Tuesday, December 9, 2014

December 9, 1934: Giants Take Title In "Sneaker Game"

December 9, 1934, 80 years ago today: The NFL Championship Game is played at the Polo Grounds in New York.

Until the mid-1970s, title games were rotated between divisional winners. Even as late as 1972, the AFC Championship Game between the Miami Dolphins and the Pittsburgh Steelers was played at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, not at the Orange Bowl in Miami, even though the Dolphins were famously going for an undefeated season -- and ended up getting it, beating the Steelers, and then the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.

The 1933 NFL Championship Game was the first official title game. It was played at Wrigley Field in Chicago, between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants. The Bears won it, 23-22. The Bears had previously won the title in 1921 and 1932; the Giants, in 1925.

Both teams were essentially the same in 1934, with one notable addition: The Bears, owned and coached by George "Papa Bear" Halas, had signed University of Tennessee star Beattie Feathers, and, that season, he became the 1st NFL player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. (Just 12 regular-season games in those days.) He joined a backfield that featured the 2 most famous players the League had yet seen -- well, 2 of the 3 most famous, if you remember to include the now-retired Jim Thorpe, who never played for the Bears (but did play 1 game for the Giants, and also played for the baseball Giants).

One was the archetypal speedy halfback, Harold "Red" Grange, the Galloping Ghost. At the University of Illinois, his Number 77 became the first truly famous uniform number in sports. (The National Hockey League did not adopt uniform numbers until the 1926-27 season; Major League Baseball, in part in 1929, in full by 1932.) When Grange and the Bears came to New York to play the Giants in 1925, the Giants' 1st season, the sellout crowd at the Polo Grounds saved the Giants from bankruptcy, and may have saved the League. Grange was the precursor of such great running backs as Steve Van Buren, Doak Walker, Frank Gifford, Paul Hornung, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson. He was a great defensive back, too.

The other was the archetypal big bruising fullback, Bronislau "Bronko" Nagurski. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he was a good size for a running back today; but the standards of the Dirty Thirties, he was a giant. There wasn't a defense on Earth that could contain him. Nagurski was the progenitor of such runners as Marion Motley, Paul "Tank" Younger, Jim Brown, Alan "the Horse" Ameche, Jim Taylor, Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, John Riggins, Roger Craig, Christian Okoye, Terrell Davis, Jerome Bettis. And he was a great blocker, thus Feathers, not himself or Grange, was the first 1,000-yard rusher in the NFL. On defense, he was a ferocious tackler, admitting late in life that, if he played in the two-platoon era, he'd probably have been exclusively a linebacker -- in other words, he paved the way for Bill George, Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Mike Curtis, Lee Roy Jordan, Jack Lambert, Lawrence Taylor and Ray Lewis.

The Giants, however, were no slouches; after all, coach Steve Owen's men had come within 1 point of the title in 1933. Quarterback Harry Newman took snaps from the best two-way lineman of the era, Mel Hein. He handed off to Ken Strong, a fullback out of nearby NYU. As a passing target, he had the best end of the early 1930s, Ray Flaherty. However, by the time of the title game, Ed Danowski was becoming the main passer for the Giants. (In the photo above, he's wearing Number 22 and carrying the ball.) They were 8-5 going into the title game.

Still, despite the fact that the Giants would be at home, the Bears were favored. They were undefeated, and, playing home games in Chicago, the cold weather of New York wouldn't faze them.


A freezing rain the night before the game froze the Polo Grounds field. Before the game, Flaherty told Owen that sneakers would provide better footing on the frozen field. So Owen sent equipment manager Abe Cohen to Manhattan College to get some sneakers.

The Bears led 10–3 at the half, thanks to a touchdown by Nagurski and a field goal by Jack Manders, a kicker so accurate (by the standards of the time) that he was known as Automatic Jack. (I don't know whether that nickname makes him sound more like a great mechanic or a pervert.) Finally, just before the 2nd half started, Cohen got back to the locker room with the Manhattan College sneakers. And did he have any idea whether he could find sneakers that would properly fit 11 players? (Remember, this was the one-platoon era: Players had to play both offense and defense. It would be nearly 20 years before that was finally done away with.)

The sneakers did not make an immediate difference: The only score of the 3rd quarter was another field goal by Automatic Jack, making it 13-3 Bears. And, at the rate pro football teams scored in those days, erasing a 10-point lead seemed unlikely.

But early in the 4th quarter, the Giants coach a break. Danowski threw an interception at the Bears' 2-yard line, but end Ike Frankian pulled it out of the defender's hands and scored a touchdown to make it 13-10 Chicago.

It was all Giants from there: Strong ran for 2 touchdowns and Danowski 1. The Giants won 30-13, scoring 27 unanswered points in the 4th quarter. After the game, both teams said that the Giants' use of sneakers -- legal at the time -- made the difference. Such a tactic would be banned, but the damage was done.

The Giants would return to the NFL Championship Game in 1935, but lose to the Detroit Lions. By the time the Bears got back in 1937, they had almost completely turned over. Grange had retired, making the 1934 title game his last game; the 1937 title game was meant to be Nagurski's last, although he returned in 1943 due to the manpower shortage brought on by the World War II draft.

The Giants won another title in 1938, making Ed Danowski the 1st New York-based quarterback to start and win 2 NFL championship games, under any name. The 2nd? Eli Manning. No, not Charlie Conerly: He went 1-2. No, not Y.A. Tittle: He went 0-3. No, not Joe Namath. He only got into 1. And no, not Phil Simms: The Giants did win 2 Super Bowls during his tenure, but he was injured for the 2nd, and Jeff Hostetler started and won it.

"The Sneaker Game" was one of the greatest of the NFL's early legends. There are no surviving players from this game, and I seriously doubt that anyone in the listed paid attendance of 35,039 is still alive, 80 years later. But there is surviving film of the game. (The Bears are in the all-dark uniforms, with Nagurski figuring prominently in this clip, Number 3. The Giants are in the white helmets with blue trim, and the blue jerseys with white sleeves. Strong wears Number 50.)

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