Sixty years ago today, the NFL Championship Game earned an immediate and exalted label; The Greatest game ever played. In the league’s first ever overtime, the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants, 23-17 at Yankee Stadium.
Nothing since, not a great Super Bowl or a post season cliffhanger, challenged its all-time top billing. The confluence of the game’s gripping tightness, historical first and enormous national television audience helped transform pro football into an American phenomenon. It has since been the subject of many featured articles, multiple books and even an ESPN documentary; all about this one single epochal event.
Deservedly so, many say, because the December 28th 1958 classic launched the NFL into high gear; eventually doing the unthinkable, surpassing baseball as the national pastime. What followed were billions in both sponsorships and television contracts and millions for Super Bowl spots and executive salaries. To appreciate the exponential growth, superstar quarterback Johnny Unitas was paid only $17,500 that season and most players made no more than $10,000.
After years of half-empty stadiums, 64,185 fans crammed into the big ballpark in the Bronx to watch the showdown. The public had been generally indifferent toward pro football until that day. The New York Times sports columnist Arthur Dailey called the title game, “One for the books…. an unforgettable episode crammed to the gunwales.”
There is no video recording of the NBC Network telecast. ESPN’s documentary was pieced together by NFL Films which did what it could with grainy clips. Viewers on YouTube today can watch the video which is matched neatly against the only full audio that survived; the NBC Radio broadcast done by Bill McColgan and Joe Boland.
What’s particularly striking, when looking back through an historical lens, is that the game earned unrivaled distinction despite the fact that the telecast was blacked out in New York City and that the Big Apple was limited informationally in the weeks leading up to the NFL championship. A newspaper strike in New York dragged from December 12th through December 28th, the day of the game.
Times were different too. The relationship between the coaches and the media was less confrontational or distrusting as it is today.
Although the Giants suffered a killer of a loss, head coach Jim Lee Howell invited the press to watch film of the game with his assistant coaches on the day following the game. And these weren’t just ordinary retinues or acolytes. The offensive and defensive coordinators were Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry respectively; two peerless football leaders who would go on to win Super Bowls in their own right.
In the New York Daily News, Joe Trimble who attended the film session, wrote, “It was almost as exciting as the game itself. Couldn’t change the 23-17 ending, though.”
The Giants were up 17-14 and had the ball in their end with a little more than two minutes remaining in regulation. On third down, Frank Gifford busted through for what he thought was a first down and an opportunity for the Giants to coast to the NFL title. But the line judge didn’t agree. As such, the Giants punted and Unitas led the Colts down field where Steve Myhra connected on a 19 yard field goal. The result was a tie game at the end of regulation.
Years earlier, the NFL had added an overtime element but it wasn’t until that late December day that the rule would be activated. Meanwhile, 45 million viewers across America were watching the game on black and white sets; sitting at the edge of their couches and living room chairs.
Both sidelines knew that a sudden death overtime would begin three minutes after the end of regulation but had no idea of what was to occur procedurally. So they milled and weaved among themselves until officials trotted over to summon the captains to the middle of the field.
Some eight minutes into the overtime, the Colts’ Alan Ameche, a Heisman winner at Wisconsin plunged into the end zone for the title.
The NFL had arrived; breathtakingly!
Television and radio
NBC paid $200,000 for the television and radio rights. Until the 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act was signed into law by Congress and President John F. Kennedy, baseball was the only sport that was legally permitted to negotiate league-wide broadcast contracts. Major League Baseball was exempt from anti-trust. The NFL didn’t have that luxury yet. For regular season games, each of the league’s 12 teams represented itself independently and most had contracts with CBS. The title game though was under the aegis of the league office and Commissioner Bert Bell had a deal with NBC.
Bell also extended timeouts that season from 60 to 90 seconds. The standard network commercial length in those years was sixty seconds, not thirty as it is today. Bell also asked the refs to add some ‘TV timeouts’ for the title game.
