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Ugliness of '48 blemished character of good man, city


It was a near-riot that took on an ugliness all its own. With the mentality of a lynching party, 5,000 spectators stormed the field in Baltimore on an unforgettable Sunday afternoon 50 years ago, intent on doing bodily harm to a football official who called a controversial play against the hometown team.

The Baltimore Colts, led by Y. A. Tittle, were on their way to qualifying for a championship in only their second year in the All-America Football Conference.

But they lost to the Buffalo Bills as a result of that one highly disputed, hotly charged decision.

Head linesman Tommy Whelan, once a brilliant player when Catholic University was an Eastern collegiate football power in the early 1930s, ruled that Chet Mutryn, a Bills halfback, had neither possession nor control of a pass from quarterback George Ratterman.

What appeared then to be a fumble and a recovery by the Colts' John Mellus with less than five minutes remaining was declared an incomplete pass. It was a decisive call, enabling the Bills to retain the ball and in six plays to score the go-ahead touchdown, wiping out the Colts' 17-14 lead.

When the game was over, a segment of the crowd rushed the field, chasing Whelan, who was hit in the back of the neck. Fans threw bottles and set a fire in the wooden stands.

Players from the Bills and two Colts, Len "Tuffy" McCormick and Aubrey Fowler, went to Whelan's assistance. The Sun carried a six-column picture that showed 11 police officers protecting him as he headed for the dressing room.

All the elements of anarchy were present. A crowd out of control, fed by emotions and stimulated with alcohol, tried to surround Whelan. After he was escorted to the administration building, the would-be rioters began to chant, "We want Whelan, we want Whelan."

The entire officiating crew, including referee Sam Giangreco, umpire Bill Pritchard, field judge George Vegara and sideline judge Fay Vincent, father of the future baseball commissioner, was under fire from the irate pursuers, but Whelan was the one targeted for physical abuse.

As the mob continued its wait, ready to accost the officials when they exited their dressing quarters, it was decided that the crew should be secreted inside the bus of the Buffalo team as it left the stadium.

It was the most effective end-around play of the day, but it didn't calm the most explosive post-game scene in Baltimore history.

Whelan's son, Tom Jr., now living in Crofton, Md., says his father subsequently defended the call and said it was one he would make again.

President R. C. "Jake" Embry of the Colts, in a lengthy letter to All-America Football Conference commissioner Jonas Ingram, said, "In order to be fair to Mr. Whelan and to the fans in Baltimore, we do not think it wise to have him officiate in any capacity in any future games of the Baltimore Colts, whether at home or in the home city of our opponents."

The now 57-year-old Whelan, a child when the incident occurred, said his father prided himself on his truthfulness and until his dying day felt his integrity had been impugned by Embry's stand on the issue.

"He was an honest man in all his dealings, had played for Art Rooney in Pittsburgh and was much respected as a citizen in Washington and also as an official," Whelan said.

Noting that referees are not omniscient, he said, "I'm not trying to vindicate him but merely saying he was like officials in any sport."

The son of the beleaguered Whelan remembers once returning from a trip to New York in the mid-1950s with his father and some of his friends. "When we were driving through Baltimore, they joked and said, 'We better pull over and let Tom hide in the trunk.' "

The Colts had figured they had the game won, especially after recovering what they thought was a fumble and less than five minutes to play.

In the years that followed, we asked Mutryn to discuss the still fermenting issue. He sidestepped making a comment, but other former Bills' players expressed the belief that they had gotten a break on the decision. We were seated on the east side of the stadium and thought Mutryn had indeed fumbled. Paul Menton, sports editor of The Evening Sun, who officiated major college games and was recognized nationally as an expert on the rules, offered his opinion:

"The movies show Buffalo's Chet Mutryn got his hands on the ball, took two to three steps back and sideways over a distance of two to 2 1/2 yards before being hit by two Colts [Sam Vacanti and Dick Barwegen], after which the ball popped out of his hands. Those facts are clear and beyond dispute. They supply sufficient evidence for a sound claim the pass was completed and then fumbled.

"They also supply evidence for a sound claim that Mutryn didn't have possession and control of the ball following the receiving of a pass by the fact the ball popped out the instant he was hit by the Colts, and therefore it was simply an incomplete pass. It depends on your point of view. There never will be proof that lineman Tom Whelan was correct or wrong in his ruling of an incomplete pass."

The game was the second in two weeks between the Bills and Colts. The previous Sunday the Colts whipped the Bills, 35-15, to gain a tie for the Eastern Division, thus forcing the playoff. It was a dubious distinction because the winner got the right to meet the Cleveland Browns for the title. The Bills, not the Colts, therefore won the chance to play them and were smashed, 49-7, by the best and smoothest machine in all of pro football.

During the long afternoon in Baltimore, when the Colts were still ahead, the public address announcer described how fans could buy tickets to travel the next Sunday to Cleveland to watch their team vie for the championship. But it wasn't to be.

Instead, violence erupted and a good man, Tom Whelan, had to be rescued by police from the screaming jackals. Forget the anger that an official's call influenced the outcome. What was most regrettable is Baltimore's thug-like behavior was far from what was to be expected in a civilized society.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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