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Book World: 'The Best Game Ever'

The Best Game Ever
The Best Game Ever
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Mark Bowden
Author and Journalist
Tuesday, June 10, 2008; 3:00 PM

"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."

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Journalist and author Mark Bowden was online Tuesday, June 10 to discuss his new book The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL, which was recently reviewed in Book World.

Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of seven books, including Black Hawk Down and Guests of the Ayatollah. The Best Game Ever takes a look back at an NFL championship game that brought together Hall of Fame players, legendary coaches, and a glimpse at the power of television's future.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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Mark Bowden: Hello. Mark Bowden here. My new book, "The Best Game Ever" is about the 1958 NFL championship game; and was terrific fun to write. I'll be happy to answer your questions.

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Charleston, S.C.: At some point in the second half of the game, the power was cut off and the screen went blank. I remember my Dad and his two friends jumping up and down and yelling at the TV. What happened to cause this brief power outage and what implications did it have for the game?

Mark Bowden: The fans at football games used to crowd down around the field and rush out when it ended to tear down the goalposts. In this game, someone accidentally kicked and unplugged a vital TV cable. I describe what happened next in the book!

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Asheville, N.C.: Does NFL football reflect and anticipate our politics as the Supreme Court does? There is, for example, the storied example of the last home game Washington plays before the first Tuesday in November, how its outcome until now has unvarying reflected which party would win the presidency. Who these quarterbacks are, where they hail from and who they play for, are equally of interest. Big money, big interest, big politics? Why not, eh?

Mark Bowden: Hey, if it works for you, run with it.

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Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Could today's quarterbacks: Elway, Brodie, Montana, Brady, have excelled in 1958?

Could Johnny Unitas excel today?

Mark Bowden: Yes, without a doubt. I watched film of the game with Andy Reid, the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and formerly Brett Favre's coach at Green Bay. He said Favre and Unitas were the only two quarterbacks he had ever seen with "perfect mechanics."

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Bowden:

I read Black Hawk Down several years ago. I picked up Best Game Ever as soon as it appeared at Borders, and finished it two days later. I found your book about the Philadelphia Eagles, bought it, and read it. When I spot books by you, John Feinstein, and David Halberstam that I haven't read, I usually buy first, and check my inventory later. I put Roger Zelazny in the same category, but I have read everything that he published. Whatever you do, keep up the good work. I also have a copy of your book about the 1979 Iranian hostage incident, but I haven't quite finished that yet.

Mark Bowden: Thank you very much! This is the first book I have written in recent years where no one involved was armed (at least to my knowledge), and everyone seemed happy to talk to me!

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Annandale, Va.: Mark, I read an excerpt of your book in SI, and was very impressed. I will be buying the book, but not until the fall. Somehow, reading about football in early June, when the thermometer is approaching 100, just doesn't do it for me, and I'm a huge NFL fan. Any insight on why your book was released now and not in September?

Mark Bowden: Thanks for your nice compliment. I believe my publisher saw Father's Day as a significant marketing opportunity, and figures the book might get another bounce when football season starts, and again in December, on the 50th anniversary of the game.

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Washington, D.C.: Mark: I realize this is tangential to your book, but in talking to Art Donovan, did you ever ask him how he came to be "discovered" by David Letterman, on whose show he became a semi-regular? I remember Donovan once giving a long explanation about how his diet of bologna and hot dogs (which he was following well into his 60s) was okay because he was careful to eat kosher cold cuts and sausages.

Mark Bowden: I don't know, and I didn't ask him. It is hardly surprising, however. Fatso is one of the funniest men who ever lived.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Did you start writing this book before the most recent Super Bowl? I know people tend to think more recent events are of more importance because they relate more to them, but where would you place the Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl among the list of great games?

Mark Bowden: I think it was the best Super Bowl ever. The 1958 NFL championship game remains, however, the ONLY championship (or Super Bowl) to go into overtime, and is without a doubt a far more significant game in the history of football. I started writing the book in 2006.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: This may be hard for people today to understand, but college football used to be more popular than professional football. In Franklin Field in Philadelphia, the Penn Quakers used to outdraw the Philadelphia Eagles. What role did television play in finally bringing professional football before a larger public?

Mark Bowden: I believe my book provides exactly the answer you are looking for. Until this game, college ball was far more popular.

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Virginia: Hello. Which is harder, writing the book or getting it published? What's your next project?

Mark Bowden: In the beginning, getting published was harder than writing a book. Today, because of the success my books have enjoyed, the opposite is true. My next book project will be a historical novel.

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Des Moines, Iowa: Hi Mark. Greatly admire your work. I'm just curious about how authors think. Seems to me that a lot must have been written about this game previously; I know, for example, that a Johnny Unitas biography was released not that long ago.

Do you go into a project like this thinking that there must be some unreported nuggets and stories you can find, or do you do some reporting before you ever pitch the book to see what's out there? Loved the SI excerpt and looking forward to reading the entire book.

