Wow, I can’t believe it’s been 50 years. Just getting old, I guess. It was like yesterday that I watched the historic game on a black and white set in Brooklyn. The Jets vs. Colts wasn’t yet formally called the Super Bowl. It was the Third World Championship Game. To the nation it was David vs. Goliath
In New York, it took on a special meaning. It was the beginning of an unforgettable 17 months of sports, the city’s best stretch ever. On January 12, 1969, it was the Jets, then in October the Mets’ Impossible Dream. Finally in the fall, the beginning of a Knicks season that resulted in an NBA title the following spring. The Big Apple, or Fun City as Mayor John Lindsay called it, never experienced anything like it. And it certainly hasn’t happened since.
In middle of it all, in July, 1969, America landed two men on the moon. Heck, it would take some devine intervention for all the sports miracles and craziness that hit the New York scene a half century ago. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the nuttiness of Woodstock in August, 1969 that capped the decade of the hippie.
But Baltimore was New York’s nemesis. The Colts were first, albeit there was little history between the teams because the leagues, the AFL and NFL weren’t completely merged yet. Then the Mets and Orioles in the fall, again National and American Leagues respectively, and no documented rivalry. For the Knicks of Walt Frazier and Willis Reed, the road to the title led through the Bullets of Kevin Loughery, the son of a New York cop, and the prestidigitation of a future Knick, Earl Monroe.
First, the powerful Colts, a team that lost just one game all year, representing the mighty NFL against the brash and upstart New York Jets, starring Broadway Joe Namath.
After a remarkable AFL season, including the lunacy of the Heidi Game, the Jets won the AFL title by vanquishing the bruising Oakland Raiders. New York was an enormous underdog, +18, against the NFL champion Colts. But Joe Willie Namath was not frightened. He sat poolside at the team hotel in Miami telling the press, “We’ll win and I guarantee it.”
Namath and others were so confident that when Coach Weeb Ewbank kept replaying film of the opponent, a couple of the players said, ‘Coach, don’t keep showing us the film. We’re so confident we can beat them that I’m afraid if we watch it repeatedly, we’ll get complacent.’
The runway leading to the game was littered with bluster, showgirls, media, booze, brawn and luster. More hype than any World Series. If the 1958 Greatest game ever eventually propelled the NFL past baseball as the national pastime, Super Bowl III might have been the first manifestation of it.
The steely-eyed Johnny Unitas, (albeit he didn’t start because of a chronic season-long elbow injury) against the glitzy eyed Joe Namath.
The rest is history. A Jets, 16-7 Super Bowl III upset, a win that hardly seemed possible hours earlier. Namath handed off to running back Matt Snell who ran it in for a touchdown. Jim Turner then connected on three field goals to give the Jets a 16-0 lead. Unitas came into the game in the third quarter spelling quarterback Morrall when the Colts trailed 13-0. The Colts finally scored late in fourth on a one-yard Unitas handoff to Jerry Hill.
Namath was 17 of 29 on his passing and did not throw an interception. Morrall and Unitas combined for 17 of 41. Jets cornerback Randy Beverly produced two interceptions, one of Unitas and one of Morrall.
It should be pointed out that Morrall played in the NFL for 21 seasons and six teams. He was a member of three Super Bowl winners, two in Miami and one in Baltimore in 1971. He’s best known for his backup work behind Unitas and later Bob Griese. Unfortunately, when he passed at age 79 in 2014, an examination of his brain showed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is found in people who had multiple head injuries, (e.g. football)
Yet for Namath, he lived up to his guarantee and was awarded the Super Bowl MVP.
NBC telecast and announcers
On network television, there was one name that dominated the play-by-play space from the mid 1960s through the mid 1970s. No one can say they did Final Fours, NBA Finals, World Series and Super Bowls. Curt Gowdy, the Wyoming Cowboy, did. Gowdy was NBC’s lead voice when it had baseball’s rights exclusively, shared pro football’s rights with CBS and had the Final Four. At that point, not much more mattered. If there was a big event, the gentlemanly Gowdy did it.
