Cover image for America's game : the epic story of how pro football captured a nation
America's game : the epic story of how pro football captured a nation
MacCambridge, Michael, 1963-
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2004]

Physical Description:
xix, 552 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Corporate Subject:
Format :


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GV954 .M32 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
GV954 .M32 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
GV954 .M32 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
GV954 .M32 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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It's difficult to imagine today--when the Super Bowl has virtually become a national holiday and the National Football League is the country's dominant sports entity--but pro football was once a ramshackle afterthought on the margins of the American sports landscape. Yet in the span of a single generation in postwar America, the game charted an extraordinary rise in popularity, becoming a smartly managed, keenly marketed sports entertainment colossus whose action is ideally suited to television and whose sensibilities perfectly fit the modern age. Pro football's ascent is an epic American story, and America's Game does it full justice. Beginning with the World War II years, when the NFL was fighting for its very existence, Michael MacCambridge traces the game's grand transformation, with particular attention paid to six key franchises--the Rams, Browns, Colts, Cowboys, Chiefs, and Raiders--and how their fortunes reflected the larger growth of the game itself. Along the way we meet the sport's legendary architects, men such as Pete Rozelle, George "Papa Bear" Halas, Bert Bell, Tex Schramm, and Lamar Hunt, as well as a wide range of its memorable characters--including Johnny Unitas, Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Jim Brown, Al Davis, Joe Namath, Bill Walsh, and Deion Sanders. In the process we witness the rivalries, the games themselves, and the passion that have made professional football the nation's signature sport. MacCambridge continues the story through the turbulent 1980s and 1990s, when labor disputes and off-field scandals shook the game to its core, and up to the sport's present-day preeminence under Paul Tagliabue. The unique portrait of the modern game's inner workings and relentless competitiveness sheds light on contemporary stars such as Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning, as well as on the men whose leadership skills are scrutinized and second-guessed by much of the country, celebrated coaches such as Bill Parcells, Dick Vermeil, Tony Dungy, and Brian Billick. Magisterial and sweeping, definitive and unprecedented in scope, America's Game is cultural history at its finest. A thoroughly entertaining account of the entire universe of professional football, from locker room to boardroom, from playing field to press box, it is a unique lens through which to view the past sixty years of American history.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Football is the professional sport of choice in America today, evidenced by the fact that its championship game, the Super Bowl, is an undeclared national holiday. MacCambridge, author of the extraordinarily informative and very entertaining The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated 0 (1997), picks up the struggling National Football League immediately after World War II, when the team owners were a ragtag collection of squabbling entrepreneurs. The owners pulled together somewhat to squash a rival league and usurp its best team, the Cleveland Browns, but the NFL's ascendancy really began in the 1950s, coinciding with the growth of television. MacCambridge tracks the history in a thoroughly readable narrative, devoting plenty of space to the 1958 overtime championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants--a game that mesmerized a national television audience and created the momentum that would carry the league--under the visionary leadership of commissioner Pete Rozelle--through the merger with another rival, the American Football League, and the start of the Super Bowl phenomenon. MacCambridge also offers revealing profiles of the front-office figures who played key roles in the growth of the league--Rozelle, Paul Brown, Al Davis, and Lamar Hunt--as well as gleaning the insights of former players and coaches such as Jim Brown, Bill Walsh, and John Madden. This is a classy, carefully researched, and very enlightening overview of a uniquely American sports enterprise. --Wes Lukowsky Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

MacCambridge's sweeping history of pro football starts just before WWII, when the National Football League was still largely a regional organization, and ends with Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at Super Bowl XXXVIII. Though there are plenty of vivid descriptions of remarkable games, what sets this chronicle apart from a slew of other recent football books is the depth and breadth of its stories about players, coaches and owners. The centerpiece of this personal approach is the extensive portrait of the career of Pete Rozelle, who became the NFL's commissioner at 33 and initiated many of the measures that ensured the sport's cultural ascendancy, including a television deal that distributed revenue equally among all teams. MacCambridge (The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine) zeroes in on two sideline projects that might have made the greatest difference in football's rise over baseball: NFL Properties, which brought a consistent standard of excellence to fan paraphernalia; and NFL Films, which solidified the myth of the game as an epic struggle through the instantly recognizable narration of John Facenda. MacCambridge also considers the sport's track record regarding race relations, noting that the NFL's first black players were on the field months before Jackie Robinson, while