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Sudden Life Excerpt: Made For TV

50 years ago this month, the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship. In an excerpt from "Sudden Life: 50 Years Ago, A Baltimore Victory Created the Modern NFL," Bob Herzog explains how for the millions of fans watching "the best game ever" at home did not see "the best broadcast ever."

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By Bob Herzog

The TV broadcast was in black and white, but it was a full-color epic that unfolded on a gray afternoon at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and in millions of living rooms across America on Dec. 28, 1958. The Giants-Colts NFL championship has been called "The Best Game Ever," but that's a nod to its on-the-field drama and the historic implications of its outcome. As a telecast, however, by today's high-tech standards, more than 40 million viewers did not tune in to "The Best Broadcast Ever." Not by a long shot.

In fact, long shots were pretty much all that America's television audiences saw that day on NBC because four of the five cameras used by the network had only a distant view of the action. The fifth camera? Well, that one did produce close-ups: It was pointed at an easel that held flash cards to display down and distance. That was about it as far as graphics went, but then so much of that broadcast seems primitive and no-frills when measured against the dazzling television productions of the 21st century.

"Nothing very lavish about the working conditions, I'll tell you that," said Bob Wolff, who broadcast the game on radio for the National Brewing Company, a syndicated network that had sponsored Colts broadcasts all season. "On radio, we were stuck on a ledge over the first deck on the left-field line. It wasn't much better for the TV guys. No fancy booths in those days."

Fifty years ago, there were no pre-game or post-game shows. No studio analysts or sideline reporters. No slow-motion replays or fast-paced halftime highlights. In fact, there is no existing tape of the telecast. Not a single copy of the game that Roone Arledge, the legendary TV executive and mastermind of ABC's "Monday Night Football," called "a defining moment in the growth of pro football. [After that] the networks all of a sudden woke up and saw that they had to have football."

For ESPN's television special commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Colts' 23-17 victory over the Giants in the NFL's first overtime contest, the network had to piece together game films provided by the teams and dub in voice-overs from Wolff's radio call. "Only by chance did some engineer decide to hold on to my broadcast," Wolff said. "He made a tape of it and saved the second half and overtime."

There were no nationally known "objective" network announcing teams for the game, either. The TV broadcasters that day were Chris Schenkel, the voice of the New York Giants, and Chuck Thompson, the voice of the Baltimore Colts.

The two good friends decided to flip a coin to determine who would do the play-by-play for each half. Schenkel won the toss and chose to broadcast the second half, figuring he'd get the winning end-of-game call. Instead, it was Thompson who got to announce the historic overtime period. "Schenk and I didn't really care who was calling it," recalled Thompson, "since we were so wrapped up with what I called pro football's finest hour."

It certainly wasn't pro football's most objective hour from a TV standpoint. "We were having a good time up in the booth. We were rooting for our teams," said Schenkel who, like Thompson, died in 2005. "[We were] elbowing each other and, during commercials, bantering back and forth."

This was the third time a network had nationally televised the NFL championship game, and a confluence of events made this one must-see TV beginning with its 2 p.m. kickoff. There were no night football games then, but by the time the Colts rallied late, it was dark outside and bright inside as living rooms got more crowded and dinner plans were being scrapped.

"There was a sense throughout Yankee Stadium and in homes all over America that something truly memorable was unfolding. It was television prime time," wrote Mark Bowden in his book "The Best Game Ever." Not prime time as in Sunday night or Monday night football. But prime as in peak; the NFL in 1958 was suddenly at the top of its game at a most opportune moment.

It was staged in New York, the media and business capital of the country, and played in the most hallowed stadium in sports. It featured glamorous players like Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Frank Gifford, and Sam Huff among 15 future Hall of Famers involved in the contest. It matched two outstanding teams. And it was a thriller, the perfect television drama. The plot took a scintillating turn when Unitas drove the Colts for a tying field goal in the closing minutes of regulation. Sudden death? More like sudden life for a broadcast entity barely a decade old and a league that still had a bit of an identity crisis.

"In those days, pro football wasn't considered a major sport like college football or baseball or boxing," said Wolff, who two years earlier did the radio broadcast of Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series. "Pro football was struggling. That's why the game was so important. All of a sudden, people across the county tuned in and said, 'That was some ballgame.' "

Not everyone saw it, though. In the New York City area, the game was blacked out by a league rule that stipulated games not be televised into the home team's market. "Can you imagine that happening today?" Gifford said.