So many in the business loved Curt because he was a decent and helpful man. Fox broadcaster, Tim Brando describes his voice as manly. Indeed, he was Uncle Curt before there was Uncle Verne (Lundquist). There was warmth, kindness and caring to his very sound.
Curt worked Super Bowl III with a heady color commentator, Al De Rogatis, who cut his teeth and learned the broadcast craft under legendary New York Giants voice, Marty Glickman. The two teamed popularly on radio. DeRo, as he was called, played at Duke and briefly for the Giants before an injury ended his career early.
In all, Curt Gowdy, one of the all-time network greats, called seven Super Bowls with five different partners. DeRogatis was a student of the game. He and Paul Christman were one of the first commentators who focused on analyzing games as opposed to simply adding non-strategical colorful notes like skeletal player backgrounds and weather reports. Before Christman and DeRogatis, professionally trained announcers split the play-by-play and contributed little when it wasn’t their turn to be the play caller.
Players in those years made little money. Announcers too weren’t paid the huge dollars that they are today. Color commentators were generally hired on a per-diem basis. Many held proverbial 9 to 5 jobs to support themselves and their families. DeRogatis worked at Prudential Insurance for 33 years where he was elevated to vice president. The New York Times wrote in his obituary that he spent his fall Sundays, “shrewdly explaining why this play worked and that play misfired.”
In the open of the broadcast, Gowdy used no hyperbola, He knew America was waiting for the kickoff. The week that led up to the championship already had the game at a fevered pitch. Curt broadcast like he was talking to a friend, one friend at a time. He was talking to you or to me. He wasn’t giving a public speech. His mentor was Mel Allen with whom he had called the Yankees in 1949 and ’50. Mel was similar.
In the open, Curt said that odds-makers increased the point spread after the Namath guarantee because it likely incentivized the powerful Colts. In mid winter, Gowdy told the nation that it was 70 degrees in Miami, there were gusty winds, the lights were on and that it was overcast. In January, 1969, only 33% of Americans had color television. So a number of times Gowdy accentuated, “The Super Bowl is being brought to you in living color exclusively on NBC Television.” Remember that then, RCA which owned NBC, manufactured color televisions.
The score wasn’t posted on the screen so Gowdy gave it frequently. He let the game come to him, something that Al Michaels picked up from Curt, a man he greatly admired. No script. Watch the game and play the hand you’re dealt.
As the game progressed in the second half and the Jets were ahead 13-0, Curt asserted, “The Jets are shutting down the mighty Colts. The Colts are one of the best defensive teams ever. They allowed the fewest points in the NFL.” he added. “That’s what makes sports great, You just never know. The shutout has gone the other way so far.” (No ‘wow, this is amazing or who can believe it.’) He was stunned but restrained; focused on the assignment at hand, while recognizing that he was reporting on the implausible. “You may be watching one of the greatest games in sports history,” he said, adding with a tone of astonishment, “Namath is picking apart the Baltimore secondary.”
Big football telecasts were adding more on-air bodies to their production teams then. The former New York Giant Kyle Rote was on the sideline at the open but spoke almost as much as DeRogatis through the game. At the start of the second half with quarterback Earl Morrall able to produce little, Rote reported that the star-studded Johnny Unitas was warming up. Gowdy underscored it, adding that Unitas had been suffering from a muscle tear all season.
After a big gain in the second half, Matt Snell trotted to the Jets’ sideline. There, head coach Weeb Ewbank, 61 at the time, was standing in his typical garb, suit-jacket and tie and a baseball cap. There was a tenor of amazement in Gowdy’s voice. He told the country that many thought the Jets wouldn’t pick up fifty yards as a team and that Snell alone had over 100.
Curt: “Namath has popped off all week. Like old Diz Dean, Namath is backing up his words.” In the final minutes: “They said that Namath would need to be perfect and he just about has.”
