My personal memory of “The Greatest Game,” the Baltimore Colts versus the New York Giants, on Dec. 28, 1958, is now nearly fifty-eight years old. Both teams had won their respective divisions that year, and they were slated to play for the National Football League (NFL) championship. This was before there was a mega-event k/a “The Super Bowl.”
Back then, I was working on the Baltimore docks as a longshoreman for the Alcoa Steamship Co., at Pier 9, N/S, Locust Point. It’s located just west of historic Fort McHenry. I was a member of the ILA Locals 1429 and 829. My dad, Richard Hughes, Sr., was a boss for Alcoa.
I was 21 years old, lived on Hull Street, up the street from a bar now known as the Hull Street Blues. I was also close enough to the waterfront that I could walk to work. I had recently purchased from Fox Chevrolet, then located on Hanover St. & the Key Highway, a brand-new 1957 Bel Air Chevrolet, blue and white, with those classy fins on the side. I felt like I was at the top of my game.
Like many, I was excited about the upcoming Colts 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 “Fatso” Donovan, Bill Pellington, Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston, Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Jim Mutscheller and “Big Jim” Parker.
In addition to formidable personnel, the Colts had a terrific coach, Weeb Ewbank. He was a perfect match for his players. He knew his job and they respected him for it. Another big plus was the owner of the Colts, Carroll Rosenbloom. He was a local who’d made a lot of money in the garment business. Mr. Rosenbloom was also smart enough to get out of the way and let Ewbank do his thing.
Although Baltimore had recently secured a new major league baseball franchise, thanks to the herculean efforts of its then Mayor, Tommy “The Elder” D’Alesandro, (Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s father), the city was in a little bit of a slump. In fact, it was mostly, sorry about this, boring as hell!
This was long before the visionary entrepreneur, James Wilson “Jim” Rouse, built “Harborplace;” the reign of Mayor William “Do It Now” Schaefer; the founding of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; Center Stage’s move to Calvert Street; and the remarkable rebirth of Fell’s Point. Also, the development of that $800 million subway system was still just a dream; and, entertainment icons; like John Waters, David Simon and Barry Levinson, via their celebrated movies, television shows and cable productions, weren’t yet a reality.
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, to see the Orioles play for that today! I bought two tickets to the game at the now-defunct Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street; one for myself and one for my then girlfriend, Carole, from Highlandtown. She was an original “Hon” from Fait Avenue and had attended Patterson Park H.S. We took a train to NYC on the morning of the game. It was crowded and we were 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, that Ruth was one of Baltimore’s greatest baseball sons. His dad had a popular tavern at 36 South Eutaw Street, purchased by the “Babe,” close to what is now centerfield at Camden Yards.
When we got to our seats in the stadium, the usher politely wiped them off and then suddenly stuck out his hand to me. I thought to myself, “He wants to welcome me to New York City!” Wrong! I quickly found out by the look on his frowning face, that he wanted (double gasp) a tip! Under coercion, I gave him a quarter. In return, he gave me a really dirty look.
For morale purposes, I was pleased to see some other Southsiders sitting close by. I waved to John “Hopit” Haspert and Emmett Prenger. They also worked on the waterfront. Eli Burkum was there, too. Eli, a buddy of Haspert and Prenger, owned a grocery store on Fort Avenue, opposite Latrobe Park.
Soon after the game started, however, I got another jolt. This time from the New York fans. When Carole and I would stand up to cheer for the Colts, the locals would invariably scream at us, in a loud, mocking voice: “Sit down you, farmers!” What?
I had never thought of myself as “a farmer,” although my late mother, Nora Thornton, was raised on a farm in County Mayo, in the Wild West of Ireland. This quasi-hostile reaction to us put a modest damper on the festivities. Nevertheless, we still continued to cheer for the Colts, when appropriate, but without standing up for fear of getting whacked on the head by a flying object tossed by one of the rabid fans of the Giants.
I’ll leave the actual description of the legendary contest, rightly labeled as “The Greatest Game,” to the sports writers. My recollections of the sudden death overtime win will forever center on the pinpoint passing of quarterback Unitas, (yes, the man with the “golden arm”); the record breaking 12 catches by the left end, Berry; and the final touchdown run by the full back, Ameche, with a terrific block by half back Moore clearing his way.
As it turned out, the train ride south 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 through the train; 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. It also helped to give the city the national recognition it richly deserved as one of America’s best. The fact that it all happened at a venerable edifice, such as Yankee Stadium, which was so steeped in the history of professional sports, made it even more memorable.