By Phil Hecken
As most of you know by now, tonight ESPN will be airing a documentary, including the colorized version of what has been called “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 NFL Championship Game, which took place between the New York Football Giants and the Baltimore Colts on December 28, 1958, at Yankee Stadium. The broadcast will come as we approach the game’s 50th anniversary, and will take place at 9pm eastern, following the Heisman Trophy presentation.
Upon hearing news of what promises to be an extraordinary event, I contacted UW scholar and archivist Rick Pearson (aka Ricko) to draw upon his own personal experience, since he watched the game on his TV as a 12-year-old boy. Having never seen the game myself (and only a few highlights), I was very curious about what to expect during this broadcast — what did a pro football telecast look and feel like back then?
Ricko was happy to oblige. I asked him to recreate the sights, the sounds, the smells of a NFL game. I got that, and a lot more. But hey, enough of my yakkin. What follows are excerpts of my interview with Ricko.
Phil Hecken: OK, so what’s your impression of the “Greatest Game Ever Played”? As you know, I’m a Giants fan, so I guess I’m going to be disappointed.
Rick Pearson: First off, apologies to Giants fans, but what made this game so significant was the Colts’ personality and their performance. It wasn’t just that they won in Sudden Death, but the way they did it. This game — certainly its final moments — truly was the national television debut of the modern passing game. And it should be noted that it’s coming against Giants defense, the league’s toughest and most renowned, which made it all the more memorable. They didn’t beat just anybody, they beat the frickin’ GIANTS.
PH: Well, guess we know your rooting interests. They played this game in Yankee Stadium. What was that like?
RP: In those days many NFL teams played in baseball stadiums. Practically no college teams did. And those major league infields were never re-sodded for pro football. The game just didn’t have that kind of clout. That meant games played in Yankee Stadium, for example, always gave the NFL a lunch bucket, hardscrabble, sometimes dusty atmosphere, decidedly different from the image of tree-lined, pristine (meaning they didn’t play for “money” — how gauche) college campus football.
PH: So, this game — the NFL Championship — wasn’t really that big of a deal back then? Certainly not like the Super Bowl is today.
RP: As I remember it, the first NFL title game that drew more attention than ordinarily it would was the ’56 game at Yankee Stadium when the Giants clobbered the Bears in the second “sneaker game.” TV loves a gimmick, especially a visual one, so when the Giants came out in white canvas high-tops, the medium and the viewers ate it up. Nobody wore WHITE shoes for football. Basketball, yeah, but not FOOTBALL.
PH: Yes…the “Sneaker Game” (of 1956). Against Da Bears. How come “Big Blue” wore white jerseys?
RP: Still don’t know why the Giants wore white jerseys at home for that game, by the way. But it did give them, along with the white tennies, a sort of “snow elf” look that seemed appropriate for December football. And when they won — and won big — to some extent because of their footwear choice, it was news.
PH: Well, we know that back then, “college was king” of the football world, but this had to be pretty big, right? Especially since the college game was basically on hiatus until the New Year’s Day bowl games. And those all took place in warmer weather.
RP: Colleges didn’t even ATTEMPT December football up north. They waited around for “bowls” in warmer climes. The Bears-Giants game was no beauty-queened, sun-splashed alumni escape. Not a float in sight, just grown men grinding it out in front of cigar-chomping, fedora-sporting, top-coated New Yorkers on a field so frozen that cleats didn’t work. And the “sneaker” ploy, well, that represented some kind of rugged Yankee ingenuity — not to mention playing an angle — that seemed perfect for pro football.
PH: So, after ’56, pro football was pretty big, especially in the major cities. What were you expecting in 1958?
RP: Fast forward two years. Same venue, same time of year. Here come the Colts in their first-ever NFL title game. They’re wearing those fancy new shoulder-loop jerseys. Not the single wide red one the 49ers wore on the road that year, or the narrow burgundy band the Redskins had on their whites. These were the snazzy double ones, like UCLA and LSU, who played where there were, like, palms trees or something. This was decidedly forward-looking for the Colts, from Baltimore of all places, a city one writer had called “the Dogpatch of the Eastern Seaboard.”
PH: And the Colts had Unitas.
RP: Well, if it WAS Dogpatch, then Johnny Unitas was the flat-topped, raw-boned hick who calmly beat the big city out of you at any game you chose to play. Bowlegged, wearing hightops when everyone else — notably some of his own teammates — were opting to “personalize” their gear, hinting at what lay ahead for the NFL.
PH: You mean, as the kids say, “stylin'”? Like who, for example?
RP: Lennie Moore, for example, taped his cleats from the top way down low. Like spats, which just happened to be his nickname, “Spats.” On the front of the tape, in the area of the laces, he stashed what looked like axle grease, but it was actually stickum, before most of us knew what stickum even was. He had come into the league as a halfback. Now, though, he was flankerback, split out (usually to the right) a step off the line of scrimmage so he was, technically, still the backfield. Scary fast, he was part of one of Unitas favorite ploys. Early in every game Unitas would heave one deep to Moore, not really caring if it were complete or not. It was just to get the defense leaning back. Unitas called the play “The Intimidator.”
PH: What about Raymond Berry? I heard he plays a role in the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”
RP: Wide left was Raymond Berry, the split or “spread” end. Skinny, studious and probably deserving of a story all his own, Berry wore plain black shoes, blacking out the three white stripes on whatever brand those “pre-Adidas” were. He wore a cage facemask. As far as I could determine (and I looked hard) he was the only NFL non-lineman who did.
PH: What’s the deal with Berry’s glasses?