As the seconds ticked down, Gowdy spiced sentiment into his commentary, postulating that Ewbank was an underrated coach; pointing out too that Colts coach Don Shula was his pupil. After the final gun, the two coaches shook hands and Gowdy captioned the moment perfectly. He talked about the class of Ewbank who put his arm around Shula, saying that Weeb had nothing but nice things to say about Shula all week. “Shula was one of Ewbank’s favorite players when he played for him. Weeb always thought that Shula would be an excellent coach.”
Historically, those few comments serve as a microcosm. They’re what made Gowdy the iconic announcer he was; he had a soft, yet positive force to his voice. He found a heartwarming anecdote at a moment of joy for one set of fans and despair for the other. Young announcers should find the YouTube recording of the broadcast. Gowdy’s call at the game’s close was a lesson for generations to come. Shula of course wound up winning two Super Bowls with the Dolphins.
Finally, the Cowboy’s most telling summary was when he pointed out that the merger produced a common draft and likely over time more parity between the two leagues. In 1969, the AFL and NFL were still in the process of being fully integrated.
There were no referee microphones either, the whole production looked primitive by today’s standards. As I look back now, it kind of added to the mystique of it all. There was little pomp, pageantry or fireworks. It was nowhere near to what it is today, fifty years later. Yet, the players today have all Super Bowl III participants to thank for sparking what has turned into a national holiday.
Some things don’t change on television
Jim Simpson, NBC’s number two play-by-play voice behind Gowdy worked the sidelines during Super Bowl III. As the first half ended, he interviewed the popular comedian Bob Hope who added little about the game suggesting only that the Jets must have read the newspapers (about the great Colts team). Why Hope? It became obvious. He was there to promote the Bob Hope Desert Classic which was scheduled for California in February; televised by NBC. Hope finished the brief interview, “See you in the desert, Jim.”
National radio broadcast on NBC
The national radio broadcast was on NBC with Charlie Jones, George Ratterman and Pat Summerall. We think of Summerall as a play-by-play voice. Yet, his commentary that day demonstrated his depth of knowledge of the game. At the outset of the broadcast he predicted a 35-10 Colts win. Ratterman was likely assigned the broadcast because he had covered the AFL on NBC. He worked telecasts with Jones. George played at Notre Dame and later with an NFL team that no longer exists, the New York Yanks.
Ratterman told the audience before kickoff that the Jets had a chance if the game is close. After a few minutes, he added,“There’s finger pointing by both teams.”
Jones had a golden voice and was a mainstay for decades on NBC Television’s NFL and AFL coverage. His call on radio fell short. He rarely set up formations or painted entire pictures. Plays just suddenly occured, almost without warning; his voice kind of struck from the sky. “Snell catches a pass from Namath,” he would spew, without sharing with the audience what conditions or formations were at the line of scrimmage as the play unfolded.
Baltimore Colts -radio
With the help of Paul McCardell and Ronald Fritz at the Baltimore Sun who unearthed a microfilm version of old clippings, I learned that the Super Bowl was on two stations, WCBM and WBAL. They were separate feeds, the NBC national broadcast on WBAL and the local broadcast on WCBM, the station that carried the regular season games.
Through conversations with several aficionados including Tom Davis, a Baltimore sportscaster since 1971, my guess, through a process of elimination, is that Chuck Thompson was the lead voice on radio of Super Bowl III. He might have had some help that day in Miami from Bill O’Donnell and Jim Karvellas. Unfortunately, these three gentlemen are no longer alive and I haven’t yet found a Baltimore recording of the game. There may be none. WCBM has changed hands a number of times since 1969 and Sean Casey, the current program director there, tells me all older recordings were lost through moves and ownership changes.
A record, converted to CD, is available online, Colt Stampede, one that serves as a celebration of the 1968 season. There are snippets of play-by-play that year. They include Thompson, O’Donnell and Karvellas. Being a celebratory highlight record, the play-by-play audio-cuts end after the NFL title game win over Cleveland. Thompson who narrated the record, summarized the season at the end of it, ‘Things didn’t turn out quite the way the Colts hoped (in the Super Bowl), yet it was a memorable year.’ There were no audio clips of the Super Bowl.
