A Provocation: My Al Davis Story

Friday, October 21, 2011 |

Chances are, if you've worked in sports media for any significant length of time over the past fifty years, you've got an Al Davis story. I've got one, too. And like many others', mine begins with Al Davis threatening to sue me.

 In my case, it was over eight words. Eight words in a 416-page book, about something that had happened more than thirty years before.

It's late spring, 2003. I'm sitting at my desk in the McGraw-Hill offices on the 11th floor of Two Penn Plaza when my phone rings. I pick it up, say "Mark Weinstein."

 "Please hold for Al Davis," says a woman whose voice I do not recognize.

Naturally, I think someone's playing a joke on me. It had happened before. But a few seconds later I hear a voice that sounds an awful lot like that of the Oakland Raiders' legendary, litigious owner.

"Mark, this is Al Davis," the voice says. "I want to ask you a question. Why on earth would you ask me to endorse a book full of lies?"

It was no joke. I had recently sent Davis an Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of a book I had edited titled Going Long: The Wild 10-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It, which Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill would be publishing later that summer. Davis, for reasons he never made clear, had refused to be interviewed for the book—an oral history of the AFL—despite repeated requests by the writer, Jeff Miller, then an editor at The Dallas Morning News. And though I knew the book contained some less-than-reverent comments about Davis, and was fully aware of his penchant for lawsuits, I felt that the upside of a potential endorsement from such a pivotal figure in the AFL's colorful history was worth the risk of angering him.

This was, of course, idiotic.

"Mark," he said. "I'd like you to turn to page 204. Can you do that?"

"Yes sir."

"Please read the fourth line from the top of the page."

"Al was not in on the merger discussions."

"Al was not in on the merger discussions," he repeated, stressing every syllable. "Now, why would you print such an outrageous lie?"

"That's a direct quote from Lamar Hunt," I said.

"It's a lie. In fact, it's more than a lie. It's a provocation." 

"It's a direct quote, sir."

"It's a lie."

"Well, what would you like me to do?" I said.

"I want you to remove that sentence from the book."

"I'm sorry, sir," I said, "but I can't do that. The book has already gone to press."

"That's not my problem," he said. The conversation, as you might imagine, devolved from there. Threats of a not-so-veiled nature were made. I reminded him of his refusal to be interviewed. He got angry. I got defensive. In the end, I told him I would "see what I could do," and I would. It was not a pleasant call.

After hanging up, I immediately called the writer and asked him to both double-check his tapes and to confirm the story one more time with Lamar Hunt. Then I called another writer I'd recently worked with, Chuck Day, who had collaborated on a book entitled The Making of the Super Bowl with Don Weiss, the former Executive Director of the NFL. Because I knew from his book that Weiss had participated in the merger discussions, I asked Chuck if Don could verify Hunt's claim as well, just to be sure.

Then, of course, I started to panic. I had been on the job at McGraw-Hill less than a year and was still struggling to gain a foothold. I had neglected to have the book vetted by legal (a mistake I would not repeat), and was solely responsible for bringing it to Davis' attention. If he actually followed through and filed suit, it was entirely possible that I might lose my job.

Over eight lousy words. 

Part of my fear stemmed from the fact that Davis felt strongly enough about this to call me himself. Most owners, I reasoned, would have had an underling call, or simply asked his attorney to send a threatening letter. That's what the McCaskeys did a year later when we boneheadedly included the Chicago Bears logo on the cover of a biography of their late, great founder/owner, George Halas, without the proper permissions. The biography wasn't so kind to the McCaskeys, specifically Michael McCaskey, Halas' grandson, who had assumed control of the team ("anybody but Michael," Halas had reportedly said on his deathbed, in reference to his successor), so the Bears weren't looking to do us any favors. But the only person I heard from in the Bears organization was an attorney, whose letter I immediately forwarded to McGraw-Hill's in-house counsel.

