Super Sunday’s Humble Origins Explored in Dartmouth Professor’s New Book

Sunday, February 07, 2016
When It Was Just A Game: Remembering The First Super Bowl by Harvey Frommer; Taylor Trade Publishing, 2015; 301 pages; $29.95

Before after-market Super Bowl tickets started around $25,000, they were $12 and the game was far from a sellout.

Before TV viewership annually shattered ratings, the game was subject to local blackout and many were concerned it would delay the start of The Ed Sullivan Show.

Before questions about PSI levels in footballs elicited media frenzies, teams in the championship game were encouraged to use their own unique balls.

The simpler, humbler — but nonetheless steadfastly competitive — origins of America’s greatest game are captured in When It Was Just A Game: Remembering The First Super Bowl, the latest in a prolific line of sports-related history books written by Lyme resident and Dartmouth College liberal arts professor Harvey Frommer.

The work combines well-informed prose with quotation passages derived from Frommer’s “roster,” a lineage of contributors ranging from Green Bay quarterback and Super Bowl I MVP Bart Starr to family members of both coaches and fellow sports historians.

After a forward by since-deceased Pro Football Hall of Famer Frank Gifford, a CBS broadcaster during Super Bowl I, When It Was Just A Game’s first chapter covers the backstory of the NFL, which began in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association and featured teams such as the Canton Bulldogs, Dayton Triangles and Rochester Jeffersons. The Decatur Staleys, later to become the Chicago Bears, during their inaugural season yielded a net profit of $1,800 to be divvied among all 22 members of the team.

The first televised game, between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Eagles at New York’s Ebbets Field in 1939, was available on about 500 TV sets in New York City and drew just over 13,000 fans. Frommer, whose doctoral thesis at New York University was about the media’s influence on professional football, describes the NFL’s rise in popularity and how the Baltimore Colts’ 23-17 win over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship game, still tagged by some as the greatest game ever played, helped capture new audiences.

It isn’t until 1960 that we’re introduced to the upstart American Football League, which, unlike previous start-up competitors to the NFL, simply wouldn’t go away. Bankrolled by TV contracts rivaling the NFL’s, it wasn’t long before AFL teams began signing some of the game’s top players. After years of acrimonious bidding wars, a merger was announced in June 1966 and staged in a Manhattan conference room “jammed with all manner of media, divided into two sections,” as Frommer describes. “NFL loyalists sat on one side, while AFL zealots were on the other.”

Now a 24-team organization, the 1966 season would end with a championship game pitting the titlists. But what to call the big game?

The first two editions were officially named the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” but “Super Bowl” stuck among fans and media almost from the beginning. The moniker’s origins aren’t precisely clear, though Lamar Hunt Jr., son of Hall of Fame Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt, makes the case for his dad and fresh-on-the-market toys called Super Balls in the pages of When It Was Just A Game.

“I remember showing (my dad) the Super Ball, the ‘Whammy,’ super ball and saying, ‘Hey look, this will bounce over the house, this ball,’ ” Hunt Jr. tells Frommer. “(What happened going forward is my dad was in an owner’s meeting. They were trying to figure out what to call the last game, the championship game. I don’t know if he had the ball with him, as some reports suggest.

“My dad said, ‘Well, we need to come up with a name, something like the ‘Super Bowl.’ And then he said, ‘Actually, that’s not a very good name. We can come up with something better.’ But ‘Super Bowl’ stuck in the media and word of mouth. ... Power of suggestion, or just an idea or whatever, it stuck. And the inspiration was that Super Ball.”

As Frommer notes later, a Super Ball now resides at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In Chapter 2, we meet the game’s coaches: the mercurial disciplinarian Vince Lombardi, of the Green Bay Packers, and the sharply dressed, jovial Hank Stram of Kansas City. The quirks and qualities or each are enunciated, such as Lombardi’s “5 o’clock social hours,” where players and media were invited to join him and his wife, Marie, for drinks and piano playing after a hard day of practice.

Stram, we discover, was born Henry Louis Wilczek. As told to Frommer by Stram’s son, Dale, the name Stram was derived from the German word for “strapping, strong” and initially was the nickname of Hank’s Polish father, a wrestler. The Chiefs coach — or “corch,” as he pronounced it — had been known as Hank Stram since childhood, but didn’t change his name legally until entering U.S. military service in 1943.