As for Thompson, he was an outstanding announcer. Remember, he did the Colts overtime win and the Alan Ameche plunge to victory in 1958 on NBC Television. Chuck did the Colts on radio for decades off and on, depending on the rightsholder. Former Football Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi who worked in Baltimore with the old Colts told me enthusiastically that if I thought Thompson was good at Orioles baseball, he was even better at football.
His voice was always in fine fettle, sweet and mellifluous. He was fast, crisp and pleasing. His description was concise and vivid. Chuck was one of the best and beloved in the Baltimore area. His classic line after a big play, joyous moment or huge win was, “Ain’t that beer cold!” For many years the Orioles were owned by National Brewing Company which also sponsored the broadcasts.
I witnessed him calling a game live in old Memorial Stadium in the 1980s. It was an ice cold day. I was sitting in the back of the booth with a couple sponsors and members of the radio station. Just before taking air, Thompson turned to us from his perch, a step below ours, and with an apologetic shrug told us he’ll need to open the window of the enclosed booth so he can feel the elements of the game and the crowd noise. I’m thinking, it’s his booth. He didn’t have to apologize to me. Chuck was just a class act.
New York Radio
WABC, 770 AM, was a powerhouse. FM, at that point, was an embryo. FM consumption was minimal. WABC ran top 40 music with iconic disc jockeys like Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow), Dan Ingram and Harry Harrison. The national broadcast was run on WNBC Radio.
Merle Harmon and ex-Jet Sam DeLuca were the commentators. When the station first acquired the rights in 1964, Harmon was hired by sports director Howard Cosell. DeLuca had been an offensive linesman for the Chargers and Jets. He joined Harmon in 1968.
Harmon was outstanding. He commuted many of the years from either Minnesota where he did the Twins (1967- ’69) or Milwaukee where he called the Braves (through ’65) and Brewers (’70-’72). DeLuca started in broadcasting after his playing days and also invested in a number of McDonald’s franchises which were quite successful. Both men are deceased.
Snippets of the broadcasts are available online. Harmon was not a screamer. Kevin Harlan has a little of Harmon in him. The booming pipes are the common denominator. His set up phrase, still rings in my ears today, “Joe Willie looking, Joe Willie throwing.” Harmon’s voice would fill a ballroom. It was that strong. He brought a perfect cadence for the stop and go rhythm of football.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Harmon turned it up a bit, yet was still rather restrained for the first touchdown of the game (and the only one), scored by the Jets. “(Matt) Snell has scored. And this crowd is up, standing and yelling as the Jets have drawn first blood.” Harmon gave deserved vocal treatment to both interceptions by the Jets’ Randy Beverly. Still, the shouting and screaming was left to the crowd. Merle was a pro and his emotions were contained.
When the game was over, “There’s the gun and the Jets are the champions of the football world.”
In the locker room following the game, DeLuca interviewed both Coach Weeb Ewbank and owner Phil Iselin. (Today, of course, given what the Super Bowl has ballooned into, an event orchestrated like a Broadway play, the post game protocol is inviolable.) Today, a local radio station would never nail an interview immediately after the game. Then, Iselin was asked by DeLuca how he as an owner felt, given the fact that the Jets were given no chance to win. Before addressing his emotions, Iselin modestly named the other significant owners of the team, including Leon Hess.
Ewbank, who arguably was involved in two of most historical NFL games ever, certainly for New York, said that the Jets win was one of the greatest moments of his life. Weeb coached the Colts to the famous 1958 NFL championship, beating the Giants in the Greatest game ever played; the overtime win over the Giants at Yankee Stadium. Ewbank came away victorious both days as head coach, once good and once bad for both fans of Baltimore and New York.
