Celebrate the '58 game, don't put it behind us

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a moment in football history that will never go away. And it shouldn't. Some well intended but uninformed dissenters in the media have attempted to conclude that what the Baltimore Colts accomplished should be put in a dead-letter file. Forced closure, they call it. That's not going to happen, so the masses have every right to revel in the glorious deeds of yesteryear.

Baltimore deserves to take pride in the achievements of a team that was a way of life for a considerable part of 35 eventful years. You just don't slam the door on distinctive moments that have become a part of the sport's most important contributions. Shills for the new team in town just don't understand, mainly because they weren't here to see what happened, have little awareness of what occurred in the past and, since they can't comprehend the vastness of the attainment, feel they must try to minimize the significance of the event. It's part envy, part ignorance.

The 1958 championship game, now marking its 40th anniversary, helped establish the National Football League as a major attraction. Indicative of its importance, apart from what it meant in the record book, is that witnesses to the notable victory still remember where they were when Alan Ameche, appropriately "The Horse" who became a Colt, crashed the end zone in the first sudden-death overtime football ever knew.

Although not to be equated with Charles Lindbergh, the ex-mail pilot soloing the Atlantic; the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Normandy Invasion, the death of presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, the game of the century between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants achieved its own signature identity. Where were you on Dec. 28, 1958? A friend was born into the world that day and named for the entire team, one Colt Taylor.

Popularity of the Colts was such that churches and synagogues scheduled meetings that wouldn't conflict with the Colts at play. Willie "The Rooter" Andrews walked around the stadium wearing a blue and white-paper mache horse's head. When he died, his pallbearers were the Colts' John Unitas, Joe Campanella, Art Donovan, general manager Don Kellett, Ameche and a sports writer, which indicated the esteem for which he was held.

Interest in the Colts knew no bounds, emotional or geographical. Nancy and Gilbert Dietrich, married only the year before the "Great Game," were at an Army base near Chatellerault, France, enjoying an officer's club dance. They tried to listen to the broadcast on Armed Forces Radio Network but the sound of the band was over-riding the play-by-play. Quickly, they asked a dentist friend if they could listen to the radio in his car parked outside because an audible reception was what they wanted. "There was that kind of interest in the Colts," said Nancy Dietrich. "We were on another continent, the game was five or six hours later, but our hearts were with the Colts. We were ecstatic with the outcome."

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, an Irish mother, knowing little about football, walked the floor praying the rosary for the Colts. The souls in Purgatory would have to wait for another prayerful occasion. A similar story is related by Deborah Harrison Zepp, then living in Arbutus, about her mother's keen interest in the team.

"My mother didn't understand football but anytime the Colts weren't doing well, she would reach for the Holy Water vial and sprinkle the television set. Imagine such attachment to a team. She loved Johnny Unitas, and in the 1980s I met Johnny at an open house at the Antrim 1844 in Taneytown. I told him what my mother used to do. Then I mentioned that he might have thought he won all those games but it was really my mother's prayers that made him better. Johnny's face lit up and he really enjoyed the story."

Other incidents for similar recall come flashing back. George Henderson, baseball coach at Essex Community College, recounted how he went to the New York championship in a group organized by Harry Banahan. "My leg was hurt and in a cast but I sat in the first base side at Yankee Stadium behind the goal post," remembered Henderson. "A group of Texans, wearing cowboy hats, were trying to make bets. They got some action with some black fellows sitting nearby.

"One of them said, 'Hey, boy, since you can't move with that bad leg, we're going to ask you to hold the money but don't go hobbling off to the men's room.' It was $800. The black guys took the Colts and won the bet. I handed them the $800 and they gave me $50, which paid for my trip to New York on the train and a seat at the game. Along Broadway, when it was over, instead of Christmas hymns, all you could hear were fans singing the Colts song."

Tom Healy, a former minor-league baseball player living in Easton and a nationally respected expert on transportation laws, was swinging on the goal post after the game ended, the opposite part of the field from where Henderson was seated. "The goal post was wooden, with four 1-by-4 strips of lumber, freshly painted, and nailed together," he said. "It didn't take much force to bring it down. Then we split the wood for souvenirs. Outside Yankee Stadium, a fellow asked me for part of the post. I gave it to him and he handed me an unopened fifth of Kentucky Gentlemen. Colt fans had spirit and it didn't always come out of a bottle."

A scout for the Detroit Lions, Bob Dove, said playing in Baltimore could be a "mental block" because "those fans can do things to you.

"They start the band playing, then the cheerleaders get the crowd acting like its nuts. That isn't all. They have a live horse running around the field and that's disconcerting, too."

This was the setting, a part of the preamble that led to the Colts winning what Sports Illustrated called the "Greatest Game Ever Played." However, clarification is needed. The magazine's assistant editor, Andre Laguerre, came to the New York office, checked proofs and thought it was typically American to be exaggerating. He changed the headline to a more subdued "Best Game Ever Played" but in the continuation, the jump pages, it wasn't altered. It remained "Greatest Game Ever Played," so Sports Illustrated had it both ways.

Four decades from the date, it's still acclaimed. At the time, Paul Menton, sports editor of the Evening Sun, wrote: "Hail the champions. We'll probably see more in the future but none just like the Colts of '58." C.M. Gibbs in the morning Sun: "That nothing like this will ever again have such a tremendous and widespread fan reaction in the Baltimore sports realm seems a safe bet." And N. P. "Swami" Clark in the News-Post: "A great day? There was never anything like it around here. And there never will be again."

No doubt, the singular most important athletic conquest a Baltimore team ever recorded.

Forty years and counting. A keepsake for perpetuity.

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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