RP: Berry had lousy eyesight and was among the first to give contacts a try, and he made himself as light as possible to compensate for his lack of speed by wearing special pants made of lighter fabric, smaller than normal pads, and choosing lightweight cleats. He also experimented with prescription goggles for a few sunny games that gave him an interesting “bug eye” look.
PH: So Ray Berry and Lenny Moore were a pretty good twosome?
RP: Berry and Moore were the prototype combination of wideouts that would populate the league for a generation or more. Slow, shifty possession receiver on one side, burner on the other. These two invented it. Well, or at least made it famous. Starting with that title game of ’58.
PH: So, I should look for a lot of forward passes and such, which, though pretty common today, weren’t really a part of the game back in the 1950’s? They were innovators then.
RP: As if all this individual style weren’t enough, they also seemed to be inventing a new kind of passing game. Moore went deep or turned short passes into thrillers. Berry ran routes that looked like the path through the maze in a coloring book, ending up right where Unitas was throwing the ball. I remember thinking, even as kid, that it was SO COOL. It was like they were saying, “Yeah, you might be big and fast, but we’re SMART.”
PH: Sounds awesome. I guess I shouldn’t be expecting to see real “old time football,” with lots of sweeps and running plays and the like. This must have been something for the TV audience.
RP: Watching something other than run-play after run-play was exhilarating. The pro game had begun to play “wider” on TV. The potential for something dramatic happening more often downfield in the “secondary” (a new word we heard more and more) was…I dunno, compelling.
PH: Visually, what was this game like?
RP: So now we have Unitas and the Colts, moving across the chilly gray Yankee Stadium landscape, resolutely racing the clock toward a field goal that could leave things tied (introducing America to the “two-minute-drill” along the way), daylight dying and the lights becoming an obvious element. There were virtually NO night football telecasts other than The Chicago Tribune’s annual College All-Star Game. But that was in the summer, not in DECEMBER, for pete’s sake. It was all just totally new.
PH: OK, the game has some drama. That’s good. Did you know that if the two teams were tied after regulation, there would be “overtime”?
RP: Lordy, it was a dramatic viewing experience. And then the announcers began explaining that if it were tied after four quarters, there would be this thing called “Sudden Death.” Oh, my, for the first time ever in the history of football, we were informed, a tie would not be allowed to stand. Time itself, it seems, would stop. The clock, which had been so critical in that final drive, was now irrelevant. They would play on — forever, if necessary — until someone scored.
PH: Was it fun to watch on the Dumont?
RP: Frankly, black and white television contributed to the drama. I recall Siskel & Ebert many years later saying that a black-and-white film distills the story down to its basis elements. And that’s the way it was with this game. Either the white team or the black team was gonna lose in an instant. Simple as that. I don’t think I can convey how even non-fans like my parents were sucked into the whole thing. It was absolutely mesmerizing. Almost surreal. A potentially endless football game. In the cold. And the dark. My God, how long would it make the weekend last? I mean, what would the network do if they were still playing when it was time for The Ed Sullivan Show?
PH: So, in a way, the Giants are responsible for making the NFL what it is today?
RP: Well, stir in that both these games took place in New York, and you have the media/advertising cabal discovering, “Y’know, this professional football has some potential.” Yeah, football didn’t have to be only college-pure. Lunch-bucket, hardscrabble, intelligent, for-a-living football was pretty damn marketable. Had the game been in Chicago or Cleveland, or especially somewhere warm like the West Coast, eliminating the dramatic December weather aspect, I’m not sure it would have had the effect it did. At least not so quickly.
PH: So, after it was over, it was a big deal?
RP: The game flat-out elevated pro football. I mean, if you talked about it, your friends — or even adults — knew what you were talking about for a change. College football wasn’t the only game in town anymore. Lots of little things happened after that. For example, instead of “the pros” almost always being relegated to the back of college football magazine annuals, they started warranting mags of their own. Specifically, I remember the two biggies — Dell and Street & Smith’s — each creating separate “Pro” titles. By the standards of the era, that was something.
PH: These guys were now media darlings, heroes? They could walk into any bar in America and everyone would know who they were?
RP: Oh, yeah…exactly a week later, Berry appeared on CBS’s What’s My Line? Stumped the panel. They didn’t figure out he was a professional football player.
PH: Well then, I guess not.
I want to extend my great thanks to Ricko for granting me this interview. He also supplied many of the linked photos (most from his own personal collection) as well as some of the artwork (which Rick drew from this photo). Pretty neat stuff, eh? So when you watch the game on ESPN tonight (in color and digitally restored on your 65″ plasma-screen HDTV with surround sound), think back on what it must have been like to have been 12 and Ricko watching on his 10″ black and white, developing a love for the game that sticks with him to this day, 50 years later.
Notes and asides: • Since no one sent me any “worst uni matchup” nominations this week, I’m gonna end that segment •• All you members of the Hockey Wing who asked to participate in the third jersey critique and haven’t sent me your rankings, try to get them to me this week. Those who have already done so, I thank you again! ••• In what may be the closest voting in decades, Sam Bradford should be hoisting the Heisman hardware by 9:00 tonight…I don’t see Tebow pulling an Archie Griffin, but don’t count out Colt 45. •••• I apologize for the length of this entry. It was supposed to have run yesterday, but with all the hoopla over the new Red Sox jerseys, it is now the Saturday piece.
All Ricko — All the Time: This weekend also marks the debut of Rick Pearson’s comic “Benchies”. I proudly present you with The Introductory Installment. See if you can guess which “boy” is modelled after Ricko!