According to Mark Bowden, the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants was more than a great game; it was a watershed moment that ushered in a new era of professional sports in America. The game, a thrilling overtime victory for the Colts, led by quarterback Johnny Unitas, marked the beginning of professional football’s advance from the dregs of American sport to its current position as the most popular and financially lucrative game in the richest country in the world.
In the early and mid-’50s kids wanted to be Mickey Mantle, but by the late ’50s and early ’60s, everyone was trying to be like “Johnny U,” the man with the “Golden Arm.” And nothing, Mr. Bowden notes, is more responsible for football’s surge than television: “Baseball,” he writes, “seemed made for radio,” while football “seemed made for television.”
TV didn’t just change the popularity of the game; it also changed who played the game. Pre-1958, “hard-drinking, fun-loving rowdies … with broken teeth and crooked noses” played the sport as a hobby. They were amateurs with badly needed second jobs to supplement the paltry wages earned on the gridiron. Soon, the windfall profits from broadcast contracts boosted player salaries to dizzying heights. Unitas made $17,500 in 1958, a sizable figure for those days but piddling next to the staggering $200,000 signing bonus awarded to Joe Namath in 1965.
The tactics were also changing. Traditionally, football had been played by misshapen behemoths with names like Art “Fatso” Donovan and Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, their girth fully embraced by coaches who eschewed and feared physical conditioning. Eventually football became a game of speed and specialization, dominated by a mixture of raw athleticism and tactical preparation.
For Mr. Bowden, nothing was more revolutionary than the advent of the forward pass. The aerial element of the game called for players with certain skills, and no player better exemplified the new breed more than Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry, a skinny, slow Texan with a bad back, horrible vision and feet so big teammates called him “Skis.” But Ray Berry, for all his faults, was one of the first players to master the fairly new position of wide receiver. He pored over game tapes, practiced and conditioned feverishly during the off-season and worked hard to develop a telepathic relationship with his quarterback. Without the star receiver’s novel approach to football, the Colts would have lost the 1958 championship game.
THOUGH MARK BOWDEN, author of Black Hawk Down (1999), is an able writer and does an excellent job of unfolding events in a deliberate and purposeful manner, he falls short in several important regards. By glorifying the America of his childhood (Mr. Bowden grew up in Chicago and then moved to Baltimore in his youth), he downplays the endemic racism in football. Of 1958, he writes, “Just over the horizon was a decade of restless social, political and cultural upheaval, but none of that was obvious yet.” Yes, it’s true that in 1958, the Colts players belonged to “the community in Baltimore,” but there was also the serious and unresolved issue of race looming over football like a storm cloud.
In the late ’50s, many NFL teams capped the number of black players they would allow on the roster, and black teammates were still forced to sleep in segregated facilities on road trips south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Mr. Bowden, however, spends only eight or nine rushed, pro-forma pages on the issue of race in football. Surely this important topic deserves more play, especially considering that racism remains a sore topic in the NFL.
Also, Mr. Bowden’s recap of the big game is a bit plodding at times, which wouldn’t be a cause for concern if the game didn’t take up such a large portion of the book. The author tries hard to bring the action on the field to life, interjecting bits of live commentary. Luckily, as the game moves toward its dramatic denouement, the pace picks up and the book becomes more readable.
Despite its shortcomings, The Best Game Ever is a well-executed and engaging piece of sports literature. Mark Bowden’s argument—that one game changed the trajectory of professional sports—is compelling and correct.
It’s late May now, and sports pundits have just finished “grading” NFL teams on their draft picks. In a few months, training camp will start, and the American sports psyche will yet again abandon baseball for the new favorite, football.
Damn you, Johnny Unitas.
Oliver Haydock is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.