Like a lot of old Baltimore institutions, Alonso’s bar on Cold Spring Lane still has the same old name it has carried for decades, but it is not the same old place. The Alonso family sold out years ago and that’s when it ceased being a dingy, seedy pickup joint for divorcees (and, sometimes, the still-married) and instead became a well-lit “sports bar,” a faux version of its former self.
But back when it was still the real thing, there was a small display window in the front, surrounded by glass block that had the feel of an airtight museum chamber, the kind that protects a society’s treasured and vulnerable artifacts. Entombed in this window, like a factory-town Shroud of Turin, was a fat splinter with a small, engraved brass marker that read: Goal Post 1958 Championship Game.
This December marks the half-century anniversary of that contest, the so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played.” Whether or not that celebrated tangle in New York between literal Giants and the even-larger Baltimore Colts deserves the title is the subject of ongoing speculation. To this day many of the surviving Colts would say it wasn’t even their best game of 1958. (They give that distinction to an epic comeback against the San Francisco 49ers a few weeks earlier.)
But in Baltimore, where the vowels are as narrow as the rowhouses and the Colts once reigned as the civic religion, there is no doubt. The ’58 championship game endures as one of only two seminal moments in city history, the other being the whipping dished out to foreign invaders o’er the ramparts at Fort McHenry.
Francis Scott Key immortalized that victory in verse and the town fathers constructed an elegant monument to it that adorns the city flag. But for the old Baltimore guys who yank canned brews out of Frigidaires and warsh their greezy hands in a zinc, it’s the title game that really matters.
No Baltimorean even knows the state anthem, but when the chorus of the old Colts swells, leather-faced steelworkers and forsaken machinists still get goose pimply and sing along through teary eyes and tight throats. It’s a lot like the Marseillaise scene in “Casablanca.” I wasn’t even born in 1958, but I was reared in the “post-title” society, acutely aware of The Game and its echoes. As a child, every man I knew admired the Colts, perhaps as an act of self-affirmation.
In Baltimore, we didn’t realize we were worse than all the cities around us; we thought we were superior. And in a way, we were. In ’58 we did something that few other cities have ever done. We stuck it to New Yorkers, and in Yankee Stadium.
Though the ’58 game has taken on a fine patina, it was far from flawless. Despite the presence of 17 future Hall of Famers on the field and sidelines that day, the game was characterized by fumbles, interceptions and poor decisions. In fact, two of the greatest of the Hall of Famers stood beside each other, and beside themselves, on the Baltimore sideline late in the second half disbelieving their eyes as the clock ticked and an ignominious Colts defeat seemed inevitable.
One of them, a 275-pound Irish kid from the Bronx, loud and loquacious, was a born barroom orator. The other was Italian and laconic. As the game slipped away, the Irishman, Arthur Donovan, was moved to ramshackle soliloquy. “Can you believe it?” he demanded to know. After all that the Colts had been through, the years of loss and frustration and struggle… to be on the brink of a championship only to see it wasted— squandered!— to an inferior team. His teammate, Gino Marchetti, sadly shook his head and said: “You’re right, Fatso.”
But the magic was still to come. With a little more than two minutes left to play, the Giants had a three-point lead and the ball, and they were aiming to drive until the end of time. And then something curious happened. On third-and-four from their own 40-yard line, the Giants put it all on the back of their star halfback, Frank Gifford.
That was unremarkable, enough, except for two facts. Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi, the canniest mind football would ever know, made the call. And he chose to run Gifford directly at (not from) Marchetti, maybe the best defensive player in history.
Lombardi’s career would end about 10 years later with five championships under his belt as head coach of the Green Bay Packers. His name would become a synonym for victory, so much so that it was permanently etched into the Super Bowl trophy itself. But this decision, in the biggest of games, was a catastrophe.
In college, Marchetti led the University of San Francisco to an undefeated season then encouraged his team to stay home rather than accept a bowl invitation that excluded their black teammates. When Marchetti’s moral force met Gifford with only everything on the line, Gino’s femur got busted and Gifford’s gain, marked after Gino was carried off, came up a half-yard short.
Gifford howled, but the play was not reviewable by 40 years. So the ball was punted and put in the hands of some guy named Unitas.