highlighting the roles played by great African-American athletes like Paul Younger and Jim Brown. Though some fans may be disappointed that their favorite teams and players aren't extensively covered, this magisterial history is a fitting acknowledgment of the sport's legacy. Agent, Sloan Harris. (On sale Oct. 26) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In this history of professional football's phenomenal growth since World War II, MacCambridge (The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine) focuses primarily on the workings of the National Football League (NFL). Prominent figures like commissioners Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle, and Paul Tagliabue and executives Dan Reeves, Lamar Hunt, Al Davis, Tex Schramm, and Art Modell are emphasized but in the larger context of the league. The author chronicles every aspect of the NFL's development from an obscure, financially insolvent endeavor to representative of the quintessential American sport. Changing racial attitudes, the league's relationship with television, stadium construction and financing, artificial turf, and the wholesale movement of franchises are just a few of the topics covered. MacCambridge packs the text with a mix of details and telling anecdotes gleaned from copious personal interviews and a deep reading of books, magazines, and newspapers. Engagingly written and thorough, this work is a tour de force of narrative sports history and is highly recommended for all collections.-John Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ. Lib., Camden, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

MacCambridge, a former journalist, wrote the well-received The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine (1997). In the present outstanding volume, the most thorough book ever written on the National Football League, he explains how and why pro football supplanted baseball as the national pastime. He describes how after WW II a group of astute commissioners took over the struggling NFL, facilitating intraleague cooperation and using television to publicize the sport and provide new revenues. MacCambridge focuses on six key franchises--among them the Rams, the Browns, the Cowboys--and on the main movers and shakers--chief among them Pete Rozelle, who led the NFL through its fight with the rival American Football League, its marketing explosion, its lucrative television contracts, and the rise of the Super Bowl. The author also discusses important games and such significant issues as race, interleague competition, the reserve clause, and urban boosterism. MacCambridge is attuned to the passion of fans but falls short in his coverage of betting. The book is well written, and the prodigious research--abetted by many research assistants and by NFL clubs themselves--includes more than 200 interviews. A bibliographic essay, source notes, and photographs add to the book's value. ^BSumming Up: Essential. All sports collections; all levels. S. A. Riess Northeastern Illinois University



Chapter 1 Going West Bundled in a heavy winter coat and sporting a beaverskin hat, Daniel Farrell Reeves dug his hands into his pockets and marched from the gate bordering the stands out onto the field in the cavernous Cleveland Stadium. In a matter of hours, his Cleveland Rams would take the field to play the Washington Redskins for the championship of the National Football League. But as he surveyed the field in the numbing chill of this overcast morning two days before Christmas, Reeves could see nothing on the gridiron but thousands of bales of straw, and a small army of men laboring to move them. This was pro football in 1945. Compact and slender, no more than 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds, Reeves was a man of reserved nature but wry wit. In four seasons, he had grown accustomed to the perennial financial losses--"Irish dividends," as he called them--common to owning a pro football team. But the 1945 season had been uniquely rewarding and frustrating. Reeves had returned home just two months earlier, after a three-year tour of duty with the Army Air Corps, to what would become a season-long victory celebration. America's triumph in World War II had been officially consecrated during August two-a-days, and the long lines that greeted the end of gas rationing dissipated by the season-opening win over the Chicago Cardinals. Just one season after the 1944 squad lost six of its last seven games, the Rams had rebounded to become the surprise of the NFL, and win their first Western Conference title. In early December, rookie quarterback Bob Waterfield, soon to be named the league's Most Valuable Player, was profiled in Life magazine. And though the article spent less time on Waterfield than his wife--Hollywood bombshell Jane Russell, star of Howard Hughes's "sex western" The Outlaw, which censors still hadn't allowed to be screened in the U.S.--the mere thought that a player for the Cleveland Rams would merit space in Life seemed to Reeves a miracle in itself. After the Washington Redskins beat the New York Giants in the regular season finale, Reeves's dream match-up was set. For the title game, the Redskins would make their first trip to Cleveland in eight seasons, bringing along their famed 110-piece marching band to perform a special Christmas-themed halftime show. Interest was high for the match-up between the rookie Waterfield and perennial All-Pro Slingin' Sammy Baugh. And so Reeves had bravely decided to move the championship game from the Rams' regular stadium, the deteriorating League Park, with its cramped capacity of 30,000, to Cleveland Stadium, which seated 80,000. Six days before the game, the National Weather Service had forecast a major winter storm hitting the Cleveland area in midweek, so the Rams had spent the early part of the week searching for enough bales of straw to cover the tarpaulin, to prevent the field from freezing. It was general manager Charles "Chile" Walsh who finally located 9,000 bales of straw from around Elyria, and had it delivered to the stadium