The overtime delay
Of interest and often included in stories about the telecast is what occurred in overtime. NBC lost its connection and the country saw what was called (figuratively) snow on their screens. Those raised in the cable era who never watched a true over the air television program on a set using a portable or roof antenna probably never experienced snow on their TV screens.
In pre cable days, when connections to a station’s television tower were weak, viewers’ screens would jitter or fidget. When the signal was lost entirely or the connection from a remote location like a stadium was lost, the screen would produce an annoying black and white snowy picture what looked little ants flickering in place. The audio would produce an ear-piercing, sizzling sound. (Bad experiences of my youth!)
Doing remotes back then wasn’t yet a perfect science. In the overtime of the Colts-Giants game, just a few plays before Ameche’s historic thrust, a critical cable snapped and NBC’s signal was lost. The network went dark. Technicians needed a few minutes to reconnect, to get the game back on air.
Suddenly, at that point, a fan ran out onto the field and the head referee was forced to pop his head into the Colts’ huddle to inform the players that the game was being delayed. Meanwhile, three New York cops ran out to surround and nab the infiltrator who observers suspected was inebriated.
Lindsey Nelson, then both an NBC executive and on-air broadcaster writes in his book, Hello Everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson that the man who ran on the field was actually Stan Rotkiewicz, a business manager of NBC News who doubled occasionally as a statistician at sporting events. According to Nelson, “He was an old Roanoke tackle, capable of posing as an errant fan long enough to save the day for his network’s nationwide telecast of a big football game.”
The announcers teamed for the title game, represented the participating teams, Chuck Thompson who called Colts games and Chris Schenkel, the television announcer for the Giants. Both had voices for which to die, that good! Thompson was beloved in Baltimore where he also did Orioles baseball for many years. Schenkel later did college football for ABC and also made his mark as the lead broadcaster for the Professional Bowlers Association.
The two announcers reportedly flipped a coin to determine who would call which half, according to historian Ted Patterson. Schenkel won the toss and selected the second half. It resulted in Thompson getting the first half and the historic overtime. What’s regrettable of course is that no recording remains of his call.
Author Ed Gruver in The American Football League: A Year-by-Year History, 1960–1969 Thompson’s call was:
“Here come the Colts to the line of scrimmage. Unitas over the center. The ball is snapped, given to Ameche. He is over for a touchdown! The Colts are the world champions.”
Gruver writes that Thompson added detail to his headline call:
“Alan ‘the horse’ Ameche, lowering his helmet and galloping through the gathering darkness and the New York Giants defense and into the end zone.”
Gruver essentially concludes “that the nation’s number one spectator sport began at precisely 4:51 pm Eastern Standard Time.”
Locally in New York, Les Keiter called the game on WCBS Radio. Keiter was quite popular. No recording of his call ever surfaced. Keiter’s voice was throaty, gravelly and inimitable. He brought great excitement to his dramatic broadcasts. He would call drives into the end zone,”5,4,3,2,1 Touchdown!”
Bob Wolff did the game back to Baltimore. There were those who called him, “Howling Bob.” His Ameche call is often heard on replays. Wolff taped much of his own work and it’s how the recording survived. He hollered a lot, seemed tentative at times and sounded choppy on key plays late.
Bill McColgan and John Boland presided over the NBC Radio broadcast. Back then, there was no distinction of a play-by-play announcer and commentator. McColgan did the first half and the overtime and Boland the second half. McColgan who called Cleveland Browns games on radio, did a year of the Indians on television and spent a couple seasons doing the New Orleans Saints.
Boland actually was a member of the Notre Dame football team in the 1920s, a member of the famed Four Horsemen. He was the longtime voice of Irish football and also called the Chicago Cardinals on radio before they moved to St. Louis. His voice was husky and somewhat gruff.
At the end of regulation, Boland:
“We’re going to see the first application ever of the new sudden death role.”
