The Love of the Game

How two men helped turn Denver from a minor-league outpost into a major-league city.

April 2007

Howsam had met Burris years earlier while traveling to Louisville, Kentucky, where Burris was working for the local minor-league front office. Burris had held numerous jobs in sports publicity, including a stint as the assistant to then Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick in New York. Howsam recruited Burris to Denver, and soon afterward Burris was elected president of the Texas League, a good news/bad news situation. Once a month, he commuted between Denver and San Antonio, 1,000 miles each way, in a 1959 Chevy with no air conditioning. "It gave me a lot of chances to listen to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and I became a great fan of Western swing music," Burris recalls with a laugh. Denver sportswriters sympathetic to his plight started campaigning publicly for him to get the Bears GM job, and on January 1, 1965, Burris took the reins full-time.

But while the Broncos still were a decade away from sniffing any kind of success, they already owned the town. "The Broncos went forever before they had a winning season and almost moved several times. To be honest, I wish they had," says Leo Hirsch, a former Boulder sportswriter. "I have no doubt that the fanatical football following kept [professional] baseball out of here as long as it did because people would look at Denver and say, 'Oh, it's a football town.'"

Just as it is today for the Rockies' management and publicists, fighting this perception became a full-time job for Burris, even when he joined the Broncos' front office for a year in the mid-1960s. Rocky Mountain Empire Sports owned both teams and Bears Stadium, but the Broncos were the pros and football was starting to take off across the country. The owners expanded the stadium several times to accommodate football, to 25,000 seats in 1963, to 50,000 in 1969, and to 76,000 in 1977. The greater capacity allowed the Bears to set occasional single-game records, usually during nights featuring postgame fireworks (a Burris inspiration), but the rows of empty football stands during more average attendance days considerably dampened the crowds' impact and enthusiasm, much as it would if the Rockies played their games at Invesco. The pecking order was never more evident than in 1971, when the Broncos' schedule forced the Bears out of their yard—which by then had been renamed Mile High Stadium—to play all seven games of the Junior World Series against Rochester on its home field in New York.