AMERICA'S GAME

The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation

By Michael MacCambridge. Random House. 552 pp. $27.95 Baseball sentimentalists (of whom, in the chattering classes, there are all too many) aren't going to like it, but Michael MacCambridge has got this right: Baseball may be the National Pastime, but put Past in italics. Professional football is America's game, and it has been for quite a while. In 1960, MacCambridge reports, a Harris Poll found that 36 percent of those interviewed picked baseball as their favorite sport, a fat lead over pro football's 21 percent. A decade later, there was "a shocking change: 38 percent for pro football, 23 percent for baseball." MacCambridge writes:

"This was more than just a generational shift, signaling younger adults raised on football replacing a generation that had grown up listening to baseball on the crystal set. It showed that the NFL was reaching a vast, upwardly mobile middle class, and changing their loyalties. Conversely, the Grand Old Game of baseball -- plagued in 1968 by a historic offensive drought and slumping attendance -- for the first time seemed to have become passe, quaint, an anachronism representative of little more than nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time. This was a gross oversimplification, of course, but the truth remained that while football soared, baseball floundered, prisoner to its own complacence."

In the three and a half decades since that second poll was taken, baseball has made a modest recovery (thanks to Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and the past two years' exciting postseasons), and football has had its occasional difficulties (strikes, drugs, an intermittent dearth of exciting offensive players), but the landscape hasn't changed. For better and for worse -- in my view there's some of both -- professional football is now the sport that Americans follow most closely and identify with most strongly. "In the span of two generations in postwar America," MacCambridge writes, "pro football became a truer and more vivid reflection of the American preoccupations with power and passion, technology and teamwork, than any other sporting institution in the country."

Maybe so, maybe not. A lot of hot air has been expended over the years about the allegedly deep psychosocial implications of both football and baseball and the meaning of all that, and MacCambridge cannot resist the occasional venture into this murky clime. Mostly, though, he has written a thorough, admirably researched and exceptionally interesting account of football's rise to its present eminence. America's Game isn't so much a history of pro football, since it scants the game's early years, as the story of what happened to it after World War II. MacCambridge is a rather pedestrian writer -- he's never met a cliche he didn't like -- and there are times when the story begins to drag, but mostly these times have to do with labor negotiations or rules changes or other matters that may be short on sex appeal but are intrinsically important.

MacCambridge begins with a predictable set-piece: the 1958 National Football League championship in which the Baltimore Colts upset the New York Giants in an absolutely fierce game at Yankee Stadium. The game was thrilling -- no other word will do -- and focused the country's attention on pro football as nothing before had done. That the game was exciting certainly helped, but what really mattered was that it was televised nationally. So far as I can recall, it was the first pro game I'd ever watched on television, which was probably true of millions of others as well; it was a chilly December day, and the prospect of a novel way to pass the time was inviting. Many of us may have turned on the game out of curiosity or boredom, but we stayed hooked to our sets until its dramatic overtime conclusion, when Alan Ameche of the Colts thundered into the Giants' end zone.

That game was the beginning not just of pro football's rise but of the age of sports television. More than any other single event, it set off the process by which a nation of participants turned into a nation of spectators. To say that pro football's rise is largely a product of television is scarcely original, but MacCambridge does a good job of linking all the ways in which the game and the medium grew together: the NFL's decisions in the 1950s to black out home games and to share TV revenues equally among teams; the contracts with CBS in the 1960s and 1970s that just got bigger and bigger; the five-year, $8.5 million deal that the young American Football League signed in 1960 with ABC, which gave it enough money to compete with the NFL; the debut in September 1970 of "Monday Night Football," after which, MacCambridge correctly says, "sports in America would never be the same."

Not surprisingly, the most interesting and dramatic part of MacCambridge's very long book involves the years from 1960, when the AFL played its first game, through 1970, when the Kansas City Chiefs thumped the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth Super Bowl. This game followed by a year the Super Bowl in which the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts, a victory "guaranteed" by the charismatic Joe Namath. If the Jets' win "may be the best thing that ever happened to the game," as the NFL's commissioner, Pete Rozelle, reluctantly acknowledged, the Chiefs' victory left no doubt that the best AFL teams could play on equal terms with the best NFL teams, and that the full merger of the two leagues that was to take place the next season would boost pro football into the stratosphere.

Rozelle figures prominently in MacCambridge's chronicle; he was "the smartest, most powerful man in American sports," and his influence on the NFL is almost literally incalculable. Other front-office types to whom he pays proper attention are Bert Bell, the commissioner whom Rozelle succeeded; Lamar Hunt, the "cool, deliberate" founder of the AFL who became, when merger negotiations got serious, "the pivot by [sic] which the AFL owners and NFL owners collaborated"; Sonny Werblin, owner of the Jets, who signed Namath and brought showbiz to football; Tex Schramm of the Dallas Cowboys, perhaps the most successful and influential general manager the game has known; and the present commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, smart, diligent, honest, effective and dull. Then there are the three famous owner/coaches: George Halas of the Chicago Bears, upon whom for some reason MacCambridge never really focuses; the eponymous Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns and, later, of the Cincinnati Bengals; and Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders, the AFL's Svengali.

On the sidelines there's Vince Lombardi, about whom no further word is necessary; many other notable coaches pass through these pages, perhaps chief among them Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers. Among the players, four stand out: Johnny Unitas of the Colts, "an authentic American archetype, the virtual definition of a certain kind of honorable American manhood"; Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns, beyond question the game's greatest running back and probably its greatest player, period; Sam Huff of the Giants and then the Redskins, who was the subject of a TV documentary called "The Violent World of Sam Huff" that celebrated and popularized defensive play; and Namath, who "transcended sports, making sports fans, or at least Namath devotees, of women who previously couldn't have cared less about sports."

During the 1960s pro football "served as a kind of social touchstone, which recognized and honored . . . the eternal verities of hard work, dedication, respect for authority and community," as embodied by the likes of Unitas and Lombardi, though there were (and still are) those who find in Lombardi's "winning is the only thing" a "soulless mind-set that typified everything from male chauvinism to American manifest destiny." By the 1970s, though, there was "an odd sense of cognitive dissonance to pro football's rise," since its emphasis on "teamwork, self-sacrifice, the concerted application of mental and physical discipline toward a single, united goal" was very much out of step with the counterculture. Pro football came to be regarded as "a conservative sport," all the more so when Richard M. Nixon effectively appointed himself First Fan. When football players themselves began to let their hair grow long and in other ways express their individualism, the lords of the game had no small difficulty in adapting to the new reality.

The other important subtext in pro football's postwar history is race. MacCambridge treats this touchy subject candidly and sensitively. On the positive side, pro football opened its rosters to blacks with far less resistance than baseball did, and for some years those rosters have been dominated by black players, but football hasn't been much better than any other American institution at facing inequality head-on. Black coaches are still uncommon, and a "vast majority" of front-office personnel is white. In this as in so much else, pro football is nothing if not all-American.

It's all-American in another sense as well: It's gone corporate. With the big money and the big new stadiums (most of them financed by ordinary taxpayers for the benefit of millionaires) have come corporate culture and corporate trappings. If Johnny Unitas embodied pro football in 1960, the skybox embodies it in 2004. Football's clientele over the past three decades has become "more corporate, more affluent, and more white." Indisputably it's now America's game, but whether it's still the people's game is another question. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts throws against the New York Giants defense in 1958.