Mark Bowden: Thanks for your nice note. There has been a great deal written about this game, but I don't think you will find anything else that takes you inside the game and the players in the same way as this book. John Steadman's "The Greatest Football Game Ever Played" comes the closest to what I have attempted. It provides an excellent play-by-play, and was a very useful resource, but John did not attempt to analyze the game and explore the personalities involved, nor was he particularly interested in the role the game played in the history of pro football and the evolution of the game itself. The various biographies and histories touched upon the game in passing; they had larger stories to tell.

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Baltimore, Md.: Mark: I think if people aren't from Baltimore, or have not spent substantial time there, they can't appreciate the role the 1958 game plays in the city's psyche, especially for people of a certain age (I was 10 when I watched it). Whenever a member of the championship team dies (most recently, Buzz Nutter) it is treated as a significant passing by the local media. John Unitas's death in 2002 was the lead story in the main news section of the Sun the following day, with the headline set in type appropriate to "Pearl Harbor Attacked."

Mark Bowden: I agree. I have tried in the book to capture the unique role the Colts played in Baltimore, and to explain why that victory was such an important moment in the city's history. Fittingly, my first Baltimore promotional event, along with Art Donovan, Ordelle Braase, and Jim Mutscheller, was at the Md. Historical Society.

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York, Pa.: Hi Mark -

Great chat!!

Was Johnny U hailed as great-to-be at the beginning of his career when your book takes place?

Mark Bowden: No. John was a cast-off, as you probably know. As I explain in the book, his first game appearance was a loss, and his first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. But within a year, people were starting to notice something special about 19.

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Waldorf, Md.: Would Raymond Berry have been able to make a roster today given how scouts worship 40 times and a guy's physique? And, would he have accomplished as much with another QB (sort of the original version of the "did Rice make Montana, or vice versa")?

Thanks for chatting. I loved the excerpt I read.

Mark Bowden: You are welcome, and thanks! I doubt Raymond would have gotten a second look from today's NFL, but I think he would still excel if he had the chance. I do think he would have accomplished a great deal with another quarterback, but not as much. He would have made any quarterback better. He was very lucky (and he will be the first to tell you this) to fall in with Unitas. It was a remarkable stroke of good fortune for both men, the team, the city, and the sport!

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Oviedo, Fla.: My mom was pregnant with me, in Baltimore, when this game was played. My dad had season tickets and saw it. The game was a cultural touchstone for 'Bawlmer' and a point of pride for everyone there. Only you, Johnny U.

The tats and gold teeth of today's players and their obscene contracts make them look ridiculous indeed next to the Golden Arm, LongGone, Gino, Art Donovan and the rest.

No role models like this exist for my kids. Happy to look back, but sad at the current state of the NFL.

Mark Bowden: Thanks for your nice, nostalgic note. There are many things about today's game that are better, but some of the charm is gone. One caution: I doubt if the players in 1958 had undergone the scrutiny received by today's NFL athletes, that many of them would enjoy the idealized reputations they do.

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Baltimore, Md.: Mark: Thanks so much for this book, which I bought after reading the Sports Illustrated excerpt. I was 10 years old when they played the greatest game and have vivid memories of watching it on our 9 inch black and white RCA TV with my dad and older brother. When Steve Myhra kicked that field goal, my brother jumped up and slammed his palms into the den ceiling (he's 6 foot 3), causing my mother to come running in yelling at him to please not destroy the house. For years, I kept a 45 rpm record that National Beer put out after the game with Chuck Thompson's call of the tie field goal and Ameche's winning score.

I'm recounting all this to make it clear that, for Baltimoreans of a certain age, the 1958 title game is a fond memory they will take to their graves. Anyone who doubts the status of this game among Baltimoreans should have seen the coverage in the Baltimore Sun and on the broadcast outlets when John Unitas died unexpectedly six years ago. The mourning went on for days and the funeral, at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. was televised.

Thanks again for bringing it all back so well.

Mark Bowden: You are welcome. As a former Baltimorean, I get it.

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Sykesville, Md.: Mark: A tiny correction. I am reading the book now and the name of Colts halfback L.G. Dupre appears as L.G. Dupree. Maybe this can be corrected in subsequent editions.

Mark Bowden: Yes, thanks. We corrected it in the index before publication, and wrongly assumed that it would be corrected throughout the book. It should be right in the 2nd edition.

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Washington D.C. : Your book seems to allude to how television changed politics and the rise of football as the number 1 sport. Do you see the Internet doing this for other sports? We see how it's changing politics. What about sports? I have heard some amazing ideas, like being able to watch the Super Bowl from multiple cameras on your computer, but could you see the Web giving rise to any smaller sports?

Mark Bowden: Your guess is as good as mine, but I do believe the internet will be equally transformative. We are already seeing it in politics and international affairs. As for sports, I suspect something in the interactive video line is more likely to be effected than a sport played by real athletes in an arena.