Lombardi felt his team already was a champion after vanquishing the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL championship game, but wasn’t immune to what was at stake in representing the NFL against an AFL opponent. He talked repeatedly about how the Packers “must win” and confided to Gifford his fear of losing.

Stram was even more hellbent on the AFL-NFL rivalry. “We are playing this game for every coach, player and official in the AFL,” he tells his team.

In a Chapter 4, titled “Pregame,” Stram ordered assistants on a shopping trip for Mickey Mouse Club hats and played the Disney cartoon’s theme song in the locker room after learning some media outlets had characterized the AFL as a “Mickey Mouse league.” As Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson tells Frommer: “Hank had a sense of humor. The guys were wearing those Mickey Mouse hats with the ears and parading around. A lot of the players were really uptight, that’s for sure. And Hank was just trying to find a way maybe to loosen that up.”

Tensions also carried over into coverage of the game, nothing short of a media circus even in 1967. CBS, which covered the NFL, and AFL telecaster NBC were both on hand and constantly jockeying. The New York Times published lineups and matchups for NBC versus CBS “resembling the tale of the tape for a championship boxing match,” Frommer writes. “Each network’s announcer, director, and producer was listed by height, weight and collegiate affiliation.”

Then, as now, the real action came on the field. Before nearly 62,000 fans (only two-thirds the capacity of the LA Coliseum), Green Bay jumped to a 7-0 lead when quarterback Bart Starr connected with Max McGee for a 37-yard touchdown in the first quarter. As noted in Chapter 5 (“Game Time”), McGee, a 34-year-old split end, caught just four passes during the regular season and did not expect to play. Even though there were theoretically several other receivers ahead of him on the Packers’ depth chart, McGee was inserted by Lombardi after Boyd Dowler was injured while blocking on the third play of the game.

Amazingly, McGee had left his helmet in the locker room and borrowed the one belonging to fellow receiver Bob Long for his first series and score.

Adding to the mystique of McGee’s performance — he finished with seven catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns — is that he was nicknamed “the Night Owl” and, though he neither confirmed nor denied this, it’s widely speculated he may have broken Lombardi’s curfew and stayed out partying in L.A. the night before, as Frommer notes.

Utilizing the play-action pass Stram is credited with developing, the Chiefs tied the game early in the second quarter on Dawson’s seven-yard strike to Curtis McClinton.

Green Bay led 14-10 at halftime and went on to dominate in the second half, winning 35-10. The turning point came on Willie Wood’s interception for the Packers, coming thanks to Green Bay’s pressure on Dawson.

Frommer describes in detail the play as Wood, a seventh-year pro, alertly stepped in to pick off Dawson and race down the sideline, eventually tackled at the 5-yard-line to set up the first of three unanswered Green Bay touchdowns in the second half.

Other interesting notes described by Frommer about the game itself:

 The real pre-game coin toss was performed prior to the game, in the dressing room, then simulated on the field just prior to kickoff. The Packers won calling heads. “Green Bay always called heads. Coach Lombardi believed that the eagle side of the silver dollar weighed more,” Frommer writes.

 Just prior to kickoff, one of the giant, wrought iron hands on the LA Coliseum’s clock became disengaged. “As if in a scene from a horror movie, it fell more than 30 feet, like a gigantic dagger, into the stands below. It could have been a tragedy. Miraculously, however, the section of the Coliseum was empty, and no one was hurt.”

 The second-half kickoff was replayed after NBC missed the first one, still on commercial break because sideline reporter Charlie Jones’ interview with comic Bob Hope ran over.

When It Was Just A Game’s final chapter, “After the Game Was Over,” highlights the demise of the game’s original trophy, destroyed in the mail while being shipped to New Jersey for engraving, as well as the fates of many of the players from the game.

Then-and-now economic figures compare the first Super Bowl to the game today — 50 million cases of beer and 145,000 tons of chips, anyone? — and the appendix includes rosters, the box score, and additional photographs to complement the many photos and drawings dispersed throughout the book.

While the scope of the Super Bowl has reached proportions bordering on overwhelming, Harvey Frommer’s When It Was Just A Game: Remembering The First Super Bowl reminds us why it captured the American sports fan’s passion in the first place. It’s a great read for any lover of football, especially those who appreciate the game’s history.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.