The Raiders said he died at his home in Oakland, Calif.
Before there were sports franchise owners like George Steinbrenner, Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban, there was Al Davis, outspoken and brash, who was a central figure in the merger of the upstart American Football League with the established N.F.L., paved the way for the extravaganza known as the Super Bowl, and managed to win championships while irritating the rest of pro football.
Mr. Davis was a coach, general manager and owner of the Raiders for nearly 50 years. He left briefly, in 1966, to become the commissioner of the A.F.L., vowing to battle the older N.F.L. for the best players available. That attitude helped lead the N.F.L. to agree to play the A.F.L. in an annual championship game, which became the Super Bowl. In 1970, the leagues played a united schedule, creating the modern N.F.L.
For his part, Mr. Davis vehemently opposed the merger. And he feuded for decades with the former N.F.L. commissioner Pete Rozelle and sued the league in the early 1980s so he could move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles.
Then, 13 years later, he moved them back.
“He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the N.F.L.,” Roger Goodell, the league’s current commissioner, said in a statement Saturday.
Mr. Davis became the symbol of a franchise that garnered a reputation for outlaw personalities and a kind of counterculture sensibility. The Raiders were the first franchise in the modern era to have a Latino head coach (Tom Flores), a black head coach (Art Shell) and a female chief executive (Amy Trask).
He was also one of a dwindling number of N.F.L. owners whose riches came primarily from the business of football. There were no hedge funds or shipping companies in Mr. Davis’s background. He simply ran the Raiders — the team appeared in five Super Bowls under his ownership, winning three — and his business model could, for all intents and purposes, be summed up by the phrase that became his franchise’s motto: “Just win, baby!”
Mr. Davis generally inspired deep loyalty from his players, though he had an ugly battle with one of his stars, running back Marcus Allen, and when he got along with his head coaches (not a given) — most notably John Madden, who led the Raiders from 1969 to 1978, perhaps their most successful decade — they spoke warmly of him. Wherever the team called home, Oakland or Los Angeles, Mr. Davis was a fan favorite — until he wasn’t.
In league circles, he was not always viewed fondly. Known for, or at least suspected of, underhanded ploys like bugging the visiting team’s clubhouse, he infuriated other owners with his relentless self-interest; Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers once called him a “lying creep.”
For his part, Mr. Davis once said of his fellow owners, “Not all of them are the brightest of human beings.”
Don Shula, the Hall of Fame coach, once said of Mr. Davis, reporting on a conversation they’d had, “Al thought it was a compliment to be considered devious.”
But he knew football. A shrewd judge of talent, especially early in his career, he became known for providing a home for gifted, wayward athletes, signing or trading for some players who were undervalued or given up on by other teams, like quarterbacks Daryle Lamonica, George Blanda and Jim Plunkett, and running back Billy Cannon.
He rehabilitated others, like receiver Warren Wells, defensive linemen Lyle Alzado and John Matuszak, and quarterback Ken Stabler, whose reputations were sullied (either before or after they became Raiders) by allegations of criminal behavior, drug use, gambling or other transgressions.
The Raiders’ colors, silver and black, were chosen by Mr. Davis to intimidate. So was their insignia, a shield emblazoned with the image of a pirate in a football helmet in front of crossed sabers. “Just win, baby!” reflected the forceful style of play he encouraged, featuring brutal physicality on defense and speed and long passing on offense.
Indeed, his allegiance to the so-called vertical passing game led to some ill-advised draft choices, especially late in his career, notably that of JaMarcus Russell, a big-armed passer from Louisiana State who was the first pick in the 2007 draft and who was out of the game three years later.
On defense, Mr. Davis’s Raiders were known for aggressiveness, meanness and borderline dirty play. The bump and run — a tactic in which a defensive back hits a wide receiver hard at the line of scrimmage to throw him off his route — was developed, if not invented, by Mr. Davis’s Raiders.
Their safeties and cornerbacks (most notably Lester Hayes) became known in the 1970s and ’80s for smearing their hands with Stickum, not only to amplify the potential for fingertip interceptions but to make it tougher for the bumped receivers to tear away from coverage. Raiders players attracted nicknames like the Mad Bomber (Lamonica), the Snake (Stabler), Dr. Death (defensive back Skip Thomas) and the Assassin, bestowed upon safety Jack Tatum, whose hit in a 1978 preseason game broke the neck of New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley and paralyzed him.
“I don’t want to be the most respected team in the league,” Mr. Davis said in 1981. “I want to be the most feared.”
When Mr. Davis was hired as the head coach and general manager of the Raiders in 1963, the team was playing in the A.F.L., the fledgling rival to the N.F.L., and until his arrival, the Raiders had won only 9 of 42 games. They went 10-4 in Mr. Davis’s first season and 58-21-5 in the six after that, going to the second Super Bowl in January 1968.