Later, on the game winning Ameche plunge; McColgan:
“Unitas has been sensational… Flanker to the right. Ends are tight. Unitas gives to Ameche and the ball game is over. Ameche scores and the Baltimore Colts are the champions of professional football.”
McColgan was the best of the lot. He was silky smooth, had a magical voice, spoke clearly and quickly. He was graphic and easy to follow, a solid play-by-player. He also called the 1955 and 57 NFL title games for NBC Radio. His ’57 partner was the venerable Ray Scott.
ESPN’s special on the Greatest game picks and chooses which radio announcer’s call to match with each video highlight. It’s quite apparent that in overtime, in key moments, McColgan was composed, sure-mouthed and graphic. Meanwhile, Wolff was hysterical and screeching annoyingly. Unlike McColgan, Wolff never set the formation for listeners in late critical situations either.
In those years, both broadcasters said little when the other was on play-by-play. The whole production set up was clean and simple; not overbearing, a pleasant listen. Television functioned similarly. When Thompson called the game, Schenkel said little and vice-versa.
There were two sponsors on radio, that was it; Marlboro Cigarettes and Hi-Grade Meats. Related or unrelated, Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly was a Marlboro Man and appeared in lots of the brand’s advertising (but not on the game’s radio broadcast). Hi-Grade promoted its meat products for consumption during the upcoming New Year holiday.
Some things don’t change
Neither announcer used statistics much because they weren’t broken down into minutia the way they are today. That said, McColgan, at one point, said that Ameche was second in NFL rushing behind Jimmy Brown. I was way too young to remember the game so when hearing the recording, I said to myself, wow! When I looked up the numbers, the announcer was indeed accurate. But the comment needed some heft. The unstoppable Brown rushed for 1527 yards and Ameche 797. There were others also clustered close to Ameche’s total. It wasn’t like Ameche’s numbers were just a few yards behind the immortal Brown!
Change of lingo
McColgan also generally used ‘good’ or ‘no good’ when passes were thrown instead of ‘complete’ or ‘incomplete.’
Public Address Announcer
Those with deciphering ears who monitor the NBC Radio broadcast will hear the golden voiced Bob Sheppard as the in-stadium announcer. He of course was forever the PA announcer for Yankees games too.
The referees had no mics as they do today. Media members could only work off scant hand signals on the field.
The Giants and Yankee Stadium
The team’s first season in the big ballpark in the Bronx was 1956 when they won the NFL title. Previously, they played at the smaller Polo Grounds where their broadcaster, the late Marty Glickman, told me he could count the house from his broadcast position.
Tidbits and facts about the greatest game
The controversial call of whether Gifford got the first down late in regulation had the Giants angry
After the game, Giants’ coaches, players and fans were sulking over the call involving Frank Gifford and his field nemeses, fellow Californian, defensive tackle, Gino Marchetti. The Giants, as described above, were up 17-14 with some two and a half minutes remaining in the 4th quarter. The Giants had the ball on third down in their own territory. Attaining a first down would have made it extremely difficult for the Colts to fight the Giants through another set of downs and the tyranny of the clock.
Gifford took a handoff from quarterback Conerly and drove hard to the right, straining every muscle of his robust Hollywood body. As Marchetti dragged him to the turf, a trio of stout Baltimore defenders, weighing a collective 750 pounds, leaped on top of the two to prevent Gifford from hitting the first down marker. In the process, one of them, Big Daddy Lipscomb broke Marchetti’s ankle which was twisted under the pile.
As Mark Bowden wrote in his captivating The Best Game Ever, “Marchetti stayed on the turf, holding his leg, rocking back and forth, bellowing. His parents in San Francisco, who were watching the first pro football game they had ever seen on television, looked on with alarm as their son writhed.”
Gifford thought he had the first down but the line judge ruled otherwise. This was before replay or certainly any replay rule. The matter of whether Gifford did or didn’t earn a first down has been a subject of fierce debate for more than a half century.