At the time, Johnny U was only three years removed from being a complete failure. Coming out of high school he was ignored by every decent college program in the country, so he went to Louisville and played for a laughingstock. After that, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him only to dump him in training camp, unused. When the Colts caught up with him, he was slinging a hard hat and a lunch pail.
In Baltimore, Unitas met a kindred spirit in another long shot named Raymond Berry. The quarterback and receiver were often described as cerebral, and they were, especially compared to the skull crackers with whom they kept company. They pioneered new techniques like watching film and viewed their jobs as a serious profession.
After long days of practice, they refused to yield and would continue to hone their timing on the grass, all by themselves. After that, they’d go to Unitas’ for dinner and, like little kids, would play catch in his backyard until dark.
But Johnny U wasn’t a genius; he was a sadist. He made his meat and potatoes by toying with defensive men. He’d patiently look for their fissures, set them up and then undress them. He took pleasure in exposing their professional fraudulence in front of thousands.
Lombardi was a blunt instrument who pounded men and broke their wills. Unitas broke their hearts. “No matter how good they are,” Johnny U once said, “they can all be had.”
Unitas was handed the ball at his own 14-yard line with the NFL’s No. 1 defense in front of him. So all he did was invent the two-minute drill in front of the entire country. He marched the Colts forward and gave the Giants a taste of what he and Berry had been cooking up in his backyard. They seemed to read each other’s thoughts as they connected again and again, Unitas spinning arcing passes over the heads of the proud Giants.
New York’s superb defense, led by defensive coordinator Tom Landry, the eventual founder of the Dallas dynasty, had no answer for them.
The Colts tied the game on a Steve Myhra field goal in the nick of time, of course, forcing the first “sudden death” overtime in NFL championship history. By now, you know they won it. When Colts fullback Alan Ameche plunged across the goal line, he plunged the city of Baltimore into a state of euphoria that has never totally abated.
Unitas came to town the same year H.L. Mencken died. The rowhouses were rotting and the B&O was failing. To the outside world it was a city in decay with very little going for it. But the ’58 Colts changed, or at least delayed, all that. They limped into Yankee Stadium roughnecks in the shadow of hallowed monuments— the game wasn’t even a sellout. But when they departed into the cool December night they were the flag bearers of something much bigger, financially and culturally, than even Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio. And Baltimore, not New York, would be the epicenter.
Even among the great teams, the Colts hold a special mystique. They could run inside, or outside. They could pass, harass the passer and stuff the run. They intercepted the opposition with incredible frequency. They simultaneously possessed history’s greatest offensive and defensive players in Unitas and Marchetti.
Their endearing coach, Weeb Ewbank, won three championships including the two most significant games in league history— ’58 and 10 seasons later leading Namath and the Jets over the Colts. In sharp contrast to today’s control freaks, who blast plays into their quarterback’s ears through a two-way radio, Weeb was serene.
Once, when Unitas uncharacteristically came off the field in a critical situation and asked his coach for a play, Ewbank responded vaguely but with the right idea. “Geez, I don’t know, John,” he said. “Go get us a touchdown.”
Most of the players back then never left town. They came from all over America to enjoy their short, violent careers in Baltimore then stayed long enough to see themselves become old men right in front of the eyes of the people who adored them.
Today, much is made of how the players in those days didn’t do it for the money, but, of course, they did. They just didn’t play to become obscenely wealthy. Thanks to football they didn’t have to toil anonymously for a Depression wage; they had status and a post-war boom paycheck.
Their benefits package meant everything to them, though it mostly consisted of things they didn’t get, like black lung disease in a mine, or a scalding at a blast furnace, or an arm chewed in a combine.
The men of my father’s generation had a similar reverence for the Colts that they had for World War II vets. They were regular guys whose jobs gave them the opportunity to do extraordinary things. There was the illusion of duty in their work. World War II, unlike the complicated adventures that followed, was the good fight for freedom, democracy and America. The Colts laid it all on the line for Baltimore.
Thanks to them, the little town between Washington and New York wasn’t dilapidated, it was indomitable; it wasn’t crumbling, it was a crusher. And everybody in America had to take notice. Because for one cold day in December of 1958, Baltimore was a city of Giant slayers.
Jack Gilden is still a Baltimore Colts fan.