Sunday, December 6, 2015

December 6, 1925: Red Grange Saves the Giants, The Garden Opens for Hoops

December 6, 2015: The Jets beat the Giants, 23-20 in overtime at MetLife Stadium. Officially, it was a Giant home game, with Giant season-ticketholders. But the Jets won.

Also today, the New England Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, knocking the Cheatriots from the 1st to the 3rd seed in the AFC Playoffs, and giving the Eagles at least as good a chance of winning the weakest NFC East I've ever seen. The Washington Redskins, currently leading the Division, play the Dallas Cowboys tomorrow night on Monday Night Football.

And the Carolina Panthers survived an onslaught from the New Orleans Saints, 41-38, to remain undefeated at 12-0. Despite the Pats having lost last week, the surviving 1972 Miami Dolphins can't do their annual champagne toast yet.

Yes, Giant fans should feel pretty bad about getting beat by the Jets in what was, essentially, a home game. Giant management should start planning for next year now, including putting aging head coach Tom Coughlin out to pasture.

Then again, Giant fans and Giant management should feel glad that the team even exists. Ninety years ago today, having the team play the next season was by no means a given.

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December 6, 1925, 90 years ago: The New York Giants football team, in its 1st season of play, is in deep financial trouble, in spite of a 10-3 record to this point. So few fans have come out to the Polo Grounds, team owners Tim and Jack Mara, brothers, moved their crosstown Thanksgiving Day contest against the Staten Island Stapletons to Albany. (The Jints beat the Stapes 7-0.)

If the NFL's New York team fails, so will the league.

Red Grange to the rescue. Harold Edward Grange, "the Galloping Ghost" out of the University of Illinois, the most famous (or, at least, the most-hyped) player in the history of college football, comes in with his new teammates, the Chicago Bears.

A crowd of 68,000 people pays to get into the Polo Grounds, more than the Giants' last 3 home games combined. It's believed that another 8,000 crashed the gate, making the 74,000 crowd the biggest in the NFL's 6-season history to that point.

The Ghost lives up to the hype: He scores a touchdown on a 35-yard interception return, runs for 53 yards on 11 carries, catches a 23-yard pass, and completes 2 of 3 passes for 32 yards. He could do everything except kick.

The Bears win, 19-0, but that's beside the point: The gate receipts from all the people coming out to see Grange mean that the Giants will be able to play the 1926 season. In 1927, they finish 1st, taking the 1st of what is now 8 NFL Championships.

The Bears? They were a good team throughout the 1st decade of NFL play, winning the title in 1921, but won't win another title until 1932. By that point, Grange will be joined by Bronislau "Bronko" Nagurski, and they will win the title in 1933 as well.

Grange was the template for every speedy scatback who followed him: Steve Van Buren, Doak Walker, Frank Gifford, Lenny Moore, Paul Hornung, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Tony Dorsett, Marcus Allen, Walter Payton, Terrell Davis, Marshall Faulk, Chris Johnson.

Nagurski is the model for every big bruising fullback to come: Clarke Hinkle, Marion Motley, Tank Younger, Jim Taylor, Jim Brown, Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, John Riggins, Roger Craig, Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis, Jerome Bettis, Adrian Peterson.

This -- not the 1958 NFL Championship Game that the Giants lost to the Baltimore Colts at Yankee Stadium -- is not only the biggest football game ever played in New York City; it is the most important game in the history of American professional football. If Grange had, for whatever reason, been unable to play, the Giants would have folded, and the NFL would probably have gone down the tubes during the Great Depression.

This might have opened the door for soccer, with its working-class roots and its ethnic appeal (most U.S. soccer teams at that point were ethnically based), to become America's fall and winter sport, possibly also hurting basketball and hockey. If you want to know why "football" made it in America, and "futbol" didn't until the 1970s, this, as much as America's natural distrust for "foreign" things, is the moment: This date, 90 years ago.

In spite of the historical significance of the game, no film of it is known to survive. So I posted a picture of Grange.

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But that wasn't the only significant sports moment in New York on this day.


December 6, 1925, 90 years ago: The 1st professional basketball game is played at the new Madison Square Garden -- known to people age 50 and older today as "the old Garden" and "the Mecca of Basketball" -- at 49th to 50th Streets along 8th Avenue.
It would also be known as "the Mecca of Boxing," and the Milwaukee Exposition & Convention Center Arena, former home of the Milwaukee Bucks, was "the MECCA." In this day and age, calling a place "the Mecca of (anything)" would be incendiary.

Nine days before the arena officially opened -- and 21 years before the founding of the NBA allowed the Knicks to begin play there against the Boston Celtics -- this game features the top 2 pro basketball teams of the Roaring Twenties: The New York-based Original Celtics (they actually did call themselves "Original") against the D.C.-based Washington Palace Five.
The Original Celtics

The Original Celtics included future Basketball Hall-of-Famers Dutch Dehnert (creator of the pivot play), Joe Lapchick (later a great coach at St. John's and taking the Knicks to 3 straight NBA Finals in the early 1950s) and Nat Holman (later coaching City College of New York to both the NCAA and the NIT titles in 1950, the only time it was ever done), plus John Beckman (nicknamed "the Babe Ruth of Basketball"), George "Horse" Haggerty, Pete Barry and Davey Banks.

In the 1922-23 season, they went 193-11, for a .946 winning percentage. To put that in perspective: The best record in NBA history currently belongs to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, 72-10, .878. (The Golden State Warriors have started off 2015-16 at 21-0. We'll see.)

In those days of no 3-point line, no shot clock, and a center jump after every basket, the Celtics won 35-31.

It was a different game. At the same time, my grandfather, George Goldberg (he would later change it to George Golden, so that my grandmother wouldn't have to deal with anti-Semitism), was playing basketball for New York University. Until the point-shaving scandal that rocked college basketball in 1951, NYU basketball was a very big deal. He never made it to the pros, and didn't finish college, because he had to go to work. But in 1924, he played for Theodore Roosevelt High School in The Bronx, and they won the City Championship. Grandpa was the tallest guy on the team. He was 5-foot-8.

Yes, kids, this was a long time ago. Calvin Coolidge was President, Thomas Edison was still alive, movies were silent and their biggest star was Rudolph Valentino. The Heavyweight Champion of the World was Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth was coming off his worst season, Lou Gehrig was coming off his rookie season, the NBA didn't exist, the NHL was about to debut in New York with the Americans (the Rangers would come along a year later), the NFL was hardly a major league, black men weren't allowed in major league sports (there were a small few in the NFL), and major league sports wasn't played south of the Ohio and Potomac Rivers or west of St. Louis. No stadiums had permanent lights, artificial turf, domes (retractable or otherwise) or electronic scoreboards. Radio was still new, never mind to sports. There was no television, no computers, no Internet. No antibiotics, either: An infection could kill you.

And on December 6, 1925, Madison Square Garden and basketball were introduced to each other, and the New York Giants -- indeed, the entire National Football League -- were saved.

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