at a cost of $7,200. In the days leading up to the game, eighteen inches of snow fell on Cleveland, leaving the stadium resembling an arctic snowscape, with drifts piled several feet high in the aisles. On Sunday morning, the Rams lined up 275 workers, many of them off-duty city employees, to remove the bales. While the Rams were responsible for the field, the city of Cleveland was responsible for the stadium and the parking lots, which were left unshoveled. Despite the weather and conditions, the Associated Press projected the game would draw 50,000, and the New York Times wrote that "a crowd of better than 40,000 is almost certain with a capacity audience of 77,569 possible in case the forecasters are wrong." But when the lights were turned on at Cleveland Stadium at 6:30 the morning of the game, the temperature was eight degrees below zero. Marching in mucklucks from the Clevelander Hotel a little before eight, Reeves balefully noted the unpassable streets. There was no parking in the two blocks closest to the stadium, since that area was overrun with snow. And taxi service wasn't running to the stadium, another skirmish in the war between the Rams and Arthur McBride, owner of the Zone/Yellow Cab Co. and the new Cleveland entry in the All-America Football Conference, which would begin competition in Cleveland the following fall. By 10:30 that morning most of the 9,000 bales had been cleared off the field. But the trucks that were to transport them away had trouble gaining purchase on the still clogged city streets, leaving the workers no choice but to place the straw against the walls surrounding the playing field. Behind the benches, just in back of the end zones, and stacked more than ten bales high at the walls, the sea of straw was parted so the game could be played. Cleveland Stadium had rarely looked so empty as on this day, when only 32,178 turned out. When former Rams business manager Manny Eisner and his wife walked into the stadium about an hour before kickoff, there were already people filing out, succumbing to the cold. In the stadium ticket office, Lou Isaacson was more prepared than most. Dressed in three pairs of socks, knee-high brogan work shoes, two pairs of pants, two sweaters, and two coats, he sat in the unheated box office for four and a half hours, and sold two tickets. In financial terms, Reeves had already resigned himself to the realization that his share of the gate wouldn't even pay for the cost of buying, transporting, and removing the bales of straw. But as the kickoff neared, none of that mattered. Up in the press box, Reeves was nervous and amiable, greeting writers and VIPs, accepting congratulations for signing Waterfield to a three-year contract the day before. "The stars are making so much money now, I call them 'Mister' and they just call me 'Reeves,' " he said. When the game began, the joking ended, and Dan Reeves suffered in silence, as he'd done every game day since 1941, when he'd bought the team. He paced nervously, far removed from his wife, Mary, the rest of his family, and his closest friends. It was not a time to be jovial or even social. It was time for football. Down on the field, the game sounded different, victim to the noiseless vacuum of severe cold. There was little kibitzing between the teams, and almost none of the concussive, amplified smack that so often accompanied the heavy hitting of professional football. The quality of play was still sharp, but on a day when the temperature was zero degrees at kickoff, the players felt the pain more than heard it, each tackle accompanied by heavy breathing and dull, muffled thuds. The crowd sounded different as well, its applause muted by layers of gloves, the cheers rising curt and thin in the icy air. Even in the '40s, people argued about whether the pressure of football built character or revealed it. But Reeves had long ago learned how capricious the game could be, how random its deciding factors. On this frigid Sunday, he watched Sammy Baugh's pass from the Redskins' end zone hit the goalpost and fall back into the end zone, for what was then an automatic safety. After Waterfield threw the first of two long touchdown passes for the Rams, his extra point attempt was partially blocked, with the ball careening toward the crossbar, hitting it, and dribbling weakly over. Baugh's freak safety and Waterfield's wounded conversion had been the difference in the 15-14 edge the Rams nursed into the fourth quarter. By that time, the windows of the Cleveland Stadium press box had fogged over, and most of the writers covering the game had abandoned their typewriters and gone outside into the biting cold, cursing as they bundled up to face the brutal wind, but drawn to the finish of the frantic battle below. Reeves himself was outside when he saw the play that decided the game. With the Redskins nearing midfield in the closing minutes, running back Steve Bagarus made an end run to the right, then reversed field and broke free, running in a sweeping arc to the far sideline, with two Rams in hot pursuit. The first slowed him down and the second, Waterfield (who in addition to being the star quarterback was also the team's best defensive back), made a desperate lunge and extended his left arm before hitting the ground. The contact was scant--Waterfield's hand barely nicked the toe of Bagarus's trailing foot--but it was just enough to knock the runner off his feet and save a touchdown. The Rams' defense stiffened from there and the Redskins missed a field goal attempt. Moments later, the game was over and the Cleveland Rams were world champions. The hardiest fans stormed the field to tear down the goalposts in celebration, while the rest of the crowd headed for shelter and celebration into Cleveland's bars, restaurants, and dance halls. In the locker room, where the players massed for the traditional celebratory championship candid photograph, head coach Adam Walsh hugged his brother, Chile Walsh, and announced, "I knew you were champs back there at Bowling Green! I knew it! I knew it!" NFL commissioner Elmer Layden