Swats at baseball aside, 'Game' is an enjoyable history of pro football

October 31, 2004|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Special to the Sun

America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge. Random House. 552 pages. $27.95.

As a diehard baseball fan, I have died hard each of these past 30 years watching America's pastime wither under the blitz of professional football. Not that there's anything wrong with football. I spent many a joyful fall afternoon running the pointy-ended ball to daylight. It's what you did every year when the World Series ended. When baseball reigned supreme, however, you didn't find left fielders confronting right tackles with "Our game is better than yours." As the Bible said, "To everything there is a season." To baseball there were actually three: spring and summer and a good piece of fall. To football you had fall and winter. It seemed equitable then. It doesn't anymore.

Thus, there's no denying the thesis of Michael MacCambridge's America's Game: Professional football has eclipsed baseball as the No. 1 spectator sport in America (although apparently not in Red Sox Nation). It's just that MacCam-bridge, author of a previous book about the history of Sports Illustrated, deserves a flag for rubbing it in.

Couldn't he simply have told the fascinating story of football's rise and its storied characters, from brilliantly obnoxious Paul Brown to crudely obnoxious Al Davis, without descending into nanny nanny boo boo? As in "baseball, for the first time, seemed to have become passe, quaint, an anachronism representative of little more than nostalgia for an earlier simpler time." Or "In the 1958 title game pro football had arrived as a viable alternative to baseball, not merely as the most popular sport but the one that best defined America."

Such unsubstantiated gloating needlessly hurts the feelings of us hand-wringing baseball fans. Look, it's OK to like both sports. Really. Otherwise, this is a well-written thoroughly enjoyable history, crammed with tidbits about Pete Rozelle and Weeb Ewbank and others -- Bert Bell, for instance, the commissioner who kept the National Football League alive through the lean years. When he didn't get his way with the owners, he'd remove his false teeth, lay them on the table and start crying.

There was also Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns, who'd cut players and get them jobs driving cabs until a roster spot opened up -- thus inventing the taxi squad. The driven, crusty Brown was a pioneer in getting minorities into pro football, although he had trouble getting along with fullback Jim Brown, who didn't appreciate being yelled at.

There's plenty here about Baltimore, from the 1958 overtime championship game to the cave troll, Bob Irsay, who moved the Colts to Indianapolis. There's Ewbank, once a Colts head coach, who took the upstart AFL refugee Jets into Super Bowl III against Baltimore, with Joe Namath loudly guaranteeing victory. Ewbank was more subtle, telling his team matter-of-factly, "When we win don't carry me off the field. I have a bad hip. I don't want to get hurt."

Finally, there's Al Davis, the arch nemesis of commissioner Pete Rozelle, suing the NFL over his Raiders' moves to and from Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Davis hugged him with tears in his eyes the day Rozelle retired. While football may well define today's America, Davis in some ways defines modern pro football, built on the sand of public relations gimmicks and slick marketing. "Let me just say this, young man," he once advised a young player. "Anything good in this life is worth cheating for."

Patrick A. McGuire is a writer living in Abingdon.

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