“Every man’s memory is his private literature.” – Aldous Huxley
On Sept. 21, 2008, after the Baltimore Orioles play the New York Yankees in an evening major league baseball game, the lights went off for the final time at Yankee Stadium. Its was then 85 years old and was just as celebrated a New York City landmark as Times Square itself. Its location in the Bronx, at East 161 St. and River Ave., is near the Harlem River. The powers-to-be decided it was time to build a new “Yankee Stadium,” to be located not far from the original site at a cost reported to be $1.3 billion.
My personal memory of Yankee Stadium goes back, now, nearly 50 years to an event that I can recall like it was yesterday. It wasn’t a baseball game. It was a National Profession League (NFL) football match that pitted the Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants. Both teams had won their respective divisions that year, and they were slated to play for the championship. This was before there was a “Super Bowl.” That game on Sunday, Dec. 28, 1958, has gone down in sports lore as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Back then, I was working on the Baltimore docks as a longshoreman for the Alcoa Steamship Co., at Pier 9, Locust Point, just west of Fort McHenry. I was 21 years old and lived closed enough to the waterfront on Hull Street that I could walk to work.
Like many from Baltimore’ Southside, I was excited about the upcoming game against the Giants. After a very good 1957 season, where the Colts just missed winning their division, the team looked like the real thing in ‘58. Quarterback John Unitas, running back Lenny Moore and wide receiver, Ray Berry, all had had banner years, along with many of their talented teammates, such as: Gino “The Giant” Marchetti, Alan “The Horse” Ameche, L.G. “Long Gone” Dupre, Art Donovan, Bill Pellington, Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston, Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Jim Mutscheller and “Big Jim” Parker.
In addition to a formidable team, the Colts had a terrific coach, Weeb Ewbank. He was a perfect match for his team. He knew his job and the players respected him for it. Another big plus was the owner of the Colts, Carroll Rosenbloom. He was a local merchant who made a lot of money in the garment business. Rosenbloom was smart enough to let Ewbank do his thing on the field, but, he was always around to give the team the support that it needed.
Although Baltimore had recently gotten a new major league baseball franchise, thanks to the herculean efforts of its then Mayor, the Hon. Tommy D’Alesandro, (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s dad), the city was in a little bit of a slump. This was long before Jim Rouse built “Harborplace” and, long before entertainment icons, like John Waters, David Simon and Barry Levinson had made their appearances, via their movies, television and cable productions, to give the city a much needed boost in notoriety.
Can you believe a ticket to that championship game, in 1958, cost $10? You can’t buy a beer and park your car at Camden Yards, in Baltimore, to see the Orioles play for that today! I bought two tickets to the game in NYC, one for myself and one for my girlfriend, an authentic “Hon” from Highlandtown. We took the train to NYC, at a cost of $20 a pop, on the morning of the game. It was awfully crowded and we were really lucky to get a seat.
After arriving at Penn Station, on 34th St., we caught the subway to the Bronx and to fabled Yankee Stadium. I had a rush of adrenaline when I came up from the underground and sighted the legendary arena, aka “The House That [Babe] Ruth Built,” rising like a magnificent European Cathedral. And, don’t forget, Ruth was one of Baltimores greatest sons. His dad owned a popular pub, on South Eutaw Street, close to what is now, Camden Yards.
When we got to our seats in the stadium, the usher politely wiped them off and then stuck out his hand. I thought to myself, “He wants to welcome me to New York City by shaking my hand.” I quickly found out by the look on his frowning face, that he wanted (gasp) a tip! Under coercion, I gave him a quarter. In return, he gave me a really dirty look.
For morale purposes, I was please to see some other Southsiders from Baltimore sitting close by. I spotted John “Hopit” Haspert, Emmet Prenger and Eli Burkum. I knew Haspert and Prenger from the docks, while Burkum owned a butcher’s shop on Fort Avenue, across from Latrobe Park.
Soon after the game started, however, I got another jolt from the New Yorkers. When we would stand up to cheer for the Colts, the locals would invariably yell at us, in a loud, mocking voice: “Sit down you, farmers!” Huh? I had never thought of myself as being a farmer, although my late mother, Nora Thornton, was raised on a farm in the West of Ireland. This quasi-hostile reaction put a modest damper on the festivities for us. Nevertheless, we still continued to cheer for the Colts, when appropriate, but without standing for fear of getting whacked on the head by a flying object tossed from one of the rabid fans of the Giants.
I’ll leave the actual description of the contest, rightly labeled as “The Greatest Game,” to the sports writers. My recollections of it, however, will forever center on the pinpoint passing of quarterback Unitas, (yes, the man with “the golden arm”), the record breaking 12 catches by Berry, and the final touchdown run by Ameche, in the sudden death overtime win.
As it turned out, the train ride back to Baltimore was a special happening unto itself. The cheering fans were at a “Mach-3” level of unbridled celebration. Some of them were carrying parts of the goal post with them; others could barely walk to their seats from having one beer too many. It was a party train like no other, with singing, yelling and laughing all the way back to Penn Station, in midtown Baltimore. There, the still mostly delirious fans spilled out into the chilly night onto Charles Street to find their cars and, finally, to head back to their homes.
I felt then as I still feel today, that the thrilling victory by the Colts over the Giants by a score of 23-17, in the first NFL televised overtime championship game ever, placed Baltimore in the pantheon of pro sports towns. The fact that it happened at a venerable edifice, like Yankee Stadium, which was so steeped in the history of professional sports, made it even more memorable.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the “American Chronicle” on September 21, 2008.
|1958 NFL Championship Game|
|Date||December 28, 1958|
|City||New York City|
|TV/Radio in the United States|
|TV Announcers||Chris Schenkel, Chuck Thompson|
|Radio Network||NBC (national)
|Radio Announcers||Joe Boland, Bill McColgan (NBC)
Bob Wolff (WBAL)
Les Keiter, Bob Cook (WCBS)
|Previous game||Next game|