel McCain, played quarterback at Ballard High School, was a member of Washington’s 1953-55 teams and was the quarterback for the Seattle Ramblers in 1960-61. His first coaching gig was with the Edmonton Warriors.

The Rangers played in the Continental Football League from 1967-69. / David Eskenazi Collection

As was the case with the Ramblers, the Rangers drew from local colleges, although not exclusively. Their most decorated player was TE Joe Peyton, a Little All-America selection from the University of Puget Sound who made All-CFL three consecutive years (1967-69).

The Rangers also employed ex-Huskies RB-K George Fleming, RB Martin Wyatt, G Roger Dunn, LB George Jugum, Mac Bledsoe (father of Drew) and DB Al Worley, who became a league All-Star in his only season (1969) after leading the NCAA in interceptions (14) at Washington in 1968.

Another Ranger of note: Dick Hard, a 6-foot-4, 313-pound defensive tackle from West Seattle High School and Wenatchee Junior College. Hard was drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals in 1964, but quit because he didn’t want to live so far away from home.

Lafa Lane promoted a Cleveland Browns-San Francisco 49ers game at Husky Stadium to demonstrate that Seattle could support an NFL franchise. / David Eskenazi Collection

Lane also hired former Husky kick returner Steve Bramwell as a promotions director and the famed Ernie Nevers, one of the first men elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as a kicking specialist and member of the team’s board of directors.

Under Lane, the Rangers featured competitive teams – they had a working relationship with ex-Washington assistant Lou Saban of the Denver Broncos that helped them acquire players — that attracted an average of 4,000-6,000 fans per game at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium (a 1969 contest vs. the Spokane Shockers drew 11,100 fans). But the Rangers – tickets went for $6 and $4.50 — always lost money despite playing their average player $50 to $60 per game.

Lane retained his ownership in the Rangers largely in order to provide himself a platform to network with NFL owners in hopes of acquiring a franchise. He met several times with Joe Robbie of the Dolphins and George Halas of the Bears. To boost Seattle’s chances, he organized an exhibition game between the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns at Husky Stadium in August, 1969.

“If I don’t get a franchise someone else will,” Lane told Zimmerman, and he was right. After his bid to acquire the Patriots fell through, Lane abandoned his efforts, in large part because the Rangers had become a financial drain. This is how the West Seattle Herald described it:

A ticket to the San Francisco-Cleveland NFL preseason game in 1969 cost $6. / David Eskenazi Collection

“During the 1969 season, Lane lost patience with the money-losing club and offered to hand over ownership of the team (and its debts) to his young general manager, Dick Berg, a former Stanford quarterback, and head coach Don White. Berg and White declined the offer and Lane promptly resigned rather than remain liable for the club’s debts.

“Berg then infuriated Lane by suggesting that the Rangers would be unable to play their final two road games due to unpaid bills. Lane attempted to fire Berg, who sensibly pointed out that Lane had resigned and held no authority over the club.  The Rangers managed to finish out the season and then folded quickly and quietly.

“The rest of the Continental League faced similar red ink and front-office circus antics. The entire league folded a few months later.”

Program cover from an Orange County Ramblers-Seattle Rangers game. / David Eskenazi Collection

When he recognized the jig was up, Lane tried to sell his controlling interest in the club to a five-man group that included David Kennedy, a consulting engineer who moonlighted as the Lake Hills sewer district commissioner. When that didn’t work, Lane tried to give the Rangers to the City of Seattle. But the city didn’t want it, so Lane folded the Rangers Oct. 31, 1969, saying he had lost more than a half a million dollars in four years as majority owner.

“I closed it up, paid off all the bills,” said Lane. “We could not afford it. We could not afford all those salaries. That ruined the CFL. I spent all this money trying to sell people of Seattle on good football, but the complacency shown by people here is overwhelming.”

Lane, who faded from the sporting limelight after the Rangers folded, lived long enough to see the Seahawks reach Super Bowl XL (2006) and almost long enough to see them make a second appearance following the 2013 season. He died Jan. 6, 2012.

Had he realized his dream, Lafayette Lane would have become an historical figure in the pro football history of Seattle instead of a forgotten footnote.

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Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out David’’s “Wayback Machine Archive.” David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at seattlesportshistory@gmail.com


YourThoughts

  • coug73

    Thanks, I enjoyed the story and cover art. I recongized names from my childhood.

  • Drew Griffin

    Fantastic! I love history and to learn about the football history in Seattle prior to the Seahawks is terrific. I can’t wait to share this!

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