Sas' vibrating toy put players in control of NFL franchises

Jay Levin / The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
Published Jul 10, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Well before “Madden NFL” video games, there was a quirky tabletop toy called Electric Football.

Maybe it was under your Christmas tree. Surely you remember it: Metal playing field. Two teams of 11 plastic football players, each standing on a rectangular base with prongs on the bottom and a knob on the side. At the beginning of each play, the human “coach” sets the players in the desired position and puts the football in the hands of one. A switch is flicked, the gridiron vibrates and the players move — often hilariously in every which direction. Occasionally the player with the ball “runs” to daylight.

Norman Sas, a former longtime resident of Alpine, N.J., invented Electric Football in 1948 and introduced it a year later. But it wasn’t until 1967, when he signed a deal with NFL Properties, the National Football League’s product licensing division, that the plastic players represented actual NFL teams and Electric Football really took off.

Sas, who died June 28 at age 87, was “one of the real innovators of toy land,” said Chris Byrne, content director of timetoplaymag.com, the toy review website.

“Who would’ve thought that a vibrating metal plate could capture the imagination of so many boys?” Byrne said, adding that the “chaos and unpredictability” of the players’ movements gave Electric Football its magic.

Tudor Metal Products

Norman Sas graduated from Bronx High School of Science and received a mechanical engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became president of his father’s New York City company, Tudor Metal Products, in 1948. Among its products were toy musical instruments and an item born of Depression-era thrift: a “Budget Bank” for sorting pocket change and bills.

The 23-year-old Norman wasted no time making his mark. Inspired by a vibrating horse-racing toy he’d seen, he came up with Electric Football and got it quickly to market.

“Actual football thrills for armchair strategists!” said a 1949 New York Times display ad touting the game, available for $5.95 at the A&S department store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.

The headline blared: ‘MEN’ ACTUALLY MOVE IN NEW ELECTRIC FOOTBALL GAME!

Electric Football’s success was such that Tudor Metal Products changed its name to Tudor Games. Other manufacturers rolled out their own versions, but it was Sas’ Brooklyn-assembled game that received the National Football League’s imprimatur and elbowed its way into the Sears catalogue. A December 1971 Sports Illustrated story identified Tudor Electric Football — then retailing for $9.95 to $14.95 — as the “bestseller” among all NFL-licensed products.

“For the first 10 years, we generated more money for NFL Properties than anyone else,” Sas said in a 1998 Washington Post story about the Electric Football phenomenon. “Then the (video) games came out, and that was the beginning of the end.”

But what a ride it was: As an NFL licensee, Sas and his wife, Irene, attended every Super Bowl from II (Green Bay Packers 33, Oakland Raiders 14) to XX (Chicago Bears 46, New England Patriots 10).

Modest, unassuming

For all his success — he also had been an officer of the Toy Manufacturers Association of the U.S.A. — Sas remained modest and unassuming, his daughter, Wendy Jones, said. His company Tudor Games made other sports toys, including a series of NFL-licensed plush characters called Huddles. Nothing approached the popularity of Electric Football.

Sas retired in 1988 after selling Tudor Games to Miggle Toys. He moved to Vero Beach, Fla., about 15 years ago.

As for Electric Football, it’s still chugging and vibrating in this era of video and computer playthings, and there are competitions nationwide sponsored by the Miniature Football Coaches Association, a hobbyists’ group. Miggle Toys continued to make Electric Football; in February, Miggle was acquired by a Seattle-based toymaker, Ballpark Classics Inc. Ballpark reverted to the name of Sas’ company, Tudor Games — a nod to Electric Football’s importance to the deal.

Doug Strohm, president of Tudor Games, said that at the time he acquired Miggle Toys, he was unaware that Sas was still living. “Otherwise, I’d have reached out to him,” Strohm said. “It’s a sad day in toy land when someone of such renown dies. Electric Football is a meaningful toy that enjoys a cult following.”