Interviewed by DeLuca, Gerry Philbin reinforced something that he had said prior to the Super Bowl. There were four or five AFL teams that were as good as the Colts.
New York celebration (Somewhat)
Mayor John Lindsay refused to give the Jets a Broadway parade. It is said that Wellington Mara, the Giants owner, was incensed by the success of the Jets, a rival AFL franchise with whom the Giants would have to share the growing football constituency of the city. At that point, the Giants were playing at Yankee Stadium. Word was that Mara told Lindsay that if he honored the Jets down New York’s ‘canyon of heroes’ in lower Manhattan, he would move the team to New Jersey. Lindsay didn’t and Mara moved the team anyhow, not many years later. (In Mark Kriegel’s biography, Namath, he points out that Joe Willie got a parade in his hometown of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.)
Still, the mayor hosted a ceremony on the steps of City Hall where he saluted “our conquering team, the champion Jets.” He then presented the medallion of the City of New York to Coach Weeb Ewbank. Bob Anderson, Sports Editor of the New York Daily News honored the club with a “Citation on behalf of their super year!” The world has changed in fifty years. The Daily News is fighting to stay in business. Back then it had the largest circulation of any newspaper in New York.
Namath off the field
Denis Hamill wrote in the New York Daily News:
“No football player ever epitomized the swagger, glamour and pizazz of New York City better than Broadway Joe Namath, who was a 100,000-watt bulb lighting up the night. He hit every nightspot in the city, wearing stylish clothes, long hair, sideburns, a mustache and a killer smile.”
It’s also worth noting that Walt Frazier hadn’t won a New York title yet. The two macho athletes in the city then were Mickey Mantle and Namath. In 1969, with the backing of agency Lois Holland Calloway, the two started Mantle Men and Namath Girls, not a politically correct name today but back then an employment agency. It boomed immediately before a recession hit and the company filed for bankruptcy.
The site- Miami
At an owners meeting in Atlanta on May, 14, 1968, the game was awarded to Miami, just eight months before it was scheduled to be played. Now, of course, Super Bowls often require a commitment to a new stadium or other financial incentives. They’re also determined years in advance. For instance, the Meadowlands was given the 2014 Super Bowl in 2010.
For Miami, a winter playground, the focus wasn’t a first. Five years earlier, in February, 1964, the media converged upon South Florida to cover another flashy setting when Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) faced Sonny Liston in a heavyweight championship classic that captured the attention of the sports world and beyond. The two personalities, Namath and Ali were worlds apart, intersected only by brimming confidence and an unbreakable will.
Weather and game time
The temperature at kickoff is listed as 66 degrees with no precipitation and 80% humidity, somewhat cool for South Florida. Game time was set at 3:05pm. Today it’s 6:30pm when there are more viewers and higher ratings.
Winner and loser’s shares
In 1969, each of the winning Jets got $15,000. Each of the losing Colts received, $7,500. In 2018, each of the winners got $112,000 and $ 56,000 to the loser. The winner and loser’s share might seem exceedingly high today. But the truth is that with inflation, the $15,000 then is $105,000 today.
The first Super Bowl was carried by both CBS and NBC with separate announce crews. It was done as such because the two leagues had separate contracts, the NFL with CBS and the AFL with NBC. Super Bowl II was on CBS exclusively, The third one was NBC’s first exclusive telecast.
The rights fee in 1969 is listed as $2,500,000 (roughly $17,400,000 in today’s dollars)
This year a spot in the game will run over $5 million. In 1969, the cost was $ 55,000. Ad Age ran a story last year, estimating that the total investment by advertisers through the first 52 Super Bowls was $5.4 billion.
In 1969, NBC did a 36 and in 2018, NBC did a 43 rating.
In 1969, there were 41.6 million viewers and in 2018, 103 million. This is due to the population growth of our wonderful country. In 1969, the U.S. population was 201 million in 2018 it’s approximately 327 million. As such, every rating point (which represents a percentage) in 2018 is worth almost 60% more in raw audience than it was in 1969.