greeted Adam Walsh, his old college roommate at Notre Dame, with a hug and a handshake. Then Layden presented Reeves with the league's Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy, given annually to the NFL champion. "I've been used to losing for so long," said Reeves, with tears in his eyes, "that I wasn't counting on anything until it was all over." As Reeves returned with friends and family to his suite at the Clevelander Hotel, his jubilation was tempered by the private realization that his time in Cleveland was near its end. Reeves had lost more money in earlier years, but in the season in which his team had marched to the world championship, it still lost $64,000. And the prospects for box office improvement were dim, since the rival All-America Football Conference would begin play the following season, with a franchise in Cleveland that seemed to be the strongest in the league. Reeves had decided, win or lose, that when the NFL held its annual meeting in January, he would insist on fulfilling his goal, stated for years in private sessions with the owners, to move his franchise to Los Angeles. This time, he was determined: Dan Reeves was heading west, or else Dan Reeves was leaving football. By the end of World War II, the unique personality and character of the National Football League had begun to develop. The NFL owners comprised a particularly hidebound and tightly knit fraternity, loath to accept outsiders, reluctant to change the often circuitous, inefficient manner in which proceedings were conducted. Many could remember the league's earliest years, when it was perceived to be--and for the most part was--a haphazard assemblage of pickup games and hired hands making weekend pay. The Bears' legendary coach and owner George Halas had been there from the start, present at the creation of the league, one of sixteen men in Ralph Hay's Jordan and Hupmobile showroom in Canton, Ohio, in August 1920. That meeting, called by the league's first president, Jim Thorpe, laid the foundation for what would be called the American Professional Football Association, and two years later renamed the National Football League, though it had no franchises west of Chicago or south of Washington, D.C. Its next president, elected in 1921, was the tireless Columbus promoter Joe F. Carr, who presided over the league's dark ages, in which thirty-five franchises folded in the league's first ten seasons. At that 1921 meeting, Halas moved the Decatur Staleys to Chicago, where a year later he renamed them the Bears, and the Green Bay Packers and Earl "Curly" Lambeau entered the league. Four years later, they were joined by New York bookmaker Tim Mara, who bought the New York Giants for $2,500, reasoning that any franchise in New York City ought to be worth that much. In 1932 and 1933, the rest of the inner circle came on board. First there was George Preston Marshall, the bombastic Southern laundry man, who bought the Boston Redskins in 1932, moving them to Washington, D.C., five years later. In 1933, "Blue-Shirt Charlie" Bidwill, Chicago businessman and diehard Bears fan, bought the crosstown rival Chicago Cardinals, though those closest to him knew the Bears were still his favorite club. Then there was Philadelphia's Bert Bell and Pittsburgh's Art Rooney, who'd met at a horse track in the late '20s, and whose franchises joined the league in 1933, the same year that the Pennsylvania state legislature relaxed its blue laws, allowing sporting events on Sundays. De Benneville "Bert" Bell, the son of a Pennsylvania attorney general, was a blueblood aristocrat with a common touch, who spent much of the '20s roaring his way through his inheritance. The raconteur Art Rooney, son of a corner tavern owner in Pittsburgh, was a delightfully egalitarian personality in his own right. Rooney's team was called the Pirates throughout the '30s, before changing its name to the Steelers in 1940. For most of the '30s and '40s, these seven men--Halas, Lambeau, Mara, Marshall, Bidwill, Bell, and Rooney--were the National Football League. The '30s brought hard-earned growth, with liberalized passing rules, the introduction of a two-division system with an annual championship game (Marshall's idea), and the first college draft (the brainstorm of Bell), all introduced under Carr's watch. Through the decade, the game retained its slangy sense of barnstorming informality. Pittsburgh head coach Johnny Blood once missed a game because he simply forgot it was on the schedule. Most players fit practices during the week around their regular jobs, others came into town on the weekends, and played for less than $100 a game. The tight band of owners fought like brothers, but persevered in the face of several rival start-ups, the indifference of much of the American sporting public, the condemnation of many in college football, and the failures of several of their partners. Those who remained were cautious, inherently suspicious of change, and not eager to test their horizons. In 1936, the Cleveland Rams, who had struggled through a season with the failing rival American Football League, called NFL president Joe Carr to apply for an expansion franchise in the NFL. Carr came to Cleveland, met owner Homer Marshman, and invited him to come to the next meeting to apply for membership. "So in December 1936," recalled Marshman, "I went to the NFL meeting in Chicago and made my presentation. They told me to sit down and wait. Next, a man from Houston made his presentation. They thanked him and told him to leave. I thought that was very impolite since I was allowed to remain. Next, a man from Los Angeles made a pitch for Los Angeles. They excused him, too. I couldn't understand it, because their presentations were every bit as good as mine. As soon as the two others had left the room, George Preston Marshall jumped up and said, 'I move we give it to Cleveland.' Everybody agreed. It was set up. They had decided on us in advance. They wanted to keep the teams in the east and midwest." Excerpted from America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.