The Raiders played in the A.F.L. championship game in 1967, 1968 and 1969, and when the A.F.L. and the N.F.L. merged in 1969, they went to the first of their 11 conference championship games in 1970. Mr. Davis’s Raiders played in five Super Bowls, winning three, Super Bowls XI in 1977, XV in 1981 and XVIII in 1984. From 1963 to 1985, the Raiders compiled an overall record of 229-91-11, the highest winning percentage of any team in professional sports during that time.
“Davis has become the iconoclast of American sports through four decades of inspiring hatred and love for a football team,” The New York Times wrote about Mr. Davis in 2003, on the eve of the Raiders’ most recent appearance in the Super Bowl, which they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “He has been likened to Darth Vader, the dark lord of the ‘Star Wars’ movies. He has a story not unlike Frank Sinatra — East Coast reared, visionary talent who soars to the top, falls on hard times, and returns triumphant by trusting himself first, second and third. It has made Davis’s team a target of derision and praise. It has left Davis a figure of scorn and respect.”
Allen Davis was born in Brockton, Mass., on July 4, 1929, and he grew up in Brooklyn, where his father, Louis, was a successful businessman. In interviews, he often spoke of learning toughness on the city streets, but he came from a relatively affluent home and at least once confessed to a reporter: “I don’t want this in the story. I wish you wouldn’t print it. You follow me? But when I got out of public school, I won the American Legion medal for all-around kid.”
Mr. Davis graduated from Erasmus Hall High School, then attended Wittenberg College in Ohio before he transferred to Syracuse, where he played junior varsity football and graduated with a degree in English. He coached at Adelphi University on Long Island and then in the Army, at Fort Belvoir, Va. His first job in pro football, when he was 24, was with the Baltimore Colts of the N.F.L. in the personnel department. Later he was an assistant at the Citadel and at Southern California, and from there returned to the pros in 1960, the inaugural season of the A.F.L., where his ambition to have the young league supersede its established rival took hold.
As a coach for the Los Angeles Chargers (they moved to San Diego in 1961), he aggressively recruited college players, persuading many, including the great receiver Lance Alworth, to join the A.F.L. in general and the Chargers in particular. In 1962, the Chargers’ head coach, Sid Gillman, said of Mr. Davis: “There isn’t a doubt in Al Davis’s mind that right now he’s the smartest guy in the game. He isn’t, but he will be pretty damned soon.”
Mr. Davis was hired by the Raiders the next year at 33.
In April 1966, Mr. Davis left the Raiders to become the commissioner of the A.F.L., vowing to wage war against the N.F.L. for top players, a move that many observers at the time believed helped push the N.F.L. owners to agree, only two months later, to a merger of the two leagues.
When the owners agreed that Mr. Rozelle, the N.F.L. commissioner, would hold the same title in the merged league, Mr. Davis was further miffed, giving rise to their long mutual enmity. Out of a job as A.F.L. commissioner, he returned to the Raiders as a part-owner and with the self-styled title of managing general partner.
Mr. Davis, who became the team’s principal owner in 2005, sued the N.F.L. several times, once attacking the league as an unlawful cartel for forbidding him to move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles to take advantage of a larger market, and accusing Mr. Rozelle of standing in the way because he wanted to start a Los Angeles franchise himself. Mr. Davis won that fight, and the Raiders began play at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1982.
When he contended that the Coliseum was no longer an adequate stadium in an era of luxury boxes, the league allowed him to move the team back to Oakland. (By then, Paul Tagliabue was commissioner. Mr. Rozelle, who died in 1996, had stepped down in 1989.) In a subsequent suit, Mr. Davis accused the league of hampering the Raiders’ effort to build a new stadium in Los Angeles; the league eventually won that suit in 2007.
In Mr. Davis’s last 25 years with the Raiders, there were more feuds, not only with the league but with his head coaches. Nine men have coached the Raiders since 1995, a period in which the team has made the postseason only three times.
One piece of Raiders lore has it that the team’s fortunes declined after Mr. Davis began feuding with Allen, the team’s career rushing leader, whose playing time was seriously curtailed in 1986, the season after he won the N.F.L. rushing title. The reasons for the dispute were never made public, but Allen said in a 1992 television interview that Mr. Davis had a vendetta against him, an accusation Mr. Davis denied. Signing with the Kansas City Chiefs as a free agent, Allen led the league in touchdowns and was named the comeback player of the year in 1993. On the final Sunday of the 1994 season, he gained 132 yards in 33 carries as the Chiefs beat the Raiders, 19-9, eliminating the Raiders from the playoffs and earning a postseason spot for themselves.
Mr. Davis’s survivors include his wife, the former Carol Segal, and a son, Mark.
As irascible, self-interested and obdurate as he could be, Mr. Davis was also self-aware. He told People magazine that his focus on football was complete.
“It’s tunnel vision, a tunnel life,” he said. “I’m not really part of society.”