After informing my immediate superiors of the situation, that's precisely who I called next. The attorney was a no-nonsense type who, after a particularly colorful vetting, once asked me if it was necessary for the word "cocksucker" to appear nine times in one book (I did, and it was). She and I had struck an uneasy coexistence, but we usually managed to keep things professional. And in this particular case, she didn't seem particularly alarmed. As long as my sources checked out, she said, there shouldn't be a problem, though that wouldn't preclude Davis from trying to sue us anyway, or from blasting us in the press.

I didn't hear back from Jeff Miller or Chuck Day until the next day, which only served to heighten my anxiety. But when both writers called to tell me that their sources assured them the story checked out, I relaxed a bit. I knew that it was possible Davis could still file suit, but at least it wouldn't be because the book contained untruths. If he was going to sue, it would be because suing people (or threatening to sue them) was simply what Al Davis did.

The attorney sent a letter to Davis on behalf of the McGraw-Hill Companies and myself. Several weeks passed and I didn't hear a word from anyone in Oakland. The book was released with Hunt's quote in-tact, to rave reviews from Sports Illustrated ("Outlandish, informative, and above all, funny") and several other media outlets. To my surprise, not one review mentioned the fourth line on page 204. Sales were solid if unspectacular, and included a nice run of spiked numbers in the weeks leading into the holidays. We scheduled a paperback for the following summer. I was not fired. 

Then, one day, a package arrived. In it, there was a short letter typed on Oakland Raiders letterhead, wrapped with a rubber band around a VHS tape bearing the humble title, Al Davis: #1 For All Time Legend Maverick.  The letter, signed by Davis, just said that he would follow up with me in a few days time.

The old man did not disappoint. Later that week, a call came in: "Please hold for Al Davis."

"Did you receive the video tape I sent?" Davis asked.

"Yes, sir I did."

"Good. Listen, I've been advised by my counsel not to pursue any legal action against you or your company," he said. "But I wanted to make sure you knew who it was you were dealing with. I take these things very seriously."

"Of course, sir," I said. "You know, I'd be happy to have you tell your side of the story for the paperback we've got planned, if that's something that interests you."

"Sure, it interests me," he said, "but not for your paperback. No. I had a publisher once, years ago, offered me a million dollars to write a book. But I had to turn him down. Timing wasn't right. Tell me. How much would a book like that be worth to a company like McGraw-Hill?"

"A significant amount, I'm sure. It would be a remarkable book. Newsworthy. But with all due respect, sir, a million dollars seems unlikely."

"This wouldn't be any ordinary book," Davis said. 

"I never suggested it would be, sir. But a million dollars...."

"Look. It has to be worth my time."

"Sure, but a million dollars is a lot of money."

"Tell you what. You watch that video tape, you change your mind, you know how to reach me."

That was the last time we ever spoke. My Publisher, a non-sports fan who was, oddly, a speed-skating enthusiast, didn't know Al Davis from Miles Davis. I knew there was no way he'd authorize a six-figure advance, let alone a seven-figure advance, for a book by someone he'd never heard of. I didn't even ask him. I figured I'd dodged a bullet, and it was best to cut my losses.

Don Weiss died that Fall, suffering a heart attack. Lamar Hunt followed three years later, succumbing to prostate cancer. Davis, on the other hand, held on until a few weeks ago. But in the eight years following our brief encounter he never sold his book, never did get a chance to tell his extraordinary story.

Many of the obituaries and columns published in the immediate wake of Davis' death spoke of how he had opposed the NFL/AFL merger (Davis was serving as AFL commissioner at the time) and a few even referenced and quoted from Going Long, but nobody cited the "offending" sentence, those eight words that raised the ire of a legend and nearly cost me my career in book publishing. 

Eight years and a couple hundred books later, I'm working with Jeff Miller again. This time, it's a book about two deceased golf legends, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. And while I'm not expecting there to be any explosive revelations in it, I don't think I'll be asking their surviving family members for any endorsements. 

Rest in peace, sir.


*Editor's note: The dialogue in this story is accurate to the best of the author's recollection only.

This story was republished by Deadspin on Monday, October 24th.


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