The following is an excerpt from a new book written by The Sports Post contributor Marty Gitlin titled Powerful Sports Moments: The Most Significant Sporting Events in American History. It was published this spring by Rowman and Littlefield. A wonderful review of the book by Publishers Weekly can be seen here:
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Even the most casual of fans who were aware of the sports scene in the 1970s and 1980s recall when baseball still laid claim to the distinction of America’s pastime. And if attendance figures bear any truth, the sport has since gained popularity.
But the game’s owners, general managers and field combatants no longer make such a boast. That’s because such indicators as polls and television ratings prove that professional football has left baseball in the dust. Younger fans have especially embraced the gridiron sport, deeming baseball to be too slow. The National Football League has become a Sunday—and Monday—religion in the United States. The passion of its followers and greed of its advertisers have even motivated the league to play weekly games on Thursday nights.
This did not happen overnight. It took decades for the NFL to overcome Major League Baseball in popularity. One cannot cite a play or game or season when football bypassed baseball as America’s pastime. But one can point to a specific clash in which the seeds were planted. That was played on December 29, 1958. Pro football was not born that fateful day, when the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants battled for the championship. It had been in existence for decades. But it came of age that shockingly warm afternoon before 64,815 emotionally drained fans at Yankee Stadium. And, 45 million more watching the game on national television. Even despite being blacked out in the Big Apple. This even included President Dwight Eisenhower from his retreat at Camp David.
It was ironic that the NFL’s finest hour to date was played on the most hallowed ground baseball has ever known.
Present and future stardom peppered the field that day. Among the whopping sixteen Hall of Famers representing their teams between the lines were Giants linebacker Sam Huff, halfback Frank Gifford, wide receiver Don Maynard (who later starred as the go-to guy for Joe Namath and his Jets), and defensive end Emlen Tunnell, as well as Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, wide receivers Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore, and offensive lineman Jim Parker. Legends even graced the sidelines. The Giants featured Offensive Coordinator Vince Lombardi and Defensive Coordinator Tom Landry. Both, of course, would emerge among the finest head coaches in NFL history.
Former league commissioner Pete Rozelle, who took over the job in 1960 and served in that capacity for 29 years, recognized the significance of the 1958 title game. He told Giants owner Wellington Mara, who himself was enshrined in Canton, of its importance to professional football. “[Rozelle] always told me that the reason pro football took off was because that happened just at that time, in that season, and it happened in New York,” Mara said.
One cannot claim that the matchup was destiny. The Colts dominated the league offensively, but struggled at times on the other side of the ball. They even entered the showdown on a two-game losing streak. The Giants bottomed out in Week 8 with a lopsided loss to the mediocre Pittsburgh Steelers to fall to 5-3 before scrambling to earn a do-or-die playoff against the Cleveland Browns in which the defense rose to the occasion by pitching a shutout.
But the Colts and Giants boasted more individual talent than any other team. Unitas lost two games in November to bruised ribs, yet still led the league with 19 touchdown passes. Moore paced the NFL with an incredible 7.3 yards per carry and was easily its most versatile and dangerous offensive player despite such legends as Browns running back Jim Brown, racking up 50 receptions for 938 yards and seven touchdowns, giving him fourteen overall. The 1958 season interrupted what would have been four straight years of Berry leading the league in receiving yards. Still, he snagged 56 for 794 yards and paced the NFL with nine touchdowns. All three Colts were named All-Pro at season’s end. It’s no wonder that team scored at least 21 points in all but two of its regular season games and led the league with an average of 31.8.
Yet, neither the Colts nor the Giants dominated what proved to be a very balanced league that season.
Though Gifford and fellow running back Alex Webster led a balanced Giants attack in Pro Bowl seasons as contributors on the ground and through the air, the offense ranked just ninth in the league in points scored during the regular season with a meager average of 20.5. It was the defense that yielded a league-low 15.2 points per game that boasted more individual standouts. Ball-hawking safety Jimmy Patton led the NFL with 11 interceptions. He earned All-Pro status, as did Huff at linebacker along with defensive linemen Andy Robustelli and Roosevelt Brown. The defense blossomed down the stretch, surrendering just 37 points in the last four regular season games and playoff battle against the Browns combined. The Giants held Cleveland to just seven first downs and 86 total yards while holding the explosive Brown to a mere eight yards on seven carries. Huff proved throughout his career to be the only defender who could consistently shut Brown down.