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Essex, Md.: Being that the 1958 NFL championship game was played in an era without the huge salaries of today, didn't most players on both teams work a job on the off-season? And didn't this fact make the players more accessible to the public in that they were more or less just normal guys?

Mark Bowden: Yes, they did. I describe this in the book. Many of the Colts worked at Bethlehem Steel. Artie Donovan was a liquor salesman. Jim Mutscheller sold insurance. I suspect most of them were better prepared for life after football than are many of the athletes playing today.

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York, Pa.: Not to give too much away from what looks to be a fascinating read I'll be buying ... who were the receivers during the 13-play tie-breaking drive?

Mark Bowden: Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry.

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Laurel Md.: Re the reputations of old time players: In Alex Hawkins funny book, "My Story and I'm Sticking To It," he recounts how Colts linebacker Bill Pellington, who was ferocious on the field, was parking his car in front of a bar in Baltimore when a cop pointed out a no parking sign. Pellington was annoyed, but moved his car and parked several blocks away, only to walk back to the bar and see a good looking young woman park her car in the same spot, with the same cop present, looking on benignly. Pellington had words with the cop, which culminated in the linebacker slamming the policeman to the pavement and beating him severely. Fortunately, the cops screams brought Pellington's Colts teammates out of the bar and they pulled him off the officer, who was so mortified and embarrassed that he let the whole thing slide. They weren't choir boys.

Mark Bowden: I am told that Don Joyce, whom they called "Champ," was fond of amphetamines. He got them from long-haul truckers, and liked them not so much because of the advantage they gave him on the field, but because they enabled him to stay up all night and drink.

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Arlington, Va.: Even today, the term 'Indianapolis Colts' seems wrong, very wrong. I remember something about the time the Browns moved to Baltimore (another sad story) that the Colts were approached about shifting the nickname and colors back to Baltimore. Do you know if that's true, and if so, how close did Modell come to acquiring the Colts name?

Mark Bowden: I share your pain. I don't know the answer to your questions, but I suspect that efforts were made to bring the franchise name and colors back. I do remember attending a game where John Unitas symbolically donned a Ravens jacket. For all but the true diehards, that made the transition complete.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: I am going to buy this book TODAY! I loved your book Bringing The Heat about my beloved Eagles (I'm a Philly transplant), and I know this one is going to be just as special. Today's NFL seems so antiseptic, its nice to read about colorful guys like Artie Donovan, who I have been laughing at and with for years.

Mark Bowden: Thanks! I hope you enjoy it. I had a ball writing both. "Bringing the Heat," of course, tells the story of players, owners, coaches, and a season that I was there to witness firsthand, so it is a different kind of book. I am often asked, having written books about other broader subjects, what inspired me to write a football book. I answer, "I have already written one football book; this is my second." Given that about twelve people have read the first, I'm hoping that this one's success might spur some interest in it.

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York, Pa.: I am trying to order your book online and have not found it anywhere yet. Is it available that way?

washingtonpost.com: I just looked on Amazon.com and found it - it should be available most places by now, I think...

Mark Bowden: I am watching with some astonishment as it climbs on Amazon.com.

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Waldorf, Md.: Did you interview Art Donovan for the book? Any good stories you hadn't previously heard?

Mark Bowden: I did. I visited Fatso twice. The second time I drove him down to Annapolis from his home in Lutherville to have lunch with his old teammate Alex Sandusky. A large portion of their anecdotal conversation, which I found hilarious, is reproduced in the epilogue verbatim. There were many stories in the book from Artie that I hadn't heard, but then I can't claim to have read his book or seen every one of his appearances.

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Catonsville, Md.: The stature of John Unitas: Some friends of mine in Baltimore had a cousin who married John Unitas's daughter. They were invited to the wedding and, when father and daughter walked down the aisle, I am told that all the men in the church jumped up with flash cameras and took pictures. Then, at the reception, there was an endless line of guys lining up to have their photos taken with the father of the bride. I am happy to say that the bride took it all in good humor, realizing that dad would always be the center of attention in any Baltimore gathering.

Mark Bowden: Yes. John certainly knew what it meant to be a hero in his adopted home town; which I suspect was mostly a good thing, but not always. I met him once or twice; once at his bar and restaurant in Towson. He was a gentleman, and what my wife terms, "down to earth."

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Waldorf, Md.: How much of the book is about the Giants? Quite a coaching staff on that side of the field - assistant coaches Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.

Mark Bowden: Much of the book is about the Giants, who were very worthy adversaries to the Colts, and who, of course, had won the championship in 1956. I focus particularly on Huff and Landry, but Lombardi, Connerly, Gifford, Grier, Summerall, Rote, Webster, and others get their due.

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Mark Bowden: Thanks for writing in with questions. I hope you enjoy the book.

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