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Save the date: 1958

By Mike Klingaman | mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

December 21, 2008

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Fifty years ago, Baltimore was a grimy, rowdy, unpretentious town of rolled-up sleeves and red-hot steel, a warren of row homes and warehouses, a place where a man could walk into a bar on Greenmount Avenue and gab with a Colts player over a cold Natty Boh.

"We were working-class people," said Gino Marchetti, the Hall of Fame defensive end who worked in the mills at Bethlehem Steel that offseason. "It seemed like we knew a lot of [average] people, and people sure as hell got to know us. Autographs weren't much in demand. When people recognized players, they'd just slap you on the back."

The year the Colts won their first NFL championship, Marchetti earned $8,500, about $3,000 more than the average worker. Christmas trees cost a buck or two. For 75 cents, White Coffee Pot restaurants served up a plateful of Swiss steak, potatoes, beans and hot rolls. Turkeys were 37 cents a pound at ACME - and don't forget your S&H Green Stamps.

The year

•1958 was a year of firsts for more than the Colts. Arnold Palmer won his first Masters; Bobby Fischer, 14, earned his first U.S. chess crown. Congress approved Alaska's statehood, America launched its initial satellite and teens flocked to buy the new stereo records.

•Then as now, the Middle East was in turmoil. Iraq's King FaisalII was assassinated; meanwhile, U.S. Marines stormed into war-torn Lebanon to restore peace.

•A recession gripped America, sending unemployment up and auto sales down. Trying to cash in on Baltimore's championship, Marsden Chevrolet in Towson held a "Colt Appreciation Sale": Mention the final score of the game and receive $20 cash.

•Two days before Christmas, the Baltimore-Harrisburg expressway opened. Also in December, city officials chose a downtown site for the Civic Center. And construction continued, in fits and starts, on the spanking new beltway.

•In late December you could snuggle with your sweetie at the Edmondson Drive-In to a triple feature of Elvis Presley flicks: Loving You, King Creoleand Jailhouse Rock.

•Kids drank Fizzies, ate Sky Bars and raced home after school to watch The Buddy Deane Show, Baltimore's answer to American Bandstand. The No. 1 hit Dec. 28? "The Chipmunk Song," by David Seville.

• Coltsmania even trickled down to the preschool set. On Dec.22, TV's Romper Room aired a holiday special, "The Littlest Angel," narrated by Colts announcer Bailey Goss.

•On Dec. 28, Dwight Eisenhower retreated to his farm in Gettysburg, Pa., where the president watched the Colts- Giants game, then worked on his State of the Union address.

•The day after the Colts won the title, the stock market climbed to an all-time high of 578.60.

• In 1958, Baltimore's Leon Uris wrote Exodus. The book wasn't about the Giants' demise.

•TV gave us Gunsmoke, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Father Knows Best, while Connie Francis, Ricky Nelson and the Platters ruled radio. In December, Buddy Holly had two months to live.

•Baltimoreans flocked to movies like Gigi and Vertigo at long-gone theaters such as the Stanley, the Century and the Mayfair.

•America smoked a record 424billion cigarettes. Newspaper readership peaked - of the 49 million homes in the U.S., 43 million received a nickel daily. Popular comics were Peanuts, Pogo, The Flibbertys and Miss Peach.

•In December, union strikes grounded American and Eastern airlines and crippled New York's newspapers. Minimum wage was $1 an hour.

•Chicken cost 29 cents a pound, the same as a gallon of gas. Postage stamps jumped from 3 cents to 4 cents. The national debt was $280 billion ($10.6 trillion today).

•In sports, the New York Yankees won another World Series, Army football went undefeated and Althea Gibson, an African-American, ruled women's tennis. Ted Williams, 40, won his sixth batting title. Wilt Chamberlain (7feet 1) left Kansas early and joined the Harlem Globetrotters for $65,000.

The fans

•Ticket prices ranged from $10 (box seats) to $4 (bleachers). Allotted 21,000 seats, the Colts returned nearly 5,000 of them unsold.

•More than 16,000 Colts fans streamed into New York by car, plane, bus and train. The drive up U.S. 40 took 4 1/2 hours. Almost 3,000 people crammed onto three special Pennsylvania Railroad excursion trains that left Baltimore on Sunday morning ($8.25 round trip). After arriving at New York's Penn Station, The Sun reported, a half-dozen young men "hoisted aloft a huge outsize pair of women's bloomers 2 yards wide and screamed their prophecy: 'The Colts will kick the pants off the Giants.'"

•One local travel agency made this pitch: a round-trip bus trip to New York, a sightseeing tour, a night at a swank hotel, a cocktail party hosted by Colts announcer Chuck Thompson and a ticket to the game. The cost? $37.50.

•At game's end, the C&P Telephone Co. reported that its boards "lit up like Christmas trees" as people rushed to spread the word. "One operator likened the volume [of calls] to that after V-J Day," The Evening Sun wrote.

•For rail passengers, the trip home was a raucous one. Members of the Colts' band marched up and down the aisles of the trains playing the club's fight song.

•Twenty-one Colts plus the coaches flew back Sunday night to Baltimore's Friendship Airport on a chartered DC-7. There, 30,000 jubilant well-wishers surrounded the team bus, danced on the roof and refused to let it leave the tarmac. They also crushed the roof of a police car. Joe Croghan, a local sportscaster, got swept up in the crowd and had to cut the cord on his microphone to escape.

"It was a mob," the Baltimore News-Post wrote. "A happy bunch of semi-lunatics carrying signs, carrying babies, and some of them, just carrying on."

The team bus crept forward by inches.

"The fans just wouldn't let us through," bus driver Dana DeLisle said afterward. "They smashed one window and reached through and shook hands with a couple of the players."

Fourteen people were arrested and taken to the Ferndale Police Station, where all were released without charges.

•Gov. Theodore McKeldin proclaimed Friday, Jan. 2, "Colts Day," asking Marylanders "to give honor to the great aggregation of athletes and to all of that for which they stand."


Honoring the '58 greats

Today we examine the year 1958 and what it was like in Baltimore and New York around the historic Dec.28, 1958, game between the Colts and Giants. As the 50thanniversary approaches, we'll look at the game through the eyes of those who played in it and those who watched it at Yankee Stadium.

In addition to The Baltimore Sun'scoverage the next week, there will be events in Baltimore commemorating the game:

Tuesday
The Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards is opening an exhibit honoring Baltimore's first football champions, the 1958 Baltimore Colts, and celebrating the 50th anniversary of "The Greatest Game Ever Played." The exhibit will run through June30.

Admission: The museum will offer a special rate of $5.80 through Jan.4.

Friday
The Baltimore Football Club, in conjunction with the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins and the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation, will host "Grazing with the Greats of '58 - 50th Anniversary Celebration of the 1958 NFL Championship" at the Geppi Entertainment Club Level at M&T Bank Stadium from 6p.m. to 10p.m. Scheduled to appear are NFL Hall of Famers Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, Sam Huff and Don Maynard.

Tickets: $150 and can be ordered at the event Web site: www.bcf.org/colts