The most famous words ever said about baseball are attributed to Walt Whitman: “I see great things in baseball. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism, tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set, repair those losses and be a blessing to us.” That should have been the first clue baseball would not last as the national pastime. The Onion headline for that quote would read, “Poet: Game cures indigestion.”
Today football is the national pastime. The sport’s most famous quote comes from Hank Williams Jr., who yells: “Are you ready for some football?” every Monday night. (Onion headline: “Singer shouts same question for 16 weeks without pausing for answer.”) “Are you ready for some football?” strikes the right chord because this is America, and Americans are always ready for some football, even when we are supposed to be ready for church.
Super Bowl XLIV between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints kicks off this Sunday in Miami. You would never know it from the sophisticated television coverage, packed stadium and $13 beers, but pro football has come a long way from its humble roots. Difficult as it is to believe, America was not always ready for some football. Football had to surpass baseball in order to become the national pastime. The actual shift took place during the 1960s. I will get to that in a moment. Let us start from the beginning.
Professional football began in 1892 when the Allegheny Athletic Association in Pennsylvania paid
Brett Favre William “Pudge” Heffelfinger $500 to play a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. In 1896, the Allegheny Athletic Association team fielded the first completely professional team for its abbreviated two-game season. “At the beginning, it was really a semi-professional league of brawny factory workers, often playing for little more than the passing of a hat,” said Michael MacCambridge, author of America’s Game: The epic story of how pro football captured a nation.
In 1902 baseball’s Philadelphia Athletics and Philadelphia Phillies formed professional football teams, joining the Pittsburgh Stars in the first attempt at a pro football league, which was named the National Football League. This was not a good sign for the old national pastime. Just 10 years into pro football’s existence, baseball tried to become football.
In the 1920s, what we know now as the NFL was in its infancy. In November 1925, the NFL scored a major win when All-America halfback Harold “Red” Grange signed a contract to play with the Chicago Bears. (Players without nicknames were relegated to the bench, left unsigned or shipped off to the Army.) With Babe Ruth in his prime hitting home runs, drinking whole kegs of beer and satisfying brothels full of women nightly, baseball reigned supreme.
Pro football, meanwhile, was so new that statistics were recorded for the first time in 1932, a season that saw
Brett Favre Bronko Nagurski throw a two-yard touchdown pass to Red Grange that helped Chicago beat Portsmouth 9-0 in the league’s first post-season championship, a feat that would have received more fanfare had the world not been mired in a crippling economic depression.
World War II affected all sports leagues, including the NFL. In 1942 coach George Halas left the Bears in midseason to join the Navy, one of 638 players and coaches to serve in the armed forces. The Redskins defeated the Bears 14-6 in the NFL championship, a game that would later be called the “All the Real Men Are All Fighting in World War II Game.”
Said MacCambridge, “Even as late as World War II, pro football was a third-class sport, behind baseball and college football. Throughout World War II, the league’s very existence was at stake. One year, due to the manpower shortages during the war effort, the Steelers and Eagles had to merge to field a team; another year it was the Steelers and the Cardinals. In 1943 the Cleveland Rams suspended operations entirely. Both owners were in the service, and they couldn’t put together a credible team, nor run it if they had. It wasn’t until the 1950s when the NFL absorbed three teams from the old All-America Football Conference that it really consolidated its gains and began to move toward being a major sport.”
The decade of the 1950s was dominated by the Cleveland Browns, who appeared in six straight championship games, which were televised by the Dumont Network. Those Browns teams were led by
Brett Favre Otto Graham and Jim Brown. The NFL, though, was still not ready for primetime. The proof: the NFL was broadcast on something called the Dumont Network, which I believe also manufactured cardboard laundry detergent boxes. In 1960, at the tender age of 8 years old, Pete Rozelle was elected commissioner of the NFL.
Rozelle, who was really much older (14) took the NFL to new heights. In an October 1965 Harris survey, sports fans chose professional football (41 percent) as their favorite sport, overtaking baseball (38 percent) for the first time. The Super Bowl, which would become the biggest sporting event in the world, made its debut following the 1966 season. Then the following season witnessed one of the greatest – if not the greatest – game in NFL history, when Green Bay defeated Dallas in The Ice Bowl on Dec. 31, 1967. That game is legendary. Bart Starr’s goal-line plunge. The coining of the term “frozen tundra.” The Hall of Fame coaches – Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. It was a game for the ages.
How did baseball react?
The 1968 season has been called the Year of the Pitcher. (FYI: Anything not called “The Year of the 590-Foot Homer” is going to be bad for baseball.) In an attempt to destroy the game, the league expanded the strike zone to roughly the size of a Port-O-Let. The American League’s Carl Yastrzemski had the lowest batting average of any batting champion at .301. How boring were the games? Imagine if the best show on television was “Numb3rs.” It might have been the most boring season in baseball history.
“I think the entire decade (of the 1960s) was the most convulsive and eventful in pro football history,” MacCambridge said. “You have to remember that at the end of the 50s, there were still only 12 pro football teams, and the NFL’s offices were in suburban Philadelphia, Bala Cynwyd. Then, in short order, Lamar Hunt starts the American Football League, adding eight more teams. Pete Rozelle is named commissioner of the NFL, which adds two expansion teams in response to the AFL, and the war is on.”
Hunt’s AFL and Rozelle’s NFL battled over college players and spent exorbitant amounts of money, enough to put some teams out of business. The public was captivated by the rivalry. Competition spurred innovation and interest.
“When the merger finally came in 1966, there were two distinct cultures coming together, which made those first four Super Bowls, before the full merger, seem all the more important,” MacCambridge said. “It’s hard to overestimate the significance of Super Bowl III, the Jets’ upset of the Colts, and Super Bowl IV, the Chiefs outclassing the Vikings. Those games solidified the AFL’s legacy and further increased interest in the sport at the very moment when its universe – through Monday Night Football – was about to expand.”
Football never looked back.
The Super Bowl grew in importance. Rozelle took the game to Madison Avenue and broadened its appeal through innovations such as NFL Films. Monday Night Football, thanks in large part to ABC producer Roone Alredge, became a national sensation. And the NFL was blessed with: The Immaculate Reception. The Miami Dolphins’ perfect season. Pittsburgh, Dallas, Oakland and San Francisco dynasties. Tecmo Bowl. Madden. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. The ascendance of college football. Fantasy football. And high-definition television. They all cemented football as the national pastime.
Brett Favre Walt Whitman alive today, no doubt he would watch our new national pastime and declare, “I see great things in football; baseball, it helps me pass wind.”