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A New Albanian Crisis

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 85th installment in the series.

September 16, 1913: A New Albanian Crisis

In 1912 and 1913, a series of crises centered on Albania repeatedly brought Europe to the edge of war. Beginning in October 1912, Serbia conquered most of Albania in the First Balkan War, provoking an armed standoff between Serbia’s patron Russia and their shared enemy Austria-Hungary, which feared the rise of Serbian power and refused to allow the Slavic kingdom access to the sea. Austria-Hungary and Russia eventually agreed on a compromise and Europe’s Great Powers, meeting at the Conference of London, created a new, independent Albanian state in order to resolve the crisis.

In the second crisis, in May 1913, Serbia’s tiny sidekick, Montenegro, refused to give up its claim to the city of Scutari, even after the Great Powers granted the city to Albania. Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold (top), threatened military action against Montenegro, once again raising the possibility of a much broader conflict if Russia backed up Montenegro and Serbia. This crisis was peacefully resolved by a generous loan (read: bribe) from Britain and France, which helped Montenegro’s King Nikola see reason and withdraw from Scutari.

But this didn’t mean the Albanian situation was settled—far from it. Unsurprisingly, Serbia and Montenegro viewed Europe’s Great Powers as meddling bullies who stood in the way of their national aspirations, with Austria-Hungary, oppressor of their Slavic kinsmen, in the lead. In short, the Slavic kingdoms weren’t going to give up their claims to Albanian territory so easily (as demonstrated by the secret pact agreed by Serbia and Greece in May 1913, dividing Albania into Serbian and Greek spheres of influence).

In fact, the Serbians never completely withdrew from Albania, keeping some regular and paramilitary forces stationed in the mountainous interior on the pretext of controlling cross-border raids by Albanian bandits (which were a real issue). In early September 1913, Count Berchtold asked the other Great Powers to deliver another ultimatum to Serbia demanding withdrawal of the troops—but this time Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov (sensitive to criticism from pan-Slav ideologues who accused him of selling out their Slavic brethren in Serbia) refused to go along.   

The tension mounted on September 16, 1913, when Serbia’s acting Foreign Minister, Miroslav Spalajković, promised the Austrian charge d’affaires in Belgrade, Wilhelm Ritter von Storck, that the troops were being withdrawn from Albania. This was actually a bold-faced lie, as Serbian forces had only been ordered to withdraw as far as the River Drin, still well inside Albania territory. Storck (who had his own intelligence sources) knew it, and duly alerted Vienna to the deception.

Confronted with evidence of Serbian duplicity, and with any chance of concerted Great Powers diplomacy blocked by Russia, Austria-Hungary once again found itself with no option besides the threat of unilateral military action. Indeed, in some ways this was the most dangerous situation yet: By September 1913, the hawks in Vienna, led by chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had converted Count Berchtold—who was increasingly frustrated with Serbian intransigence—to the cause of war against Serbia.

But there was still one key figure standing in the way: the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who correctly foresaw that an attack on Serbia would probably lead to war with Russia. According to the archduke the real enemy was Italy, a Great Power with its own claims on Austro-Hungarian territory, and Serbia was just a distraction. In the long run Franz Ferdinand hoped to solve the problem of Slavic nationalism by creating a third monarchy representing the Slavs—or even reforming the Dual Monarchy as a federal state with Serbia as a member. Of course the archduke’s plans for reform were bitterly opposed by the Hungarians, who stood to lose their decisive influence over imperial policy, as well as by the Serbs themselves, who jealously guarded their independence. 

Still, Franz Ferdinand, who’d been appointed inspector general of the armed forces by Emperor Franz Josef in August 1913, pressed ahead with his plans to attend the coming year’s military maneuvers in Bosnia, the empire’s main Slavic trouble spot. Thus, on September 16, 1913, the archduke (widely disliked by the imperial household for his brusque manner) bluntly informed Conrad that he intended to lead the maneuvers. This was bound to annoy Conrad, who always supervised the maneuvers himself and viewed Franz Ferdinand as a dilettante. But that was probably the point: The archduke, annoyed by Conrad’s advocacy of war with Serbia, was using the maneuvers to pull rank and put the chief of staff in his place. This little piece of political maneuvering would have unexpected, and profoundly tragic, consequences. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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How Cambodian Refugees Started the Pink Doughnut Box Trend
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Like the red-and-green cardboard pizza boxes or white Chinese takeout containers, many doughnut boxes share a certain look regardless of where you buy them. This is especially true in Southern California: Order a dozen crullers from one of the region's many independently-run doughnut shops and you’ll likely receive them in a glossy pink box. According to Great Big Story, this trend can be traced back to an influential immigrant business owner.

In the 1970s, Ted Ngoy moved to Southern California as a refugee from Cambodia. Much of Los Angeles's current doughnut scene is thanks to him: He opened dozens of doughnut shops of his own and helped fellow Cambodian refugees in the area get started in the business. Along with passing down entrepreneurial advice, he also inspired them to choose the light pink boxes that he used in his stores. As Ngoy recalled years later, either he or his business partner, Ning Yen, started the trend after asking their supplier for a cheaper alternative to the traditional white boxes. The company was able to offer them pink boxes at a discount. Because red is considered a lucky color in many Asian cultures, the distinctive shade stuck.

Today, many doughnut places in L.A. County are still owned by Cambodian-American immigrants and their families, and they still use the same old-school packaging Ngoy and his partner popularized 40 years ago.

You can get the full origin story in the video below.

[h/t Great Big Story]

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Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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