The ESPN documentary done in conjunction with NFL Films apparently indicated that the line judge made the right call. So cries of “We wuz robbed,” might not have been justified.
The Greatest game and player salaries
You might say that as a result of the game, the television networks stepped up its rights fees significantly. It resulted in an immediate trickle-down effect on player salaries. As mentioned, Johnny Unitas made $17,500 in 1958 for leading the Colts to the league title. In 1964 Joe Namath signed with the AFL’s Jets for $427,000
To appreciate today’s equivalents, $10,000 in 1958 is worth roughly $87,000 today. So by that measure players were badly underpaid then. Today of course, they make millions .
For playing in the title game, each of the Colts earned $4,718 and each Giant got $3,111. Considering the relative pittance players were paid then in salary, the winner’s and loser’s shares were fairly significant.
Incidentally, from 1958-63, the Giants lost 5 NFL title games.
Commissioners Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle
Pete Rozelle, who became commissioner of the NFL in 1960, was then the general manager of the Los Angeles Rams; a franchise that had financial issues. Rozelle couldn’t get ownership (Daniel Reeves) to pay for a trip to New York to attend the game live. So he did the next best thing, he watched the title game in his office. The commissioner’s job opened when Bert Bell passed in November, 1959 at age 64. The commish died in his boots of a heart attack while watching a Steelers-Eagles game in the end zone. He was 64.
The accomplished receiver Ray Berry says that when Bell came into the locker room following the Colts win, he cried. He was so overwhelmed by the events of the day; the gripping overtime , the packed house and the quality of play. It was as though a dream was reached and he knew it immediately. He was NFL commissioner from 1945-59.
The league’s headquarters were in Philadelphia. All would change the following year when Rozelle took the reins.
‘Win one for the Gipper’
The Colts defensive tackle Gino Marchetti, who broke a leg stopping Frank Gifford from getting a critical first down was on a stretcher along the Colts sideline during the end of regulation and as overtime began. He was in deep pain but stoically refused to be taken back to the locker room. He was intent on watching the rest of the game from the field. He was a military veteran who served in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. It’s the war experience that Gino said hardened him to pain.
At the start of the overtime, Baltimore coach Weeb Ewbank reportedly turned to his club while pointing to the end zone where Gino was still sitting up on a stretcher and he snapped, “Win it for Gino.” Marchetti was soon thereafter carried off the playing field because fans were beginning to surge in the area where he was sitting on a stretcher. According to author Bowden, a police captain ordered the Colts to move him to the visitors locker room. But in there he had no radio with which to follow the game and it wasn’t until a happy group of Colts stormed into the dressing room did Marchetti learn that his team won the championship.
Gifford and major injuries
For Gifford, his brutal intersection with hard hitting Marchetti is a reminder of what occurred a couple seasons later. On November 20, 1960, the Eagles’ Chuck Bednarik infamously blindsided Gifford fiercely. Frank was so badly concussed and hurt that he missed the entire following season.
More on Ameche
He was the son of Italian immigrants and cousins of actors Don Ameche and Jim Ameche. He was nicknamed the Iron Horse. Alan died young at 55.
The next title matchup to go into overtime was Super Bowl LI when the Patriots rallied to beat the Falcons.
Baltimore was a 3 ½ point favorite and obviously covered.
On Christmas, three days earlier, New York was in a deep freeze, a high of 30 and a low of 15. On the day of the game, the 28th it was almost balmy. The high was 49 degrees.
For those interested in delving deeper into the game, I would strongly suggest Mark Bowden’s book, The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL .
Bowden writes for the Atlantic and was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 21 years. Among other things, he covered the Eagles. Bowden has written books about a range of topics from the Iranian hostage crisis to hunting down Osama Bin Laden. He is a first cousin once removed of the legendary ex-Florida State coach, Bobby Bowden.