One could not glean much from the regular-season clash between the two teams in predicting the outcome of the championship game. After all, that was one of the contests that Unitas missed due to injury. The game, which attracted more than 70,000 fans to Yankee Stadium, was won by the home team, 24-21. Colts backup quarterback George Shaw acquitted himself quite well, tossing three touchdown strikes—including two to Moore—who finished with six catches for 181 yards. It proved to be the lone loss for Baltimore that season until Week 11.
It was clear that the Colts would not be unrepresented at Yankee Stadium for the title game. About 23,000 fans streamed in from Baltimore with bands and cheerleaders helping to root their team on to its first league championship. Odds makers had deemed the Colts a 3.5-point favorite. The first national television broadcast of an NFL championship promised tremendous exposure to the league. It would mark the first time such a game would be spoken about throughout the country by those who had witnessed it. Only those attending had previously grabbed the opportunity to watch a game and talk about it from the perspective of a viewer. Now that number would jump from the thousands well into the millions. But it was not destined to be a water cooler conversation piece unless the combatants delivered a worthy performance.
What those 45 million viewers and 70,000 that streamed into Yankee Stadium received was arguably the most dramatic, though not artistic, game ever played.
It did not begin as such. Both offenses performed early as if unnerved by the level of attention. A Huff sack forced Unitas to fumble away the first possession of the game. But, Baltimore defensive end Gino Marchetti returned the favor one play later when he forced Giants quarterback Don Heinrich to lose the ball. The exchange of turnovers continued on the next drive, which Unitas ended by tossing an interception to Lindon Crow. Heinrich, who had wrestled the starting job away from Charlie Conerly, was not long for the contest. He was soon replaced by Conerly.
Unitas finally got on track with a 60-yard strike to Moore to the Giants 26-yard-line. Yet again, though, the drive was quickly stopped. Huff kept the game scoreless when he blocked a field goal attempt by Steve Myhra. New York finally broke the deadlock on a field goal by Pat Summerall. One made possible by a 38-yard run to the Baltimore 30 by Gifford.
The sloppy play continued in the second quarter and helped the Colts take control. A Gifford fumble recovered by Colts defensive end and former Giant Ray Krouse allowed Alan Ameche to score the first touchdown of the game. The Giants appeared poised to rebound when Colts returner Jackie Simpson muffed a punt on the Baltimore 10, but Gifford fumbled again, leading to the first sustained march of the contest. Unitas engineered a 15-play, 86-yard drive, capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass to Berry. Both Gifford fumbles were forced by Baltimore defensive back Milt Davis, who was playing with two broken bones in his right foot.
Davis proved to be an inspiring figure, particularly to his fellow black teammates. He was dismissed from the Lions in 1956 not because of a lack of talent, but due to the fact that the team had no other black players and therefore nobody deemed willing or appropriate as a roommate for road trips. Davis signed with the Colts as a 28-year-old free agent in 1957 and led the NFL with 10 interceptions, 219 yards in interception returns and two defensive touchdowns. He added seven more in 1958 and finished his career with an amazing 27 in 45 games. He left the sport early because of his anger over the maltreatment of black players.
It was his maltreatment of the Giants in the championship game that keyed a 14-3 halftime lead. But the Giants were far from finished. Their defense set the tone early in the third quarter. Baltimore had driven to their 1-yard-line, but they stiffened. Rather than opt for a chip-shot field goal, Colts coach Weeb Ewbank sought to drive a dagger into his opponent by going for the touchdown. But linebacker Cliff Livingston halted Ameche off a questionable halfback option play call in which the back, finding no receiver open, was forced to run wide rather than bulldoze the ball in. The stop swung the momentum of the game into the Giants’ favor.