By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 8, 2008
THE BEST GAME EVER
Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly. 279 pp. $23
Mark Bowden was 7 years old on Dec. 28, 1958, the day the Baltimore Colts played the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium for the championship of the National Football League. He doesn't remember whether he watched the game -- "I may have seen some of it on television," he says -- but if he doesn't remember it, he didn't see it. It's as simple as that. If you were lucky enough to watch all or even part of that amazing game, you'll never forget it, and you can take that from me.
I was one of the "estimated forty-five million people, the largest crowd to ever witness a football game," who tuned in to the game that cold December afternoon, and like many others I got there more or less by accident. The NFL then was barely a shadow of what it is now; a league of only a dozen teams whose games were more often broadcast on radio than on television, it was dwarfed in popularity by Major League Baseball. I was at home on Christmas break from college, bored stiff, and decided to see what was on TV. In those days channel surfing was easy -- my only choices were the three national networks -- and NBC had a football game. I watched because I had nothing better to do but -- again, like millions of others -- ended up being totally thrilled by what I saw.
Through four quarters of ever more passionate play, the teams fought to a 17-17 draw. At the end of the fourth quarter many of the players thought the game was over and "bolted for the locker room, eager to escape the mob that generally raced across the field at the end of a big game," but they were in for a surprise. After years of debate among the owners, Bert Bell, the commissioner of the league, had decided that if regular play ended in a tie, the game would go into sudden-death overtime. "The commissioner had argued to the traditionalists that you could not end a championship game and a season on a tie," Bowden writes. "The only purpose was to crown a champ. This was the first time a sudden-death opportunity had presented itself, and it could not have come at a better time. He knew that millions of fans were watching all over the country. They were caught up in the most dramatic showdown in the league's history, two heroically talented teams playing their hearts out. Now they would fight to the finish."
It didn't take long to settle the issue. The Giants won the toss and received the ball, but could go nowhere. They punted to the Colts, who began a 13-play drive under the leadership of their young quarterback, John Unitas. In the last two minutes of regulation play, under intense pressure, he had driven the Colts close enough for the field goal that tied the game. Now, with "plenty of time," he "could chip away, mixing the run and pass, taking short bites like quick jabs, keeping the Giants' defenders off-balance." Methodically, he got the Colts down to the Giants' two-yard line. From there the fullback, Alan Ameche, went into the end zone virtually untouched. The final score was Baltimore 23, New York 17.
In and of itself the game was simply superb. It had structure and pace that the best novelists would envy. It began with both defenses dominant and a surprisingly high number of fumbles. The Giants' defense, the best in the league, contained the Colts' offense, also the best, while the Colts' defense neutralized the weaker Giants' offense. The lead moved back and forth, but the Giants seemed to have the game sewn up with eight minutes left when Frank Gifford scored on a pass from Charlie Conerly. Then Unitas called the Colts' offense into the huddle and said: "We've got eighty-six yards and two minutes. We're going to go straight down the field and score. Let's go to work." That is exactly what they did, and then they iced the cake with their magnificent overtime drive.
Bowden, a skilled journalist best known for Black Hawk Down (1999), his account of a dreadfully botched American military operation in Somalia, has written The Best Game Ever as a labor of love. His family moved to Baltimore in the 1960s, when he was in his teens, which gave him time to soak up Colts fever. He left Baltimore in 1979 but, like many others, still mourns the team's departure for Indianapolis in 1983 under the proverbial cloak of darkness and cherishes the memory of the team's, and the city's, glory years. He's respectful of the 1958 New York Giants, but make no mistake, this is a Colt fan's book.
It's considerably more than a play-by-play account, though Bowden does manage to build up a surprising amount of suspense. Both pro football and the United States itself were very different half a century ago, and Bowden understands that this game caught both the league and the nation at a moment of deep and lasting change. Many things were happening then, but the one that touched most directly on this game was television, which "was working profound changes in American politics, marketing, journalism, and entertainment, and part of this concerned the way people watched sports," especially football, which "seemed made for television." Color pictures were still in the future for all but a handful of people -- Bowden is exactly right when he says that the 1958 game "would be remembered primarily in . . . spooky black and white" -- but the game was a harbinger of things soon to come:
"There was a sense throughout Yankee Stadium and in homes all over America that something truly memorable was unfolding. . . . The nation was experiencing what was still a new kind of human experience, a truly communal live national event, something made possible by the new medium. In future years the phenomenon would become familiar, but no less powerful, as the nation gathered to watch rocket launches, the aftermath of assassinations, a magnificent civil rights speech, an astronaut stepping on the moon, a presidential resignation. . . . In this moment, football itself was about to step fully into the age of television, of multimillion-dollar player contracts, slow-motion replay, cable sports networks, Super Bowls, and franchises with market values exceeding the gross national product of many small countries."
Whether there actually was "a sense" in Yankee Stadium and elsewhere that the nation was changing in this moment strikes me as a highly dubious proposition -- there certainly was no such sense in the room where I watched the game -- but it is true that immense change was taking place and that this game was an important part of it. It isn't often that an athletic competition achieves genuine importance for the larger society, but this clearly was one instance.
Early in his career Bowden covered professional football for the Philadelphia Inquirer, an experience that serves him well here. His explanations of shifts in the teams' offensive and defensive strategies are lucid, and he knows enough about the extreme physical and mental demands the game exacts to convey a strong sense of the players' exhaustion and determination as the contest ground toward its conclusion. He isn't entirely immune to journalistic cliche and at times overwrites, but generally his prose is competent and clear. Whether the book will be of interest to readers who aren't football fans is a question I can't answer, but The Best Game Ever is sure to become an instant Sacred Text in Baltimore. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.