Can you imagine what would have happened today if a key play like the one involving Gifford had occurred during a championship-game broadcast? The Giants' star halfback was stopped short on a third-down run in the fourth quarter. Gifford insists the referee gave the Giants an erroneous spot. "No question the spot was bad, but you just didn't complain in those days," said Gifford, later a familiar face and voice on ABC's "Monday Night Football." "Today, the announcers would jump up and down and replay it 8,000 different times."

There would also have been much TV (and talk-radio) debate about the Giants' decision to punt late in the fourth quarter, which gave Unitas a chance to stage the first of his two epic drives -- one that tied the game and another that won it in overtime. A broadcast today would have been filled with rampant second-guessing, several analysts giving their opinions, TV replays to verify or dispel Gifford's claim and instant online polls for fans. In 1958, radio and TV broadcasters simply described what happened.

It was the same story in overtime, when the Colts marched to the Giants' 8 but did not even consider going for a game-winning, chip-shot field goal. There was no ranting in the TV booth or network studios about coach Weeb Ewbank being reckless. Instead, the announcers simply described the Colts' sequence of plays: a run for 1 yard on first down, a pass for 6 yards on second down, and then Alan Ameche's 1-yard game-winning touchdown plunge on third down. Not one strategic second-guess emerged from the mouths of Schenkel, Thompson or Wolff. A different era, indeed.

The game was the main attraction then, not the broadcast. In fact, there was no such thing as TV timeouts or action being delayed for commercial breaks that lasted a mere minute and a half. The teams huddled up and played, ad spots be damned.

There was one notable exception. During overtime, after a Unitas-to-Berry pass put the Colts on the Giants' 8, TV sets across America suddenly went black. Spectators had accidentally kicked out a TV power cable. A moment later, an exuberant fan raced onto the field, causing officials to call a timeout.

Thompson said years after the game, "I always wondered if the fan who charged down the field was a highly placed NBC executive just getting the job done."

Newspaper accounts of the game referred to a "drunk" who held up the game. But Bowden reported in his book that the man who ran onto the field and eluded police for a few moments was Stan Rotkiewicz, a business manager for NBC News who doubled as a sports statistician on weekends. The network called on him to fill another role -- diversion -- and Rotkiewicz obliged. TV viewers missed just one play, a short run by Ameche, and were able to witness the historic climax to the game with little fuss.

The Hollywood-like ending helped the game draw a Nielsen rating of 27.7 and an average share of 75, meaning that nearly 28 percent of TV households had their sets on and of those, 75 percent were watching the Giants-Colts. In comparison, the Giants' victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII drew a rating of 43.2 and a 65 share. It must be noted that there are millions more TV sets in America than there were in 1958, and the last Super Bowl was watched in part by 148.3 million, more than three times the number that watched the Giants-Colts 50 years earlier.

But the '58 title game helped pro football became a phenomenon, and much of the buzz was created by fans talking the next day about what they had seen on TV.

Colts defensive back Johnny Sample said during a news conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of the game, "TV was born that day in professional football. Fans started to call their neighbors while the game was going on, telling them to turn on the TV and watch something special. Especially right before overtime."

At the same gathering, Gifford said, "We weren't trying to create history. It just happened. We got in the way of it. The only one with enough vision was [Commissioner] Pete Rozelle, who along with a few others recognized what television meant to pro football."

Another visionary was Lamar Hunt, who in 1958 was a young Texas heir to a billionaire oilman and watched the broadcast from a hotel room in Houston. He had been looking to buy a major league baseball team or a pro football team, but was so inspired by what he saw on TV that he wound up being a pioneering force behind the formation of a new pro football league --  the AFL, which began play in 1960. The new league found a TV partner in ABC with a five-year deal that helped the AFL stay afloat in its formative years.

The flow of TV money to the NFL escalated, too. In January 1962, the league sold rights to all its regular-season games to CBS for $4.65 million a year, ushering in the era of revenue sharing. The fee increased to $14.1 million a year in 1964 and $18.8 million beginning in 1966.

In his book "America's Game," Michael MacCambridge quotes Hunt as saying, "Clearly, the '58 Colts-Giants game made me say, 'Well that's it. This sport really has everything and it televises well.' And who knew what that meant?"

Turns out, it meant everything.

Bob Herzog has worked as a writer and editor in the sports department of Newsday since 1976.

Issue 132: December 2008